Saturday, October 31, 2009

I've been pondering of late our cultural obsession with horror - and particularly zombies (at left, a Photoshop tutorial on how to turn yourself into one). These days, "zombie crawls" (like the one photographed below) are common occurrences in our cities and college towns, and Zombieland is a hit, hip movie - indeed the "zombie movie" has long since fractured into sub-genres, including, of course, gay zombie porn.

Behind the zombie zeitgeist, however, lies a larger story of the promotion of Halloween (or Hallowe'en, for you purists) into a holiday rivaling Christmas. When I was a boy, of course, Easter still outranked Halloween - indeed Halloween was a bit marginal, for kids only, somewhere slightly south of the Fourth of July in importance. But the Easter bunny has long since been left in the dust by the Great Pumpkin, even as the original Catholic inspiration for Hallowe'en, All Saints' Day, has vanished from our national consciousness (hence the apostrophe in Hallowe'en has vanished, too - it's not the eve of anything anymore).

So just as Christmas was stripped by the market of Christianity, so was Halloween - but still there's that odd fact of its new, massive appeal to adults. Why are we grown-ups so much more horrified than we used to be? Part of the answer, of course, is that horror is a consumable - it's easily produced and marketed across a broad public, and so it was; its ascension in our consumer-driven culture was inevitable. More interesting is the ways in which horror reflects consumer culture, and perhaps our society in general: it's no surprise, for instance, that in today's fearful economic times, Halloween should loom larger than ever - nor is it surprising that the adult embrace of the holiday began during the Reagan years, when the sense of economic security for the average American first began to be whittled away.

There is, of course, one obvious reason for the resurgence in zombie pop - you become a zombie through infection, and infection is probably the central anxiety of globalization and cultural diversity (the original pop zombies, almost always black, were sourced in Haitian voodoo, as at left - even as late as 1984, Michael Jackson was styling himself as a zombie). But then again, almost every type of monster - vampires, werewolves, et. al. - can "turn" you through infection. And via George Romero, zombies lost their racist taint - indeed were actually "flipped" onto the conservative white lower class, which in Night of the Living Dead was out to chow down on the black hero. Indeed, the new zombies are almost always white, and always mainstream; indeed, most white zombie fans would be horrified at identifying zombies with some other ethnic group. So why zombies, why now?

Well, one particular aspect of zombies is certainly unique: perhaps thanks to Romero, people (mostly white people) seem to identify with them - at least ironically. True, folks have always liked to pretend they're vampires, or devils, but always through obvious modes of fantasy (usually sex fantasy); that's why you never saw a disgusting vampire at a costume party, just as you only saw sexy black cats rather than fat, orange tabbies. Thus while the vampire remains a form of wish fulfillment, zombies represent the average Joe; le zombie, c'est moi, is what today's hipsters seem to be saying as they stagger past their local Starbucks.

Thus read, the current zombie plague becomes a comment on "whiteness" (note the all-Caucasian crowd at right), a form of anti-xenophobia in the Age of Obama. And needless to say, it's also an outgrowth of the "flash mob" phenomenon - mass public whimsies made possible by the Internet (perhaps not coincidentally a technology of choice for Obamanauts).

But I think there's still a deeper self-awareness moving within all that brain-deadness. For a time I wondered if the Obama zombies were meant as a subtle comment on their political opposition, with an emphasis on the mindlessness of Red State Republicans lining up behind an administration without a clue, or the libertarians staggering on with free market theory even after it had resulted in the Great Recession and its "zombie banks." Certainly our inability to adapt to our new economic and political circumstances - our habit of simply patching past "solutions" and tropes onto our current woes - is central to the zombie phenomenon.

But oddly, the "zombie crawls" actually feel like an embrace, not a critique, of that cultural failing. And I'm reminded that what's central to the zombie ethos is its pure materialism, its utter utilitarianism. Zombies have no guiding vision, no faith, no religion, indeed no ideas at all; they're not foreign invaders, or aliens, or even a nation or clan; they're us, only stripped of what makes (or made) us human. They are, as Romero wittily posited with his mall-walkers in Dawn of the Dead, purely and simply consumers, happy denizens of the free market in brain matter; so needless to say, they're non-judgmental and unprejudiced, indeed completely tolerant of each other as they stumble about, seeking their next fix - i.e. something that's still alive. In a way, zombie crawls are a bit like web crawls, in which we search for some new site, some new video, some new something to provide another micro-jolt of diversion - indeed, perhaps for the Internet generation, the zombie is not so much a threat as a kind of avatar.

What's weirdest, in the end, about the zombie craze is how it doesn't seem to have sparked any discussion among the chattering classes; for a generation all but addicted to "critical thinking," it's rather odd that zombies alone should be seen as just good clean fun. But then it's striking how often pop culture seems to unknowingly see its own shadow in the mirror, indeed enact its own critique before the professors can - much as the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers functioned so perfectly as both a scream of horror at the silent Red Menace and the stolid conservatives allied against it. Perhaps today's zombie crawls are meant in the same way - they're like tweets from the subconscious about The Way We Live Now.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Okay, just one last Halloween Youtube . . .

'Cause this one's rockin'!!!! (Although I think that's a cockatoo, not a parrot.)

I think we have a winner

Like the little pop-up says, you have to wait for the best part. Although I'm not sure this qualifies as a Halloween costume, judging from the car-dealership-like background. But it is still awesome.

The Seafarer returns, and Towers towers

The cast of The Seafarer. Production photos by Meghan Moore.

Within the last two years I've seen three productions of Conor McPherson's The Seafarer, so I'm beginning to feel like something of an expert on it. One of these was the author's own, which played like a bare-knuckled brawl between lost souls; what was startling about that version, and what I think has made the play so widely produced (along with McPherson's grimly lyrical monologues), was the surprise of its final sense of salvation, when those souls were revealed as not quite beyond hope after all. The script seemed far less potent, however, in a weak showing at SpeakEasy last fall; I blamed the gap largely on that production's superficiality and over-earnestness.

So I was glad to hear the Merrimack had taken it up again; that theatre's artistic director, Charles Towers, is certainly the most serious (and I'd argue the most talented) theatre-maker in town, and he does it old-school, without the props of "concept" or "updating" or what-have-you. With Towers, you know you'll get the play, without apology, and indeed with pride - because he knows that in the end, the play's the thing. And The Seafarer - probably the best new drama of the past few years - deserved a truly rich and resonant New England production.

But at first I was surprised to discover how far Towers had wandered from McPherson's own vision; this is a much darker and more ruminative version than I think the playwright imagined himself. It's also not flawless - the set feels slightly self-conscious, and I'd argue the director has made one major mistake in his casting. But damnit if Towers doesn't in the end work his familiar magic, and even perhaps surpasses the playwright in his vision of the play. This isn't merely the darkest Seafarer I've seen; it's also the deepest, and perhaps the best.

McPherson was inspired to pen the script by an Old English poem of the same name, which begins (in loose translation):

This tale is true, and mine.
It tells
How the sea took me, swept me back
And forth in sorrow and fear and pain;
Showed me suffering in a hundred ships,
In a thousand ports,
and in me.

In those lines one senses immediately a correspondence with McPherson's own voice; no wonder he was drawn to the arc of this lonely song (recorded in the Exeter Book, at left), that moves slowly but inexorably not toward man but toward God, and a final affirming Amen.

Of course (in case you've never encountered the play, or the playwright), McPherson's sea is one of alcohol, and his seafarers are all very hard cases, lurching drunkenly toward a defiantly "merry," but actually deeply desolate, Christmas Eve in a chilly rowhouse basement. Actually, there's a lone holdout among McPherson's revelers: Sharky, his lead, who is trying to keep the bottle at bay, as he has realized at last the mess it has made of his life. It's hard to be a teetotaler on Christmas, however, and harder still when not St. Nick but Old Nick himself shows up at your front door, in some dark Gaelic variation on A Christmas Carol.

Stranger still, Old Scratch has shown up equipped with a deck of cards, and a line about something Sharky promised him long ago, at yet another low point in the dark valley of his life; and by dawn the two are battling through a fateful game of poker, with our hero's immortal soul as the stakes. But on this simple, spooky premise McPherson has woven a skein of image and symbol that impresses me more every time I hear it. Is the Devil simply a living symbol for the bottle - or for the cold self-absorption that so often attends it? Or does Old Nick represent the long bill of reckoning that Sharky has been tallying his whole life? Fortunately, McPherson never settles on a single, simple metaphor to "explain" his set-up; instead, he allows his central situation to ramify into a complex meditation on temptation, and the inevitable loneliness of the fall from grace.

It's that sense of solitary descent that Towers captures with particular assurance and insight. His Sharky, David Adkins, registers with palpable pain every blow that circumstance delivers - he's lost his wife, his home, his last job, and even his car - just about everything but his blind, irascible brother, Richard (Gordon Joseph Weiss), whose angry brand of merriment is hardly a comfort. To be honest, the director doesn't quite capture the sodden sparks that Richard's bitter camaraderie, desparate as it may be, should send off. And he's made one obvious mistake in the casting of his drinking buddy, the hopelessly hapless Ivan. Played with the proper touch of looniness, the character brings a welcome touch of whimsy to the proceedings, but Towers has cast a "straight man" in the part - Jim Frangione, a likable but low-key journeyman who only brings Ivan partly to life (and only partly bothers with his accent, too).

This misstep is made up for by the rest of the cast, however. As the blind Richard (vision is another symbol woven subtly through the play), Gordon Joseph Weiss deploys the same crackling comic chops he displayed in last year's Moon for the Misbegotten, mixed this time with hints of a secret, rueful insight (my only caveat is that Richard should look far greasier than Weiss right now appears). Weiss was ably abetted by local stalwart Allyn Burrows, who I thought brought almost too much heft to the lightweight Nicky Giblin, the other Christmas visitor who's now bedding Sharky's wife; but I'm not sure I can really criticize an actor for bringing too much depth to a role! Especially when Mark Zeisler (at left, with Adkins) brought the same sense of solidity to Old Nick - here styling himself as "Mr. Lockhart," in a dark new suit and sleek camel hair coat. Zeisler was convincingly menacing, indeed at times ferocious, yet also drew real pathos from Lucifer's sense of his loss of God, and memorably essayed his heart-freezing vision of Hell. My only quibble with the performance was that I missed the strange sense of the alien that Ciaran Hinds brought to the role on Broadway; when Hinds gazed down at his arms and marveled at "this insect body," you got a sense that some very weird angel indeed had alighted onstage.

In the end what made the production special (and what makes the Merrimack so often so fine) was watching these performances click together, like so many gears, into a finely-tuned ensemble. This is one of the great joys of live theatre, and you simply don't see it much anymore, not at the deep level Towers produces; but I'd take it in a minute over a zillion booty calls or haunted houses at Harvard. By now, the Merrimack's track record is unparalleled locally - in just the last few years, they've produced A Delicate Balance, Skylight, Moon for the Misbegotten, and now The Seafarer, all of them close to masterpieces, and almost all directed by Towers, whose magic I admit is a bit mysterious, as he's certainly not the cleverest or most ingenious manager of stage business around. He simply seems to trust the quality of his material more than anybody else, and digs further than anybody else.

And anyone who has sat with an audience at Merrimack - a crowd that's usually quietly absorbed and attentive in a way you almost never see in Boston - understands immediately what the pay-off is for this kind of work. If only more of a pay-off were coming from the foundations and funds that are supposed to be supporting theatre but would rather be supporting trends and social work! Merrimack is actually doing fine financially - but only, of course, by carefully limiting the plays it does to small (or even single-person) casts. To be honest, however, Charles Towers is the local director who most deserves a wider canvas. If there's anyone local to whom we could entrust the classics, much less large-scale new works like The Coast of Utopia, it would be him. But will the powers-that-be ever wake up and realize that?

If you want to kiss the Rose good-bye. . .

. . . now may be the time to do it. Brandeis has just opened a new exhibit of highlights of the collection that the administration may, or may not, be in the process of selling. So is the current show evidence that "the Rose is open," as Brandeis would have it - or your last chance to catch an eyeful of the university's deKoonings, Rauschenbergs and Warhols? You decide! Greg Cook reports.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A tedious Tancredi

This is a short post mortem on the Opera Boston production of Rossini's Tancredi, which closed on Tuesday. Due to other commitments, I had to attend the final performance - and perhaps therefore saw a rather tired Ewa Podleś in the title role. Still, I found the great contralto disappointing (given that I predicted she'd provide one of the highlights of the classical season). Podleś has plenty of power, and can summon a deep, gloriously mournful tone at will. But to be frank, she no longer has the full range of color I imagined she'd command (and which the role demands), and even though this is one of her signature roles, her acting was a bit flat - the contralto semed dramatically stuck in a certain bland nobility and pathos, and all but ignored the contradictions of the rigid firebrand at the heart of the opera.

Her acting problems extended to much of the rest of the cast - but not her vocal ones, I'm happy to report. Indeed, this was easily the best-sung production I've ever heard from Opera Boston, a huge step up in consistency from the likes of The Nose or The Bartered Bride. Which is a good thing, given the demands of Tancredi, in which Rossini regularly sends bel canto into the vocal stratosphere. Luckily, lead soprano Amanda Forsythe (left, with Podleś) came equipped with an exquisitely pearl-like tone; tenor Yeghishe Manucharyan, if at first a bit reedy, was spectacularly at ease at the top of his range; and bass DongWon Kim impressed with a smoothly menacing resonance. The chorus was likewise coherent and robust, and there were appealingly nuanced solos from Victoria Avetisyan and Glorivy Arroyo.

But alas, of these vocalists only Forsythe managed anything like a real dramatic characterization (although it must be said that her character's self-sacrifice was ethically complicated by the singer's own actual pregnancy, which the production seemed to emphasize). Manucharyan in particular may be a wonderful tenor, but as yet he's no actor. To be fair, the singers weren't helped much by Kristine McIntyre's limp direction. I guess McIntyre was aiming for a hypnotic dream-pageant, but what she got was somnambulists wandering across Carol Bailey's minimal, modernist (but at least, by Opera Boston standards, attractive) set. What eventually undid the production entirely was McIntyre's (and Podleś's) mishandling of the big set-pieces for the hero in the overlong Act II; here these arias devolved into tedium.

But to be fair, it would take truly muscular direction to triumph over the Tancredi libretto, which is risible even by operatic standards, and which I won't go into here (it's hard to believe Voltaire was the source of this tripe). Needless to say, the opera is remembered for its score rather than its story, and Gil Rose gave a good account of it in the pit. Composed in 1813, Tancredi stands near the height of the bel canto tradition, but a certain classicism still echoes in its orchestration - and Rose seemed to understand that, as he drew a warm but consistently clean tone from the orchestra. Alas, as the drama ground down, his tempi did too.

[A brief sidebar on the press reaction. Of course the Globe and the Herald, which have long been in the bag for Opera Boston, did handstands over the show; luckily, the Wall Street Journal gave a more accurate account. I've long been the holdout in the local press for my rather-less-impressed assessments of this rising critical favorite. But ironically enough, as Opera Boston reaches a wider profile - and its vocal standards improve - the company may begin to attract critics from beyond their circle of friends, and face more criticism like mine.]

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Carmen electric

Yury Yanowsky works his magic on Lia Cirio. Photos by Eric Antoniou.

You could be forgiven for being a little confused about World Passions, the smorgasbord of different styles and periods being performed through this weekend by Boston Ballet. The evening opened with a tutus-and-toe-shoes showpiece (from the lost Paquita), then closed with the stripped-down chassis of Jorma Elo's cutting-edge Carmen (above), an interesting juxtaposition in and of itself; in between were short new works by Ballet "family" members Helen Pickett (who's been commissioned twice before) and Viktor Plotnikov (a former dancer).

The program didn't really seem to cohere, I suppose, but it did offer an intriguing portrait of where the Ballet "is" right now: what it can do (just about anything), as well as what's on its mind (which may be about to change).

First up was the gorgeous, utterly hidebound Paquita, which had absolutely nothing to say but said it ravishingly. The original ballet I believe is lost - what we got here was a long, brilliant divertissement by Pino Alosa based on additions to the original by Petipa. Alosa is the troupe's balletmaster, and Paquita turned out to be very much a balletmaster's ballet - it focused on carrying off charming combinations of technical intricacies, and the roles were spread around so that everybody in class got a chance to shine.

And shine they did. Lorna Feijóo (at right) wowed the crowd in the lead role by tossing off who-knows-how-many fouettés, and was generally a confident, calm marvel; she was passionately partnered by husband Nelson Madrigal, who, like Feijóo, is having a stronger season this year than last, even if one or two complex jumps weren't landed perfectly. Elsewhere the sheer depth of the company's ballerina bench was unmistakable (even if at times the corps seemed to move in and out of focus): Erica Cornejo, Lia Cirio, Melissa Hough and particularly Kathleen Breen Combes, who sailed through a series of exciting grands jetés, were all dazzling. The men kept up, but as usual were slightly over-shadowed; in the pas de trois, however, newcomer Jaime Diaz made an intriguingly strong impression (despite stepping in for Carlos Molina). Diaz's dancing wasn't impeccable, but he displayed that effortless charisma that any great dancer can't do without; if Diaz has the discipline to pull himself to the technical level of the Ballet's prima ballerinas, the troupe may soon have a new male star.

After Paquita's sparkling bedazzlement, the troupe leapt centuries and styles with works from Helen Pickett and Viktor Plotnikov, both of whom seemed to be working through reactions to Jiří Kylián, who broke into the Ballet's repertoire with the brilliant Black and White last spring. In her duo Tsukiyo (Japanese for "moonlit night"), Pickett had her ballerina struggle out of a very Kylián-like chrysalis (while her partner peeked through a glowing curtain, another Kylián trope); meanwhile, in Rhyme, Plotnikov quoted the lighting and general stance of the same choreographer's Falling Angels, from Black and White.

Pickett, a former dancer with William Forsythe, particularly seemed to struggle with the opposition of her mentor's style and Kylián's (not coincidentally, the two key influences on the Ballet's current identity). Set to a spare Arvo Pärt nocturne, Tsukiyo opened strong, with a sense of weird, nervous enchantment. But it soon began to dwindle as it ran out of narrative ideas, despite both its brevity and the best efforts of Lia Cirio and Sabi Varga; given the brilliance and size of Pickett's last commission, Eventide, I was hoping for more. Meanwhile Rhyme (at left), proved surprisingly haunting; set to Chopin's single sonata for piano and cello (with silent pre- and post-ludes), the piece played as a melancholic exercise in linking - or at least paralleling - the new, alienated athleticism to something like the old, romantic mode of coupling. When I first saw Plotnikov's work, some four years ago, I knew instantly he was a born choreographer; though slight, Rhyme only strengthened that impression.

After these interludes, the evening closed with a definite kick: Carmen: Illusions, a distillation of the evening-length Carmen that resident choreographer Jorma Elo presented three years ago (to a hearty round of raspberries). My feeling on hearing of this choice was, I confess, "Not again!," but with this reduced version (set to Radian Shchedrin's glittering, skittering "Carmen Suite for Strings and Percussion") Elo, who's been tinkering with the piece for a while, has finally come up with a winner. The story's narrative arc - often a problem for this hyperactive choreographer - definitely "pops" in this version, and Elo has streamlined the movement for his corps into striking, glamorously kinetic blocks. A few interactions remain busily indistinct, but others (such as the confrontation between Carmen and Don Jose, at left) couldn't be clearer, and the piece now has a doomy, propulsive force.

Opening night was made all the more galvanic by the sexual electricity of resident vamp Kathleen Breen Combes as Carmen, who ran thrillingly hot and cold with Yury Yanowsky as her tortured lover (and eventual killer), Don José. There was equally sharp work from supporting players Lia Cirio (who seemed to be in everything on opening night), Melissa Hough, and Sabi Varga. With this version, I think Elo can finally leave his Carmen to rest; the interesting question is whether the Ballet in general may be moving past it, too. One left World Passions wondering which choreographer would remain the Ballet's passion: Elo, Forsythe, or Kylián.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The ghost at the window

The Anne Frank Museum has released the only known footage of the famous author, above, briefly gazing down from a window at a wedding procession. Somehow all the more poignant for being so simple and ordinary.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Blog follies, Parabasis division

The super-hot, P.C.-witch-huntin' Isaac Butler has an amusing post up on his blog about theatres and young audiences, that his web posse has been doing back-flips over. And why shouldn't they? Butler is expert at surfing the assumptions of his generation and class, and here he serves up an irresistible piece of liberal-arts-college Gen-Y bait. He calls the post a "no-brainer" (and it is pretty stupid), yet within it he claims to elegantly solve the problems theatres face in reaching young audiences.

To land this desired demographic, Butler helpfully explains, a theatre merely has to:

(1) Do work they want to see.

(2) Endeavor to do it well

(3) Offer it at a price point they will find reasonable

Yes. Anyone paged Santa Claus yet about this? Anyone? Probably not, because the Butler posse has been too busy congratulating themselves (and him) on the manner in which he's so succinctly rendered their wish list. But the idea that there are rather large problems with the plan (such as that "price point they will find reasonable") in the unfortunate land called "reality" doesn't seem to enter anyone's heads. Indeed, none of Butler's groupies bother at all with the sticky question of how a theatre can make ends meet doing shows for an audience that can't afford theatre.

You see, Isaac's three-point plan really requires a fourth point. Something like:

4) Shake down your donors, because your ticket revenue is about to be cut in half.


4) Fire half your staff, because your ticket revenue, etc.

You can imagine other #4's, of course; the point is that Butler's post is intellectually dishonest (as he usually is) without a #4. Perhaps half-aware of this gap, Butler makes a vague gesture toward the mild success of the musical Coraline, which extended two whole weeks. Uh-huh. Okay, everybody start doing cultish, vaguely-gay musicals about kids (like MilkMilkLemonade, perhaps?).

To be fair, Butler's got half a point here in that it's probably pointless for a theatre to tweet about Arthur Miller (or August Wilson) to his self-absorbed generation; twenty-somethings don't show up for anything unless it's all about them. Indeed, they can get pretty pissy when they realize that actually, older folks aren't really that interested in their mediocre output - as you can probably tell as Butler's post morphs into a rant:

Do you actually want younger audiences, or do you just want their money? [What money??] or Would your theater company be able to sustain itself on a younger audience base? [No, obviously.] And if not, are you just fucked? Are you just riding it out for as long as possible knowing it's not going to work out in the long run?

I'm sick of this shit. The answers aren't that hard, they're only hard because the answers are things that people don't really want to do, so they're trying to find ways to cheat. Well, I'm sorry, you can't cheat. It doesn't work that way.

And if you don't want to do that, that's okay. If you don't want to do that kind of work, that's okay. Just stop claiming you want younger audiences. You don't want them. You feel entitled to them.

I have to give entitlement-queen Butler points for actually reversing his own obvious M.O. and laying it at the feet of his "foes"; bravo! But what Butler seems to have never quite perceived is that most theatres are involved in a delicate balancing act: how to look like they're attracting young audiences - because older audiences want to believe that they are - while actually hanging on to that older demographic, which pays the bills? I'm afraid that's not a no-brainer; but if he figures it out, then he'll have something to post about.

Or, Butler might always offer his fans the following flip-side "no brainer" on how to get theatres to do more Gen-Y-centered fare, and sustain the art form long-term:

1) Get a better job;

2) Endeavor to do it well;

3) Spend your hard-earned salary on tickets to the theatre.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Attend this Sweeney Todd

I was finally lured to Metro Stage's Sweeney Todd this weekend - its last - despite, I admit, my skepticism over its casting. Was there really a Sweeney Todd and a Mrs. Lovett wandering around Boston and its 'burbs, I wondered?

Well, there are, in the persons of Ben DiScipio and Shana Dirik (left and below right), who take Sondheim's two most demanding roles and play them for all they're worth and then some. Trust me; some thirty years ago, I saw Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury in the original production, and I caught Michael Cerveris and Patti Lupone in the fascinating Broadway revival. DiScipio and Dirik could have stepped into either couple's shoes.

Indeed, DiScipio was more murderously intense than Cariou, and Dirik has a better voice (and better diction!) than either Lansbury or Lupone (at this point), and she's as funny and demented as either. Whenever these two stalked the stage, this production was electrifying, and as director Paul Farwell seems to have followed closely Harold Prince's footsteps in the 1979 original, at times one felt one was watching something like "Sweeney Resurrected."

What's more, there were other pleasures beyond this impressive central duo; the production's women were remarkable, with sparkling acting and singing from Victoria Thornsbury as Johanna, and compelling vocals, but less convincing internal mania, from Arjana Andris as the Beggar Woman. The chorus was likewise in fine shape, and the reduced instrumental ensemble sounded surprisingly crisp. Things got rockier with the supporting male vocals (with Robert Case the notable exception), despite their generally on-target acting. And the physical production was, inevitably, a bit ragged (Metro Stage is a fledgling attempt to bridge the community-professional theatre gap). Still, director Farwell managed most of the show's complicated business smoothly on his constricted stage, and some sequences, particularly "City on Fire," worked perhaps better than they had on Broadway.

All in all, this proved a surprisingly strong showing for Metro, given that Sweeney Todd is the kind of operatic peak many a professional company would hesitate before attempting. Those fans who have longed to scale its heights again, in the company of expert leads, would do well to check out Sweeney's final bow, tonight.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Identity politics deathwatch, part II

Not your average boy band. They've even got a Youtube channel.

Somebody page Emily Glassberg Sands!

She isn't the only one of the Freakonomics crew being met with derision these days; the notorious "climate change" chapter of the new Superfreakonomics is being widely ridiculed, and even Gawker is beginning to wonder, "Was Freakonomics always this dumb?"

Plowing Mamet - and his man-traps

He said/she read; Aimee Doherty and Robert Pemberton in Speed-the-Plow.

The question about David Mamet has always been, "Is he a misogynist - or does he just hate women?" That rap as a hater could probably be traced as far back as Sexual Perversity in Chicago, but it was cemented by Speed-the-Plow, and then set it stone by Oleanna, two plays which, perhaps due to the office sex on the red-hot Mad Men, are once again hot, too; indeed, the New Rep has followed in Broadway's footsteps by just opening a new production of Speed-the-Plow, which runs through November 7.

But for what it's worth, Mamet strikes me as not so much a misogynist as a gynophobe. What's the difference, you ask? Well, a misogynist actively hates women; a gynophobe "merely" fears them. That's splitting hairs on a Coke can, you say, and you may be right - most gynophobes end up as misogynists. Only it's interesting to note that Mamet isn't really disgusted by women, or outraged by them, and he doesn't really belittle or mock them.

No, he's just afraid of them - women, or at least heterosexual women (gay women are in the boy-club), are often his villains of choice, at least on stage. And why? Because they have a secret weapon: sex, which destabilizes and undermines the savage power games of men. In short, to Mamet, men may be animals, and it's a jungle out there, but women are the snakes in that jungle's tall grass - because sex is sneaky and unfair (it's like Kryptonite).

Speed-the-Plow is probably a pivotal text in this artist's "development" (even though it's hardly one of Mamet's best), in that after the masculine bloodsport of American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross, it marked the return of women to the center of the playwright's oeuvre, indeed to the middle of the combat format he'd perfected in Glengarry. And weirdly, the playwright suddenly revealed an affection for the brutal buddy system he'd seemed to eviscerate before. The guy-land of Hollywood in Speed-the-Plow is unsparingly, but sympathetically, rendered; these "players" may be assholes, but we understand them. They have, you know, like a code we remember from junior high.

To Mamet, however, sex is always below the belt (literally), and has no such code - and maybe it doesn't. But somehow that idea seems to be pounded down onto his female villains without any further attempt at insight. Take "Karen," for instance, the temp who temporarily up-ends the power structure of Speed-the-Plow; she's not so much a character as a device, and an internally contradictory one at that. (Warning: spoilers ahead for those who've never encountered the plot of this high-profile star vehicle.)

Karen is first presented as clumsy and sweet - an innocent piece of sexual bait floating in the Hollywood shark tank; immediately, and predictably, Mamet's "Charlie" bets his buddy "Bobby" that he can't bed her by midnight. And so the game is, like, on. But the trick Bobby uses to lure Karen to his crib - he asks her for a 'courtesy read' of a pretentious new novel - backfires when she begins to play not only on his horniness but his inner doubts about the adolescent fodder he churns out with Charlie (who has a Tom-Cruise-like star on call waiting). One candlelit conversation and a quick roll in the hay later, and Karen has replaced Charlie in Bobby's affections, Bobby's about to greenlight a deal with that earnest courtesy-read's author, and the deal with Tom Cruise may be down the drain.

Luckily, an improbable contradiction in the plot comes to Charlie's rescue! Which ties into whatever larger interest the play may have, outside the accuracy of Mamet's ear for male banter and Hollywood babble. Said intrigue revolves around the true nature of Karen: is she a naïf who's wandered into incredible good fortune, or a calculating player herself? Exploring either option, however, would require a play of substantially larger proportions than the 80-minute Speed-the-Plow (a title once memorably parodied by David Ives as Speed-the-Play). Hence, Karen does something that wraps the script up neatly, but makes any explanation for her behavior impossible: in a key moment, she admits to Bobby that she slept with him merely to secure the movie deal.

Hmmm. The problem with this twist is that it makes Karen a bit like Bertrand Russell's barber who only shaves men who don't shave themselves. If we "buy" the naïve honesty of her third-act confession, then her second-act subterfuge makes no sense. But if we take her seduction of Bobby for what she says it was, then her confession seems bizarre; why would (and how could) she pull off Act II so flawlessly, then suddenly come clean in Act III?

It is a puzzlement. But the question doesn't matter to Mamet, because to him Karen's just a prop - a Gumby with boobs to be twisted as he chooses; indeed, after she loses her dreams, big time, he hardly bothers to even give her any lines, but instead has his buddies merely crow over her downfall. Curtain! We're done here.

Right. See, here's where that "misogynist" tag got stuck on Mamet's back. Because why, precisely, should we be cheering on Bobby and Charlie? Another puzzlement; the only answer available seems to be "because they're guys." And that answer has begun to pop up repeatedly in the Mamet canon; he has avoided heterosexual female characters more and more in his output, replacing them with lesbians (Boston Marriage, November) or just dispensing with them entirely, in such all-male comedies as the oddly (or aptly?) named Romance, and the current gay sex farce Keep Your Pantheon. It also seems worth pointing out that the affectionate parody of buggery in Romance and Pantheon throws Mamet's women in an even more curious light - why is sex suddenly so harmless when it's just between guys?

But while all this has made Mamet a lesser artist, in a way it has made him a greater pop-cultural avatar. Speed-the-Plow has become the template for many imitations on both stage and screen, and of course Mamet's homosocial/heterosexual stance is now the default mode of Judd-Apatow-style Hollywood comedy - ironically enough, given Mamet's supposed contempt for Tinseltown. But when you consider that Mamet cast Madonna in the premiere of Speed-the-Plow, and Jeremy Piven in its revival, his horror of Hollywood whoredom becomes harder to credit. (And at any rate, his parody of the Cormac-McCarthy-like doomsday novel that Karen falls in love with renders his satire of La-La Land largely toothless.)

So given the surface-flash but internal-weakness of Speed-the-Plow, it's no surprise that the New Rep production sometimes glitters, but doesn't really satisfy. Director Robert Walsh seems to have come down on the side of Karen's innocence in his interpretation, which, like any answer to the "Karen paradox," must be wrong, but probably more wrong than making her a cunning little vixen. "Conniving Karen" leaves you with a contradiction near the end of the third act, when she hardly has any lines anyway; but "Clueless Karen" leaves you with a long second act that makes no sense.

And sure enough, Act II sags in this version, and actress Aimee Doherty, though superficially appealing as ever, can't make much of it. And without much to play against, the capable Robert Pemberton (hasn't he played this role before?) is left shadow-boxing on Eric Levenson's sleek set. He puts a spitting shine on his Mamet-speak, however, whenever he's chumming with Charlie, here given ferocious life by Gabriel Kuttner, an undersung local actor who may with this role break out to a larger public. Kuttner has an eccentric physical presence, but he always somehow makes his characters work, and he brings a compelling force to both Charlie's desperation and outrage that brings this Plow to an electrifying finish. Both he and Pemberton could bring stronger undercurrents of self-contempt (Bobby) and resentment (Charlie) to their co-dependence in the first act, but together they bring the curtain down with a vengeance on Mamet's hapless man-trap.

Text and the single girl

Now you know I love the ladies. But something has begun to gnaw at me recently - an impression that was re-inforced last night at the Ballet, where my partner and I had to deal with two college-age girls texting during the performance.

So here goes nothing - why is it that when there's a really obnoxious infringement of theatre etiquette with cell phones, the perpetrator always seems to be female? What is UP with that? Sure, guys' cell phones do ring in theatres - that incidence may be roughly 50/50. But when it comes to actually answering the phone, or even making a call, the perp, in my experience, is always a woman or a girl.

This impression, of course, is hardly of statistical significance - the sample size is under a dozen incidents. Yet they're 100% female - oddly suggestive, wouldn't you say? I suppose some pop psychologist would explain that women are somehow more social, desire more connection, the dudes just don't have any friends, etc., etc., blah blah blah. To which I would answer - ladies, the connection you seek is in the theatre. That is where the "community" exists - not online in some virtual clique of avatars and anonymous commenters, or bff's with OCD. And "community" requires attention and respect. When you're in a community, you owe other people something. Even if it's only your silence.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

This weekend . . .

Tonight I'm off to the premiere of "World Passions" at Boston Ballet (preview above), followed by Metro Stage's production of Sweeney Todd on Friday (this up-and-coming group did a small miracle with Stud Terkel's Working a few months back). Saturday brings The Seafarer up at Merrimack, a production I've been looking forward to for some time. Then Sunday, it's (probably) Tancredi at Opera Boston, unless the partner unit insists I accompany him to a local taping of Says You . . . so stay tuned! Also, I haven't forgotten The Laramie Project Epilogue, I've just been pondering it at length . . .

Identity politics deathwatch, Part 1

North Carolina white trash goes post-racial, in a hip-bi-coastal-ad-agency kind of way. Hat tip to Gawker.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Boston Baroque conquers Gaula

Ava Pine schemes in Amadigi di Gaula (photo by Julian Bullitt).

Here days have passed and I still haven't written at length about Boston Baroque's Amadigi di Gaula. Which doesn't mean I wasn't crazy about it; indeed, I felt that along with BLO's Don Giovanni and BEMF's L'incoronazione di Poppea, Amadigi represented the year's best in local opera performance. Some of my enthusiasm, perhaps, came from that happy surprise that ensues when an unknown work proves remarkable. And trust me, Amadigi is studded with wonderful arias, and adventurous orchestration, too (along with such a rarity for Handel as two separate duets). Why it has fallen from the repertory is indeed a mystery (this was probably the piece's Boston premiere). It's true the libretto is a little more repetitive than most - it's essentially one variation after another on a single romantic triangle. But, uh, how to put this - does anyone go to Handel for the libretti? Anyone? Anyone? Alrighty then.

At any rate, the weakness of the Amadigi libretto was outweighed by the surprising strength of the acting at Boston Baroque. Indeed, it's rare that any opera (particularly a semi-staged one) is as dramatically striking as it is musically satisfying, but this was definitely the case here. To tell true, I wasn't wild about Leah Wool's acting of the title role (though male, Amadigi's arias are written for a mezzo - just about the whole opera is for treble voices), mostly because Wool at first seemed more bluff than dashing. But once she reached the arms of her beloved, Oriana (Mary Wilson), Wool melted convincingly - but then who wouldn't, as Wilson had both a gloriously rich soprano and a warm-yet-principled presence at her command.

Their love was complicated, of course, by two unwanted pursuers: the witch Melissa (Ava Pine), vindictively obsessed with Amadigi, and the prince Dardano (countertenor Matthew White), burdened with a sad jones for Oriana. White brought an intriguingly plaintive timbre to his arias, and was dramatically compelling throughout; but it was Pine who all but lit up the stage. Dressed in a skin-tight black sheath that might have come off a serpent, her Melissa was a broken-hearted stalker with whose obvious pain we could sympathize, and Pine pulled off one acting coup after another while unleashing a soprano of admirable force and intense color; this was easily one of the strongest operatic performances of the Boston year.

Praise must also go to director Paul Peers, who devised a series of compelling abstract scenarios on the empty concert stage (and sometimes on the balcony), and of course conductor Martin Pearlman, who kept up the pace while drawing sensitive playing from his ensemble. All in all, this was a night both to savor and remember.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Oscar for best performance by a feline goes to . . .

I just love a movie with subtitles. Don't you?

Mormon-bashing with Neil LaBute

Playwright Neil LaBute (at left) is a special case. And perhaps a hard case, at least for a critic (like me) who shares his political and intellectual sympathies, yet still takes slight offense at his methods. I admit I keep hoping he'll dispel my doubts about his stage work as thoroughly as he did on the movie screen with his first (and best) film, In the Company of Men. But it keeps on not working out that way.

Take, for instance, Bash: Latter-Day Plays, which just concluded its run this weekend, in a solid production from Theatre on Fire. The play consists of three confessions, each from seemingly-innocent citizens - Your Friends and Neighbors, as LaBute's second film would have it; that is, if your neighbors were Mormons. (I'm not sure the last confessor is a Mormon, but she well could be.) These types are bright, attractive, wholesome, even toothsome - they're each a sparkling slice of American apple pie. Only the pie is laced with poison; beneath the crust of each piece lurks a loathsome crime, most of which go unpunished (again, only the last perpetrator faces justice - perhaps because she's not a Mormon!).

So far, so good, I suppose, and certainly LaBute is smart enough (quite smart enough) to devise an ironic, literary armature beneath the surface of each speech: while his character's actual lines are pure suburban-vanilla, indeed a brilliant parody of business- and sports-driven American prattle, the playwright weaves in clever references to the terrible archetypes of the ancient Greeks - so his girls-on-the-go and masters-of-the-universe weirdly ramify toward both banality and tragedy.

The trouble, I think, lies in their Mormonism, which seems to float as some sort of oblique counterpoint to their terrible crimes (child-killing and gay-bashing). Is LaBute whispering in our ears, "Listen, Mormons kill their children!"? He seems to want to, and not want to, at the same time - yet in the end, that's the impression he leaves.

But what would our reaction be to these plays if his characters were depicted as Jews, or Muslims? (I'll save these comparisons to religious groups which are, like the Mormons, considered "marginal" in America.) After all, there are certainly Jews and Muslims who have killed their children, and bashed gays (just as I'm sure there are Mormons who have done so). But if LaBute had styled his characters as Jews, wouldn't we clamor for some sort of justification for the seeming tie he's implying between his chosen religion and the crimes he describes?

It's true that in one of these "latter-day" plays, the offense (gay-bashing) is obviously linked to Mormon ideology (which villifies homosexuality). But alas, Orthodox Judaism does much the same thing, and so does Islam; they're just about as sexist and homophobic as Mormonism (just ask Bruno!). And LaBute doesn't seem to make an actual tie explicit between his criminals' religion and their actions. Indeed, he covers some extra bases by making his Mormons attend Boston College - just to include squeaky-clean Catholics in his campaign of innuendo, I suppose.

One could argue, of course, that LaBute is absolved of his own form of minority-bashing by the fact that he's "really" attacking that all-American wholesomeness that Mormons and conservative Catholics exploit and identify with (and of course Jews and Muslims aren't reliably Republican). That contention perhaps gets LaBute off the political hook, but does it really get him off the artistic hook? Somehow I don't think so; he still has to answer the question of precisely why these characters' religion matters to our understanding of their actions.

But to many observers in these latter days, such a question probably seems moot, because identity politics is creeping further and further into the foundations of what we imagine "aesthetics" are. (Note, for instance, the recent review of Sarah Ruhl's Dead Man's Cell Phone that unconsciously slides from aesthetic judgment into political endorsement. And don't get me started on the relentless identity-politics babble from most of the 'cultural' blogs.) That identity politics are often steeped in what was once called "the politics of resentment" isn't lost on me, either. For LaBute is rather obviously all but dripping with resentment for his vicious college athletes and child-killing salesmen.

Tellingly, however, the playwright transcends his own yen for personal payback in the piece that floats the most free from both Mormonism and, for lack of a better word, physical attractiveness. In Medea Redux, a woman wronged recounts her resulting crime-against-nature in a truly chilling, just-the-facts-ma'am style (into a police recorder, no less) and somehow, stripped of LaBute's political agenda, the piece does brush the cold, inexplicable high places of Greek tragedy. Much of this is due to the performance of Kate Donnelly, who cannily focuses almost exclusively on the blank minutiae of her character's affect (her burning cigarette, etc.) and thus subtly conveys her inability to even articulate to herself the reasons for what she has done. As a result, at the end of her monologue, the audience does, indeed, finally feel as if they've been bashed, too.

Monday, October 19, 2009

If torture and Sarah Ruhl have you down . . .

. . . check out this day at the office.

You knew this was coming . . .

Anyone who imagined that the controversy over the CIA's torture policy was actually about "waterboarding" is either very innocent or very young. I long suspected that there was actually more horrifying instances of torture lurking behind the stonewalling around waterboarding, and now some of that information has begun to leak out. For instance, on Friday the British High Court rejected US and British efforts to suppress details of the CIA torture (in Pakistan) of British citizen Binyam Mohamed. For years the Bush, and now Obama, administrations have been trying to suppress the facts about what happened to Mohamed (who also spent time in Guantanamo).

Here's why, from Glenn Greenwald:

The 25 lines edited out of the court papers contained details of how Mr Mohamed's genitals were sliced with a scalpel and other torture methods so extreme that waterboarding, the controversial technique of simulated drowning, "is very far down the list of things they did," the official said.

And no, the laundry list of who's involved in this is not pretty. It seems Hillary Clinton herself at one point intervened to suppress the details of Bush-era torture. And the Obama administration is currently attempting to block Mohamed's bid to seek restitution in the US court system as well. Yes, we can, indeed.

And I have to ask any conservatives out there, or other apologists for the Bush-Cheney torture regime: if this sort of thing happened to American soldiers, what exactly do you think a certain portion of the American public would be crying out for?

Death and destruction rained down on the nations of the perpetrators?


Sunday, October 18, 2009

Dead playwrights' society (or yes, Virginia, Sarah Ruhl still sucks)

A telling moment came about two thirds of the way through the first act of Sarah Ruhl's Dead Man's Cell Phone at the Lyric this weekend. The show had been punctuated, as one expected, by a cell phone's relentless ringing - but suddenly everything went "meta" when one began to bleat in answer from the audience.

And its owner answered it. She took the call.

Now, normally, this kind of thing makes my blood boil (see note at right). But this time around, I could kind of sympathize; the call would probably prove more interesting than Ruhl's play, the woman had clearly reasoned. Indeed, I began to think about turning my cell back on and placing a call myself. I didn't think I'd miss anything.

Because once again Sarah Ruhl has produced a willfully whimsical piece of melancholic tedium masquerading as a statement. Watching it, I could hear a little inner voice murmuring "Nothing new here, Garvey, move along, move along . . ." So I'm going to spare you my usual level of chagrin at the travesty of this woman receiving a MacArthur grant (which of course means she can keep writing without any financial worries) and various other honors. Paula Vogel, the lesbian playwriting professor down at Brown, fell in love with Ruhl's work years ago and began to promote her, and Charles Isherwood, the gay New York Times second stringer, seems to have an inexplicable weakness for her twee meanderings too, so I guess Ruhl is here to stay. Maybe Charles and Paula are friends; I dunno. But there's got to be some explanation for the ascension of this mediocrity to the heights of American theatre (her next opus is slated for Broadway); I'm just damned if I know what it is.

But in case you haven't heard, the pretty-good premise of Dead, etc. is the chance encounter of a "nondescript" young woman with a glamorous businessman who drops dead next to her in a sushi place. She herself only notices he's sleeping with the fishes because his cell keeps ringing, and she's finally forced to answer it. Then she answers it again. And again. Then attends his funeral. And slowly becomes drawn into his life, that ever-jangling cell offering a magical "open sesame" to his family, lovers, friends, and business associates.

Just precisely what his unspoken business is (or was) is the rather obvious MacGuffin that Ruhl uses to tease us into Act Two. But after her big reveal - it turns out the sleaze sold human organs - she lets what loose structure she's maintained up to this point go, and just begins to play with her dramatic finger paints, as usual. Interludes from the afterlife, trips to heaven and hell, even a brief snippet of the Ice Capades (above left) - everything goes, and it's mostly pretty lame. Yes, I know Ruhl's unbound by logic or plot or psychology, and I know she's unafraid to be unpredictable, and embraces the profoundly irrational, and the irrationally profound. The only trouble is that she's unpredictably, irrationally, profoundly lame.

To be fair, as with Eurydice, there are a few bright spots here and there in all the pretentious whimsy - a few tight, pointed monologues about cell phone bondage, and a couple of weirdly bittersweet, amoral jokes about The Way We Live Now; but mostly, we sit staring, wondering what the fuck Ruhl thinks she's getting at with the latest hairpin turn in her "plot." Oh wait, don't tell me - it's like cell phones bring us together, and yet push us apart. Was that the irrationally profound part?

Sorry, I can't help snickering at this playwright and her my-journal-belongs-on-Broadway aesthetic. Because there's an intellectual error in her self-justifying prattle that's all too obvious: Ruhl assumes that she has the poetic power to take the audience along with her on her magical mystery tours. But - how to put this nicely? - she just doesn't. There's little or no resonance in Eurydice or Dead Man's Cell Phone - no weird chills like the one in Buried Child, for instance, where the corpse of the baby is mysteriously exhumed from the vanished cornfield, when the image feels strangely "right' even though we can't quite explain why. Perhaps the greatest theatre depends on such deep, irrational responses and recognitions, on a kind of shared dream between playwright and audience. But what's always at issue is that "shared" part - Ruhl doesn't realize it, but she's off daydreaming by herself, while most of her audience, the ones with no stake in her young-female-writer identity, are scratching their heads.

Still, to be honest, I can't really sneer at the Lyric's current production. It looks coolly terrific (the stylishly mutating set is by Cristina Todesco) and has been ably directed by Carmel O'Reilly, of whom I'm hardly a fan; but I have to admit this time she's assembled a strong cast, and dresses this turkey about as well as I think anyone could. I never actually bought, I admit, the talented Liz Hayes as Ruhl's mousey heroine; Hayes is just too strong and capable a presence. But she goes through the motions with commitment, and you can almost buy, for instance, that she'd let some slightly-creepy guy braid her hair in the closet of a stationery store, as Ruhl would have it. Almost. At any rate, Hayes gets a lot of help in maintaining the illusion of her supposed insecurity from the rest of the cast, in which there's not a weak link. Neil McGarry is all confident, handsome-anchorman smarm as the eponymous Dead Man, and as his distant wife, Bryn Jameson ably tosses off a weirdly amusing drunk scene which is probably the high point of the script. Meanwhile Jeff Mahoney manages to make that slightly-creepy hair-braider sympathetic (and even a little appealing), and Beth Gotha at least nails all her laughs as his erratically imperious mother (she can't really pin down a character in this pastiche of gimmicks, but who could?). The real find of the production, however, is newcomer Jessica D. Turner, who definitely knows, as her hot-to-trot character purrs, both how to enter a room and how to walk in nosebleed heels. We'll be hearing more from Ms. Turner, trust me. If only this were the last we were to hear of Ms. Ruhl.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

How low can Shepard Fairey go?

So low that even his lawyers have withdrawn from his case against the Associated Press. Something about the "artist" having misled them "by fabricating information and destroying other material." Yep, you read that right - Fairey sued AP under false pretenses. But given the intellectual dishonesty of his work, is anyone other than fanboy Joel Brown surprised? Somehow I don't think so; this is just more evidence of Fairey's general M.O. Sigh. Guess I'll file this under "Leopards- change their spots?" in the growing "I Told You So" drawer at the Hub Review.

[P.S. - It occurs to me that the "Fairey affair" reflects a rather larger cultural theme - i.e., the conflict that arises when the standards of current pop culture, with its promiscuously lifted hooks and images, crashes into the still-slightly-higher standard of originality expected of high culture. Of course, to many (like Joel Brown, who I admit is my posterboy for intellectually-suspect arts criticism), attracting the younger generation to the fine arts means eradicating the boundary between high culture and pop - and if need be, making high culture no more original than pop has become. But what's the point of keeping something alive if you destroy its standards in the process? More to come on this troubling dilemma.]

Friday, October 16, 2009

Well worth the Ride

Adrianne Krstansky in 2.5 Minute Ride. Photo by Christopher Mckenzie.

Time is tight today, but I did want to post that if you've been on the fence about seeing the final performances of 2.5 Minute Ride at the New Rep, by all means go. The Globe review, by the erratic Sandy MacDonald, was quite bizarre, and utterly wrong-headed. Lisa Kron's meditation on the mystery of her parents draws most of its power from the collision of her hip, gay sensibility with the enigma of her father, who escaped the Holocaust via the famous Kindertransport; the script's two contrasting poles are, believe it or not, a visit to Auschwitz and a day at an amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio. Between these two extremes winds a second narrative thread, about the marriage of Kron's brother - and her own reaction to, and integration into, that tradition. Kron doesn't really achieve any synthesis of her opposed perspectives, but the piece is nevertheless touching and funny by turns, and even shocks with a calmly stated moral dilemma that I won't give away here. Adrianne Krstansky replaces the author, but at least judging from Kron's performance in Well at the Huntington, we're lucky for that; Krstansky is a far better actress than Kron, and is affectingly un-affected throughout. M. Bevin O'Gara, whom I'm beginning to realize may be one of the best directors in town, directed. Through October 24.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A rambling, but well-sung road

I don't have too much to say about Maureen McGovern's A Long and Winding Road, now at the Wimberley Theatre through November 15, except that it's a thoroughly enjoyable evening in the mode formerly known as "mellow." It's chiefly so because of McGovern's voice, which seems to have aged not a day since her heyday on the soundtrack of The Poseidon Adventure (the lady herself just turned 60). Whether by the grace of God or as the result of superb training and care, McGovern is still blessed with a wonderful pop instrument, and a consummate technique to match it. She was lightly miked at the Wimberley, but seemed to have plenty of power, and deployed a startling variety of color across a still-impressive range (she's an alto with a mezzo top).

And her play list was by and large admirable - a little bit of Dylan, a touch of Simon & Garfunkel, a sprinkling of the Beatles (although not, for some reason, the eponymous tune), etc. Not all the songs she sang were actually ideal for the rather bouncy piano accompaniment by Jeffrey Harris, but McGovern's vocals themselves were always expert, and with her trademarked, romantically-mournful timbre she delivered particularly lovely renditions of "You've Got a Friend," "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?", "Let It Be," and believe it or not, "The Times They Are A-Changin'."

As for the rest of the show - well, I'm never much one for wallowing in boomer nostalgia, and the piece is, I'm afraid, rather transparently a companion/promotion piece for the auburn-haired chanteuse's latest album. And I sometimes felt that McGovern's reliance on major political turning points of the last forty-odd years felt too on-the-nose, and a little unearned - after all, what, precisely, did she have to do with Martin Luther King, or the March on Washington? (Then again, probably half her audience credits themselves with marching at Selma and sewing an AIDS quilt, too.) Still, one never doubts McGovern's personal sympathies were, indeed, with the enlightened crusades of her generation, and at any rate, in a nostalgia piece, it's hard to dodge cornerstones like Kennedy's assassination or the "age" of Reagan.

Between the politics and the classic pop lies a somewhat-rambling, light litany of life lessons (divorce, record-company perfidy, loss of a loved one, etc.), each one graced by, yes, a "morning after" (McGovern's chart-topper topped the show). To be honest, McGovern's story isn't all that compelling (nor is she a gifted raconteur; nothing really builds over the course of the evening). But her anecdotes are amusing enough, and she has a solid sense of humor and the timing of a gifted comedienne (a little medley of "da-doo-ron-ron" nonsense was a particular charmer). In some basic way, she's just good company. Particularly on a long and winding road.

The Shakespeare and Company crisis

The sad news of the financial crisis at Shakespeare & Co. didn't surprise me; rumors of the eccentric management of that institution have been rife for years (and years). At the same time, however, whatever their management lapses, the group's purchase and renovation of its expansive new digs (after being booted from The Mount, which has faced its own fiscal problems) put an understandable pressure on their finances. Still, it's striking how the public face of the situation parallels that of the North Shore Music Theatre - full-steam-ahead, business-as-usual behavior masking a mounting deficit, followed by the sudden announcement of an enormous debt load, and a last-minute pitch to raise a huge sum of money just to stay open (in this case $2.3 million by March, although the Globe article seems to equivocate on that deadline).

Sigh. More "boards behaving badly," I suppose. And history doesn't offer much hope in scenarios of this kind. On the other hand, the group has enormous popular support (although I admit I'm not really a fan), and is certainly a driver of the Berkshire summer economy. And with the stock market in something of a recovery, perhaps new donors can be found, and a restructuring may stave off the financial deadline. With Shakespeare, hope springs eternal.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Joe Lanza, John Kuntz and Michael Balcanoff in The Caretaker.

The Nora Theatre's current production of The Caretaker (through November 1 at the Central Square Theater) is in many ways a worthy piece of work. Director Daniel Gidron has (wisely) decided not to attempt to "update" the play that first brought Harold Pinter international attention; indeed, within the production's budget, Gidron and his designers seem to have attempted to replicate as faithfully as possible the circumstances of Great Britain in 1959, the year of the drama's debut. The accent work in the production may be only adequate, but it's still good enough to not distract; and the acting (particularly by John Kuntz) is thoughtful and detailed, and at times quite absorbing.

Yet despite all the care taken with The Caretaker, the mysterious sense of unknown danger that once defined Pinter - and which I am old enough to remember from productions I saw in the 70's - has gone missing from this version. And the Nora is hardly alone in its inability to conjure that once-famous atmosphere of threat. The A.R.T.'s No Man's Land from two seasons ago felt similarly flat, and its Birthday Party from a few years before that had been faintly ridiculous. Other, smaller local productions that I've seen in recent years - of One for the Road, or The Lover, for instance - have been similarly threat-free. Indeed, as I watched The Caretaker I realized that I hadn't felt a classic Pinterian chill from a new production in perhaps two decades; you might have to go all the way back to the late 80's, and the Huntington's production of The Birthday Party, to sense the playwright's old black magic. And this issue couldn't be laid at the feet of directorial interference; true, at the A.R.T. director JoAnne Akalaitis had essentially parodied The Birthday Party, but other recent productions had been quite seriously conceived, and Daniel Gidron clearly intended this Caretaker to be as close an approximation to the original production as possible. (Indeed, a clip from the original film, below, reveals that even it is none too disturbing today.)

A sequence from the 1963 film of The Caretaker, with Donald Pleasance and Alan Bates.

So is Pinter "dated"? And if so, why? And how might his seemingly lost immediacy be recaptured?

Of course what's clear at once about Pinter is that if he is dated, it's due to his incredible success and influence. Listening to The Caretaker, in fact, I was struck again and again by how his voice has become the lingua franca of so much pop culture. Saturday Night Live appeared just as his output began winding down, and its skits were often rife with light, dumbed-down riffs on his central tropes. Then came Quentin Tarantino, whose dialogue is essentially a drive-in-movie version of Pinter's comedy of menace, re-fitted with fresher pop references (and goosed along by literal threats of torture and rape). But a funny thing happened to the Theatre of the Absurd once Quentin Tarantino and Lorne Michaels got their hands on it: it went meta, and lost its powers of critique.

But then today we don't have "irony" anymore; we have meta-irony instead. The ironic stance is no longer a challenge for an audience - rather it's an escape hatch. Culturally we're all channel-surfers, no longer embedded in the consensus that Pinter was savaging in 1959; belief in God, normative heterosexuality, the oppressions of bourgeois capitalism, the threatening police state - to today's audiences, all these things are essentially avoidable via the all-too-aptly-named "remote." And "irony" is the knowing lubricant by which we slide past each other in what remains of our cultural meeting-places.

The problem for Pinter's legacy is that while his manner has become ubiquitous, nothing coherent has replaced his initial target. Thus his stance has become comforting rather than disturbing - indeed, the audience I saw The Caretaker with responded warmly to the bizarre non-sequiturs of the leather-jacket-clad Mick, who rattles on about interior decorating while hinting at violence. The character's dislocations of meaning were funny and familiar; we took him as one of us, our theatrical avatar.

And we do so because we no longer identify with Pinter's benighted victims, but instead feel secure in our superiority to them as they grope around (sometimes literally) in the cultural dark. Unlike them, we're sure of our powers of control over our separate lifestyle-niches; if worse comes to worst, we don't have to grapple with existential questions, we can simply go shopping for a new identity.

Against this deeply cynical, but utterly self-amused alienation, Pinter has little or no power. Indeed, what's striking about his current cultural position is that the playwrights he was thought to replace, like Noël Coward and Terence Rattigan, have seen a renaissance in interest, as their durable virtues match well to a certain nostalgic demographic. In a word, the well-made play is hot, the Theatre of the Absurd is not.

But how to restore Pinter's former potency? Ah, there's the rub; the decline of "monoculture" may have dealt a greater blow to the absurdists and existentialists than it has to the bourgeoisie (which, in case you haven't noticed, is flourishing). And so far, at least, no one has managed to crack the carapace of self-satisfaction one senses in our Gen-Y "glibertarians" - they're not shivering in some Beckettian wasteland, struggling with the bleak truths of the absurdists; they are, instead, snug as bugs in their respective digital rugs. And the idea of using absurdity to attack their own assumptions strikes most of them as, well, simply absurd; indeed, their strategy of simultaneous disconnection from, yet accommodation to, the social and political world may make them all-but-impervious to theatre as a mode of communal critique. Thus any clear-eyed observer must inevitably face the underside of all those calls to draw more young people into the theatre: if we do so, we may inevitably compromise what theatre still, just barely, is.

Of course all's not quite lost, and even this production of The Caretaker offered some insights into how Pinter's legacy might be kept alive. The production's central problem lay in the performance of Michael Balcanoff, as the tramp who tries to destabilize, but then is victimized by, the power relationship between two mysterious brothers (Joe Lanza and John Kuntz). Balcanoff was a convincingly scruffy, homeless gentleman, but was unable to insinuate much in the way of either seedy subservience or indeterminate identity. He was a bit better once his own sense of power began to inflate, but as a particularly destabilizing form of Pinterian threat, he still fell short. Likewise, Joe Lanza brought little sense of sadism to the preening, malicious Mick, although he did, as expected, make the character's long flights of fancy quite funny. It was John Kuntz who made the production memorable, even if at first his take on the brain-damaged Aston was almost too recessed to be truly theatrical. But in his long solo in the second act, in which Aston recalls how he came to be so mentally impaired (unlike Beckett's Lucky, Aston's mind was violated, a key difference between Pinter and his great mentor), Kuntz was superb - quietly, but meticulously, intense. And briefly, the cold fires within the play flickered to life.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Fireworks sans fire

Feng Ning and friend.

Last weekend, for the first time in 25 years, the Boston Philharmonic programmed the famously demanding Brahms Violin Concerto - because, conductor Benjamin Zander let it be known, he had finally found "the man for the job" (according to the Globe's Jeremy Eichler) in the young Chinese sensation Feng Ning.

Well, Mr. Ning is certainly "the man" for just about any job on the violin - like so many Chinese prodigies these days (Lang Lang, Yuja Wang), he has an almost unbelievable level of technique. And he needs it all in the Brahms, which is widely believed the most difficult of violin concertos - as the canard goes, the piece was not written for the violin, but against it.

But Eichler went on to praise Ning's "warm singing tone" - which is a bit bizarre, because brilliant as Ning is, his playing is mostly flash with little passion. Or is it even flash? There's something a little blank about Ning's stage presence, and while his playing seemed fevered - indeed at times devoted to a relentless rubato - beneath the sparks dancing on its surface it felt oddly dutiful (meanwhile, rather than shaping his usual grand gestures, Zander seemed to be constantly lifting, then pressing, his foot to the pedal too). Ning only opened up into real feeling in the themes of the lovely second movement (perhaps inspired by the opening passages from the woodwinds, here tenderly essayed by oboist Peggy Pearson). My partner's comment was that "he plays like a competition winner" (and he's won just about every one there is): that is, technically brilliant, and driven to dazzle, but not deeply musical.

But I can't say Ning left me cold; the encore brought a note of surprising poignance to the performance. The young violinist chose an arrangement for violin of Francisco Tarrega’s familiar guitar piece “Recuerdos de la Alhambra" - but this time its famously lush textures, pushed far up into the violin's range, sounded hauntingly lonely and sad. The final notes seemed to trail after Ning like a melancholy question mark.

Zander had paired the Brahms with another large-scale set-piece, Dvořák's rarely-heard Symphony No. 7 (yes, two symphonies before he went to the New World). The piece has a reputation as "one of the greatest symphonies you've never heard," and Zander proved the saying true with one of his trademarked barn-storming performances. This conductor loves the colossal, of course, and has a special talent for grand clashes, and you get all that in spades in the Dvořák Seventh. The symphony is an affecting paean to the political struggles of the composer's homeland - it's shot through with both pride and foreboding, and features the usual (for Dvořák) cornucopia of memorable tunes, and even a mad kind of waltz in its middle.

Zander (who's rather like the David Lean of local conductors) handled all this with both a gripping sense of command and a nearly-brimming sense of emotion, and the players, who clearly adore their conductor in his high mode, responded with almost overwhelmingly energy. The symphony's final peroration sounded something like an orchestral shout of triumph. It was hard to imagine a more compelling version of a piece that deserves far more attention than it receives.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Double showcase

The crowd at Handel and Haydn's season opener on Friday had clearly come to see Andreas Scholl, the countertenor who's rarely heard in the U.S. despite an international cult. And so, frankly, had I; to my surprise, however, I was more gripped by the work of the visiting conductor, Jean Christophe Spinosi (at left) of the French group Ensemble Matheus. By this I don't mean to slight Mr. Scholl, who was often transporting. But it was Mr. Spinosi who had the charisma and chops to command a space the size of Symphony Hall.

And command it he did, from the first notes of the opening Vivaldi overture (to La fida ninfa). It usually only takes seconds to realize you're in the presence of a star, and Mr. Spinosi is indeed a star. What caught the ear immediately was his commitment to what's known as "terraced dynamics"; in the Baroque world, because the harpsichord was not capable of gradations in volume, musicians generally "terraced" their performances with abrupt changes from loud to soft. Mr. Spinosi has taken that technique and run with it; on Friday night, he sculpted the strings into a series of clean plateaux of sound. The effect went far beyond the usual "echo" trick to conjure a whole musical landscape in space, and brought a striking sense of dimension to Vivaldi's habit of repeating the same musical cells in a steadily growing build. Spinosi also conducted with infectious enthusiasm, and a light but propulsive hand; he not only drew a subtle palette of color from the orchestra, but seemed to engage with, and energize, the players physically as well. In brief, he pretty much had it all.

Meanwhile Scholl (below right) had pretty much everything, too, except the power that countertenor fans always dream of. The horrifying tradition of the castrati left behind it a kind of longing for a dream vocalist with the range of a soprano but the power of a bass - indeed, by at least some accounts, that's what the greatest of the castrati had; they were compared not to other people but to trumpets.

The modern countertenor, by way of contrast, is generally confined to a form of falsetto, or "head" voice, which can rarely match the power of "chest" voice. This is how Mr. Scholl produces his gorgeously pure tones, and at times he had trouble cutting through the background support of the period orchestra behind him. But at the same time, it must be admitted his high notes are so mysteriously involuted and self-contained that they sound almost ethereal; at least it seems unlikely that anyone of this earth, male or female, could have produced such immaculate tones. To be bluntly honest, Mr. Scholl doesn't seem to have much acting range beyond passionate earnestness, and his voice isn't highly flexible; his effects were all in different keys of melancholy. Still, at his best, he achieves something close to holiness, a rare virtue in our secular age, and one that has a special resonance in sacred music.

Thus it was no surprise that his best moments on Friday came in Vivaldi's "Filiae Maestae Jerusalem" and especially Stabat Mater, a moving contemplation of the Virgin Mary at the foot of the Cross. With the orchestration pared back to a despairing spareness, Scholl's radiant vocals seemed to embody a sorrow so pure it had been transmuted into eternal mystery - and the crowd was soon on its feet roaring its approval. And for a moment, I understood this charming countertenor's cult.