Thursday, December 31, 2009

The best performances, direction and design of 2009

Tired of my ongoing "Best of 2009" list yet? Well, we're almost to the end - I did want to throw a few more bouquets, however, to the performers, directors and designers whose work has stuck with me over the past year. To wit:

Best Actresses

Anne Gottlieb (above, with Robert Pemberton) - The Goat, Gloucester Stage

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

Nancy E. Carroll and Paula Plum - The Savannah Disputation, SpeakEasy Stage (It's hard to think of them separately in this particular piece, although Carroll also sparkled in Humble Boy, and Plum shone in The New Century.)

Crystal Fox - Fences, Huntington Theatre

Mariann Bassham - Little Black Dress, Boston Playwrights' Theatre

Shana Dirik - Sweeney Todd, Metro Stage

Kate Donnelly - Bash, Theatre on Fire

Rachael Hunt - Speech and Debate, Lyric Stage

Alicia Kahn - On the Verge, Nora Theatre

Cheryl McMahon - Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Lyric Stage, and Cabaret, New Rep

Sasha Castroverde - An Ideal Husband, Bad Habit Productions

Adrianne Krstansky - 2.5 Minute Ride, New Rep

Tracy Oliviero - The Random Caruso, CentaStage

Amanda Good Hennessey, The Superheroine Monologues, Phoenix Theater Artists/Company One

Best Actors

Timothy John Smith (above) - Jerry Springer: The Opera, SpeakEasy Stage

Will Lebow - Romance, American Repertory Theatre

Ed Dixon - Pirates!, Huntington Theatre

David Engle - La Cage aux Folles, Reagle Players

Ben DiScipio - Sweeney Todd, Metro Stage

Stephen Libby - A Child's Christmas in Wales, Boston Children's Theatre

Adam Freeman - A Child's Christmas in Wales, Boston Children's Theatre

John Kuntz - The Caretaker, Nora Theatre

Barlow Adamson - On the Verge, Nora Theatre

Robert Walsh - Sins of the Mother, Gloucester Stage

Gabriel Kuttner - Speed-the-Plow, New Rep

Will Lyman - Exits and Entrances, New Rep

Gordon Joseph Weiss - A Moon for the Misbegotten and The Seafarer, Merrimack Rep

David Adkins - The Seafarer, Merrimack Rep

Nigel Gore - Humble Boy, Publick Theatre

Alex Pollock - Daughter of Venus, Boston Playwrights' Theatre

Michael Forden Walker - The Duchess of Malfi, Actors' Shakespeare Project

Best Ensembles

Marianna Bassham, Jeremiah Kissel, Alex Pollock, Karl Baker Olson - Little Black Dress, Boston Playwrights' Theatre, directed by Ari Edelson

Erez Rose, Mark Vashro, Christine Busler, Brian Quint and Lorna Nogueira - Dark Play, or Stories for Boys, Apollinaire Theatre, directed by Danielle Fauteux Jacques

Nancy E. Carroll, Aimee Doherty, Philana Mia, Joe Lanza, Dennis Trainor, Jr., Cedric Lilly, and Rebecca Skye Hamberg - The Pain and the Itch, Company One, directed by M. Bevin O'Gara

Stephanie Clayman, Nigel Gore, Nancy E. Carroll, Tom O'Keefe, Claire Warden, Dafydd Rees - Humble Boy, Publick Theatre, directed by Diego Arciniegas

Paul Farwell, Owen Doyle, Marianna Bassham, Scott Sweatt, Scott Severance, Stacy Fisher, Christopher James Webb, Neil A. Casey, Dennis Trainor - Picasso at the Lapin Agile, New Rep, directed by Daniel Gidron

Alma Cuervo, Dick Latessa, Alfredo Narciso, Christina Pumariega, Pedro Pascal, Gregory Wooddell, and Lucy DeVito - The Miracle at Naples, Huntington Theatre, directed by Peter DuBois

Best Directors

(Why doesn't this list match the "Best Ensemble" list? Because these directors, in addition to drawing superb work from their actors, also mined unexpected depths from their respective plays.)

Ari Edelson - Little Black Dress, Boston Playwrights' Theatre

Edward Morgan - A Moon for the Misbegotten, Merrimack Rep

Charles Towers - The Seafarer, Merrimack Rep

Paul Daigneault - The Savannah Disputation, SpeakEasy Stage

Nicholas Martin - The Corn is Green, Huntington Theatre

Israel Horovitz - Sins of the Mother, Gloucester Stage

Davis Robinson - The Remarkable Rooming House of Madame LeMonde, Tennesee Williams Festival at the Charlestown Working Theater

Best Designers

There was one design that towered over the rest of the year: the incredible spinning-earth set Francis O'Connor devised for the otherwise-disappointing Two Men of Florence (above) at the Huntington. This was one of the most inspired and thought-through sets I've ever seen in my life. But there were plenty of other memorable designs this year. A few of the best:

Eric Levenson - sets, The Goat and The Last of the Red Hot Lovers, Gloucester Stage

Cristina Todesco - sets, The Pain and the Itch, Company One, The New Century, SpeakEasy Stage, and Dead Man's Cell Phone, Lyric Stage

Alexander Dodge - set, The Miracle at Naples, Huntington Theatre

Richard Wadsworth Chambers - set, A View of the Harbor, Merrimack Rep

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

Greg Maraio - costumes, The Superheroine Monologues, Phoenix Theatre Artists/Company One

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

Gail Astrid Buckley - costumes, The New Century, SpeakEasy Stage

Whew! Well, I think that's it for my "best of" lists, at least for the theatre - I'm still mulling one for music. Till then, have a Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Did the best acting of 2009 occur on the opera stage?

This idea may shock the theatrical community, but I'm here to tell that you that some of the best acting I saw over the past year was in the city's opera productions. With the arrival of supertitles in opera, acting has become of more than passing interest to the operatic audience (because at last they can understand what the hell the characters are saying!). Therefore suddenly directors have wanted Figaros who are actually funny, and Carmens who are genuinely hot. And to be honest, opera singers have responded with compelling dramatic as well as musical performances.

So here are a few of the past year's best dramatic/operatic performances, which could hold their own, frankly, against those of any actor in town:

Susanna Philips (at left) - Donna Anna, Don Giovanni, Boston Lyric Opera. Luminously sung and poignantly acted, I think this may have been the most memorable operatic performance of the year.

Keith Jameson - Vašek, The Bartered Bride, Opera Boston. Jameson spun comic gold from this hapless milquetoast; he was easily as funny as any other actor on a Boston stage, and all while singing beautifully.

Stephanie Houtzel, Ottavia, and Christian Immler, Seneca - L'incoronazione di Poppea, Boston Early Music Festival. The Romans never had it so good as they did in this magnificent production, which was actually studded with several compelling dramatic characterizations.

Ava Pine - Melissa, Amadigi di Gaula, Boston Baroque. A performance of simultaneous tragic and comic power that was also, believe it or not, a slinky hoot; I'd almost accuse Ms. Pine of chewing the scenery, only there wasn't any.

Jason McStoots - Damon/Handel, Acis and Galatea, Boston Early Music Festival. This role was not as demanding as the rest on the list, but McStoots not only sung it with warm openness, but acted it with the confidence of a subtle comedian. A comic gem.

And just btw, any awards for "Best Direction" in the Hub this year would have to include statuettes for Gilbert Blin (Poppea, Acis and Galatea, Boston Early Music Festival), and Paul Peers (Amadigi di Gaula, Boston Baroque).

Next: on to the actors!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

More of the year's best

Ok, look. Don't think of this as "second best." Think of this as more of the best. The productions that tickled or excited or moved me enough that I remember them even now. So why didn't they make the top cut? Any number of reasons - but in general, of the new plays listed here, the productions were stronger than their material; while of the classics, one or two performance were slightly weaker than they should have been (but were still worthy).

So on to Part II of the Best of 2009:

Picnic - Stoneham Theatre. This revival of William Inge's classic melodrama was surprisingly affecting, largely due to its supporting cast, particularly Sarah Newhouse and Craig Mathers (both above).

Waiting for Godot - Classic Theatre of Harlem at the ICA. An honorable attempt at transporting Beckett's existential landmark to the wastelands of post-Katrina New Orleans. The conceptualization of Pozzo and Lucky was brilliant - but in the end, Godot is not FEMA (and the production knew it).

Daughter of Venus and Little Black Dress - Boston Playwrights' Theatre. In a way Boston Playwrights is doing precisely what it ought to do, which is mount highly polished productions of new plays. But do the playwrights realize how glaring the flaws in their scripts actually are once they're buffed to such a high gloss? Let's hope so. Both of these casts were strong - and that of Little Black Dress ran through its paces like a dramatic Rolls Royce; but both scripts broke down before reaching their final destinations.

Grey Gardens and Speech and Debate - Lyric Stage. Nothing could have disguised the weakness of the first-act book of Grey Gardens, but Leigh Barrett and Sarah deLima went to town with the stronger second half, which is sourced in the notorious film. Meanwhile Speech and Debate, though fun, and driven by a remarkable performance from Rachael Hunt (at left), could have been adjusted down in volume just a notch.

Romance - American Repertory Theatre. It turned out there was more substance to this "provocative" David Mamet farce than I thought there would be (even if it once again showcased his weird, flipside-of-macho fascination with gayness). And certainly the show is funny, with barbs expertly hurled by a crack cast. But the show was chiefly of interest as what may prove to be Will Lebow's swan song at this theatre, as Mamet's drug-addled judge. Now that the A.R.T. has gone pop, Lebow's been garnering raves down in Hartford; when will Boston audiences get the chance to see him again?

The Last of the Red Hot Lovers and The Goat - Gloucester Stage. I know, the Albee is far superior to the Simon - although not all that superior; surprisingly insightful into both its period and its characters, Red Hot is one of the handful of plays Neil Simon will be remembered for. What these productions shared, however, was that both were intermittently lifted into the dramatic stratosphere by their lead actresses: Karen MacDonald (Red Hot) and Anne Gottlieb (The Goat).

Fences - Huntington Theatre. This time it was the central performance that held the production back from true greatness. August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize winner depends on a galvanic lead to pull its rambling structure together - and the Huntington didn't have one. Kenny Leon's thoughtful production was studded with other memorable performances, however, including one of the best of the year from Crystal Fox.

The Superheroine Monologues - Phoenix Theatre/Company One. The joint script by John Kuntz and Rick Park was hilarious, but also disjointed. And unfortunately, when the piece returned for a victory lap at the BCA, its internal problems seemed to have been exacerbated rather than solved. But the wit was still there, and so were the performances. And the costumes (by director Greg Maraio).

2.5 Minute Ride - New Rep. A small gem, subtly directed by M. Bevin O'Gara, and acted with surprising naturalness by Adrianne Krstansky (even though she was effectively impersonating Lisa Kron, the piece's autobiographical author).

In on It - Whistler in the Dark. Daniel MacIvor's play was one of those tricky meta-narratives that in the end conceals a rather straightfoward, sentimental statement (Whistler in the Dark, when they're not essaying Howard Barker or The Bacchae, has a soft spot for this kind of thing). But director Meg Taintor and her two actors, Joe Lanza and Scott Sweatt, kept the question of its possible complexity tantalizingly afloat till nearly the finish.

Shooting Star - Trinity Rep. Steven Dietz's two-hander is pure boomer nostalgia-schmaltz, but this version was so expertly acted (by husband-and-wife team Kurt Rhoads and Nance Williamson) and directed (by Fred Sullivan, Jr.) that it counted as a commercial triumph. I do have one question for this kind of show, though - how is it that in these generational fantasies, boomers who look to be in their late forties still seem to have been in college together in 1970? Shouldn't the characters therefore be in their sixties?

And just a few last bouquets to a next tier of runners-up: The Pain and the Itch (Company One), Working (Metro Stage), An Ideal Husband (Bad Habit Productions), Truth Values (Central Square Theatre), Picasso at the Lapin Agile (New Rep); A View of the Harbor and Heroes (Merrimack Rep).

Next: the best individual performances of 2009.

Monday, December 28, 2009

We have another winner

For those folks who don't follow Andrew Sullivan, this charming (and Grammy-nominated) video for "Her Morning Elegance," a song by Oren Lavie, just won "Best Mental Health Break of 2009."

The very best of 2009

It seems just about every critic has put up a "Best of 2009" list already - and all of them, frankly, have struck me as strange. Many include some of the shows I'm including - but most are also studded with productions I wanted to walk out of. Were "friends and family," as it were, involved? Or is this a case of "there's no accounting for taste"? I do wonder if many local critics simply did not attend the productions I'd put at the top of the heap - I notice a full half of my selections appear on none of the print critics' lists (all of them slightly out of town, or at the smaller theatres). My guess is that as print coverage shrinks, theatregoers should expect to see more and more of the best shows in Boston receiving little or no coverage at all.

The Globe's Don Aucoin also offered a few ruminations on the trends of the past year - although to my mind, he missed the actual trends entirely; his main point was that Boston's theatrical life now depends on its mid-sized theatres, a critical observation made perhaps ten years too late. (To be fair, Aucoin's been out of town for longer than that.) Some startling trends, of course, did emerge in 2009, but you won't read about them in print, trust me - simply naming them could be considered "controversial." Chief among these was the seismic shift in our college-based regional theatres: both the Huntington and the A.R.T. began to style themselves as straightforward commercial producers. Other events of interest included the rising artistic quality of our "peripheral" regional theatres, the Merrimack and Gloucester Stage, both of which had stronger years than any theatre in town. In these trying economic times, our theatrical "fringe" actually seemed to get stronger, too, with entertaining productions fielded by Whistler in the Dark, Bad Habit Productions, and Metro Stage. And a new director - M. Bevin O'Gara - emerged on the local circuit, which has been coasting on the likes of Scott Edmiston and Spiro Veloudos for years. These points are, of course, all fodder for future posts; in the meantime I should note that my own list has one eccentricity: it's a "top 8" rather than a "top 10" list. But really, why should we stick to that magic "10" when it doesn't quite fit? Instead, I've included a number of honorable mentions which struck me as highly enjoyable, but still slightly more flawed in one way or another than my favored octet.

So let's call these the very best Boston productions of 2009 - and without further ado:

Dark Play, or Stories for Boys (above) - Apollinaire Theatre. Carlos Murillo's script didn't quite deliver on its intriguing, true-crime premise (of a spurned gay boy who engineered his own murder on the Internet), but with an expert cast drawn largely from Emerson College (Mark Vashro and Erez Rose, above), director Danielle Fauteux Jacques put her off-the-grid theatre on the map with one of the most disturbing, yet smoothly entertaining, productions of the year.

Humble Boy - Publick Theatre. British playwright Charlotte Jones did riffs on Stoppard that proved of higher quality than the old boy has been able to manage himself in recent years. A large ensemble - sparked by Nigel Gore and Nancy E. Carroll, under the direction of Diego Arciniegas - made this highly literate sex comedy a witty, if meandering, pleasure.

The Corn is Green - Huntington Theatre. This was Nicholas Martin's swan song at his former theatre. And boy, do we miss him. Corn wasn't quite top-flight Martin, but it still bore his imprint in its intelligence, precision casting, and complex orchestration of mood. In his heyday he had no local peer, and he still doesn't.

Photo by Meghan Moore.

A Moon for the Misbegotten (above) and The Seafarer - Merrimack Rep scored twice this season (and a lesser play, Heroes, almost made my honorable mention list), with two bittersweet Irish plays of damnation and redemption. Director Edward Morgan did the honors with Moon, while the Merrimack's own artistic director, Charles Towers, helmed The Seafarer. Both productions, however, showcased performances by the man who may be the region's best comic actor, Gordon Joseph Weiss (above, with Kate Udall).

Sins of the Mother - Gloucester Stage. This summer Israel Horovitz came back with a roar to Gloucester Stage, which had already been enjoying a season that would have been the envy of most local theatres (two other productions, The Last of the Red Hot Lovers and The Goat, made my Honorable Mentions list). The piece was classic Horovitz, with local Gloucester color camouflaging a cold tale of vengeance, but a strong cast (with Robert Walsh, below) brought fresh blood to the telling.

The Remarkable Rooming House of Madame LeMonde - Tennessee Williams Festival, at Charlestown Working Theater. Director Davis Robinson and a crack cast (largely drawn from the little-seen Beau Jest Moving Theatre) found the perfect tone for this sick little one-act - a world premiere! - in which Williams stripped away all his straight affectations and crafted a sexually explicit, still-shocking piece of gay theatre of the absurd.

The Savannah Disputation - SpeakEasy Stage. The two leading ladies of Boston theatre, Nancy E. Carroll and Paula Plum (below), were in top form in Evan Smith's sweetly savage battle royale between Catholics and "Christians." Director Paul Daigneault kept things sardonic but sympathetic, and the supporting cast of Carolyn Charpie and Timothy Crowe proved almost as sparkling as the stars. I saw this one twice, and loved it even more the second time around.

So there you have it - my "very best" list of 2009. Tomorrow - the year's Honorable Mentions.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Happy Holidays from Hub Review!

Sigh. We meant to get to a few more reviews (sorry, Boston Camerata and Whistler in the Dark), but now the holiday torpor is upon us, and it's time to just bliss out on egg nog. We'll be back after Christmas with a year-end Best of List, and more on the little controversies currently simmering on the Net. Till then, Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

You can see them in Boston before they're stars

Just a note to say how pleased I am that Kate Baldwin - who I raved about in Boston productions of She Loves Me and The Three Musketeers - has landed her first Broadway lead, in Finian's Rainbow (like another Boston actress, Stephanie Umoh, who played in the revival of Ragtime). Congratulations to Ms. Baldwin (at left, with hunky Cheyenne Jackson), and Ms. Umoh, who both deserve even greater stardom. But the point is, gentle readers, that the folks in Boston productions often are, indeed, Broadway-worthy - in fact, they often actually end up on Broadway. So don't wait to pay top dollar in New York when you can see them right here, right now.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

If you want to understand Boston . . .

You must read this story. The city's sports and political culture in a nutshell.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Meanwhile, over on the theatrical version of Second Life . . .

. . . the usual suspects are thinking up new, hypothetical ways to make the theatre more diverse (or else!). So far, we have the following modest proposals: a) sue the theatres who don't diversify, and b) pick the new plays we do by chance.

Both suggestions, needless to say, have been met with some dismay. Isaac Butler's recommendation is, of course, smugly insane - but for once, even he seems to realize this. Meanwhile Scott Walters's idea is amusing enough - and it does solve "the Paula Vogel problem" - but it's hard to imagine any artistic director agreeing to serve merely as the person who pulls the numbers out of a hat. And at any rate, such a system would only result in political jockeying over which plays got into the hat to begin with. (A harsh fact of life is that every system, however well-intended, is ultimately gamed.) Predictably, in the comments section of these blogs, the folks who use the arts as a means of political satisfaction, or who see diversity as a means of career promotion, are intrigued by both recommendations; meanwhile those who hope to gain success via the quality of their efforts are appalled.

It seems to me that both Walters and Butler are far more interesting when they write about class rather than identity politics, and to their credit, both have begun to. But I'm not sure either sees where such a discussion might lead - for if the effects of class and economic injustice were ameliorated in this country, it seems to me that diversity theory, at least in the theatre, would lose much of its legitimacy. And both bloggers, of course, are rather uncomfortably positioned in any discussion of class - Butler has a trust fund, and Walters is a tenured college professor; both are nestled deeply in systems of (white) privilege. You could argue that to them, the issue of winning success by one's talent is somewhat abstract, and they're happy to sacrifice that ideal in favor of a more randomized political distribution of resources (which, you get the feeling, people much like them would nevertheless control).

To me, of course, art is more important than politics, so what Butler calls "the quality problem" (!) matters a lot, as I think it should to any critic worth his or her salt. And let me say up front that if Butler and Walters had any particular playwright they were promoting, of any gender of race or ethnicity, whose work they claimed had been disadvantaged by the system, I would happily see that writer's work, and be an advocate for them if the quality was there. (As for the insulting idea that people in each ethnic group cannot perceive the excellence of works from other ethnic groups - please, tell it to Alvin Ailey.)

But the diversity partisans never seem to be able to point to any actual work that they feel is being ignored. Add to that issue the troubling fact that the "quality problem" we have is often due to playwrights promoted by the academic-diversity crowd, and you have a situation that - well, does not actually inspire critical confidence. I mean, isn't it odd that Scott Walters should be proposing a way around Paula Vogel - who supposedly shares his politics?

To be fair, when "diversity" is the problem, maybe real diversity is the answer. But that doesn't mean chance is the answer. So count me unconvinced, although if Scott Walters can dream up more ways to undermine the system of privilege in this country, I'm all ears.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Rebel without a chorus

If there's one critical cliché we could use less of around here it's the cliché of "rebellion." To be blunt, the "rebel" has become the bobo equivalent of the Victorian virgin: an ideal that everyone pretends to espouse but nobody actually lives up to. And as such, it's just tedious, and gums up the works of any kind of intelligent dialogue about the arts.

So let's be honest, for once, shall we, and admit that our local print readers are not "rebels"? Not the Globe or Phoenix readers, much less the Herald or Metro readers (obviously). These people don't "dissent," they don't "subvert," they don't do anything but consume. What they consume, or course, are niche cultural products designed to simulate rebellion. Which is hardly the same thing.

But what prompts this latest rant, Mr. Hub Review, you may ask? In a word, the combined forces of Matthew Guerrieri and Sebastian Smee in the Globe this weekend - although frankly, my irritation with this moribund meme has been rising for months, if not years. Both reviewers have a penchant for claiming consumer choices are rebellious - indeed, one often senses that their "arguments," such as they are, inevitably edge toward that final evaluation: is the work at hand "subversive," or not? If yes - the work is good; if no - well, what would Elvis and James Dean say?

Of course I don't think Elvis or James Dean would have much to say about the "Hallelujah" chorus, in any case - still, Guerrieri, in a lengthy piece in Saturday's Globe, decides that the current vogue among "secular" fans of Handel's Messiah to no longer stand during its climactic chorus "ranks as one of the more effortless demonstrations of anti-authoritarian dissent."

But can anti-authoritarian dissent ever be "effortless"? I'd argue no. If you have expended no effort, you have not dissented. You have merely pretended you have dissented. The choice of what music you download for free does not qualify as an act of dissent. The fact that you have holes in your jeans torn by Marc Jacobs does not mark you as a rebel. And sitting through the "Hallelujah" chorus does not make you James Dean.

What it makes you instead is a certain kind of consumer, grazing the culture and filtering every experience through a self-conscious (and self-satisfied) cocoon. You may dislike the "monarchical overtones" of Messiah (as Guerrieri puts it - and he certainly digs up a lot of info about whether or not George II stood up, and why), but you're quite comfortable with the new spirit of the beehive - that pleasing buzz of "critical thinking" and liberal-tarianism that seems to have somehow outlasted the Clinton administration. Because oddly, while he's long-winded on Hanoverian politics, Guerrieri is all but silent about our own. Because, well - that would be rebellious, wouldn't it.

There is a whiff of politics in Guerrieri's essay, I suppose, in that the "Hallelujah" spoilers insist on framing Messiah as secular music (even though when they say "secular" they really mean "academic"). That's right - a secular piece about the central theological concept of Christianity. Uh-huh. The standard dodge of this obvious self-contradiction is the argument that Handel wrote his oratorio for commercial consumption, and never performed it in a church (indeed, its length and structure make it unsuitable for actual religious service). But does venue determine content? I think not - all this proves is that in the eighteenth century, explicitly sacred music had a commercial public. For to be blunt, Messiah is not like such oratorios as Saul, which are drawn from religious texts but are essentially dramatic in form and content; it is, instead, openly theological - an explication, in fact, of Christian theology.

So to my mind, the secularists have some 'splainin' to do. They like to pretend that Messiah is merely a set of pretty songs, or dances - "an entertainment," as one local presenter would have it. But just try to convince yourself of that as Handel digs further and further into the human issues of death, and hope, and love and guilt and redemption that underpin the story of Christ; in many ways, Messiah is deeper than the religion it celebrates. That's why I'm happy to stand for its chorus, even though I wouldn't stand for our evil-gay pope, or the Southern Baptist Convention, or the Windsors (or, frankly, the Israel lobby). To me, Messiah operates above and beyond all that. Some old British queen you've never heard of once said, "Only connect" - and rising during Messiah is one small way to connect. Only it doesn't mean you're connecting with your inner monarchist, or Christianist, any more than lighting a menorah means you support the Orthodox subjugation of women. It is, instead, a statement that traditions can be transformed over time, perhaps even into something that more accurately maps to a work's original vision. (For Messiah isn't so much secular as it is multi-cultural: it's a gay German's commercial vision of an Episcopalian mystery.)

So yes, Virginia, you should stand for the "Hallelujah" chorus - not for George II, of course, but for Handel, and the performers, and for the joy of the work itself - a work that in its depth and glory is one of those "outliers" that Malcolm Gladwell (you like him, right?) is always talking about. But hey, why stop with the Messiah? Feel free to stand up for Beethoven's Ninth, and Don Giovanni, and the last scenes of King Lear and The Cherry Orchard, too. Stand up early. Stand up often. To quote Michael Stipe, now stand.

(Still to come: the rebel cliché, Sebastian Smee, and Marcel Duchamp.)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Xmas on the pole

The big, uh, climax of The Slutcracker. Photos by Adrianne Lacy.

What am I doing here?

That's all I could think as I sank my big fat gay ass into a seat at The Slutcracker (whose final, sold-out shows are this weekend). Still, I noted that I wasn't all that out of place in the festive audience that was filing into the tattily gaudy Somerville Theatre (the perfect venue!). Indeed, if a Doonesbury comic took place in a strip club, these are the people Garry Trudeau probably would have drawn there. Late-twenty-something women with an air of a master's degree about them were much in evidence, many with posses of like-minded power grrls (and the occasional gay man), others with a sheepish (but eager) husband or boyfriend in tow. In fact, I don't think I saw a single unattached male in the crowd; this was not your father's rain-coated burlesque audience - this was a New Age, empowered burlesque crowd (ready to be literally pussy-whipped, it turned out!). But I think as pussy-whipped gigs go, this one pretty much rocked.

Because yes, before you ask, I wound up having a grand old time, even though I haven't gone near a lady's garden in a queen's age. Not that I don't remember those furtive, youthful forays affectionately, and I'll always be an admirer of the female form - although to be honest, New Age burlesque isn't always bursting with the most ideal of female forms; in fact, that's the whole idea. The stars of The Slutcracker, like the show's sole begetter, "Sugar Dish" (a.k.a. Vanessa White), are certainly ship-shape, and have serious exotic-dancing experience; Ms. Dish has even "toured to Worcester, Providence and Albany," and was honored "to perform for both the Air Force and the Army in Honduras." But other résumés include such assignments as "multi-media artist and bartender" and "student of library science," which may give you some idea of the less-sugary, but still proudly tasty, dishes on display here. Big or small, saggy or baggy, the many boobs of The Slutcracker speak of the wide berth, and girth, of humanity in something like the universal mode of Shakespeare, if not in quite his manner.

Fanning the flames of desire in the "Chinese" dance (photo by Caleb Cole).

And the script, surprisingly enough, follows the arc of its classic source pretty closely (the whole score, with its many tender climaxes, is of course there too). In fact, I'm not so sure this is a send-up of The Nutcracker as it is a kind of sequel. Hot singles Clara ("Malice in Wonderland") and Fritz ("Paolomania") are about to tie the knot, but at their annual Christmas party, grandma Drosselmeyer (the eighty-something Mary Dolan, God bless her) , sensing that something's missing from Clara's sex life, presents her with a hot pink, battery-powered vibrator. Which the horn-dog Fritz takes as a different kind of nut-cracker - before throwing a hissy-fit and storming out. But later that night, in Clara's dreams, her present is transformed into a six-foot hot-pink Dildo Prince (Erik Liddell - no nom de plume, Erik?), who leads her to a land of giant, candy-cane dildos that (if you lick them the right way) spew enough of the white stuff to make a wintry sexual wonderland (at top, in last year's version).

This is certainly the piece's hysterical high point, but the second half is generally diverting too, with its series of burlesque entertainments aping the divertissements of Tchaikovsky's over-ripe original. My favorites were probably the whip-wielding kittens who romped through the "Russian" dance, the switch-hitters of the "Spanish" dance, and the the petal-shedding rear-enders of "Waltz of the Flowers" (featuring the truly majestic Honey Suckle Duvet). Alas, the structure of every routine - a slow peel down to bare breasts with pasties - got a little repetitive, and while Sugar Dish is one smart cookie, and has a funny concept for every number, she could still work on her beat-by-beat choreography a bit. For in the end, the splits and bikini-clad spread eagles couldn't hold me over the long haul, faggot that I am - I longed for a bit more dance.

The "Polchinelle" dance, believe it or not.

Still, the show's energy never flagged (as you can guess from the photo above), despite the gaps between numbers when chorines ran around raking up all the discarded bras and veils ("Shake it while you rake it!" one wag called from the balcony). And romantics will be glad to know that Fritz realizes the error of his ways, and learns to accept, and perhaps even enjoy, his battery-assisted competition. I certainly hope all those husbands and boyfriends in the audience got the message, and went home to do their duty post-haste (after all, what else is theatre for?). And judging from the audience's vocal approval of each and every number, something tells me those of you who couldn't get tickets this year will have another chance next season - The Slutcracker is going to become this benighted burg's next Christmas tradition. Indeed, Ms. White has a franchise on her hands, perhaps even a multi-city franchise. So roll over for the real thing, Diane Paulus - and merry XXXmas, Boston!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Spandex magnolias

Barbara Douglas, Heather Peterson, and Carrie Ann Quinn are the Christmas Belles.

Sigh. I almost didn't write about Christmas Belles, which closes this weekend at the Boston Playwrights' Theatre, because all I could leave in its critical stocking was a lump of coal. And it wasn't really the fault of its likable cast or intentionally tacky production. No, the problem is that this particular sub-genre of alternative Christmas pageant - the "Tuna Christmas" show - has probably exhausted itself.

The script, which has been assembled by three television writers - Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten - only reminds one how much sitcoms rely on laugh tracks and "warmed up" audiences. Or perhaps it reminds one that television writers simply save their best stuff for television. At any rate, the up-to-the-minute quips that can bring snap to these stereotypes have pretty much gone missing here, and since the "story" is just a cribbed-together frame for the knowing wisecracks, the show heads south in more ways than one when you realize you can come up with every punch line yourself just before it lands.

I admit, though, that Christmas Belles is harmless (if you ignore the faint whiff of blue-state condescension floating from it), so if you have a jones for this kind of thing - ladies of the Texas trailer park in spandex and heels, their clueless men-folk, and a Christmas pageant gone horribly wrong - you may enjoy basking in its Coke-marinaded atmosphere once again (even if you don't laugh all that much). Director Greg Maraio - who also supplied the skin-tight costumes and some of the décor - knows he has to keep things moving, so you're never quite bored, even if you're never quite engaged, either. The cast members certainly throw themselves into it, and Jackie Davis, Heather Peterson, Maureen Aducci, and Rory Kulz do rise above the fray with characterizations a bit more textured than spandex. So merry Christmas, y'all.

Comin' on Christmas

A different kind of Christmas carol from you-know-who. Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Lia Cirio takes flight in The Nutcracker.

The New York Times is currently fretting over the preponderance of Nutcrackers on our holiday stages, after the Washington Post's Sarah Kaufman contended that "The Nutcracker’s stranglehold is all but squeezing ballet dry.”

Which, after serious thought, prompts me to reply, "Oh, nuts to you, Sarah Kaufman."

Because I'd really hate to see what has happened to theatre happen to dance. The theatrical connection to tradition has been effectively destroyed, with essentially nothing to replace it but an embarrassingly self-promoting campus-politics vision of "progress." And as much as everyone insists that politics and aesthetics are always linked (and yes, they are), when one effectively replaces the other, it's obvious at once that something essential has been lost from an art form.

And tellingly, Kaufman's arguments are hokey in much the same mode as the social-worker idealism of so many theatre critics - that is when her claims aren't downright wacky. She seems to blame The Nutcracker, somehow, for the fact that so many leading ballet dancers in America are foreign-born. At the same time, however, the Christmas fantasy (according to Kaufman) is simultaneously stifling diversity. Okay. She goes so far as to say that, via Tchaikovsky and Petipa, "ballet directors are communicating some disturbing views: American dancers in general are somewhat second-best, and African Americans in particular are not part of their vision."

Right. Diversity versus The Nutcracker! European minorities bad, American ones good! Everybody to the barricades!

But isn't this particular line of pseudo-critical hokum faintly ridiculous? Of course Kaufman's right to wonder why we're not seeing as many African-Americans on our ballet stages as we are Latinos, Asians and other minorities (I've wondered the same thing myself). It's her yoking of this legitimate social question to The Nutcracker that's absurd.

And for the record, at Boston Ballet this year you can see a Cuban Sugar Plum Fairy and a Mongolian Drosselmeier and an African-American Fritz. That is if you don't catch an Asian Sugar Plum Fairy and a gay Cavalier. So stuff that in your stocking, Sarah Kaufman. If only our other entertainments were as easy to diversify as The Nutcracker!

The point is if your concern is recruiting more African-American, or just plain American, dancers into ballet, then the place to start is in the schools, in the training, and in access, not in the destruction of the form's cherished traditions - particularly one that, to be blunt, pays the bills for most everything else. And by "everything else" I mean the lively, forward-looking programming by the Ballet (which includes most of dance's leading new choreographers). Whatever Ms. Kaufman may say, we would probably not be able to see William Forsythe (a personal favorite of hers) or anything cutting edge in Boston without the funding provided by The Nutcracker.

And as deals with the devil go, few are as sweet as this one. Perhaps I'm alone in not finding The Nutcracker cloying, but I really don't; I enjoy it at some level every year. And the Boston Ballet model, which has at last settled into its new home at the Opera House, is dazzlingly sleek and diverting. The Ballet fine-tunes some section or another every season, and this time around the entire first act really hummed, despite being almost over-stuffed with complicated set-pieces and special effects. And once again I heard the same sounds from the crowd: the gasps from the kids as the giant Christmas tree began to inch skyward, and the coos from the parents when the little sheep joined the "Pastorale," and the pin-drop-silent awe as the snowflakes began to flutter through the Enchanted Forest. It's true the whole show is basically variations on sweetness and adorability - but be honest: does anyone really want to watch William Forsythe at Christmas?

The cast I caught (at a Sunday evening show) was unfailingly energetic, but several performances were truly noteworthy. Boyko Dossev once again brought a brilliant panache to Drosselmeier, who was spooky, dashing, and protective in just the right proportions. Isabelle Hanson meanwhile made a charming Clara, and Tyler Austin a fire-cracker Fritz, but perhaps Whitney Jensen's precision as Columbine eclipsed Jeffrey Cirio's as Harlequin. The ensuing battle between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King seemed streamlined and more crisply performed than it has in past years, and once we were in the Enchanted Forest, Megan Gray impressed as a delightfully glamorous Snow Queen (and made a handsome, charismatic couple with new principal Pavel Gurevich). In the Kingdom of Sweets, Lorna Feijóo was, as usual, perfection as the Sugar Plum Fairy, and the second half's divertissements generally glowed with the energy of the Ballet's youthful new members. Only Luciana Voltolini and Isaac Akiba, however, really pulled away from the pack - Voltolini in the sinuous "Arabian" dance, and Akiba as the lead of the leaping "Russian" dance, a part he was frankly born to play.

And as the curtain fell again, as it does every Christmas, on the grand final tableau, I confess I thought to myself how wonderful it will be to see it all again next year. Not sure I want to go with Sarah Kaufman, though.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Messiah complex

Boston Baroque in action last weekend. Globe photo by Eric Antoniou.

Martin Pearlman is our local "man behind the Messiah," in that his innovative use of early-music tempi and phrasing at Boston Baroque has, over the past decade or so, transformed the tradition of this holiday staple. Where once Messiah lumbered with a grand Victorian bearing, today it capers nimbly in the hands of smaller ensembles playing period instruments.

But this very success has made it harder for Boston Baroque's version to cut its own profile, and as Pearlman has conducted the piece over and over again, its interpretation has clearly become a kind of personal journey for him. Its essence certainly remains the same - lightness, clarity and grace - but it has acquired certain eccentric flourishes, too, and this year somehow felt a bit less focused than it sometimes has. I should also mention that I heard Pearlman's version just after catching Handel and Haydn's, under the direction of the wizardly Harry Christophers, who can match Pearlman in the clarity and speed department. This time what Martin had that Harry didn't, however, was a strong set of soloists, with one sparkling star (soprano Amanda Forsythe). And this gave B&B a heavenly edge over H&H.

Not that this is a horse race; still, comparisons, though odorous, are nonetheless inevitable. What was surprisingly similar about these two versions, however, was that both lacked a real alto. Christophers opted for a countertenor, which I felt didn't really work out - Pearlman for his part went with a mezzo, the redoubtable Ann McMahon Quintero, who displayed a rich and redolent tone in her upper register (along with a great no-nonsense attitude) but spent most of her time in her softer lower range, as the music dictates. (I hope next year somebody will cast a bona fide alto in this piece!)

Forsythe, meanwhile, was as mesmerizing as ever; it's no wonder she's become a local star, whom everyone expects to any minute be snatched away from us by the international circuit. Word was out that she was battling a cold, and of course she's expecting, too, and is several months along. Her radiance and poise were therefore all the more remarkable - she looked divine, swathed in a royal-purple Empire gown that perfectly suited her condition, and decked with sparkling jewels. Her singing was just as ornamented, and glittered with her customary open emotion and intelligence.

There were also strong turns from the male soloists - although tenor Lawrence Wiliford sang with forceful passion that was always dramatic but sometimes edged toward stridency. Bass-baritone Timothy Jones, by way of contrast, had a golden tone up and down his range - and I mean all the way to the bottom, which is remarkable among bass-baritones. He seemed so technically focused, however, that he sometimes came off as a bit blank emotionally.

The chorus for its part generally sounded gorgeous - Pearlman (at left) mixes his singers together rather than organizing them in blocks, which delivers a lighter, more diffuse sound than the standard grouping. Still, their diction was exemplary, even though the conductor favors brisk tempi ("He should have gotten a speeding ticket for that one!" laughed my partner after "For unto us a child is born," even though its joyous energy was infectious). My favorite points in Pearlman's orchestral interpretation were all still there, at least in Part One (I particularly love the rushing drama of the arrival of the angels). Things seemed to drift a bit in Part Two, but all was forgiven again once Forsythe rose in Part Three to sing "I know that my Redeemer liveth," one of Handel's greatest and deepest melodies (not for nothing is the sculpture of the great composer on his tomb in Westminster, below, holding this famous score).

Pearlman has a few ideas about Messiah with which I amiably disagree, of course - he insists, for instance, that it's secular music, rather than sacred (as Handel never actually conducted it in a church), which I suppose is debatable, although who cares about debating it? (It seems rather obvious that even if it was secular music then, it's sacred music now.) There's one penchant of his, however, I really wish he could forgo - his predilection for conducting from the harpsichord. There are talented keyboardists all over Boston, and frankly, as soon as he sits down to play, the ensemble begins to fray a bit (surprise, surprise). Once Pearlman stands up, and his orchestra can see him, the playing miraculously re-coheres and sounds wonderful. If next year he remained on his feet throughout the performance, that would count as a lovely Christmas present.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Jews for Jesus (oh and queers too)

Oy! Here it is the middle of Hanukkah and I'm staggering from one Christmas pageant to the next. How come, with the Jews controlling show biz and all, there isn't a single Hannukah show in this town, I'd like to know? Or wait - maybe that's the plan! What better way to celebrate a holiday than with eight days of presents and no shows? Now it all makes sense!

But back to those Christmas pageants, because actually, there is something like a Jewish Christmas going on at the Central Square Theatre right now, where the double feature Tru Grace: Holiday Memoirs is running through Dec. 27. Half the program - the "Grace" half - is an adaptation (by director Wesley Savick) of Grace Paley's "The Loudest Voice," the famous short story about an immigrant Jewish family's quandary when their little girl is cast as the voice of Jesus in a Christmas pageant (because she has - yes - the loudest voice in her class). Paley (at left) was herself the daughter of Russian Jewish émigrés, and while the story is cast in a bemused, affectionate tone, there are deep ironies echoing through it.

To give you a taste of its mood, here is an excerpt from its climactic pageant:

Miss Glacé yanked the curtain open and there it was, the house -- an old hayloft, where Celia Kornbluh lay in the straw with Cindy Lou, her favorite doll. Ira, Lester, and Meyer moved slowly from the wings toward her, sometimes pointing to a moving star and sometimes ahead to Cindy Lou.

It was a long story and it was a sad story. I carefully pronounced all the words about my lonesome childhood, while little Eddie Braunstein wandered upstage and down with his shepherd's stick, looking for sheep. I brought up lonesomeness again, and not being understood at all except by some women everybody hated . . . I announced twelve friends, and half the boys in the fourth grade gathered around Marty, who stood on an orange crate while my voice harangued. Sorrowful and loud, I declaimed about love and God and Man, but because of the terrible deceit of Abie Stock we came suddenly to the famous moment. Marty, whose remembering tongue I was, waited at the foot of the cross. He stared desperately at the audience. I groaned, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" The soldiers . . . grabbed poor Marty . . . but he wrenched free, turned again to the audience, and spread his arms aloft to show despair and the end. I murmured at the top of my voice, "The rest is silence, but as everyone in this room, in this city -- in this world -- now knows, I shall have life eternal."

Obviously this is "assimilation" of a curiously subversive stripe - indeed, Paley turns so many subtle tricks in this passage, it's enough to make your head spin. The author slides imperceptibly from a burlesque of the cloying Nativity story into ironic historical statement and then on into a proclamation of triumph, as her cluelessly cooperative Jewish kids re-enact their people's persecution via the central myth of their persecutors - and then announce their survival and transcendence of same (somebody page Oberammergau!). "We shall have life eternal," Paley assures her Jewish audience from the loud Jewish mouth of Jesus Christ himself - in the thirties, no less, when European Jews were being rounded up into ghettoes and camps. And the contented American goyim have no idea of the true message of their Christmas pageant.

To be fair, the ironic, multivalent voice of this kind of fiction is a tough thing to transcribe onto the stage, but Wesley Savick's production feels more dumbed-down and deracinated than it had to be. And I confess it kind of pissed me off. True, Savick's script quotes most of Paley's own dialogue, but somehow he still manages to miss her voice entirely, and the loud-but-also-flat delivery of his child actors (the adults aren't all that much better) somehow lacks the vital charm of the declamations of Paley's kids, waving their fake shepherd's crooks at their tin foil stars. Indeed, I get the feeling Savick imagined he was contriving a kind of meta-burlesque here - just as Paley's Jewish kids aped and subverted the Nativity story, so his Cambridge kids would translate Paley's Jewish fable into some kind of awesome multi-cultural message. Sigh - if only. Alas, none of the short story's themes seems to have survived (much less been transformed by) the hearty violence of its translation into a kiddie show, in which the adults have been reduced to kvetching sitcom stereotypes - because, to put it bluntly, "The Loudest Voice" is for grown-ups, not children. And what's left after Savick and his cast have had their way with Paley is merely a broad piece of multi-cultural schmaltz. And I'm afraid I always prefer actual cultures to multi-cultures.

Things go better with the "Tru" half of Tru Grace, which is comprised of Savick's adaptation of Truman Capote's likewise-famous "A Christmas Memory" (the subject of a well-known television adaptation starring Geraldine Page). Even here, however, the trip from page to stage is a bit rocky, but as much of the poetry of Capote's piece can be found right on the surface of his evocative prose, Savick conjures some of the story's true atmosphere simply by quoting it. And he has solid, if not overly subtle, actors in Michael Forden Walker (as the six-year-old Capote) and Debra Wise, who essays his sixty-year-old cousin, Sook (both at left).

Fortunately, Savick refrains from embroidering Capote's slim story (of the slow, secret assembly of some thirty Christmas fruitcakes). But from the start, we sense once again the heavy hand of holiday sentiment pressing down hard on the delicacy that won the material fame in the first place. Walker drops his mimicry of Capote's effeminate vocal pattern early on, and slowly abandons any attempt at conjuring his gnomic aura as well (below, in a 1948 portrait by Irving Penn), settling for the more accessible profile of a David-Sedaris-style knowing Christmas elf. Wise, for her part, manages a slightly generic pathos (like Walker), but doesn't conjure much sense of Sook's lonely, damaged self, nor the faint, sweetly perverse sense of shared "outsider" freedom that suffuses the story.

But then again, this season's parade of holiday pageants seems to have highlighted the difficulty adaptors have in capturing the subtlety of Christmas literature on the stage. It's all to the good, I'd argue in the abstract, that we're seeing stage versions of complex readings of the season from the likes of Dylan Thomas, Grace Paley, and Truman Capote. That's how a diverse theatrical season should operate. Yet I confess I'm getting a case of the holiday blues from many of these shows. A Child's Christmas in Wales put over something of the feeling of Dylan Thomas, but it was troubling to think that its "story arc," should the show become a tradition, might replace the original's lack of one in the public mind. Meanwhile "A Civil War Christmas" was just too weird for words, "A Christmas Memory" proved a mixed bag, and "The Loudest Voice" was a loud misfire. It occurs to me that the "diversity audience" may be unable or unwilling to appreciate the subtlety of its own favored texts. Or perhaps Christmas is a kind of dramatic steamroller that simply flattens anything other than the broadest critique (next up for me is "The Slutcracker"). Suddenly the relative delicacy of TV classics like "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "A Charlie Brown Christmas" is beginning to look awfully good.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Dylan's Christmas album

The poet in repose.

Ha! Gotcha. We're talking Dylan Thomas here, not that other Dylan. And the "album" in question is, well, more like a poem (even if it does, actually, play like a collection of songs) - A Child's Christmas in Wales, the Welsh bard's tribute to the sights and sounds of the holidays "years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales . . . " The piece is a vividly mischievous memory piece (you can read it here), and so has oft been dramatized - not always successfully, however, as it's intentionally shapeless, impressionistic, and off-hand.

But Burgess Clark, new artistic director of Boston Children's Theatre (and adaptor/director of BCT's new A Child's Christmas, etc.) has solved that problem by - well, making up a story that the poem itself doesn't tell. Sorry to put it so bluntly, but that's how it is. Several critics, including the Globe's Sandy MacDonald, would have you believe that Clark managed to "tease out a fully realized, well-shaped narrative from this discursive sliver of text." But really none of this version's "story arc" can be found in the poem. Basically, Clark has stitched together the premise of that Waltons Christmas special where John-Boy gets his Big Chief tablets with wistful scraps from Capote's A Christmas Memory - and then studded the new structure with tasty bits of description from A Child's Christmas in Wales. To be fair, this pastiche works well enough as a framework for set-pieces from the poem; but it does misrepresent its essence, and I think Thomas's life, too. I'm not a scholar of this poet, but I don't think his boyhood included a live-in maiden aunt (at least there's no such person in the poem), much less one who inspired him to be a writer by giving him a journal for Christmas. Indeed, with this whole fabulation adaptor Clark does something of a disservice to Thomas's parents (who were his true champions as a writer) - in his first act he even paints them as sweet yahoos who can't recognize a blank journal when they see one.

But then almost nothing in Clark's first act rings true, because there's not all that much Dylan Thomas in it - almost every incident in this preamble on Christmas Eve (which never figures in the poem) is synthetic, and while Clark's conceits are plausible enough (a blizzard strands the quirky, adorable relatives, etc.), somehow they lack that spark of authenticity that was Thomas's signature. Indeed, by the time intermission rolled around, I was wondering to myself, "What Child is this???"

Things look up in the second half, however, because Clark can rely more on actual incidents and sketches from the poem, and Thomas's parents morph into something closer to their actual selves (and the big invented set-piece of the reading of a Shakespeare sonnet charms, as it fits the characters so much more specifically than what has come before). And while the director sometimes allows the comic action to drift toward Home Alone territory, he laudably underplays the affectionate nostalgia of the piece, so it steals up on us unawares. Plus he has a sentimental secret weapon in young Adam Freeman, who plays the nine-year-old Dylan with wide-eyed alertness and a sweet emotional honesty that's surprising in so young an actor, and makes his scenes truly touching in a way few Christmas shows are; when Freeman simply (and wordlessly) hugs his Ma or his Da, I defy your heart not to melt.

There's also fine work from the "elder" Dylan, Stephen Libby (at left, with Freeman), who has a passing resemblance to the poet and captures something of his famously musical speaking voice (you can listen to Thomas reading "Do not go gentle into that good night" here). What's more, Libby has a relaxed, confident way of stepping back and forth across the "fourth wall" (he chats with the cast as well as the audience), and hits just the right notes of adult awareness and loss. Melancholy is not a quality one associates with Christmas pageants - but don't we all share on these occasions, as Joyce's Gabriel Conroy did on another Christmas, "thoughts of the past, of youth, of changes, of absent faces that we miss here tonight"? Thomas is very much a nostalgic poet in the mode that Joyce both celebrated and ironically tweaked, and Libby captures that instinctive feeling perfectly.

There's also solid work from the rest of the cast, and gently apt characterizations from Margaret Ann Brady and Steven Gagliastro. The other young actors, Linnea Schulz and Coleman Hirschberg, are poised and natural onstage. And the set is heart-warming, though somewhat generic in its detail (and seems to lack a key flat in one spot!).

One thing I must mention, however. I noticed in my program - despite the fact that I haven't ordered those bifocals yet - that a certain "Terry Byrne" was listed as the assistant director of the production. Goodness me, I thought to myself, could that be THE Terry Byrne, former Herald critic and current correspondent for the Globe, as well as frequent guest of Greater Boston? A little research revealed that, yes, this was that Terry Byrne, even though she only admits in her program bio to being a humble graduate student of playwriting at BU. And it's funny how well this disguise has worked - nobody in town seems to know she worked on the show! The Globe, where I think she still reviews on occasion, gave the piece a rave, without apparently ever guessing that one of its own writers was behind it! (Fancy that.) And I'm wondering whether there will be an episode of Greater Boston devoted to it - will Terry offer up any opinions on her own work, one wonders? (Let's hope so!)

But then again, I thought to myself - perhaps this is just a test of your Christmas spirit, Thomas Garvey! After all, Terry may be your ethically-challenged critical nemesis, but admit it - surely she's going to be better at playwriting than she is at reviewing! I mean she has to be. And how much of an effect has she had on A Child's Christmas in Wales, anyhow? (Hard to tell, but I'm guessing not much.) So, in the spirit of the season, I forgive you, Terry. Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Things I disagree with

Scott Walters, who's all about class and politics rather than theatre, recently wrote on his blog:

Democracy is built on a multiplicity of voices -- E Pluribus Unum, right? From the many, one. That motto is the description of a process: unification that develops through the consideration and integration of many viewpoints. And it never ends -- there are always new voices to consider, because times change and new people are either born, arrive from elsewhere, or begin to speak -- so the unum is always temporary, contingent, a circle . . .

. . . Unum results from the sharing of diverse viewpoints, so that each individual experience of the production is informed by the aggregated viewpoints of the group. Anyone who has ever posted a controversial idea on a blog ought to recognize the truth of this instinctively. Our ideas acquire complexity and depth to the extent that they are informed by the comments of those who read them and either disagree or agree while adding on.

There's so much I disagree with here, I hardly know where to begin. The odd assumption that art is a democratic form, and should be made in the same manner as democratic laws? The alarming, and horrifyingly popular, worship of process for its own sake? The weird, and demonstrably false, idea that depth is achieved through consensus (when pretty obviously the opposite is true)? The mind boggles.

But what's most disturbing is that all this human-resources-style gobbledygook is being spouted as some sort of prescription for theatre. Theatre - one of the last refuges of the un-assimilated human voice left on the planet. My gut tells me that Walters and his ilk are the enemies of theatre rather than its friends - and "friends" like these are popping up more and more in the blogosphere. "Of many, one" is their motto, but their real goal is something like "Of many, more of us."

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Wilde thing

The new production of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband playing at the YMCA Central Square (it closes this weekend) is, I suppose, far from ideal - but you'll still be tickled pink by it. Only four actors (at left) perform all the parts in this sparkling comic melodrama, which leads to much crossing of dress and gender, and predictably broad, Hasty-Pudding-level gags. Which, I have to admit, hardly serves half the script, in which Wilde cross-pollinated his usual glittering wit with a surprisingly sophisticated and touching moral POV. In this production, however, you can forget all about subtext and subtlety, which is too bad - and causes the final sequences in the play to drag in the wrong way. But what you get is the wit - broadly played, it's true, but still a hoot; the show reminds you of those funny college shows in which all the class cut-ups would chew the scenery with self-confident charm.

Of course half the time, the kids are not alright, because they're throwing on gray wigs and pretending to be fifty (and you don't believe them for a minute). What's worse, whenever Wilde turns world-weary, somebody inevitably tromps on in drag to shred the gossamer atmosphere that makes this play so haunting and unique. You just have to wait through these parts. Don't worry, the script will soon re-focus on Wilde's dazzling powers of paradoxical conversation, and the show will soon get funny again - quite funny. And to be honest, even half a great production of An Ideal Husband is better than most theatre companies could manage.

The cast is uniformly clever and energetic, but Sasha Castroverde probably takes top honors for a combination of hilariously broad drag roles as well as the one "serious" performance (as the rigidly moral Lady Chiltern) that manages to touch us. Adam Kassim, as Wilde's putatively hetero factotum Lord Goring, is perhaps even wittier than Castroverde - and the priceless way he kills time during somebody's costume change with a chess match against himself has to be seen to be believed; but his sparkling, blithely self-aware youth isn't quite right for his sadder, more-experienced character. Likewise Anna Waldron carries off her ingénue role with surprising charm - and even convinces you that she and Goring could make a go of it - but is simply too young and transparent to convince as the scheming Mrs. Cheveley (perhaps Wilde's most intriguing villain). As her flawed, but basically decent victim, Tom Giordano is sympathetic, but again lacks the gravitas the part requires - and alas, he doesn't get enough stage time in a frock to impress us with his skills at farce (although what he does do is certainly worth a giggle). Costume designer Wendy Misuinas deserves praise for devising some pretty-convincing Victoriana that can be thrown on and off at will, and director Daniel Morris demonstrates he knows his way around an epigram. And sometimes with Wilde, that's enough.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Last weekend's performances of Messiah marked the advent of Harry Christophers (above), the new Artistic Director of the Handel and Haydn Society, who's been waiting in the wings for the past few months as other conductors took the podium. For me, however, this Messiah was also something like Christophers's second coming - the first time I heard his work was in the same oratorio two years ago, which I knew immediately was among the best versions I'd ever heard, or would ever hear. I was naturally wondering whether now, ensconced at H&H, he would be able to conjure something like the same miracle, and I'm happy to report he very nearly did, at least insofar as the chorus and period orchestra were concerned.

Alas, the soloists in this year's model, though often wonderful, weren't quite in the same class as the H&H core, so the whole package wasn't tied up with a bow as one might like. But it was still thrilling, and, as the cliché goes, deeply moving (as Messiah should be). And I wasn't the only one who thought so; the few seconds just before the "Hallelujah" chorus is always a clinch moment in Messiah performances - will the audience stand, as tradition dictates (because George II once did), or will it hang back, refuse to participate, and remain cocooned in postmodern distance? You can say it's not a judgment on the performance to remain seated, but it sure feels like one, and there's nothing more awkward than having a few people stand and then think better of it when the rest of the house refuses to rise.

In the Christophers version, however, it was all but impossible to remain seated, at least for those who knew the tradition (and the musical virgins who didn't soon got the idea). But what impelled the two thousand or so in Symphony Hall to rise to their feet? It didn't feel like some hidebound ritual - nor did it feel like the usual 'standing O," which often reflects the audience's feelings about itself rather than the performers (and we weren't clapping, anyhow). To me it seemed like a moment of genuine tribute - to Handel, of course, whose genius brought to such deep and luminous musical fruition the joyous mystery of redemption, but also to Christophers and the assembled forces of H&H, who brought that vision to life with such vibrant clarity. It felt, to be honest, something like an act of solidarity; we understood, and so stood not only in praise but in thanks.

But back to what I didn't like. Mr. Christophers had chosen a countertenor, Daniel Taylor, for the alto parts in the oratorio - a decision much in keeping with current early music practice, and which added a certain spiritual and political dimension to the work itself. One of the things I like about the early music movement is in that in its ranks (unlike the ranks of our local major symphony), being gay is no big deal - and since the sacred music tradition is largely being kept alive by gay people (in sad counterpoint to the bigotry of the institution said music was written for), and since Handel was probably gay, too (and maybe even Jesus was), it's entirely appropriate for issues of gender and identity to echo through a secular rendition of Messiah. Now I've no knowledge of Mr. Taylor's sexual preference, but he had an air of diffident tragedy about him, and I think the gay men and women in the audience (like me) heard a layered sense of poignance in his haunting version of "He was despised and rejected of men."

Still, sometimes Mama just wants a big fat alto, and I have to admit the closeness of Mr. Taylor's tone (lovely as it was) to that of soprano Suzie LeBlanc meant the full breadth of timbre we expect of Messiah was missing from the ensemble singing. Ms. LeBlanc had a transparently pure top, but not quite enough power further down (Mr. Daniels had the same problem, and even fell into his chest voice on his bottom note). And though her diction was excellent, Ms. LeBlanc didn't seem to believe in what she was singing, which is crucial to Messiah - you can't fudge it with the usual operatic emoting. Tenor Tom Randle and especially bass-baritone Matthew Brook were more genuine, and thus more moving; they were here to witness, not emote. True, Randle can be a bit self-dramatizing, and Brook's lower end turned a bit muddy, but I won't soon forget Randle's "Thy rebuke hath broken his heart," or Brook's "We shall all be chang'd."

As for the chorus - it's never sounded better, and that's saying something. Christophers seems to have a special magic with chorales - diction, musicality, variety, he gets it all, and this time the singing was beautifully integrated with the dynamics of the orchestral playing (rather than just "sitting on top of it," as sometimes happens). Some might argue a few of Christophers's decisions were eccentric, and he makes no bones about the fact that he works up his own "edition" of Messiah every year (just as Handel did, btw). But in my book, Christophers gets so much right that's it silly to quibble over details, and at any rate, many of his unusual tweaks proved fascinating in their own right (and he certainly fielded nothing as bizarre as last year's whispered "Hallelujah" chorus). I couldn't help but join in the roars of approval that met the chorus and orchestra on the finale, which also read as a general affirmation of how lucky we are to have Mr. Christophers leading Handel and Haydn.

The shocking statistic that surprises no one

The theatrical blogosphere is currently abuzz about a supposedly shocking statistic coming out of a new study from the Theatre Development Fund by Todd London and Ben Pesner (with research by London and Victoria Bailey, and statistical analysis by Zannie Giraud Voss).

Of course the statistic is disturbing - it's just not surprising.

In the study, titled outrageous fortune: the life and times of the new american play, London and Pesner have apparently surveyed some 250 American playwrights, and discovered that 42% of them have received advanced training at various MFA programs (or the equivalent), and that of these, 9 out of 10 came from only seven programs.

To quote the study (in a leak from David Dower):

"The picture that appears is not merely of a track for training, but a system, with a handful of prestigious graduate programs feeding the field, offering entree to their students where access might otherwise be more difficult."

Many bloggers seem stunned by this - although it's been obvious to me for some time, as I've often noted, that universities have been encroaching on theatrical practice in a disturbing way. Would we be suffering Sarah Ruhl's career, or Jordan Harrison's, for instance, without the influence of Paula Vogel, late of Brown and now of Yale? Probably not. And would we be getting more productions of our best playwrights (few of whom have MFAs) without this farm system, and the production slots it claims? Probably yes.

Another troubling aspect of the "universification" of the theatre is, of course, the homogenized sense of "diversity" that suffuses so many of our stages, along with a growing sense of empowered political correctness; the blogosphere's own "diversinazis" (Isaac Butler, Adam Thurman, and Scott Walters) have recently been musing about actually suing theatres over staff quotas, for instance. Meanwhile it becomes harder and harder for individual voices without academic advocates to be heard - nobody, it seems, cares about that kind of diversity. So are the universities the enemy? Or is the new mode of "diversity as career ladder" the problem? More to come, after I've read and absorbed that new study!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Emerson String Quartet (above) has been playing together for - well, actually for only thirty-three years, but considering the group has never suffered a single change in personnel*, it probably counts as the Methuselah of string quartets (particularly when other venerable musical partnerships, like the Beaux Arts Trio, have been taking their final bows). Its violinists, Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, both studied under the same teacher (violinist Oscar Shumsky), so their connection goes back even further. When the Emersons (who named themselves after the great Ralph Waldo) begin to play, you sense immediately that everything that needed to be worked out between them was settled long ago. Long ago. As in eight Grammys ago (the number the quartet has been awarded - soon, perhaps, to be nine, as their current album, Intimate Letters, has been nominated).

And for their Celebrity Series concert last weekend at Jordan Hall, the Quartet dipped into the well of music they know extraordinarily well - the Ives Quartet No. 1, "From the Salvation Army," (for which they won a Grammy in 1993), the Shostakovich Quartet No. 9 (another Grammy win in 2000), and Janáček's Quartet No. 1, "The Kreutzer Sonata" (currently nominated). They also threw in the original quartet setting of Barber's Adagio for Strings as a crowd pleaser, I suppose.

These were clearly performances - and interpretations - long set in stone, but none sounded rigid, or in any way dusty. After better than three decades, the Emersons are still engaged, with both the music and each other - still, they don't exactly do passionate battle onstage (even though only cellist David Finckel remains seated; the rest stand). And frankly, they don't do irony, either: the opening Ives quartet, "From the Salvation Army," sounded almost as earnest as Copland, even though it takes its source material (several popular hymns - the piece is subtitled "A Revival Service") and deconstructs them with blithely cool arrogance. The quartet played the piece flawlessly, but frankly there's a sense of journey here - a voyage from familiar harmonic uplift into some larger, colder musical space - that the Emersons simply didn't seem inclined to take.

They were far more convincing in the Janáček, which is structured like a kind of opera, with leitmotifs that criss and cross each other in a steady build into tragedy (it's modeled on Tolstoy's classic account of jealousy, "The Kreutzer Sonata," itself inspired by the Beethoven piece). This was great music-making, and great drama - although Janáček hardly matches the moral complexity of the original novella. Tolstoy's POV is the jealous husband's, who is eventually acquitted of the murder he commits (but is nevertheless obsessed with forgiveness); Janáček's is the brutalized victim's, led astray by the sinuous themes of her seducer - a violinist, appropriately enough for a string quartet - and pursued relentlessly by a clutching, scratching, nearly demonic voice. The Emersons kept the intensity of the later movements rising, inexorably, even in the andante sections, so that the final blows, and eventual regret of the murderer, were devastating.

What followed - after lead violinist Drucker traded places with Setzer (another Emerson tradition) was a lovely, but inherently anticlimactic, rendering of the Barber Adagio. It seemed an odd choice at this juncture in the program, but as it's one of the most luminous stretches of melody ever composed, I confess I'm always happy to hear it.

The quartet's intensity returned (and then some) with their final offering, Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 9. Here everything seemed to fall into place, from the mournful phrases of the opening Adagio to the menacing cackles and dancing chases, flecked with both the comic and macabre, of the later movements. Indeed, the Emersons threw themselves into the work's nearly-infernal frenzy with such force that violist Lawrence Dutton broke a string with one violent pizzicato (the frenzy resumed after a moment's pause for repairs). This was merely the outer sign of a thrillingly fierce performance that brought the audience to its feet. The group returned for a single encore, a lovely setting of a Dvořák song. After the fury of the Shostakovich, its gentle lyricism was most welcome.

[*Note: I've been informed that the Emerson at its inception briefly played with a different cellist and violist, so the current line-up is only thirty, not thirty-three, years old. Point taken!]