Monday, November 30, 2009

War and remembrance

Heroes, the poignant new comedy by Gérald Sibleyras at the Merrimack Rep, has been widely praised (including by me, see review below).

But there's an issue with the play that no one (at least so far) has discussed - and which I wish I'd mentioned in my earlier piece. Then again, perhaps it slipped my mind because I don't quite know what to make of this particular subtext, and how Merrimack might have integrated it into an American production.

The play, for those of you who haven't read my earlier review, concerns the last days of three French veterans of the Great War, on a sunny patio somewhere, we imagine, in Provence or Auvergne. It's a bittersweet comedy of bravado in the face of decay, and the Merrimack mines its comedy expertly.

But they don't quite know what to do with a series of references that, taken together, must have been meaningful to the play's original French audience, but sails right over the heads of most viewers in Lowell, MA. The heroes of Heroes all served together on the Western front, and so it's natural their various travails - and fantasies of triumph - should take shape in their minds through military metaphors. They babble about "defending their position," and yearn for sandbags, trenches and barbed wire. When they dream of escaping their nursing home for a distant stand of poplars, they even fantasize about roving onward, as far as . . . Indochina.

Ah, yes, Indochina. Which France abandoned, defeated, in 1954 (a French soldier, above left), in a set of accords which created North Vietnam - a nation that would, in turn, attack its southern neighbor in 1959 (roughly the period of Heroes), eventually leading to the notorious American involvement and escalation.

Rather an interesting subtext for a bittersweet comedy of age, no? And lest you think I'm reading too much into this, consider that the heroes of Heroes also ponder at length, and with a mix of denial and despair, the fall of France in 1940. So the playwright has clearly given as subtext to his veterans' delusions the major conflicts of twentieth-century French history - all of them, after the Great War, defeats.

This is, to put it mildly, rather loaded thematic material; it's a bit like threading through The Odd Couple a subplot about Vietnam. Not being that conversant with contemporary French attitudes about their military misadventures, I can't really judge how all this might have been construed by the playwright's compatriots. The comedy was a huge success upon its premiere - yet the French Indochina War is still known as "the dirty war" in France, and surely its mention must have brought a certain chill to The Wind in the Poplars (the play's original title).

At the Merrimack, however, this political subtext was simply ignored, and as I said, seemed not to even register with the audience. This may be indicative of one of our own cultural blindspots - how many Americans are even aware of the French "colonialist" prelude to the American "capitalist" war in Vietnam? But then again, how could this content be integrated into the comic mechanics of Heroes? I confess I'm not sure - the idea that Sibleyras may be insinuating a cooler critique of militarism beneath his affectionate gibes certainly suggests itself; but how the Merrimack might have translated that for an American audience is hardly clear. The references right now simply trail the action like indecipherable bits of semaphore. In a way, though, they remind us that something is always lost in translation when a play makes the leap from one culture to the next. Surely the first viewers of Heroes in Paris perceived in it a political ruefulness that is lost in its current incarnation. We are inevitably looking at a thinner copy of the original - and perhaps we always are, with every foreign original.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the web . . .

Just so you don't think I spend all my time looking at ancient, outmoded art forms, I thought I would pass along two sites that have been amusing me greatly the past few days, even though I hate these guys because they're wittier than I could ever be: 27bslash6 (thank you, Jordan), and You Look Nice Today (thank you, Alton).

Friday, November 27, 2009

Lions in winter

The three befuddled Heroes at Merrimack Rep.

We never find out whether the fading veterans of Gérald Sibleyras's Heroes (now through Dec. 13 at the Merrimack Rep) were, indeed, actually heroes in the Great War, which threw them together some forty years before the action of the play. But the point is that they are heroes now, facing as grim an enemy as any they faced in the trenches. Indeed it's the same enemy: death, put simply, which sits in wait for them just beyond the sunny, nursing-home patio on which they're playing out their last days. But Sibleyras - a successful French dramatist and screenwriter not much heard of in the States - doesn't dwell on the inevitable so much as suggest it, in a winsome meditation on the limits of life - and indeed all our lives - that succeeds (sometimes despite itself) in the Merrimack's sweet but superficial production.

Sibleyras imagines his three old soldiers in a new kind of trench - their patio is down in a hot little valley, from which they can just see a distant stand of poplars nodding in the breeze (the play's original title was Le vent des Peupliers, "The Wind in the Poplars"). The days pass, summer declines into fall, and our three heroes, Henri, Gustave, and Philippe, decline too; Phillipe's fainting attacks, the result of shrapnel lodged in his brain, grow more frequent, and he and Gustave (who's terrified of the outside world) begin to share a folie à deux about the stone dog guarding their terrace. Phillipe has other delusions as well: he's quite sure, for instance, that the nun who runs the place is polishing off veterans in order to streamline her birthday party calendar.

As you might guess, of this trio Henri has the firmest grip on 'reality,' and whatever tension develops depends on his awareness that his friends are living in a kind of deepening dream; whether to fight it, or fly with it, is the slight script's only open question. Their recurrent fantasies are of battling for freedom - an escape to that stand of poplars, for instance (below) - and, unsurprisingly, sex. Those offended by Gallic romantic attitudes are here forewarned; these charming old duffs frankly rhapsodize about bringing women to climax, as well as making them laugh (one dreams of doing both at once). What poignantly undercuts the strut of these aging cockerels, of course, is the fact that, as one laments, none of them has had "an erection worthy of the name" for months.

Equipped to ford a nearby stream, the heroes of Heroes head for their beloved poplars.

One is reminded that the tramps in Waiting for Godot have much the same problem, and as translated (and trimmed) by Tom Stoppard, Heroes hints at something of Beckett's physical, if not spiritual, devastation. And it's that slight edge of decrepitude - which should, admittedly, be delicately rendered - that the Merrimack misses. The actors of this production (two of whom performed the piece earlier in New York) are all too vital to fully mine the pathos of the script. After all, unlike Beckett's tramps, these three are not so much concerned with the afterlife as with life itself, to which they are trying to hang onto any which way they can - and in an ideal production we should see them wither ever so slightly despite their best efforts.

Yet even with one character's lame leg, and another's frequent fainting spells, the general atmosphere at Merrimack was hale and hearty. This worked fine for the comedy, but left the poignance to be sketched in at particular moments by director Carl Forsman, when it should have suffused, and infused, everything. And speaking of infusion - I was rather surprised that the two actors from New York, Ron Holgate - who's won a Tony - and Jonathan Hogan, felt no further "inside" their characters than newcomer Kenneth Tigar. Holgate and Hogan were working more subtly than Tigar, it's true, but all were operating technically - and Hogan was unable to suggest the growing severity of Phillipe's attacks, or his deepening mania. Holgate offers probably the most satisfying performance - but even here, the edge of Gustave's inner terror was somehow missing.

Yet if this is not quite an ideal production of Heroes, it's nevertheless often an effective one - to which the Merrimack audience responded warmly. Sibleyras hasn't penned a masterpiece (for one thing it wraps far too abruptly), but he has a genuine voice - Stoppard hasn't rendered him as "Stoppard" - as well as the kind of light, yet serious touch that's becoming rare in the theatre these days. And if the Merrimack Heroes is a tad too broad, it's nevertheless affecting and sympathetic in a way it seems only the stage can be; I found its mood lingering in my mind for days after the performance. And a new play with that kind of effect is something to give thanks for.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Holiday wishes . . .

. . . from the Hub Review, as well as "Romeo" (above right) and friend. You can see more photos of Romeo, by "romeo's mom," here. And coming soon: the 2009 cultural events we should be most thankful for.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The perfect Wagnerite

Wagner is a composer whose influence is everywhere, but whose actual works, at least in Boston, are - well, not so much in evidence. The BSO performs them fairly regularly in concert, of course, but I can't think of the last time anyone has attempted a fully-staged Wagner opera in the Hub. The reasons why are obvious. The later ones make demands that are just too daunting for local producers - the orchestra would stretch any pit in town to its limit, and of course the stagings are not only immensely long and complex (the Met's recently retired Das Rheingold, above) but often require huge choruses, live horses, or magical special effects. And to be blunt, sopranos and tenors with the power to cut through a late Wagner orchestration aren't exactly thick on the ground.

This, perhaps, explains the excitement stirred by the appearance of Linda Watson (left) with the Boston Philharmonic last weekend, in a program devoted entirely to Wagner. Watson sang Brünnhilde's Immolation Scene as well as Isolde's "Liebestod," ("Love-death"), and the Philharmonic essayed the popular preludes to both Tristan and Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg as well as what you might call Götterdämmerung's Greatest Hits - "Dawn" along with Siegfried's "Rhine Journey," "Death," and "Funeral March."

The evening was therefore a kind of Wagnerite wet dream - and a palpable thrill of electricity ran through the crowd upon the appearance of Watson. Imperious, draped in black, and sporting not just long Aryan locks but a stereotypical German profile, the soprano might have been sent by central casting - although actually, she's the genuine article, with a long list of Wagner credits that culminates in Brünnhildes at both Bayreuth and the Met. Once she began to sing, the reason for that résumé was immediately clear; even though she was working with Wagnerian forces cheek-by-jowl on stage (as opposed to down in the pit), Watson's voice more than held its own. The soprano has a clarion top, and there's a weight and burnished sheen to her voice that stretches unbroken almost to its bottom (only here did she have trouble being heard). For Wagner, it's all but perfect - although frankly, there's not much in the way of individual color to it, and Watson's performances were so dignified as to verge on the sedate. Admittedly, we don't expect a full dramatic performance in a concert setting - still, both Isolde and Brünnhilde are experiencing transfiguration amidst destruction, neither of which seemed to leave Watson particularly ruffled. (An amateur recording of Watson in a performance of Isolde is below; for a sense of how far the role can really go, at bottom is one of the great Isoldes of our day, Waltraud Meier, in an almost scarily intense performance.)

Linda Watson as Isolde at Deutsche Oper am Rhein in 2003.

While the diva did her thing, the Boston Philharmonic did its - intermittently. The opening prelude to Die Meistersinger was bright and energetically clipped, just as it should be, but after that, as conductor Benjamin Zander slowed his rhythms for the ensuing deaths and funerals, his interpretations still seemed somehow metronomic. A rising, but mysterious, suspension is central to Tristan - and a similar sense of decline infuses Götterdämmerung, but rather than summon gathering, inchoate moods, Zander seemed to be shifting, albeit at a funereal pace, from one spot to another in the score. As a result, the orchestra sounded far less focused than it did in their recent Dvořák Seventh, even though there were sudden bursts of brilliant playing in Siegfried's Funeral Music and in particular the overwhelming rise of the Rhine (and final coda) after the Immolation Scene. At these moments the terrible grandeur that is Wagner did, indeed, echo in Boston as it rarely does.

Now that's an Isolde: Waltraud Meier not so much sings as transcends the "Liebestod" in Munich in 1998.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Marianna Bassham hits the road in Reckless.

It's getting harder and harder to get your holiday sentiment straight up these days, because alternative Christmas shows always come with a twist, and there seem to be more and more of them every year. Over at the Huntington, the carolers are warbling about the Civil War, fer chrissakes, and the New Rep is once again turning the pages of The Santaland Diaries. So it's no surprise that SpeakEasy should re-purpose Craig Lucas's Reckless this season - hell, it's set at Christmastime, ain't it? And you know, it's vaguely gay and outrageous and all. Alas, it's also a little thin, and its wacky, surreal mood dates it as surely as the early personal computers dotting its plot. Unsurprisingly, SpeakEasy's selling point for this revival has been not the play itself but its cast, which is, indeed, a line-up of local theatre royalty. Still, director Scott Edmiston hasn't actually gotten their best out of any of them, and he doesn't quite seem to understand the actual arc of the script.

Still, he keeps things festive - that's his specialty, and Edmiston puts a nice shine on just about every joke Lucas leaves under the holiday-comedy tree. Trouble is, Lucas doesn't really lavish the one-liners on this "dark," frothy tale of the hapless Rachel (Marianna Bassham, above), a suburban Pollyanna whose husband announces he has taken out a contract on her life. On Christmas Eve, no less. Does it get any more outrageous than that? No, girlfriends, it doesn't.

Poor Rachel, of course, is soon dashing through the snow - until she's saved by the kindness of a stranger, the mysteriously glum Lloyd (Larry Coen), whose nom de guerre is "Bophetelophti" (har de har), and whose wife "Pooty" (yuk, yuk!) is a deaf paraplegic (Kerry Dowling, all above left).

I know, ka-razy!!! At this point it's probably good to remember that the script opens with Rachel shaking a snow globe in a "euphoria attack," and back in the mid-80's, Lucas no doubt thought he too had a right to turn the holiday over and shake it hard. After all, the threat of AIDS - omnipresent and terrifying in the 80's - is clearly what's being filtered into his wacky pseudo-hetero scenario, with its lovers who can kill you, or end up in wheelchairs. So far, so good. Trouble is, the script comes over as second-hand Christopher Durang, as more horrors and bizarre coincidences pile up around Rachel faster than reindeer poop at the Pole. And the script's two extended parodies of game shows have long since been surpassed in grotesquerie by the actual targets of their satire.

Still, this crack cast keeps us laughing - even if they can't quite chart the arc that Lucas has embedded beneath the surface of the material. Transference is this playwright's obsession (and great theme) - and via various transferences, life begins to slowly make sense - and even beneficent sense - around poor Rachel once again. Even here, however, you could argue that Reckless has been surpassed by the work of David Lindsay-Abaire, and at any rate, under Edmiston's direction, Bassham doesn't quite trace Rachel's descent into catatonia step by step, as she should (Coen does better by his similar collapse). Even once everything turns mysteriously, mystically around, I'm afraid Bassham is a little too subdued; surely more must be hanging, at least internally, on her series of discoveries in the final scene.

Paula Plum goes all therapeutic on Marianna Bassham.

All that said, Reckless does have a few holiday treats up its sleeve. For one thing, it's got Paula Plum, who tears through several hilarious caricatures of therapy (above) without batting an eye, or dropping an accent. There's also sharp work from Will McGarrahan, Karl Baker Olson, and especially Sandra Heffley, whom we just don't see enough of around here. Cristina Todesco's set, aglow with upside-down tannenbaums, is as witty as Charles Schoonmaker's kitschy costumes, and Dewey Dellay's weirdly whimsical soundscape is everything it should be. SpeakEasy has definitely wrapped this package right; if only it didn't feel like last year's present.

For your cool list

We are not surfers. But we wish we were. You will too, when you view the awesome "inside the tube" photography by Clark Little here. Hat tip to Art Hennessey.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Dance's latest hot young thing, Trey McIntyre (below left, and indeed hot, no?) blew into the ICA last night (program continues through Sunday) with his new troupe, "The Trey McIntyre Project," and a set of dances that consistently charmed, even if they didn't always quite satisfy. Make no mistake - Mr. McIntyre is a born choreographer, with a graceful classic syntax that's so felicitous, it feels almost offhand. What's more, McIntyre seems to know instinctively how to set his movements in a consistently interesting space, and how to summon striking stage pictures at will. His "hook," however, is the application of this talent to a breezy, but earnest, pop sensibility. He photographs his dancers (above, and at left) in what look like expensive underwear ads, for example, to connect to a smart crowd that's more at home in a club than a concert hall.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course (and honestly, it's far less trashy than some of the florid schtick you encounter all the time in ballet). But I have to say that McIntyre couldn't always manage his classic-pop synthesis in a way that would fully satisfy a classicist; the pop often won out in the end, leaving you feeling high, but also still hungry, as if you'd eaten only cookies for dinner.

This is partly because pop is usually so simple that you can't rely on its musical ideas to carry a full dance. Narrative is just about a necessity, and that's what saved "Like a Samba," the playful opening number set to the chic vocal stylings of Astrud Gilberto. McIntyre attired his boys in beach clothes, but his girls in toe shoes - which told us immediately that he intended to slip ballet into a sophisticated, adult-listening mix. And honestly, the opening silhouettes of the piece were wonderful: basically classical moves executed with a Latin shimmy in the hips and waist. The dance then devolved into charming, but lite, ballroom-dancing-style displays, however, sans any actual storylines of seduction or surrender. Until the trio set to "The Girl from Ipanema," that is, which featured two smitten boys (Brett Perry and John Michael Schert) trailing after their dream girl (Ilana Goldman) in a sunny sexual daze. Basically frozen whenever she was around, this goofy pair erupted into sweet little dances of infatuation whenever she was offstage, and suddenly we understood what Mr. McIntyre could really do when he had a scenario he could run with.

Yet for some reason McIntyre didn't seem to know where to go with "Shape," which opened with a hilariously transgressive image - a female dancer equipped with Dolly-Parton-scale bazooms (actually balloons). The stage seemed set for something completely different, I must admit - I was hoping for something simultaneously jaundiced and sympathetic about our wacky standards of feminine beauty (and boobies). But suddenly other folks came on with other balloons attached to other parts of their bodies, and the piece collapsed into a sweet, but essentially platitudinous, take on diversity - although the finale, in which Dolly's balloons suddenly took off for the ceiling, gave the piece one last funny kick. The dancers once again charmed, although Annali Rose (right) was probably the stand-out (as she was in "Samba") of this green, but talented, group.

Not everything in the evening was breezy fun, however. "(serious)," which McIntyre has said was inspired by a dream about Charlie Kaufman (!) proved intriguing, if a little obscure in its essence (although given the obviousness of what had come before, having to think about what we were watching was a bit refreshing). Set to a suite of spiky, dense variations by Henry Cowell, the work follows three dancers - all dressed in office-casual - struggling with something, although we never find out what (indeed, perhaps all three are different facets of some nameless middle manager out there in cubeland). Whatever that "something" is, it eats at them, it bugs them, it sets them at each other - although they never seem to get emotional about it (perhaps because they're too "serious" for that). Dancers Chanel DaSilva, Brett Perry, and particularly the lightning-quick Jason Hartley, brought a coiled energy to the proceedings, which more than usual for McIntyre seemed to be following a loosely formal plan: at the finish, the three dancers coalesced into a kind of tautly balanced pyramid. Perhaps a solution - or at least an equilibrium - had been achieved.

The evening closed with an ambitious venture into more conceptual territory - "Sun Road," which was commissioned by the National Park Service (of all people) to "commemorate" the beauty of Glacier National Park. Part of the piece consists of film of McIntyre's dancers on location in the almost stupefyingly scenic Montana park (left), and the "dance," as it were, moved at will from screen to stage and back again (when the live dancers made their first appearance, they seemed to roll right out from the screen). This formal play was often fascinating, although the dance itself was at times a bit baldly symbolic. Chanel DaSilva was on hand, in a stunning scarlet gown, to seemingly impersonate nature herself, while several bad-boy dancers - clad in tuxedos with matching red cummerbunds - caroused, pillaged, and did pathetic battle across her great demesne.

Soon ravaged earth was actually pouring from their sleeves, and DaSilva was "bleeding" long silk scarves; yet frankly, the dancers seemed puny before the scale of Glacier National Park, and the dance didn't quite convey that it was they, not it, who were probably most threatened by their antics. Still, the piece included yet again some marvelous stage images, of naked bodies (like our carbon footprints?) slowly melting the glacial snows. And McIntyre nailed his thesis in a disturbing coda, in which a lone man encountered another earth-mother (left), only this time clad in a burnt ball gown that suggested a dead, lifeless husk; as he clasped it erotically, even she withdrew, leaving him alone with the fruit of his labors. With more powerful imagery like that, McIntyre could soon boast a repertory as deep as it is sweet.

Friday, November 20, 2009

God bless us everyone, even the racists . . .

Just how far can the sentimental form of the Christmas pageant stretch? (At left, a Nazi officer decorates the tree at Auschwitz.)

That's the question raised - and, alas, probably answered - by A Civil War Christmas, now playing at the Huntington Theatre. The idea behind the show is undeniably intriguing; since with our new mixed-race President we are re-enacting many of the racist throes of the Civil War, playwright Paula Vogel has been inspired to create a holiday show set in those troubled times. And I admit, I admire her chutzpah; as to whether her idea counts as a flash of sheer genius or utter folly, however, I must admit I am filled with doubt.

For to be blunt, the Civil War conjures a level of tragedy that would challenge Shakespeare or Sophocles - and neither genius, I think, would opt to treat it in the form of a Christmas pageant. Yet Paula Vogel thinks she can pull that off; as Seth and Amy might say, "Really!?!" For let's again be honest: Ms. Vogel is a talented, but second-tier, playwright even among our living writers, and the Christmas pageant is - how to put this? - a highly restrictive form.

Then there's that troubling (but clearly intended) parallel with the present day. The show is set in Christmas 1864, just after Lincoln's re-election, when his popularity was buoyed by victories in the South; of course no one knew then that within months he would be dead, assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. Needless to say, the threat of assassination is part of the current zeitgeist, too. Indeed, many Republican Christians are praying for the death of the President, and even selling T-shirts about their hopes for his demise. So the very concept of A Civil War Christmas - its reason for being - requires that the moral conundrums of the past be grappled with, and somehow made to resonate with those of the present day. How do we accept John Wilkes Booth, or his descendants, at the Christmas table? And how do we deck the halls when our cheer depends on Sherman's March - or a rout in Afghanistan?

Yet in the end it must be said, I'm afraid, that whenever Paula Vogel ventures near any of these cultural third rails, A Civil War Christmas becomes irritating, and sometimes infuriating; indeed, it often plays as a kind of parody of the patronizing evasions of political correctness. Vogel caricatures both Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln (surely among the most complex figures in American history), and paints John Wilkes Booth as villainous but clueless (and his cohorts as stooges). Her staging ideas are embarrasingly bald - a ghost of the Lincolns' dead son drums from a balcony, and there always seems to be a coffin nearby whenever honest Abe makes an exit. Even worse, she mostly dodges dramatizing the problem of racism, even though that's central to her project; instead (as usual) this playwright consistently returns to issues of sexism and feminine empowerment - which is a bit like pulling Susan B. Anthony into a play about the Holocaust. And then there's all the simple, blunt evidence of her bizarrely confident moral and political stupidity - I won't even discuss Vogel's jokes about the Emancipation Proclamation, or her sudden bursts of blank "irony" about the bloody progress of Sherman through Georgia; these gaffes only make you almost defensive about the South and its "beautiful cause."

The author is on firmer ground when she sticks to lesser-known historical figures (or blends of historical figures), and plays at being a New Age Dickens, tugging at our heartstrings with little girls lost on the streets of D.C. (on Christmas Eve!!) or innocent Confederate prisoners of war facing Certain Death. It's possible, in fact, that if Vogel had simply avoided the major players, and actually grappled with the issue of racism, she might have been able to make her rich (actually, overstuffed) pageant of war victims work. Still, even in her scenes of the common folk, Vogel's aim sometimes goes wild - when her wounded Union boys began singing in Hebrew over a fallen Jewish comrade, I almost laughed; when the victim rose from his death bed and dashed toward a blast of Heavenly Light, I almost threw up.

Caught in all this cultural and conceptual crossfire is a cast that deserves better. Poor Ken Cheeseman is required to earn cheap laughs as a horse (above left, with Molly Schreiber), and then - even worse - as Abe Lincoln! That he manages this at all is worth some kind of award. Karen MacDonald, likewise, does what she can with Vogel's sitcom-level portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln. Jacqui Parker gets better material, and exudes a palpable sense of stricken strength throughout (at right, with Delance Minefee). She also sings affectingly, although the versatile Gilbert Glenn Brown must take the musical honors of the night with his haunting version of "The Yellow Rose of Texas." I wish we'd heard more from the wonderful actress/vocalist Uzo Aduba, whom we haven't seen since the New Rep's Dessa Rose a few years back, but I was glad to see several local up-and-comers, such as Jason Bowen, Stephen Russell and Ed Hoopman, acquit themselves well in a variety of parts.

Indeed, with the well-sung carols and the better sketches - as well as the charming turns by local choruses before the show - you might be able to patch together a bittersweet Christmas memory from this strange, eventful history. Or, you might consider it an oddity that tops even David Bowie and Bing Crosby's notorious duet to "The Little Drummer Boy." As for me, I think I need to see the original "Grinch" again, and pronto. Now there's a Christmas show.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

This weekend . . .

On the menu this weekend are Reckless, the widely-praised Craig Lucas farce at SpeakEasy Stage. Next is the up-and-coming Trey McIntyre Project (at left) at the ICA, through Sunday. Then the New England premiere of Heroes, a comedy by Gerald Sibleyras (in an adaptation by Tom Stoppard) at the Merrimack Rep.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

When is a review not a review?

Everyone, please stop sending me that Ed Siegel review of Sleep No More. (It's here, if you really must.) I agree, I agree - it's as dumb as anything Louise Kennedy ever wrote. Maybe dumber. SO, unless I'm sexist or something, I have to give Siegel at least as much grief as I've always given Louise.

And you're right. Only the thing is, I don't really want to because the Siegel thing is actually more embarrassing than anything Kennedy ever wrote. I mean fer chrissakes - an actress "running her fingers through what's left of his hair"? He feels like "Tom Cruise searching for sensual pleasure"? "What if she took off her clothes???"

It's absolutely cringe-inducing, and more than a little sexist, but in some sort of unconscious, pants-down way that makes me want to avert my eyes. And frankly, the real problem is with the editing going on at the Globe, which could let this kind of thing get into print. For the last time, a personal response to a work - whether it be Ed's sex fantasies, or one of Louise's various griefs and grievances - is only interesting as a starting point for critical analysis. It is not a conclusion. "It made me cry" is not a review. "It made me horny" is also not a review. Globe editors, please, please take note.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

He's the sphinx of American musical theatre; at 79, a kind of relic of the heroic past. He was mentored by Oscar Hammerstein; knew and worked with Richard Rodgers, Leonard Bernstein, and Jerome Robbins; penned 'a nervous breakdown' for Ethel Merman, a Broadway break-out for Chita Rivera, and unforgettable roles for Elaine Stritch and Angela Lansbury. In the process, he re-invented the form of musical theatre again and again. And again. And again.

"He," of course, is Stephen Sondheim, one of the few acknowledged geniuses on the planet, and a man whose theatrical career knows few parallels. He is either the lyricist or composer (or both) of five of the best musicals ever made: West Side Story, Gypsy, Company, Follies, and Sweeney Todd, and the creator of several more that are nearly as great. He owns an Oscar, several Grammys, a Pulitzer, and nine Tonys. His achievement is poignant in only one respect: once hailed as a harbinger of the future, he is now understood to be the last of his kind; not the prophet of a new age, but the apotheosis of an old one.

And he came to Boston last weekend, in the company of former New York Times drama critic Frank Rich, as part of the Celebrity Series fall season. Needless to say, it was wonderful to simply see him in the flesh; Sondheim looked spry, and his voice and manner could have been those of a man twenty years younger. Certainly his wit was as sharp and focused as ever, and it was easy to imagine that whatever the eventual fate of Road Show (the lengthily-developed project which has yet to see Broadway), Sondheim could, perhaps, still have another great musical in him - whatever doubts he himself may have expressed about that!

Still, over the course of the conversation, I'm afraid the sphinx kept all his secrets (something that Sondheim has always been famous for doing). Not that anyone expects this kind of celebrity ritual to turn into a confession. Still, Sondheim's history, both artistic and personal, is so rich that I think Rich could have mined a few more insights - or at least heretofore-unknown quotes - than he did; a perusal of just Sondheim's Wikipedia entry is far more fascinating than their repartee turned out to be (the young Sondheim in a professional portrait, above). And the conversation often wandered into odd critical pronouncements that were about as eccentric as you might expect of Stephen Sondheim; is Sweeney Todd really the "only film musical designed for film"?? Is Ravel really the source of Broadway's musical style??

Okay, so Sondheim's not much of a critic, and perhaps his and Rich's act has become something of a routine (they've taken it on the road before). My chief problem with the program was that the Harvard alum made the cardinal mistake - so tempting to any interviewer, I admit - of making the conversation mostly about his own relationship with the interviewee. It's interesting, perhaps, for Rich to point out how early he himself perceived Sondheim's greatness (at tryouts of Forum, and later Company and Follies), while the Broadway hoi polloi couldn't see the light - for some reason, the bourgeoisie always adores hearing in retrospect how artistically blind it is. I think it would have been far more interesting, however, if Rich had managed to tease out of Sondheim some sense of how he achieves his mysterious synthesis of lyric and melody, or what really goes into "putting it together" (beyond the well-known tale of the addition of "Comedy Tonight" and "Being Alive" to Forum and Company, respectively). For like many shows, Sondheim's masterpieces were often thrashed out in previews - a process which doesn't really exist anymore (it's been replaced by "development," which is hardly the same thing). And louring over any conversation with Sondheim at this point is the long gestation (and many false starts) of Wise Guys/Bounce/Road Show, which itself is easily read as a proxy for the twilight of the musical itself. The form, to be blunt, is probably on its death bed, whatever people pretend about Rent or Spring Awakening. So how does the master feel about that, and does he have any particular prescriptions for the Fabulous Invalid?

We left the conversation (which ended abruptly, after only two pre-submitted questions from the crowd) without ever knowing - and indeed, without knowing much of anything that hasn't often been said and cited about Sondheim before. Still, for a few moments, we breathed the same air as the Sphinx, and for many, that may have been enough.

Why can't playwrights climax anymore?

As I pondered the latest news about Sarah Ruhl's vibrator play (it's going to feature Michael Cerveris naked, even though I thought women bought vibrators precisely so they wouldn't have to see Michael Cerveris naked), I began to wonder why, exactly, Sarah Ruhl can't climax.

I mean onstage, not in the bedroom, or even The Next Room, as it were. Ruhl brought The Clean House to something of a synthetic climax, I suppose, but that's the best she's done. Eurydice petered out, and Dead Man's Cell Phone can't even get its narrative up, much less off.

But Sarah Ruhl is not alone. It seems nobody can climax onstage anymore. Christopher Durang can't (Miss Witherspoon), and neither can Tony Kushner (Intelligent Homosexual, etc.). So much for the gays as well as the girls, I guess - but the straight boys aren't doing much better. Ronan Noone can't seal the deal, either (Little Black Dress, The Atheist), and you can forget all about Noah Haidle (What is the Cause of Thunder?, Persephone).

In fact, the only really satisfying dramatic climax I can think of in a recent play is the finale of The Seafarer.

(Maybe that's why I like it so much.)

Of course I'm sure there have been other cases, but still - why can so few playwrights finish what they've so cleverly started? I'm not sure - but the sense of artistic coitus interruptus is often all the more frustrating because Mama can see the climax coming, but the playwright refuses to actually bring it home. Ronan Noone, for example, seems to be steering Little Black Dress toward a piquantly Oedipal climax between mother and son - but then suddenly he goes off-road, and slams into not one, but several, narrative trees. Likewise, Ruhl seems to be aware that Dead Man's Cell Phone should wrap with some sort of face-off over her dead man's organ-donatin' ways; but the playwright all but shreds the space-time continuum to avoid her date with narrative destiny.

Indeed, there seems to be in many latter-day plays a curious new structural feature; let's call it the climax denial - followed by the anti-climactic branch. In this maneuver, the playwright seems to decide, just when it's time to rise above the current plateau of dramatic development, that instead he or she wants to shrug off the central conflict (often the only obvious conflict, due to limited cast sizes) and pursue some new, ironic avenue of commentary. "See, that's not what I was getting at, not at all!" the playwright seems to giggle, as new narrative strands branch around where the climax should be, and lead us into various ironic or phonily whimsical dénouements.

So do these playwrights simply choke at the moment when everything seems to hang in the balance? Do they actually fear the dramatic orgasm? Or do they, like Internet avatars, simply not want to be pinned down to a single, determining - and therefore identifying - resolution for their play?

But all I can say is, that's all well and good for them - but what about us, the audience? Sheesh! It's enough to almost make you want to see Michael Cerveris naked.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Berlin and Brahms

The Berlin Philharmonic, under Sir Simon Rattle, in the famous "Poco Allegretto" movement of the Brahms Third.

The Berlin Philharmonic is widely held to be the greatest orchestra in the world.

And who am I to disagree? Particularly given last Sunday's memorable Celebrity Series concert at Symphony Hall? The program was basically given over to Brahms - the Third and Fourth Symphonies - interrupted by a Schoenberg curio, "Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene." This is core repertory for the Berlin, it's clearly in their bones, and from the opening notes, it was apparent both Brahms symphonies were in superb shape: as complex and cerebral as you'd expect, yet passionately rendered and deeply moving. (The opening of the third movement of the Third, above, gives you some idea of the pathos the Berlin can achieve; the excerpt from the fourth movement of the Fourth, below, gives you a sense of their power.)

To be honest, the Berlin offered no shocking insights into either work, and yet neither piece felt like some showpiece trotted out for a tour (even though, yes, the symphony is "supporting" its recent re-recordings of all four symphonies). Rather, this was simply committed playing of the highest intellectual and technical caliber - something the BSO only regularly achieves under James Levine. And yet, to be honest, the Berlin has something the BSO lacks even then - a sense of philosophical, perhaps even historical, profile above and beyond the limits of musical aestheticism (which Levine pushes practically to its limit).

One could look to the brilliant Sir Simon Rattle (left), the orchestra's current conductor, as the source of this special "something extra" - except that Rattle, at least in these performances, often seemed to be facilitating rather than conducting the orchestra. He only intermittently kept a beat, and sometimes actually turned away from the instrumental section leading the score to focus on one particular player or another. The impression was of a slightly-distracted mystic by now so confident in his ensemble that he could use actual performances as scenes of private communication with his musicians; Rattle was simply polishing the gleaming sound of the Berlin here and there, working away at individual details, even as the leviathan moved forward with both coherence and spontaneity.

This, of course, is far from the famous template that Herbert von Karajan imposed on the orchestra - during his reign, the symphony was renowned for its meticulously sculpted finish (not too far from what Levine achieves in his own way with the BSO). But things today at the Berlin seem somehow more sonically complicated; the startlingly lustrous horns, the delicate winds, and the dynamic strings all seemed to be communicating and responding to each other rather than simply the conductor - although, of course, at some level Rattle must be the designer of this glorious architecture. One guesses the process of "putting all this together" hasn't been entirely easy; these things never are - the Berlin has renewed Rattle's contract through 2020, but only after rumors of some internal strife. But what one senses through and beneath the orchestra's current glory is something like a new model of music-making, from the organization that was once the avatar of old-school, top-down regimentation.

Not that I quite agreed with everything these musical communards came up with. The Brahms Third struck me as wonderful throughout, and the first and second movements of the Fourth were in the same mode - subtle yet ravishing. I felt that the third movement of the Fourth, however, could have been a bit more playful, and the final movement seemed conventionally, and perhaps a bit flatly, "big" in a way that slightly disappointed after what had come before. These were minor caveats, however. Even the Schoenberg proved interesting - although perhaps what intrigued me most was discovering that Schoenberg himself understood the limits on his method (limits that I've written about before). The jagged "Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene" asks the audience to imagine it as a piece of program music to some unseen thriller. And amusingly, this does disarm the irritation that atonal music produces in audiences, which generally cannot comprehend the movement of time in music without a sense of harmonics. A "program" - even an imaginary one - greatly ameliorates that sense of frustration. It also, frankly, helped that "Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene" was quite short. Like most people, I like my Schoenberg short.

From the final movement of the Brahms Fourth.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Getting ". . . OUT OF HERE"

The video imagery of " . . . OUT OF HERE: the Veteran's Project."

Will wonders never cease.

There is currently a great work of contemporary art at the ICA.

Krzysztof Wodiczko's ". . . OUT OF HERE: the Veteran's Project" is the first installation at this waterfront mall-of-coolness that transcends its usual curatorial mix of formal fetish and pop bullshit to actually achieve something like genuine power.

No, you can't take your kids. And no, it isn't particularly "awesome." But it has meaning. Remember that?

Probably not, but with time, you'll get used to it, and maybe even grow to like it. Although to be fair, after the intellectual wastelands of the Tara Donovan and Shepard Fairey shows, the ICA has perhaps begun to right itself: just across the hall from the Wodiczko installation is Damián Ortega's retrospective, "Do It Yourself," which actually has some content, too (which I'll consider in a later post).

Could curator Nicholas Baume's departure already be bearing fruit, I wonder? Probably not - and at any rate, the Sandra and Gerald Fineberg Art Wall ("clockwork for oracles," by Ugo Rondinone) still sucks, as ever. But then we wouldn't want the marketing department's talons to totally detach from the galleries, would we; the shift toward quality shouldn't happen pell-mell! It's okay if we ease into it.

(And just btw, to those still wringing their hands over the various Shepard Fairey brouhahas - the way to turn Boston into a hub of contemporary art is not by importing some trendy L.A. posterboy, but by devoting serious resources to our own best artists. ". . . OUT OF HERE," which was curated by Carole Anne Meehan and the nifty Randi Hopkins (of the late, lamented Allston Skirt Gallery) counts as a small step in that direction.)

But back to the work itself. Wodiczko, who's based at MIT, has become known for his gigantic projections on public buildings and monuments, and part of "OUT" documents his recent videos of veteran's statements, such as Flame, which features harrowing memories from veterans whispered over a constantly flickering candle. Flame is both touching and ironic: it effectively deconstructs the familiar "eternal flame" memorial by reminding us that our memory of actual war flickers out once the granite tablets go up.

". . . OUT OF HERE" takes this insight a big step - no, a giant leap - further. This is a "war memorial" that attempts to immerse you in the experience of war, that tries to communicate something of what veterans of the Iraq War have actually been through. The piece consists of a large, darkened room (if only it could have been of marble!); some ten feet up its gray walls, a video projection of frosted windows (above) is visible. Through their "glass" we can see little more than distant clouds drifting past; from an unseen set of speakers come the chirps of playing children and the clatter of a busy street. Somewhere someone is singing in Arabic; we can hear Barack Obama's voice too, echoing from a passing radio. Suddenly a stray soccer ball whacks one of the "windows," breaking it.

Then the shadow of a descending helicopter falls over us, and the audio turns nightmarish. What sounds like an armored vehicle rumbles to a stop; we can hear soldiers, confused and uncertain, scrambling past us, as we, too, try to make sense of what, precisely is happening. "We were here before; remember us?" someone says in English. The children have long since gone silent; when the explosions erupt, and the sniper fire starts shattering the "windows," they begin to scream.

It's all over in a few moments, although the great power of ". . . OUT OF HERE" derives not merely from its attention to the chaos of war, but also its aftermath. A child has been wounded, but the American soldiers are forced to abandon it. The vehicles rumble away again, to another conflict. The voices in Arabic return, this time wailing, and desperately calling out the names of the missing. The wounded child does not answer.

The piece, to be honest, isn't perfect; the imagery of the descending helicopter lacks the verisimilitude of the rest of the effects, and on a second hearing, both the politics and the melodramatic mechanics of the "script" are a bit bald. But the work's initial impact is as potent as that of a gripping piece of theatre, while its formal isolation from the events it depicts (we can't actually "see" what's going on) elicits a panicky engagement from the viewer while conjuring a contradictory sense of dislocation in terms of both time and space. For a moment, it seems, we are not in a "memorial" so much as a memory. And all we really want to do, of course, is get OUT OF HERE - although ironically enough, this piece is probably one of Boston's current must-sees for serious fans of both art and theatre.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Take a pass on The Salt Girl. I'm going to.

Every now and then, I admit, I give a theatre a free pass; if a company is small or struggling, or if there's some unforeseen circumstance explaining why a production hasn't turned out, I just don't write about it.

So sue me.

And I'm tempted to do the same with John Kuntz's thoughtful, complex, but unbelievably tedious The Salt Girl, now at Boston Playwrights' Theatre.

But I'm torn.

On the one hand, I've often admired Kuntz's work in the past, including his acting in the recent Caretaker and his hilarious contributions to The Superheroine Monologues.

On the other hand, however, several reviewers have given their readers the impression that The Salt Girl is "surpassingly strange" and a work of "arresting originality." Instead, it's a dismaying example of Kuntz's usual wit played deadly straight; in its mash-up of sex, death, and consumer culture, it could, with just a little push, operate as a riotous parody of Don DeLillo by way of Henry James. Certainly there's an interesting idea - does death emanate from within our families or from without? - buried in its narrative labyrinth. But as directed with his trademarked combo of visual flair and dramatic listlessness by David R. Gammons (on a set borrowed from I Am My Own Wife), the piece just lies there, stiffer than the many corpses that dot it. Kuntz keeps trying to kick-start the damn thing, as he might have one of his old, funny satires, with disco tunes and The Love Boat and paeans to Sugar Babies and other shrink-wrapped joys/poisons; he can tell that, like one of his characters, we're slipping into a coma. The playwright even strips down to try to wake us up. But nothing works.

I could go deeper into the many issues of this elaborate misfire, but I'm tired, it's late, so let's just not and say we did. And after all, maybe John Kuntz just needed to get a "serious" work of "arresting originality" out of his system. Besides, who knows? There could be some long-time A.R.T. subscribers out there who could really get off on it. (And if so, by all means, go!)

But the rest of you - you have been warned.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Is it too early for another round of Hubbies?

Not really; I think the last round I did was back in July! That's months ago. True, there are a few shows left to open this season, but I won't forget them, don't worry; there will no doubt be another round of Hubbies before the IRNE nominations are due. And I've even managed to dig up a new photo of Michael Phelps - still our choice to model for the actual prize, should one ever materialize (at left)!

So without further ado, and with congratulations of course to the honorees:

Best Productions

The Savannah Disputation, SpeakEasy Stage

The Remarkable Rooming House of Madame LeMonde - Provincetown Tennesee Williams Festival at Charlestown Working Theater

Sins of the Mother - Gloucester Stage

The Seafarer - Merrimack Repertory Theatre

Little Black Dress - Boston Playwrights' Theatre

Robert Walsh in Sins of the Mother.

Best New Plays

Sins of the Mother (above) - Israel Horowitz, Gloucester Stage

Truth Values - Gioia De Cari, Central Square Theater

Best Performances

Karen MacDonald - Last of the Red Hot Lovers, Gloucester Stage

Anne Gottlieb - The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, Gloucester Stage

Maureen Brennan, Troy Costa - Mame, Reagle Players

David Engel - La Cage aux Folles, Reagle Players

John Rubinstein - The Torch-Bearers, Williamstown Theatre Festival

Betty Gilpin - What is the Cause of Thunder?, Williamstown Theatre Festival

Gioia De Cari - Truth Values, Central Square Theater

Nancy E. Carroll, Paula Plum, Carolyn Charpie - The Savannah Disputation, SpeakEasy Stage

Larry Coen, Jordan Harrison - The Remarkable Rooming House of Madame LeMonde, Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theatre Festival

Crystal Fox, Eugene Lee - Fences, Huntington Theatre

Marianna Bassham, Jeremiah Kissel (above), Alex Pollock, Karl Baker Olson (entire cast) - Little Black Dress, Boston Playwrights' Theatre

John Kuntz - The Caretaker, Nora Theatre

Adrianne Krstansky - 2.5 Minute Ride, New Rep

Jessica D. Turner, Neil McGarry - Dead Man's Cell Phone, Lyric Stage

Kate Donnelly - Bash, Theatre on Fire

Gabriel Kuttner - Speed-the-Plow, New Rep

David Adkins, Gordon Joseph Weiss - The Seafarer, Merrimack Rep

Ben DiScipio, Shana Dirik - Sweeney Todd, Metro Stage Company

Dillian Arrick, Jonathan Popp, Ilyse Robbins - The Sparrow, Stoneham Theatre

Christian Rummel, Glenn Gordon - Waiting for Godot, Classic Theatre of Harlem/ICA

Tory Bullock, Obehi Janice - The Overwhelming, Company One

Robert Walsh, Christopher Whalen - Sins of the Mother, Gloucester Stage

Mary Callanan, Timothy John Smith - Kiss Me, Kate, Lyric Stage

Best Direction

Israel Horowitz - Sins of the Mother, Gloucester Stage

David Zoffoli - Last of the Red Hot Lovers, Gloucester Stage

Paul Daigneault - The Savannah Disputation, SpeakEasy Stage

Ari Edelson - Little Black Dress, Boston Playwrights' Theatre

Davis Robinson - The Remarkable Rooming House of Madame LeMonde, Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival

Charles Towers - The Seafarer, Merrimack Rep

Kiss Me, Kate at the Lyric Stage.

Best Design

Rafael Jean, costumes - Kiss Me, Kate, Lyric Stage, The Remarkable Rooming House of Madame LeMonde, Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival

Janie E. Howland, set - Kiss Me, Kate, Lyric Stage

Cristina Todesco, set - Dead Man's Cell Phone, Lyric Stage

Marjorie Bradley Kellogg, set - Fences, Huntington Theatre

Frances Nelson McSherry, costumes - Last of the Red Hot Lovers, Gloucester Stage

Eric Levenson, set - The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, Last of the Red Hot Lovers, Gloucester Stage

Thursday, November 12, 2009

On with the Shrew

I got to the Actors' Shakespeare Project Taming of the Shrew (at left) rather late, I'm afraid, despite several e-mails imploring me to go. Their story was the usual one: the press was overpraising a less-than-satisfactory ASP rendering, and when was I going to set the record straight? Well, my friends, perhaps due to previous record-straightenings, the good folks at Actors' Shakespeare Project seemed to be unwilling to offer me press tickets, so I was biding my time, as it were. And when I looked over my previous reviews, I almost couldn't blame them; what do they need the one local reviewer who really cares about Shakespeare - and has the time to type up a 2,000-word exegesis of, say, Coriolanus - throwing the book at them?

Well, this time I'm not about to type up an exegesis, because frankly, The Taming of the Shrew may be my least favorite Shakespeare play. People tend to link it with Merchant of Venice, because they're the Bard's two "Politically Incorrect Plays" (somewhat in the mode of the old "Problem Plays"), but to my mind they're inherently different, as Merchant of Venice is a masterpiece crammed with fascinations (even its "anti-Semitism" is a complex, contradictory thing), while Shrew has nothing like the same compensations for its sexism. Which isn't to say it isn't a complex and self-aware piece of work, and of course beyond the capability of almost any other dramatist. It's just that by Shakespeare's standards, much of it is hackwork: there's verse but little poetry, and a good deal of the comedy feels over-complicated and forced; it often seems like a brilliant re-working of some crude crowd-pleaser.

Although let me say right now that I'm not one of those whose admiration for Shakespeare is founded on a belief in his utter perfection and omniscience as a person. Indeed, what makes the Shakespearean canon unique is the extent to which it has transcended, and perhaps even contradicted, the personality and politics of its maker. The Merchant of Venice, for instance, while undeniably anti-Semitic, is also probably ground zero for anti-anti-Semitism in English culture. Likewise, Taming of the Shrew contradicts the essential arc of Shakespearean comedy, which is overwhelmingly feminist.

And something else about Shrew rankles, where Merchant doesn't; it would be hard to argue, for instance, from the evidence of Shylock's character, that Shakespeare was personally anti-Semitic. Yet the Bard's treatment of Kate might lead you to a rather different conclusion about his attitude toward women, or at least toward wives. William Shakespeare was, after all, a man who married young, then lived apart from his wife for something like two decades, and left her his "second-best bed." Are we so surprised, then, that happy marriages are so rarely considered by this supposedly "universal" author? Or that while he had no problem lavishing his talent and generosity on his independent female characters, once they become wives, other impulses seem to kick in? Indeed, Kate's speech on wifely subjugation I think is the longest speech by a woman in all of Shakespeare - and it may come as a shock, but probably only the Macbeths' marriage is pondered as thoroughly by the Bard as Kate and Petruchio's.

Of course then again, only the Macbeths may be happier than Kate and Petruchio. For to those who would deconstruct Shrew into a blueprint for Kate's oppression, Shakespeare has thrown a dramatic curveball (as usual); we can sense that these two are, indeed, a good match, and that yes, Kate is such a boisterous personality, and so prone to contempt for her intimates, that she would never accept a husband who didn't "tame" her in some way or other. In short, she and Petruchio are brawlers who, though made for each other, need some sort of explicit power structure to survive their mutual attraction. Therefore it's no surprise, I think, that Shrew is the bawdiest of Shakespeare's comedies, and audiences have often read its power games as being basically about good sex rather than good politics.

See, now I've gone and written another exegesis. Oh well; back to the ASP. And back to director Melia Bensussen, the local academic (she's chair of the Emerson theatre department) who I felt thoroughly screwed The Merchant of Venice last year, and is back this season to do Kate and Petruchio the same service. Shrew turned out to be less irritating than Merchant, however, because this time around at least Bensussen didn't simply ignore a great deal of the text. Instead, she has augmented the usual playing script with the not-often-seen "induction" to the play. Those who seek to cast Kate's situation as play-acting often rely on this strange little frame, in which a drunken "Christopher Sly" is first tricked into believing he's a wealthy lord, and then in his newfound identity sits down to enjoy a bit of entertainment - which turns out to be The Taming of the Shrew.

The themes of the "induction," of course, are not only attractive as an amelioration of the blunt power rituals of Shrew, but also operate as a kind of post-modern catnip: Sly's "identity" is utterly constructed, and everyone around him is play-acting, therefore the later neanderthal sex contracts are "performed texts," etc., etc.; the whole play is basically one kind of in-joke coiled within another. And like the "edgy" director she is, Bensussen even pulls Sly right up into the "play-within-a-play," in the role of Petruchio (where his fake identity as lord-of-the-manor neatly undercuts his insistence that he's head of the household).

This is all fine as far as it goes - the only problem being that the Christopher Sly induction isn't really integrated into the action of Shrew; indeed, once the "play proper" starts, the script drops Sly entirely, and he never returns. Thus the text is strangely bifurcated; it opens with one set of conventions, then simply shifts to another - i.e., the utterly open and flexible, but basically representational, structure of all Shakespearean comedy.

Ross Bennett Hurwitz made a beautiful, but slightly blah, Bianca.

But Bensussen keeps her conceit going, and going, like some postmodern Energizer Bunny, even though she's forcing it on a text that I'd argue resists it. Indeed, things soon go meta-meta: actors do double and triple duty in multiple roles (some of them attached to "modern" actor identities dreamed up by Bensussen) with costumes and props that jump from one century to another. And as a result, the production is among the least funny Shrews I've ever seen (and this despite a cast with serious comic chops). The show's not exactly bad - it's often slightly amusing, but rarely LOL-funny, largely because with all the role-playing and "transformations" going on, we can't get a fix on anyone or anything, and the loud, pseudo-lusty tone never seems to vary. As a result, the jokes never get enough breathing room to operate; they're more like indications of jokes than actual gags. After all, it stands to reason that for a transformation to be dramatically effective, it must be surrounded by some form of stability. But this Shrew is basically one long orgy of conflicting signifiers, and even I had trouble keeping track of who was who.

Yet oddly, Bensussen plays the most sexist portions of the play seemingly straight - I guess she imagines all her framing has somehow contextualized the play's content out of existence. Even her most amusing gambit - casting a man (the adorable Ross Bennett Hurwitz) as the beautiful Bianca - doesn't really go anywhere; we get that Bianca is supposed to be a male projection, but the text and the action simply bypass the concept. Strangest of all, after all the jawing in the program about "transformation," Kate's biggest change of all - the moment in which she just rolls with Petruchio's assertion that the sun is the moon - is here rendered rather blankly; we can't understand why Kate is capitulating, and any Shrew worth its whiskers must answer that question, one way or another.

Beyond Hurwitz, the cast is appealing, but somehow undifferentiated. As Petruchio/Sly, company founder Ben Evett had a likable swagger, but didn't seem interested in digging very far into the character's need for sovereignty, and sometimes let little jokes about working-class dudes and their boxer shorts, etc., do his work for him. As Kate, Sarah Newhouse returned his hearty, rough-housing superficiality pretty much blow for blow, although to be fair the pair did strike a few sparks in their big courting scene. Elsewhere, Risher Reddick was fundamentally miscast, and Craig Mathers, so brilliant last spring in Picnic, barely made an impression; meanwhile reliable farceurs, like Steven Barkhimer, Daniel Berger Jones and Michael Forden Walker, were suddenly not so reliable. Only Edward M. Barker came through with a real characterization, I thought, and then only late in the day, and in drag - his Widow was an amusingly common-sensible foil to Petruchio in the play's final scene. But that seemed a long time to wait for somebody worth taming.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

As we sat down to the new Boston Lyric Opera production of Bizet's Carmen, my partner whispered jokingly, "She's ba-a-ack!"

But had she ever really gone away? We just saw the Ballet do her up right only two weeks ago, and the last few seasons have seen Carmen in various shapes take bows at the A.R.T., the Boston Common, and beyond. The BLO chose as their teaser for this production the phrase, "Too hot to live!" but really, it's obvious that Carmen is just too hot to die.

Of course due to the opera's ubiquity, every version needs a new twist, and the BLO chose an intriguing one: this Carmen came stripped of familiar recitatives (appended by another composer, Ernest Guiraud, but by now part of the traditional score), and re-appointed with dialogue from its premiere staging at the Opéra Comique. The feathers of the purists were therefore definitely ruffled, even though of course their argument was perforce complicated, as this edition was actually much closer to the original than the "standard" version. Still, I have to admit some of the music sacrificed was worthy, no question. And the BLO's choices were no doubt all about marketing; there was, after all, little sense that this version was intended as a template for future productions. This was merely a fresh twist on a standard.

But would all marketing came to such a happy end! Most purists would I think have to admit that despite its gaps, this is the best Carmen Boston has seen in years. The singing is often sublime, particularly from Dana Beth Miller's Carmen and Daniel Mobbs's Escamillo, and the staging, though intermittent in its power, is at its best truly intense. Word has it that remaining performances are nearly sold out, and no wonder.

Which doesn't mean quite everything works. By and large, the streamlining didn't bother me (although the folks at the Musical Intelligencer may have a point about the dramatically truncated "Card Trio" scene). I did feel John Conklin's set - a chunk of Byzantine mural floating over a desolate stretch of gravel - was a bit clunky, both as object and metaphor, and didn't really serve the dramatic action until the finale, when it loured over Carmen's bed threateningly. And to be honest, some of director Nicholas Muni's flourishes struck me as curious (Zuniga died in a particularly nasty way, and Carmen wound up strangled rather than stabbed - with a ghostly Micaela looking on!). Meanwhile many of the opera's traditional, large-scale pageants have been cut back or eliminated - but this did at least keep the focus effectively on Carmen and her lovers, which I think paid off in its own claustrophobic way (the opening of the final act, usually a crowd scene and dance, was here restricted simply to Carmen's bedroom, yet proved unexpectedly effective).

At any rate, Carmen and her cohorts in love and crime were compelling enough to make you forget all about the opera's lost spectacle. Dana Beth Miller is blessed with a memorably rich mezzo, suffused with a smokily tragic allure that's all but perfect for the role. Her acting was a bit exaggerated, and perhaps lacked the lower end of nihilism that makes a Carmen truly great - she was all sultry cynicism instead, which hardly explains her own near-acquiescence with her own murder. But in her physical scrapes, Miller found a sense of desperate savagery that was inherently gripping. (Indeed, the moments of conflict in this production recalled to me how rarely we see anything like life-or-death action on our dramatic stages, which prefer irony and analysis to the raw edge of tragedy.) Miller's glowing vocals were actually bested, however, by Daniel Mobbs (right), who brought thrilling power and resonance to Escamillo, the confident toreador who wins Carmen's heart; my only issue with Mobbs was that he, too, lacked any sense of the darker edge of Escamillo's obsession. Still, Mobbs and Miller are both the genuine article; BLO has a history of featuring vocalists before they become stars, and these two are definitely headed for the operatic firmament.

Luckily, given the occasional theatrical lapses of these two leads, tenor John Bellemer brought dramatic feeling in spades to his portrayal of Don José, the soldier obsessed with Carmen, too. Alas, he wasn't quite in the same league as Miller and Mobbs when it came to vocal power, although his tenor was flexible and appealing. As usual in BLO productions, the chorus was in fine shape, and there were luminous vocal performances from Hanan Alattar as Micaela and Meredith Hansen as the gypsy Frasquita, while Darren K. Stokes offered a boldly-sung Zuniga. Keith Lockhart conducted with passion from the pit. Not to be missed (if you can still get a ticket).

Sing along with Shelly Goldstein

What can we say? She's practically perfect in every way.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Fond Farewell

Jane Glover conducts.

Parting, as Juliet said, is such sweet sorrow, but rarely sweeter than it was last weekend, at Handel and Haydn's "Returns and Farewells"at Symphony Hall, during which conductor Jane Glover conjured exquisite atmospheres of immense poignance from two great classics, Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 and Haydn's almost-too-famous "Farewell" Symphony. Both are familiar works, surely, but Glover managed that trick that is so often claimed but so rarely brought off: she made them strange, and haunting, and new.

First, however, Glover opened with an obscurity, the only one on her program - Mozart's incidental music from Thamos, King of Egypt, a play now lost (and probably mercifully so). Indeed, the drama fell from popularity almost precisely upon its debut, which meant, as Mozart lamented, his fine choruses and fanfares would rarely if ever be heard again. Well, H&H has resurrected at least four of the five orchestral interludes from the play, which glowed with a warm sense of melodramatic flourish; we could guess from these at least at what the writers of Thamos were aiming at. But the four movements hardly constitute a newly-found "symphony," as Glover suggested in her program notes; there simply wasn't enough internal coherence even within each individual movement, much less the whole, to warrant such a claim. Still, Glover conducted with flair, and worked a small miracle with the second movement, a melancholic andante, which hinted at the larger emotional landscapes to follow.

Next came the wonderful Piano Concerto No. 21, with the virtuosic Robert Levin (left) at the keyboard. Here again, in keeping with her general theme of farewell, Glover was at her finest in the slow second moment, which seemed, in that way that only Mozart can, to be both luminously light and somehow heartbreakingly profound. Glover conducts without a baton, but with a full-body kind of motion; at times she seemed, like some silent magician, to be almost calling up audible spirits from the orchestra.

Although actually, not all those spirits were quite audible. It was difficult to understand, for instance, the decision to place Levin's fortepiano - an instrument which often struggles to be heard in a space the size of Symphony Hall - in the center of the orchestra. Predictably, the piano's delicate timbre was touchingly evocative when flying solo, but once the rest of the players chimed in, its plaintive sound was often swallowed whole. In a talkback after the performance, Levin ascribed the placement to historical precedent, but here is where I must part company with many early-music purists. When historicism leads to inaudibility, both common sense and the common ear are offended. I'm not as interested in hearing Mozart the way Franz Joseph heard it as I am in hearing it, period, and I hope the next time I see a fortepiano at Handel and Haydn, it will be front and center.

The gaps in audibility were all the more frustrating in that Professor Levin's musicianship is utterly superb; he confidently embroiders the gaps in Mozart's keyboard writing with a sparkling skein of inventive, yet always appropriate, ornament. Still, however much I admire his playing, it seems that he admires it even more, with expressions of delighted satisfaction that, though inarguably deserved, were nevertheless distracting, and almost amusing whenever his facility couldn't quite be heard. Sometimes, professor, less is more (and sometimes, when it comes to volume, it's just less). And I must add that Levin wasn't actually quite in step with the memorable mood Glover was conjuring in that exceptional second movement. His brilliance was at its best in the final allegro, to which he brought a truly glittering finish.

The theme of the conductor's program reached fullest flower, however, in the final "Farewell" Symphony (No. 45) from Haydn, which is built upon a famously insinuating musical jest. Facing players who were deeply unhappy at their working conditions - their employer, Prince Esterházy, had just announced they could not bring their families to live with them at the country palace, and some of their jobs and salaries might be cut - Haydn devised a way to embed the musicians' discontent into the very music they were playing: as its final movement progresses, its orchestration dwindles, and the players creep out, one by one, until only two lonely violins are left. The Prince got the message, and soon the musicians were back at court, with their families.

Glover seemed less interested in the gentle humor of this famous joke, however, than in a yearning, more general sense of farewell; her second movement, an adagio, was almost mournful, and the final departures seemed steeped in a delicate poignance as the lights slowly dimmed (in Haydn's day, the musicians would have taken their candles with them). Glover leavened her own final exit with an amusing little shrug, but the atmosphere of loss returned for the piece's final, lonely duet between Daniel Stepner and Linda Quan. I'd never heard Haydn's masterpiece played with such a deep sense of seriousness - which made me very fond of this "Farewell" indeed.

Monday, November 9, 2009

A guide for the perplexed

The actual Coen Brothers - not extras from their latest film.

A Serious Man, the latest film from the Coen Brothers (above), who are perhaps the last Hollywood directors who can get away with anything intellectually challenging on the silver screen, has been met by some viewers with a serious charge: anti-Semitism, or at least (since the Coens are Jewish) "self-hatred." Set among the Jewish denizens of an absurdly moderne Midwestern suburb, the movie is clearly sourced in the Coens' own upbringing (they were raised in an academic family in Minneapolis), and yet, according to The Wall Street Journal, the (Jewish) stereotypes and caricatures in the movie "range from dislikable through despicable, with not a smidgeon of humanity to redeem them." The Village Voice went further, calling the movie "loathsome . . . truly vicious," and linking it to "a rising anti-Semitism" that was "understandable" after the recent battles in Gaza.

Meanwhile, other critics may have liked the film, but seem perplexed by it. "Can art come from jadedness?" the Boston Globe's articulately vapid Ty Burr wondered (apropos of nothing, as the film hardly feels jaded), before labeling the movie "Jewish Bergman" (!), and deciding that for the Coens, God is either "absent, absent-minded, or mad as hell." Well, maybe. Yet in his review Burr glosses over - indeed, in effect ignores - what many have noted about the film, and what gives it its structure - its parallels with the Book of Job.

We first meet the movie's lead, one Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg, below) as he's having a physical, but soon learn more about his moral constitution; like Job, he's self-effacing but righteous - "a serious man," in his own words: a hard-working professor and family man who loves his kids and is loyal to his wife (except maybe in his dreams). Nevertheless, circumstance or fate or what-have-you begins to load Larry's back with misfortune: his wife decides to leave him for an unctuous neighbor; his bid for tenure is in jeopardy; he smashes up his car; his kids are secretly stealing from him; a student is bribing him to change his failing grade; and his sad-sack brother, who has been sleeping on the couch for months, is sinking into something like paranoid psychosis, all while obsessing over a grand scheme of probability.

Michael Stuhlbarg as the Coen's Serious Man.

Funny enough, probability is on Larry's mind, too, back at the university, where he has to explain to uncomprehending students Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. It means "we can never know what's going on," he tells them (which of course isn't true; the Uncertainty Principle tells us quite a bit about what's going on; but never mind), and that lack of true knowledge of the universe has begun to haunt him. He desperately seeks out spiritual guidance from the rabbis at his synagogue, but each encounter is more frustrating than the last. And the Lord continues to smite him.

It's odd that the poor mensch doesn't think of the Book of Job, or that none of his rabbis mention it to him (of course maybe that would have made everything too meta even for the Coens). Then again, at least one blogger has claimed that A Serious Man has "almost nothing to do with the Book of Job," so maybe I and many other viewers are finding parallels where there aren't any. Still, the movie is built around the religious question of affliction, features the advice of three rabbis (Job is advised by three "friendly accusers"), and concludes with the sudden appearance of a tornado (God reveals himself to Job from a whirlwind). And it does include a proxy for Job's plague of boils (Larry's brother is constantly draining a sebaceous cyst), and it opens, like the Old Testament book, with a cunning stratagem from the Devil himself. So it does seem that if the Coens didn't have Job in mind, then there's more cultural coincidence going on here than you could swing a dead cat at. (Or a live one, if like Larry you have to lecture on Schrödinger's famous feline.)

But back to that opening cameo from the Devil. People often forget that in the Bible, it's Satan, not Yahweh, who is tormenting Job (all God does is play along, as a kind of bet on Job's spiritual mettle). Thus the Coens open their latter-day parable with a potent fable from the shtetl, in which a seemingly innocuous old rabbi (the lovable Fyvush Finkel) turns up at the door of a poor couple on a dark winter's night. The husband's impulse is to invite him in; the wife, however, is certain he's a dybbuk, literally a dead man walking, re-animated by a demon. She even stabs him to make her point; but the Coens leave a shred of doubt trailing after the wounded rabbi as he staggers out - as well as a lingering sense that perhaps the rabbis counseling poor Larry in his modern Midwestern shtetl are themselves somehow demonic (particularly the one with a weird, Twilight-Zone-style tale of Hebrew script embedded in goyim teeth).

The Coens on the "set" of the Midwest shtetl moderne they found for their film.

So while A Serious Man may reflect the Book of Job, it doesn't quite mirror it; there's little sense that Job's various confidantes are emissaries of "the enemy," for instance. But perhaps it's in the very differences between source and film that we may find the key, as it were, to the Coen's scripture - and there are two digressions from the film's Old Testament source that all but cry out for exegesis. So here goes nothing. (Warning: serious spoilers ahead!)

In the Old Testament, Job's final advisor is "Elihu," who rebukes the claims of the three "friendly accusers" - i.e., that in a just universe, all affliction must be punishment for wrongdoing. Elihu's argument is that suffering is beyond our critique; it may exist to guard us from a moral fall, or even from further, greater suffering - but at bottom, its meaning is unknowable, just as we cannot have a full understanding of God's true nature or purpose. Rather pointedly, when Yahweh himself finally appears, he rebukes Job's friendly accusers but lets Elihu's arguments pass unremarked.

A key difference between Elihu and Job's three friends, however, is his age, and I think the Coens seize on this detail. Elihu begins his argument by apologizing for his youth: "I am young in years, and you are old," he explains (in William Blake's engraving, at left), "and that is why I was fearful, not daring to tell you what I know." Thus it's no surprise that the Coens begin to focus on Larry's young son Danny, who staggers through his bar mitzvah stoned, and is addicted to F Troop and the Jefferson Airplane. Through a complicated plot maneuver, when Danny receives his "bar mitzvah greeting" from the ancient rabbi who has pointedly refused to advise his father, his advice turns out to be a quote from an Airplane song, "Somebody to Love":

When the truth is found to be lies
and all the joy within you dies
don't you want somebody to love?
Don't you need somebody to love?

Obviously, the Coens have found an analogue for Elihu's arguments in the blandishments of pop - an amplified shrug before the mysteries of a mad universe, mixed with an all-too-human wail for love. This is witty enough, and after all, despite his cannabis-induced haze, Danny has gotten through his bar mitzvah and become a member of the nation of Israel.

And for a few, brief moments, his father's fortunes seem to improve.

But then the Coens take their last, and biggest, detour from the Old Testament. In what almost counts as an epilogue, Larry, unlike Job, finally does something unrighteous. Something wrong. Knowing, the film implies, that an envelope of money left by his failing student could be his way out of crippling legal costs, Larry changes the grade of said student from F to C (actually, in a typical Coen grace note, to C-).

And Yahweh's vengeance is swift. Within moments, a call comes from the doctor's office we saw way back at the beginning of the film: Larry's X-rays have come back from the lab, and things don't look good. At once we sense actual Job-level torments are now in store for poor Larry - only this time as punishment, not test.

Meanwhile Danny is about to face his own moment of truth, as a tornado much like the divine whirlwind in Job (at right, again from Blake) descends on his schoolyard. By his side is his junior-high pot pusher. Apparently they, not Job, are the ones destined to hear the new Revelation. But before we can hear it, whatever it may be, the film abruptly ends.

Job has gone down; and God, apparently, has decided to speak to Elihu, i.e. Danny, i.e. the Coens, instead. (Hence, perhaps, the success which followed for them, much like the renewal of prosperity that came for Job.) This final twist is, therefore, both a gesture of literally cosmic arrogance and a decided rejection of the faith in which the Coens were raised - and yet its cadence, which by all means should be triumphant, seems dark and tinged with regret; the whirlwind roars toward Danny with furious, nihilistic menace, and as it approaches, his pusher stares into his eyes with an expression that has no expression. Is God concealed within this whirlwind, or is the voice of the whirlwind essentially the voice of nothing, of nothingness? The Coens don't tell us; all they give us over the credits is the voice of Grace Slick. Maybe she's the new God.

So the brothers seem to feel no triumph in their triumph, as it were. But the question lingers: can a film be this critical of Judaism - indeed even reject Judaism - and yet not be anti-Semitic? I'd argue "yes," but I can understand the reactions of those who argue "no." The Coens do push the long-standing in-jokes about Jewish looks and tics from so many Jewish entertainers to a new, awful extreme; sometimes their camera simply stops to stare at a craggy proboscis or a drooping eyelid with a weird sense of fascination filtered through several levels of irony. How are we to take what amounts, in a way, to a cinematic Jewish tic? And are we perhaps supposed to equate all the plain looks and saggy skin on display as some sort of metaphor for the fallen, demonic state of Judaism itself?

How we answer that question, I think, depends on whether we feel, like Ty Burr, that the Coens are "cold." It's worth noting, however, that Burr describes them as being as cold as Stanley Kubrick, which in effect immediately dismantles the argument. Kubrick was hardly cold, and the insistence that he was by the fading generation of Paulettes who are still trying to undermine his reputation may count as the longest-running gag in American cinematic criticism (only the joke is on the public). Of course Kubrick was merely contemplative, not cold - although certainly he saw the universe as cold, and famously held back from satisfying the egoism of the average movie viewer. To Ty Burr, of course, that's unthinkable - and he resents the moral judgment it implies (richly deserved as that judgment may be).

Perhaps the Coens are a bit like that, then - they may be, as Burr snickers, "Stanley Kubrick's grandchildren," just not in the pejorative way he intends. They, like the divine Stanley, do stand at least one step away from the imagery they conjure, and thus they dodge the claim that they intend the grotesquerie of their characters as moral statement. Perhaps in their attitude toward their native milieu they're more like Fellini than Kubrick - and of course we hardly think of Fellini as anti-Catholic. Which isn't to say the Coens' imagery is on the level of Kubrick's or Fellini's, but here, as in No Country for Old Men, the Brothers C get at something like Kubrick's sense of submerged metaphor. And like Kubrick, their tales are suffused with melancholy, I think, beneath their carefully designed pop surfaces. Certainly much of A Serious Man plays like a long, belated valentine to their father. It's just not a valentine to their faith.