Sunday, January 31, 2010

Mark, Mozart, and mystery

The opening tableau, before a striking design by Howard Hodgkin.

Mozart Dances, the Mark Morris epic abstraction which finally got its Boston premiere last weekend at Celebrity Series, starts slow. Indeed, its entire opening "act," titled "Eleven," (after Piano Concerto 11 by you-know-who) opens with an intro from the men of the company, then settles into an intriguingly pensive set of variations for its women (with the commanding Lauren Grant serving as our guide, I think, to a series of anxious moods) - but never quite reaches the level of depth and complexity you expect of Morris at his best.

But it turns out he's just warming up. Mozart Dances blooms in "Double," its second act (set to the beloved double piano sonata, K. 448) which rivals Dido and Aeneas, L'Allegro, V, and the other best things Morris has ever done. There's been a sense for the last few years that Morris was past his great works, but how anyone could watch "Double" and still believe that is beyond me.

As is often the case with a Morris masterpiece, "Double" meditates on the psyche of both the individual and the group. It's (mostly) set on the company men, with Joe Bowie in a dark morning coat serving as a kind of host (or perhaps harbinger of doom). But its central "character" (and, we guess, an extension of Lauren Grant's persona from "Eleven") is Noah Vinson, who enters springing like a gazelle but soon crumples into a swoon in the mournful Andante. This sequence - which features a rippling, mutating ring of dancing men, one of Morris's most haunting conceits - is the core of Mozart Dances, and strikes an unusual note in the choreographer's oeuvre, in which "the group" is usually the happy salvation of the individual.

Here things are more complicated. Vinson seems to "die" not once, but twice (appropriately enough for a dance called "Double"), and when the women of the company return (to book-end the men's introduction), they seem to have wandered in from Balanchine (they're the girls from Serenade, or maybe La Valse), in ghostly gowns of tulle. I've never seen Morris so explicitly reference another choreographer before, and I felt that for once he'd gone meta (Balanchine was often quoted on the impossibility of choreographing to Mozart); still, this strange interpolation - somehow both light and sad - seemed to only enhance the mystery of the work.

The finale, "Twenty-seven," (after Piano Concerto No. . . well, you get the idea) is nearly as strong as "Double," and, in classic Morris fashion, pulls together patterns and motifs from the work's earlier sections into an elegant, if again somewhat enigmatic, synthesis (above). The emphasis here is generally on the couple, rather than the group, and the many symbolic gestures - generally expressions of frightened defiance or appeals to heaven - that dot "Eleven" and "Double" are this time interwoven with new motifs of acceptance (my favorite was a lovely little descending curlicue for one hand that read as a leaf slipping from a tree - like so much of Morris, it served as both musical and emotional expression).

But Mozart Dances doesn't end with either the triumph of L'Allegro and V, or the resigned transformation of Dido; it suggests some new emotional alignment for the sensibility (his own) that is always Mark's central theme, but it's so cross-cut with hope and melancholy that it's hard to perceive at first precisely where the choreographer has landed in terms of tone. Of course, perhaps that's the whole idea. Mozart famously has an aura of mystery, and this time, so does Mark. Then again, it always takes time, and several viewings, to fully appreciate a great Morris dance; something tells me this one may require more than the usual amount of attention.

And as a final note I must also add that, even given the high level of musical quality one expects from any Mark Morris Dance Company performance, Mozart Dances set a new standard. The wonderful Jane Glover - whom we last caught at Handel and Haydn last fall - conducted with ravishing delicacy in the pit, and even though I know it's stupid to pretend that any pianist can render a "definitive" account of Mozart, I'm nevertheless sorely tempted to claim that the great Russell Sherman and Minsoo Sohn did just that in their marvelous reading of the double piano concerto. This was an extraordinary evening of dance and music, and an extraordinary moment in the city's cultural life.

A postscript on "post-racial" Boston theatre

This is a brief postscript about Harriet Jacobs, which closed this weekend at the Central Square Theater, and which I'm only writing about because the cast of the production was so strong I felt I had to applaud them in print. Alas, the play, by Lydia R. Diamond, struck me as even weaker than the same author's wacky Voyeurs de Venus, which I suffered through last year. Diamond trafficks in sanctimonious psycho-biography disguised as pedagogy, and certainly the complicated life of the heroic Harriet Jacobs deserves better than the flat proclamations she has provided here. But as the playwright is sexy and connected (friends with Peter DuBois of BU, where she teaches, and actually married to a Harvard prof), I guess we're stuck with her for the time being.

And so are these actors, it seems. I don't think I've seen the sparkling Kortney Adams since she had to scream at the bare boobies in Voyeurs; and why the hell is that? She's got Shakespeare's Rosalind, or maybe Shaw's Candida, written all over her. Why is she doomed to declaim the likes of Lydia R. Diamond? Likewise when did I last see the wonderful Ramona Lisa Alexander? I guess it was in the riveting In the Continuum over a year ago - another "black play." To be fair, I recall the Actors' Shakespeare Project cast both the sweet Sheldon Best and the luminous Kami Rushell Smith (above left, as Harriet) in their recent Much Ado, so here's to them for freeing a few of these actors from the ghetto of political correctness. And the Wheelock Family Theatre, bless 'em, cast the hunky De'Lon Grant in both Saint Joan and A Tale of Two Cities. The soulful Obehi Janice, meanwhile, has only just begun to be seen locally at all.

This isn't really meant as a jab at the show's producer, Underground Railway Theater - I'm glad somebody is hiring these folks - except insofar as the choice of play is concerned. Even within the political parameters of "young, female and black" I just have to believe there are better playwrights out there than Lydia R. Diamond. Of course to be fair, American slavery was so horrific that it would take a truly great dramatist to create art from it rather than agitprop - still, 150 years on, isn't it time we began demanding that? On the plus side, designer Susan Zeeman Rogers's channeling of Kara Walker was mildly interesting, and director Megan Sandberg-Zakian at least kept things moving, although she seemed satisfied to also keep them somewhat superficial. Then again, what other choice did she have? Oh, well. Here's hoping that Diamond's Stick Fly, which opens soon at the Huntington, marks a step up from, and out of, this writer's ongoing post-graduate seminar.

Friday, January 29, 2010

According to Harry

I suppose that Handel and Haydn's new Artistic Director, Harry Christophers (above), had a right to look a bit - well, harried when I spoke to him recently (prior to their "Passion in Vienna" program, which opens tonight). I could sense that his honeymoon as incoming A.D. was over, and that the tough, hands-on work of bringing a new vision to what is literally the oldest continually-performing musical organization in America had already begun.

Still, Christophers was just as optimistic, eloquent and casually forceful as ever. He's a fighter, that's clear, in that quintessential British mode of light-touch-masking-steely-resolve. And he has a good idea of where he wants to take H&H - a big idea, actually. Christophers speaks matter-of-factly about a "world-wide impact," about future world premieres, about upcoming tours and CDs. The bicentennial of the organization (in 2015) looms, and by then he clearly hopes to have molded Handel and Haydn into a period orchestra and chorus to rival William Christie's little outfit in France, or Nicholas McGegan's in San Francisco.

This has meant, of course, re-affirming the early-music vision first instilled in the Society by Christopher Hogwood, who left the organization in 2001. Since then, Christophers notes, the Society has wandered as far into the nineteenth century as Brahms, and he worries that as a result its style has become a bit "diffuse." His goal is to back off from the Romantics, and concentrate instead on "a lovely balance between the classical and the baroque;" but one senses that balance may often tilt toward the baroque. Christophers is already insisting on a return to baroque bows for the Society's strings, and even means to abandon the modern standard of equal temperament for what he calls "a baroque approach to temperament" (by which I assumed - I didn't want to get into it! - some form of well temperament). And Christophers isn't just unafraid to embrace the softness of period music, he all but champions it, waving away concerns about the volume of period ensembles in spaces as large as Symphony Hall. "Modern orchestras basically play mezzoforte and louder," he laughs. "We've lost half the dynamic range!"

It's evident that Christophers sees his mission as one of restoration - not just of that lost world of pianissimo, but of a whole range of humanity that classical music abandoned over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. "When you're playing that loudly, it's hard to attend to different degrees of color," he notes. "And things get slightly metronomic, too - you lose the wonderful freedom, the ebb and flow of light and shade, the flexibility that the baroque had." And something else really gets under his skin. "Why is everyone sitting so still??" he sputters. "This is music based on song and dance! So why don't the players move?"

Not that we should expect the members of H&H to cut a rug at their next concert, he laughs; but Christophers has been coaxing them out of their chairs in recent rehearsals, and encouraging them to physically follow the beat, even if that just means leaning into it. "I had a lady once tell me after a concert," he smiles, "that she had come to hear the music, not see it." Christophers shrugged. "So I told her to close her eyes."

But it's Harry's "song" rather than his "dance" that has been rumored to give some H&H musicians pause. Christophers's claim to fame, of course, is "The Sixteen," the period-music chorus which he founded some thirty years ago and which has since risen to world-wide prominence. Today "The Sixteen" boasts its own period orchestra, too - yet it's not hard to see it as a kind of mirror image of the H&H model, in which it's no secret the chorus has long played second fiddle to the orchestra.

The moment I bring this up is the moment Christophers truly looks a bit exasperated. "You know, I don't think of myself as some traveling choral conductor," he says. "I'd get no pleasure out of that. Nor am I interested in simply transporting the sound of the Sixteen to America." He draws a breath. "You know, I was lucky enough in my life to have the opportunity to create an individual sound with a committed musical ensemble over a period of years. The orchestra was central to that. After all, I've been a clarinetist as well as a vocalist. Now I've been lucky enough to once again have the opportunity to create an individual sound. Only it's going to be a new sound."

Still, Christophers is planning to shine a brighter light on the H&H chorus, which vocal fans might see as merely setting a balance right that long ago tilted toward the instrumentalists. He's even thinking about a "project" for just the chorus next season, perhaps at a local church venue. And you can feel his usual intense attention to detail in his discussion of the chorale. "You emphasize your consonants too much in America," he mutters. I had to smile at this, as Christophers has brought to the H&H chorus a superb sense of diction. "Well, yes, of course you have to say them, you have to make the sounds!" he laughs. "But not at the expense of the phrase, of the arc of its meaning." And just as he's been coaxing the musicians out the chairs, he's been teasing the singers into a franker sense of emotion. "I tell them, 'Don't sing as if there were some sort of curtain between you and the audience!' Be present, be alive - use your eyes - connect!"

Of course even if Harry gets his way, will the Boston public follow? He's clearly been immersed in the vibrant European early music scene for so long that he takes it for normal. But in America, while the period music movement has more than made its case among the cognoscenti, the public doesn't seem to have come along for the ride. Most Bostonians, for example, seem unaware that the BSO, like most nineteenth-century orchestras (and yes, that's what it is), rarely programs anything earlier than Mozart, and that skirmishes in our concert halls regularly break out over the proper playing of composers even as late as Beethoven. In fact in Boston, oddly enough, the big classical news over the past twenty years has been our elevation as a hotbed of period music research and performance - but the old money in town (and the press) have pretty much ignored or downplayed the whole story. There's no regular period performance on the radio, for instance, and while the Boston Early Music Festival regularly draws scholars from all over the world, the city itself seems barely aware of its own prominence in this burgeoning field. It's as if we'd been winning the pennant for years, but the press hadn't deigned to notice.

What could change all that? For once Christophers seems to have a little trouble with his answer. "Well, it's going to be gradual," he finally offers. "And I think it's going to be hard," he allows. "I'll have to be here more, we'll have to do more. But somehow we're going to get there. Yes, somehow we'll get there."

And as I look into his eyes I see it again: Light touch. But steely resolve.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

You gotta love art!

Especially when it's the latest from the brilliant Banksy (above), discovered - wait for it - outside Salt Lake City.

You know theatre has become marginal . .

. . . when nobody on Jeopardy! can answer the following questions in the category "Family Drama."

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Children's Crusade

Our gang: the kiddie cabal of The White Ribbon.

I first encountered Michael Haneke in 1999, over a decade ago, when I rented (on a dare) his 1997 provocation, Funny Games. I'd been told it was the most horrifying movie ever made; and at the time, it sure felt like it - I was spooked for days. But I was mostly freaked because I'd realized as I was watching it - in a classic iteration of the myth of genius working its way up through schlock - that Haneke was the most interesting director on the planet. I quickly tried to track down his earlier films - but literally none were available on video, and he'd rarely been shown in Boston; someone at the Harvard Film Archive told me that they had screened Benny's Video once, a year or two earlier, but that "People hated it - it's sick."

And that was the rap on Haneke for years - particularly from American critics. To me, he was Kubrick's heir, but to most film writers - who perhaps subconsciously understood that Haneke (a former critic himself) represented the antithesis of the Pauline-Kael "school" of reviewing - the director was a sadist, a cold fish, and a creep. When I was writing for the Globe, I begged them to allow me to do a phone interview with the director regarding Time of the Wolf, but they weren't really interested - and when I bumped into a Phoenix critic at a screening of the movie, he snorted at my enthusiasm. "Haneke's not going anywhere," he laughed.

But the director has, actually, gone somewhere: his latest, The White Ribbon, just won a Golden Globe, and will probably win an Oscar. Caché, from four years ago, counts as an art house "hit," and he has worked with many of Europe's greatest actors and actresses. His own shot-by-shot remake of Funny Games - though perhaps an artistic misstep - at least helped expand his profile in America. And that new stature shows in The White Ribbon, which boasts a large cast, a superb production design, perhaps the most striking photography of the year, and even the occasional digital effect. Indeed, the film's lustrous look (by Christian Berger), which recalls the miracles Sven Nykvist used to wreak for Ingmar Bergman, is no doubt partly responsible for its success, and Haneke's continued ascent: The White Ribbon looks just like an "art film" is supposed to look.

Of course even with these expanded means, a Haneke film remains small potatoes commercially (Caché had a $4 million U.S. gross). But let's be honest: the days when an art house director could reach the same audience as Frederico Fellini once did have long since passed. Many of my educated, professional friends still haven't even heard of Haneke. And that's the way it's going to remain. "Indie" cinema has replaced art cinema, and the people who used to see Bergman and Kurosawa are now satisfied with the thin, whimsical, quirky-but-derivative milk of Wes Anderson and Spike Jonze.

Not that Haneke has quite the same mojo as Bergman or Kurosawa. Along with directors like Sokurov and Kiarostami (and maybe Fatih Akin), Haneke is keeping film alive as an art form, but it's nevertheless in a weakened state. Or perhaps it's just that in White Ribbon, Haneke's usual power seems slightly diffuse. The film is in many ways a kind of summation, as it draws together themes from his entire oeuvre, and places them in one of the exploratory, open-ended settings he favored in Time of the Wolf and Code Unknown - films which are partially concerned with questioning even their own premises. But this time around Haneke has been so restrained in what he's willing to definitively show us that his film, while mostly absorbing, is never quite gripping.

His premise feels a bit like it could have formed the basis of a good science fiction yarn - except that it has been projected backward into history. In a bucolic German village, just prior to the opening shots of World War I, a mysterious set of vengeful events takes place. The town doctor is thrown from his horse by a tripwire; the son of the local baron is abducted and beaten; a barn is burned; a handicapped child is nearly blinded. Haneke threads the tale of these seemingly random crimes through an ongoing exploration of the power dynamics of the town, and especially the punitive aspects of the local patriarchy. In The White Ribbon, women are silenced, and the normal acting-out of the young - the occasional skuffle, the angry snit, the furtive attempt at masturbation - are severely punished by the town fathers. "Purity" is extolled, and punishment administered - and met with silent, resentful acquiescence. And, of course, that ongoing series of "motiveless" crimes.

There are secrets in the village, too. The doctor, we realize, is sexually abusing his daughter, and the baron's negligence may have led to the death of an elderly worker. There's more than enough injustice brewing in this hamlet to foment an outbreak of vigilantism. And indeed, we are shown some violent acts in The White Ribbon - such as the destruction of the baron's crops (below) - that have known perpetrators who have suffered real grievances.

One kind of harvest in The White Ribbon.

But "vigilantism" isn't quite what Haneke has in mind; instead, his film operates as one long, protracted hint that the town's children may actually be responsible for the horrors being visited on it. Haneke, thank God, has never been one for the sentimental worship of childhood "innocence"; in Benny's Video, a bored young boy literally slaughters a classmate, and in Funny Games, two vapid teens (named "Peter" and "Paul" - they're apostles of violence) spend the weekend murdering nice people in their summer homes for no reason whatsoever. In retrospect, the director can be seen as a kind of prophet of the child-violence we've all become inured to.

But next to these monsters, the possible villains of The White Ribbon seem almost cuddly, and at any rate we never see them at work - indeed, Haneke spends much of the film (this is clearer on a second viewing) undercutting his own supposed thesis, and demonstrating that most, if not all, of the village children could not have participated in all of the attacks. It's tempting to imagine, for instance, that the self-possessed daughter of the local pastor is some pint-sized evil mastermind, with her brother serving as guilt-ridden accomplice; these two (and their silent posse) have a creepy way of showing up unannounced to offer condolences at the scenes of various crimes. But then Haneke reveals that they've slept through the barn-burning, and other likely suspects are supplied with their own exonerating vignettes. Even when the director seems about to reveal a horrid, but petty infraction - the impalement (actually, the crucifixion) of the pastor's pet bird - he cuts away from the deed itself, so we're not absolutely sure who committed it.

Slowly it dawns on us that Haneke is hinting at some form of the collective unconscious as his true culprit. One little girl says she has dreamt in advance of two separate attacks, and the director gives us no reason to doubt her. And the crimes have a strange resonance about them; they're classic forms of scape-goating, in which the innocent, the weak and the beautiful are sacrificed by the mob. Even the pastor's crucified parakeet operates as a parody of the Christian ethic he thinks his kids are imbibing - indeed perhaps are imbibing, as their cruelties echo the underside of its philosophy. And there's something spooky about the fact that when a woman finally asserts her own power (the baroness tells her husband she is abandoning him, and the village, to protect their child), her flight is immediately interrupted by the news that the war has begun. It's too late; she will be unable to travel, or evade history.

Much has been made of the fact that the children in the picture are part of the generation that would eventually allow Hitler to take power - but that hardly means Haneke is positing a Village of the Damned or Bad Seed-style scenario, as many critics have claimed. Perhaps instead he is looking at how Christianity and the patriarchy worked together to induce the historical horrors to come. For what was the Holocaust but simply the literal working out of the anti-Semitic implications of Christian doctrine? If it was madness, then it was a form of madness for which Europe had long been rehearsing.

Not that Haneke makes that statement openly, either. Indeed, The White Ribbon perhaps belongs in a subset of his films (which must include Code Unknown and Caché) that one could call "the Cinema of Suggestion." In these carefully-constructed puzzles, Haneke suggests various social and political theses, but confirms none of them; his themes, he seems to imply, are like Juliette Binoche's apartment in Code Unknown: inaccessible without the proper knowledge, which itself can never be obtained.

Portrait of a criminal mind.

The White Ribbon ends appropriately, then, with its mysteries intact; for a moment, it seems the town midwife is about to reveal the identity of the perpetrators, but she and her son subsequently vanish, and the schoolteacher, who has made his own guesses, is disbelieved and silenced. The film then concludes with a long, static shot (above) of the entire village filing into church for some sort of ceremony - perhaps Whit Sunday, or Pentecost, the day when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles (although for some reason the pastor doesn't take to the altar - is someone else, or something else, the celebrant?). Haneke has a habit of loading his parting shots with hidden meaning - the last moment of Time of the Wolf, for instance, hints at unexpected salvation, while the final image of Caché clicks shut on us like an accusation - and we realize as the director slowly fades out on the assembled villagers that somewhere in the congregation, singing along, are the criminals. That is, of course, if they aren't all criminals.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The darkest hour

Casey Seymour Kim in 4:48 Psychosis.

In Sarah Kane's 4:48 Psychosis, the "4:48" of the title refers to that darkest of hours, the one that comes just before dawn. For the despairing narrator of this long night of the soul, however, it also marks an unusual moment of clarity in her ongoing decline into fragmentation and pain. And for her, that promised dawn never comes; instead, in her last moment of clarity she chooses to end it all, with a simple, resigned command - "Open the curtain."

The playwright, of course, famously made the same decision - Kane took her own life just before 4:48 began rehearsals at the Royal Court Theatre in 2000. That last, terrible act both bestowed upon the script an undeniable aura of authenticity, and yet at the same time made it almost impossible to consider the play as a work of art rather than autobiography.

Of course sometimes the two forms can fuse - and it's hard to deny that this was the case with 4:48, particularly when so many of her friends could testify to Kane's long struggle with depression, and the fact that she repeatedly awoke at yes, 4:48 AM. Likewise no one familiar with Kane's oeuvre could have been surprised at the subdued intensity of her final opus. The literal horrors (cannibalism, rape, penile amputation) that had made her early work notorious had now been subsumed into night terrors. But while the weapons of 4:48 Psychosis may only be daggers of the mind, they nevertheless draw real blood.

And there's definitely a lot of the red stuff on the floor in the new Gamm Theatre production of this harrowing, but compelling, work (playing now through February 7). The piece is famously open to multiple interpretations; there are no "characters," or even stage directions; the text reads more like a poem than a play. Cast sizes have ranged in number from 1 to 12, but the Gamm Theatre's Artistic Director, Tony Estrella, has decided on two, structuring the piece around the implied relationship between Kane (here "Woman") and a nameless psychiatrist.

This decision, I'm afraid, has a downside: the emphasis on clinical mental illness slightly dilutes the poetic dimension of Kane's writing, as well as its evocation of deep inner disorientation and, yes, madness. This is essentially 4:48: Manic Depression, not 4:48 Psychosis. Still, perhaps sensing this gap, director Estrella supplies an ongoing stream of video imagery and lighting/sound effects that do evoke to some degree a sense of growing personal disintegration.

And on the plus side, the story-spine that Estrella has provided the script does seem to allow audiences access to its power; the nearly sell-out crowd I caught it with down in Pawtucket, of all places, seemed utterly absorbed in a work that no major theatre in New England has yet dared to produce. And in the central role, the fearless Casey Seymour Kim did limn Kane's brand of dark with a twitchy intelligence, an unguarded reserve of emotion, and yes, even a playful wit (the play is often mordantly funny); watching her was like watching a lonely soul with a single candle venture down every hallway of a truly terrifying haunted house. How this actress goes through this every night I've no idea.

But make no mistake: Sarah Kane's voice is indeed great enough - Beckett-like, but number, if needier - to have earned her a niche in what we call for lack of a better word "the canon," probably only the second female playwright we can confidently place there (Caryl Churchill is the other). That Kane is so rarely produced in this country counts as a scandal, and the fact that the Huntington and the A.R.T. have found time for the likes of Pirates! and Red Sox Nation while ignoring Blasted and Crave only underlines my long-standing complaint against their policies regarding "new work." Kane doesn't even count as "new" anymore, and yet our major theatres are still afraid of her; if only they could grow the same balls that the Sarah Feinstein-Gamm Theatre down in Pawtucket, R.I. seems to sport. And if only their audiences responded like the ones in Pawtucket and Providence! Just as I often feel at Trinity Rep, the connection between audience and actors at the Gamm was all but palpable; later, at the talkback, when one woman angrily protested, "Where was the nobility in this? Where was the hope?", another audience member confidently replied, "It was in our seeing this; it was in our being here." That made me want to weep almost more than anything that had come before in a production that I'd say represents required viewing for theatre lovers across the region.

See, the thing is . . .

. . . that some theatre bloggers long ago lost their crediblity with me, and with, I think, many other serious theatre people, too. They've already attacked too many people operating in good faith, pushed too many weak authors too hard, tried to fudge too many conflicts of interest, ridden too many connections with family and friends, etc., etc., to be taken seriously when they get on their soapboxes and play professor (do they ever get off their soapboxes, btw?). Thus the "backlash" against them and their latest pet project . . .

Saturday, January 23, 2010

For the record . . .

. . . Scott Brown has backed off endorsing the birther, according to the Globe. The birther, however, hasn't really backed off his claims of support. Has the mask merely slipped, and been re-adjusted?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Awww, looks like somebody's new play didn't get a production!

I confess I haven't ordered a copy of Outrageous Fortune, the new book from TDF that purports to outline what's gone wrong with the new play development process - and I don't think I'm going to. Everything I've read about it - and bloggers have been working overtime in this regard - makes it sound just too obnoxious for words.

Some chapters, it is said, bemoan how difficult it is to get a first production; others bemoan how hard it is to get a second production because theatres prefer to give first productions. The audience is aging, aging, aging, but none of the young playwrights are themselves willing to go to the theatre. From what I've read, the book sounds like one long chorus of complaint - when it's not a chorus of counter-complaint.

Except, of course, when it comes to the quality of new plays.

But here's the rub - and I haven't dared say this till now - I think that the new play development process may have become too easy, not too difficult.

Gasp! How can I say that? Because I've sat through the plays. And to be honest, most of the new plays I've seen in the past five years have not been ready for production. I'd say, in fact, at best only 1 in 5 have been good to go. And I'm not talking little shows in basements here. I'm talking about the A.R.T. and the Huntington and Trinity Rep. Plays that have been in development for months, or years.

Nevertheless, what I've experienced, sitting in theatres for something like 150 nights a year for the past five or so years, is that an immense amount of time and energy and money have been expended on a product that hasn't really been worth it.

And I have a sneaky suspicion that that may be what is killing theatre. And to me, that's what is broken about the development process - not that it doesn't generate enough new plays, but that it's rarely successful in actually "developing" them.

How to correct the situation is the question. But does Outrageous Fortune even hazard an answer? Is there a way to increase the number of new plays, but also improve their quality? Because that is something I'd like to read.

Off-topic, and off-color, but just in case you missed it . . .

Ah, those wacky weathermen! The official Channel 7 explanation is here. But you don't have to believe it if you don't want to.

Lives of the saints

The central triangle of The Good Negro.

History is made, of course, not by saints but by men of flesh and blood.

And so Tracey Scott Wilson's The Good Negro, now at Company One through Feb. 6, is a welcome attempt to treat the heroes of the civil rights struggle as imperfect individuals, while at the same time honoring their achievement - in a word, to reveal their feet of clay while not actually knocking them off their pedestals. Indeed, Ms. Wilson's clear intent is to give us a mature sense of how history actually happens, with flawed men and women (but mostly men) undermining their own best efforts, and making calculated gambles with other people's lives, while simultaneously risking their own safety in a manner that yes, can only be called heroic.

But Ms. Wilson, I'm afraid, isn't always up to the complex task of playing Bertolt Brecht to this historical episode. Of course Brecht himself wasn't always up to playing Bertolt Brecht (Galileo, anyone?) - and at any rate Ms. Wilson seems to want to conjure not simply the judgmental stance of "epic theatre" but something more like passionate identification mixed with critical distance. A tricky blend, surely. But the lumpy structure and abrupt shifts in tone of The Good Negro, along with a certain inability on the part of the playwright to actually penetrate the psyches of her characters, means that Wilson's execution lags behind the subtlety of her conception. And the talented Company One cast generally lacks the experience and tactical smarts to cover for the playwright.

Ms. Wilson has slightly disguised her characters - but they're so slightly disguised that we sometimes wonder why she bothered. The Reverend "James Lawrence" is clearly the Reverend Martin Luther King, and his wife "Corinne" is obviously "Coretta," and other figures are so close to the profiles of Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Bayard Rustin as to barely qualify as "composites." (Oddly - and I hope this isn't some kind of strange political statement - it seems that only the name of a white racist character, "Gary Thomas Rowe," matches an actual historical figure.) The playwright has an astute sense of the machinations and ethical compromises that must have dogged King/Lawrence and his inner circle, who in the play are focused on finding "a good Negro," a victim of Southern racism whose morals are so impeccable that he or she can serve as a standard-bearer for the struggle. They seem to find one in "Claudette Sullivan" (Marvelyn McFarlane), an accomplished young woman who is arrested for taking her daughter to a whites-only restroom. Claudette's husband (James Milord) is suspicious of what could be considered her exploitation, but despite his misgivings, she agrees to join the movement. Only predictably, the womanizing ways of the civil rights leadership mean that soon Claudette is making her own compromises, and even allowing her daughter to be led into harm's way.

As you can surmise, Ms. Wilson has thought through a gripping throughline for her script - but she dramatizes it awkwardly, blunting its ironic edge, and never really allows Claudette any room to breathe as a character. She instead concentrates on "Lawrence" and his trusted inner circle of "Cliff Odle" (Henry Evans) and "Bill Rutherford" (Cedric Lilly) - yet even here her writing is somewhat wooden, and really hot topics (like the open homosexuality of Rutherford/Rustin, and Lawrence/King's comfort with same) are treated superficially. And Wilson's just not very good at conjuring the kind of masculine intimacy that must have reigned here (King would eventually die in Ralph Abernathy's arms). Nor does she manage to convey the extraordinary rhetorical fire of Martin Luther King, so precisely what makes "Lawrence" so special has to be assumed from outside the drama. It's often claimed that men have difficulty writing women characters, but this is one case where I sometimes felt the opposite was true.

But wait, I'm afraid there's more. Wilson frames her drama with the FBI's famous effort to wiretap (and thus undermine) the movement, and at the same time infiltrate the KKK - but she often colors this stuff as low comedy (the G-men seem more like Keystone Kops than pawns of the KKK), so the whole sub-plot must make an abrupt U-turn to accommodate the drama's tragic finale. And in the staging at Company One, the eavesdropping agents are always off to one corner, dreaming of trips to Vegas, rather than hovering in the background like menacing, if incompetent, cousins of Big Brother.

I suppose a galvanizing production could distract us from all these missteps by the playwright, but the Company One cast, though talented, doesn't have quite that kind of star power, and director Summer L. Williams lacks the technical savvy to disguise the shapelessness of many of the scenes. Charismatic newcomer Jonathan L. Dent bears more than a passing resemblance to MLK, and he certainly throws himself into individual moments, but the sense of MLK's personal mystery, as well as the arc that the playwright seems to want to conjure, somehow elude him. Still, we hope to see more of this young actor on local stages, and soon. Marvelyn McFarlane and Kris Sidberry are perhaps more effective as Claudette and Corinne, but both are shortchanged by the script, just as Cedric Lilly is forced into a comic superficiality as Rutherford/Rustin. Probably the most compelling work comes from James Milord as Claudette's recalcitrant, not-ready-for-prime-time husband, and Henry Evans as the hearty Odle/Abernathy - and there are a few interesting moments from Jeff Mahoney and Jonathan Overby as the good-old-boy FBI agents, although both performances seem too light in conception. To be fair, the production nevertheless ends with a wallop - and there's one wonderful scene in which Lawrence and Odle briefly believe they're about to be lynched - which together give one a sense of the power latent in the material. But it may take more time, another playwright, and more productions before that power is finally unleashed onstage.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Meanwhile, over at the Gardner . . .

. . . wonderful changes are being unveiled! Globe photo by John Tlumacki; additional dialogue uncredited.

It just got worse . . .

Our Cosmo-centerfold-Senator-elect has endorsed a "birther" for the U.S. House of Representatives. The sign at left - depicting "Obama" as "Osama" - drew ire from neighbors when it was on the lawn of Republican William Hudak of Boxford, who is running against U.S. Rep. John Tierney, a Salem Democrat, this fall. Hudak has said he believes Obama was born in Kenya. For his part, Senator Sleazy once insinuated that Obama was born out of wedlock.

I got some nasty notes when I posted elsewhere that the election of Scott Brown meant the beginning of the "white backlash" against Obama. But it really didn't take long, did it?

And I do have to wonder why Brown's marriage to well-known TV reporter Gail Huff has elicited so little coverage or contemplation. I was surprised that the local channels pimped for Brown so hard - now I have an idea why.

Brown also endeared himself to the public yesterday when he announced to media outlets that his two daughters were both "available." Thanks, Dad. Does the offer extend to Kenyans?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The election, explained

Bloggers have noticed that counties that voted for Scott Brown also rated Paul Blart: Mall Cop among their favorite Netflix movies.

Makes sense to me!

Sold out

Above is "A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter," by artist (and RISD grad) Caleb Larsen. It's currently up for auction on eBay, with a minimum bid of $2500.

So what's in the black box, you ask? Well, a piece of electronics that connects to eBay every week and puts itself up for auction.

Yes, you read that right. It's a self-selling work of art. Indeed, its repeated attempts to sell itself are its artistic content. If you buy "A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter," it will automatically resell itself away from you in seven days' time. And the price could go up, but the price could go down. (Although something tells me that in general, Caleb Larsen's prices will go up.)

Discuss among yourselves.

Babes Off-Broadway

The talented cast of [title of show].

It's hard not to like [title of show], the little musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical, which is now being presented in a smart, slick production by SpeakEasy Stage.

But it's also hard to like it a lot. Basically, it's the little show that could (it made it to Broadway, briefly), but isn't great, only pretty good.

Then again, I'm not really its target audience, even though it's gayer than the locker room at the Ice Capades. You see, I'm not a fan of artistic formats in and of themselves. I only like good plays, and good symphonies, and good ballets. I don't like the bad plays and bad symphonies and bad ballets just because they're plays and symphonies and ballets.

But fans of musicals seem to just looooove musicals, regardless of whether they're good or bad - the form speaks to them more than the content does. I find this syndrome very, very weird - and it's really kind of the antithesis of what I do as a critic. Yet I'm constantly being told that it's the new normal.

So, duty requires that I admit that if you are this kind of person, you will adore [title of show]. You will eat it up; indeed, you and the show will become as one; you probably already are as one.

If, however, you are only mildly narcissistic and insecure, you'll find [title of show] kind of a grind as it begs, borrows and steals its way onto Broadway, even though it's obviously an empty shell, stuffed with self-aware Chelsea attitude, but essentially tune- and plot-free. Things even get slightly irritating, as the cast "rebels" against the changes that soul-sucking producers keep suggesting, in a desperate bid to hang onto the integrity of their vision.

Only what "integrity" might that be? Because here's the not-so-secret about [title of show] - its concept is a [crock of shit]. The show's supposed hook is that everything about its own creation pops up verbatim in its own action, in "musical-vérité" style. “So everything I say from now on could actually be in our show?’’ composer Jeff Bowen asks writer Hunter Bell in an early scene - and dude, it's like that exact line shows up in the show! Isn't that awesome???

Only hold on a minute - everyone with a friend downtown knows that's not the case. [title of show] pretends to be the story of four faithful friends putting together a millennial Babes in Arms in just three and a half weeks, and then driving the show all the way to the Great White Way - only one of those original friends, "Stacia," left the show early due to other commitments, and wound up edited out completely, and replaced by "Heidi." So where does that put us vis-à-vis the "verbatim" dialogue, I wonder? Suddenly the meta's not really "meta" so much as good old-fashioned schmaltz at one remove.

But you know, even if it's a con job, the show is funny, and it's certainly of sociological interest, as it offers an almost clinical portrait of Gen-Y entitlement (and how manipulation of the Internet along with a strong dose of generational attitude can inflate a show's reputation). The creators of [title of show] can't really write a decent song (perhaps because Bowen wrote the lyrics weeks before the music, another fact elided in the script), but they can riff on the meaninglessness of pop culture (and their own lives) with the best of 'em.

Of course why, precisely, we should believe that their day jobs are making them "die inside," or that their internal critics (who you think kind of have a point) should be "vampires," is never explained - because that would be awkward - but these transparently self-serving tropes at least lead to some clever asides. Which is really the show's whole and only point. Still, what looms over the enterprise - even the show's brief day in the sun on Broadway - is that its creators wound up writing songs for Disney Cruise Lines, which sounds like a natural niche for them, and where I guess they're working on [title of boat]. Somehow, however, I get the impression that gig is not supposed to be soul-destroying, although I've no idea why not.

But I also have to admit SpeakEasy, and director Paul Daigneault, manage to sell the hell out of this musical's mild virtues. The company's four stars - Jordan Ahnquist, Joe Lanza, Val Sullivan, and Amy Barker - are all engaging performers, and if none are great singers or dancers, well they don't have to be. Lanza is the comic standout as Hunter (the writer gave himself all the show's best lines), although Sullivan, after perhaps bringing a bit too much weird to bear on the admittedly-weird "Susan," does give Lanza a run for his money once she's settled into her own brand of sardonic quirk. Barker offers a few more recognizably-human notes as the secretly-vulnerable Heidi (plus she's got the best pipes), while Ahnquist is the energetic engine of the group, and also looks the best with his shirt off.

What's most striking about the show, however, is its production. Eric Levenson's set, Seághan McKay's projections, Charles Schoonmaker's costumes and Jeff Adelberg's lighting all cohere into a sophisticated yet "casual" look that serves the material perfectly. So we get to feast our eyes on yet another SpeakEasy design triumph. And I don't mean that ironically.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The man who would kill healthcare

It's incredible, but Massachusetts seems to have just delivered the first really crippling blow to the President's agenda. Scott Brown (above), the lightweight state rep who openly tells people he's opposed to universal healthcare and more government stimulus for the economy, has been elected to the Senate, delivering to the Republicans the vote they need to prevent any progress on the nation's problems.

It used to be that people wondered "What's the matter with Kansas?"

Now I suppose we have to amend that to "What's the matter with Massachusetts?"

There are, of course, the usual excuses to be trotted out for the electorate - with the cold calculation of Martha Coakley, who makes John Kerry look like a party animal, no doubt serving as the favored scapegoat of many.

But I really don't think that goes far enough in explaining why so many people in my home state seem to have decided to vote against their own best interests. How could they imagine that another Republican voice in the Senate would improve their lives, particularly when he openly tells them he is completely opposed to doing so? It's at moments like this, I think, that we have to begin to consider whether America is really governable anymore - whether our version of democracy can even work. I confess I'm not sure that it is, or that it can. Whenever I spoke to Scott Brown's supporters, I heard the same refrain: "I just don't like her," (meaning Coakley), as if this were a high school prom contest, as if their own rights and wages and freedoms were not at stake.

Of course the underside of that statement is that they did like what Brown represents - certainly not intelligence, and certainly not experience, but instead a blank, happy assertion of white, male privilege. That privilege, of course, used to let its perks trickle down to the white working class, too. But not anymore. That disconnect - with the awareness that the wealthy (and Wall Street) now look to global, not American, opportunities - has yet to sink into Main Street, which can only see that the Democrats are led by blacks and women, and project an aura of identity politics rather than identification with the working man. By the time they realize their mistake, it may be too late. Indeed, it may already be too late; certainly Scott Brown's election means the next year will be a little harder economically, and that the aftermath of the recession will last a little longer. But will the new senator's victims realize who they have to thank for their predicament? I'm not optimistic.

Mash up your Shakespeare

One more into the time-space-continuum gap! Tony Larkin, Benjamin Evett, and Ed Hoopman indulge themselves.

So - are you ready for a gay-Tom-Stoppard, "Fleance-and-Malcolm-Aren't-Dead-But-Getting-Married-in-Vegas" kind of metaphysical-philosophical mash-up? At first I didn't think I was, either, but I admit the New Rep, and its crack comic cast (headlined by a hilarious Benjamin Evett), did eventually win me over, and I began to indulge Indulgences, the new production of Chris Craddock's meta-comedy which runs through February 6. This is a very silly show, and kind of conceptually sloppy - but it is a funny show, certainly the funniest in town, and you don't have to tell me what that means in January in Boston. (It means the New Rep has a hit.)

And it's nice to see new artistic director Kate Warner, who seemed to stumble slightly on her maiden voyage with Mister Roberts, right herself here, with a crisp, clever production that's tighter than a duck's you-know-what. It's true the play itself isn't nearly that taut - Canadian author Chris Craddock mashes together Shakespeare, Mamet, The Prince and the Pauper, "Fractured Fairy Tales," and a whole lot more in this long-form skit about cross-dressing and destiny - and part of the joke is that he doesn't much care that most of his gambits don't hang together. Shakespeare's Fleance and Malcolm, for instance, who drive the plot of the show, were never even friends in Macbeth, so when they meet for drinks in some sort of Purgatorial pick-up bar with a fallen angel who's a kind of insurance salesman, we do think to ourselves, "WTF, milord?" Or at least I did.

But wait a minute, let's back up. Here's the set-up: two Shakespearean characters (Malcolm and Fleance, played by Ed Hoopman and Tony Larkin) walk into a bar, where they meet, no, not a priest and a rabbi, but a seller of "indulgences" (Benjamin Evett). Remember those? I think the Catholic church actually still sells 'em, but at their height they were the proud pinnacle of Her venerable commitment to corruption - time-off in Purgatory was available for a variety of sins, for a small fee (or a large one, depending on the sin).

Only Craddock's salesman isn't some hack from the Vatican - he's from the Big Kahuna himself. As in Jehovah. Yahweh. The Almighty.

Which is quite an interesting intellectual proposition - God himself is offering an escape hatch from his own morality? Indulgences that work? And get a load of His reason - he wants to "re-inforce free will!" Holy conundrum, Mr. Stoppard! For a moment, it seems like a heavenly host of fascinating dialectics about the knotty problem of pre-destination might be in the offing.

But no such luck; playwright Craddock may scramble the dramaturgical map to pin his themes, but he isn't actually serious enough about them to indulge in any intellectual depth. Instead, he skates along the contradictions of Catholic philosophy to hilarious, but not deeply satisfying, effect. Still, that's enough for Saturday night. I won't get into the silly-and-sillier plot, except to say that Malcolm and Fleance want to both get hitched and kill Dad, who's not hip to modern romance. Only they don't know that Dad isn't actually Dad - he sort of swapped spots in the universe with some schlub from the present day (back in that Purgatorial bar). Who wants his old gig back. Then there's the schemers in the palace, who methinks fpout a moft excellent pastiche of pfeudo-Shakespeareana; they've got their fub-plot, too.

All this comes crashing, or rather mashing, together in the expertly-rendered second half, when Evett's Salesman has second thoughts about just what God hath wrought, and tries to avert the hilarious mayhem he sees about to ensue. Evett's at his desperate best here as he confronts God's "ineffability," although he's really in fine form throughout, and this dissipated, wiseguy with a heart-o-gold probably counts as his best performance in years. When he's on it, Evett owns the stage, and the show, too - but it would be unfair to slight his cohorts in comedy, who know how to give great backup. Neil A. Casey is a delightful hoot (as usual) as Malcolm's Republican dad (and Joel Colodner makes witty hay of his frustrated doppelgänger), Tony Larkin plays Fleance with gay abandon, and Leigh Barrett, whose beauty mark seems to ramble from cheek to cheek, proves she can cut an Elizabethan caper with the best of 'em (Casey and Barrett, with Steven Barkhimer, above left). Based on this performance, I'd love to see her in Merry Wives of Windsor. And I hope I don't have to be in a parallel universe for that to happen.

It's official - the North Shore is back!

According to the theatre's website:

Massachusetts businessman Bill Hanney has reached an agreement with Citizens Bank to purchase the North Shore Music Theatre property.

Mr. Hanney is currently putting together a new business plan and management team to reopen North Shore Music Theatre in the spring/summer of 2010.

Rumors have been bubbling about a show in development for this summer. Stay tuned.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Not-so Fabuloso

See that actress in green? That's how you'll feel during Fabuloso.

Few local stages swing as wildly in quality as the Merrimack Rep. With a great play, they're my favorite theatre in the region. The Seafarer was the ultimate dark night of the soul; Heroes, a piquant last stand in the sun.

But then there are the productions like the oh-so-ironically-titled Fabuloso, by John Kolvenbach. I'm glad in only one way that I saw it: whenever I say there are actually too many new plays being done in Boston, I can from now on point to this script as Exhibit A. Here's the set-up (and I promise you I'm not making this up): it's actually about a boring, uptight couple whose lives are turned upside down by some wacky friends who just won't leave!!! But wait for the twist - everybody learns to lighten up and get in touch with their inner crazy! Can you believe it?

Yup. You may recall that one from the fourth season of Friends, or the second season of Will and Grace, or the entire run of Two and a Half Men. And if you loved it then, you're sure to love it even more now, when you've paid $40 for it and it runs two hours! Oh, yeah.

Only - oops - did I mention that there aren't any funny lines? That's right; Kolvenbach forgot the funny. And gosh, what a thing to leave out when his plot is one long cliché and he can't sustain most of his scenes for more than four beats! There are actually black-outs in this show where you find yourself wondering in the dark, "Hold on a minute - was that supposed to be the joke?" Maybe Mr. Kolvenbach should have titled this one "Sorry-Actors-You're-Up-The-Creek-Without-a-Paddle-oso!"

For the record, the actors at the Merrimack paddle hard (really hard), and the pair playing the "straight" couple - Jeremiah Wiggins and Rebecca Harris - at least hold their own against the current. But then they don't have to be funny. It's the pair stuck with the "komedy" that we feel for, as they race around with carving knives in their loud Hawaiian shirts and even actually lip-synch to pop songs. Interestingly, these two try distinct (in fact opposed) strategies to put over Kolvenbach's second-hand goods: Amy Kim Waschke opts to sell it, baby, while Ed Jewett aims for something more casual. Neither technique works - although both eke out the occasional laugh here and there, and Waschke at least calms down for the play's only real scene (opposite Harris). But to be honest, watching this pair beg for laughs in different keys is like watching two people try to squeeze blood from opposite sides of the same stone. Or maybe the same piece of plastic.

Because Fabuloso is plastic through and through - which is no surprise, because it's really a product, not a play, that Kolvenbach has machine-tooled to fit into a specific slot in a generic small-regional-theatre season (and thus it's been produced all over the country). It hits a demographic that theatres are all targeting - thirtysomething yuppies - with, yes, a single set and just four actors, and a familiar, TV-tried-and-tested concept. For all I know, it may also come with some tupperware or maybe that set of steak knives. That would at least be a reason to program it.

What else might have possessed the Merrimack to do so, I can't imagine. Times are hard - and the Merrimack is one of the few local theatres that has actually kept in the black over the course of the economic downturn. But recycled sitcoms are not the way to hold onto your audience - especially not the kind of audience that is used to applauding Skylight and The Four of Us, for heaven's sake. Oh, well. We'll file this under "When Bad Plays Happen to Good Theatres." And let's hope in future this remarkable company will keep things actually fabulous, instead of Fabuloso.

Oh, don't ask why

OK Go - This Too Shall Pass from OK Go on Vimeo.

The official video for OK Go's (you know, the treadmill guys) "This Too Shall Pass" from their new album Of the Blue Colour of the Sky. Filmed live with the Notre Dame marching band.

Just because, okay? If you have to ask why, then obviously . . . oh never mind!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Mass. madness

The man in full. Well, almost full.

Look, I don't like her either. I didn't vote for her (I didn't know who to vote for), and I agree, there's something creepily relentless about her dead-eyed determination. But that's no reason to derail health care, or the rest of the President's agenda - especially not for some Republican airhead (above) who's still undeniably hot but whose politics are not, NOT what our state or country needs. Is it some restless animus toward the Democratic machine that's driving this last-minute kamikaze-like madness? Is it the candidate's looks, or his Boston College connection (he's a classic B.C. type)? Is it that he, but not she, shook hands beside the Green Monster? I don't know, but all this has to stop. When you go to the polls on Tuesday, you have to do the right thing. You've sent Martha Coakley a message, which I'm sure she has received and is processing right now in that little data bank behind her eyes. And in the meantime, your country needs you to vote Democratic.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Dream is over, we'll have to carry on . . .

Good-bye to all that - Henry Fuseli's vision of Midsummer.

I suppose no Shakespearean text has been as brutally raped by the academy as A Midsummer Night's Dream. Once a cherished vision of the commingled absurdity and transcendence of romantic love, it's now basically a kind of longform video on some pop-academic version of Pornhub - bound and shackled by the likes of Jan Kott, with a rubber ball in its mouth courtesy of Michel Foucault. Once, it inspired Mendelssohn; now, it's a career vehicle for Diane Paulus, our reverse-incarnation of the Puritanical Nahum Tate. Oh, what a falling off was there!

Still, I suppose that's life - but if you want some sense of how the professoriat is poisoning the springs of our culture, look no further than the bizarre level of approval accorded The Donkey Show. One expects, of course, the press to praise the latest from Harvard, whatever it may be - that's the memo the editors don't even have to send; and I'm well aware our cash-strapped "greatest university" needs a new revenue stream, so I have no problem with it opening a topless bar. Desperate times, desperate measures, etc.; and hey, I've spent Saturday night in Providence, too. But when Harvard pretends its topless bar is presenting "Shakespeare" - well, that's where I draw the line.

Not that anyone else does. Consider the reviews for the Actors' Shakespeare Project's A Midsummer Night's Dream (which is actually pretty tame by the standards of the postmodern syllabus). It moves the Globe's Don Aucoin to opine, for instance, that Diane Paulus "does not hold a monopoly on creative interpretations of the Bard," and that the ASP production is "another fun and creative interpretation." Well, good for them! But notice the stupidity creep latent in those lines: The Donkey Show is now the standard by which other productions are judged. Harvard has just succeeded in dumbing us down another notch.

But back to the Actors' Shakespeare Project, whose Midsummer is fairly harmless, but not really . . . all that . . . good. It's a little slow and very broad and pretty declamatory (albeit in a postmodern mode), plus its "urban environment" concept feels rote (the DeGrassi kids go to the inner city yet again) and is anyway just an excuse to fill "the woods outside Athens" with various figures from pop culture: Oberon is Keith Richards/Johnny Depp, Titania is Courtney Love (or maybe our local knock-off, Amanda Palmer), her bower is of course a bombed-out car, while Bottom is Donnie Wahlberg . . . sigh. It would have been nice to have been surprised at least once by the production's choices - but then again, how precisely could pop culture be bent to Shakespeare's purposes anyhow? His fairyland provides a psychological odyssey for both his audience and his characters - his lovers emerge from the forest transformed and shaken, their assumptions undermined but their faith confirmed. And how, exactly, could pop, which amplifies the ego but never questions it, ever do that?

But what I mourn most about our current approach to Midsummer is that we've lost all sense of the play's stunningly grand design. This is the play in which Shakespeare truly became Shakespeare - or at least it's the play in which his horizons suddenly exploded, and he realized he could bend just about all of past Western culture to his will, and at the same time produce a template for its future. The Midsummer cast list comes closer to the universal than that of perhaps any other play; it stretches from the mythological (Theseus and Hippolyta) to the fantastic (Puck and Oberon) to the quotidian (the carpenters and weavers of Stratford-on-Avon). The play's social vision is penetratingly astute; its action is one of the most perfectly modeled farces ever constructed. And at the same time it's one of the greatest flights of poetry and one of the deepest meditations on love ever conceived.

But please, before you say it, can we let go of our childish attachment to the supposed sexual sadomasochism latent in the play? Today's Shakespeareans often seem like kids trawling the Internet for the dirty stuff - they know it's in the canon, if only they surf hard enough! Sure, Oberon wants to humiliate Titania - and his reason, her guardianship of her "changeling" boy, is one of those endlessly-suggestive Shakespearean motifs (like Hamlet's madness, or Shylock's pound of flesh) that will defy forever complete analysis. Likewise Egeus wants to control his daughter's sex life (the motivation here is not so hard to parse). But do either of these supposed representatives of the masculine id succeed in their aims? No, they do not, and they certainly don't represent Shakespeare's POV.

The whole play is of course obviously opposed to Egeus, and Oberon's jealous designs are completely undone by Bottom, one of Shakespeare's true innocents and certainly one of his great gallants. Yes, the sweet-natured weaver is translated into an ass, as befits one who lacks all self-awareness - but that very lack allows him to all but ignore his alarming transmogrification, and his confident gap in self-consciousness makes him dazzled but clear-eyed about the fairies (and by extension love itself). And when it comes to sex, this perfect, if furry, gentleman hardly takes advantage of the besotted Titania - indeed, he seems to assume she's some kind of mental patient, and delights in the charming Cobweb and Peaseblossom instead (needless to say, in the Diane Paulus version, he mounts her from behind - probably the greatest crime against Shakespeare the A.R.T. has yet committed). Oberon undoes Bottom's enchantment not because he has succeeded in humiliating Titania (he hasn't), and not even because he has won back his changeling boy, but because her idyll with Bottom forces him to see his own vanity.

Or at least these are the deep, humane lessons that we used to allow the Bard to teach us. Now, however, we insist on cutting him down to our own size; we know better than he does; we don't want to watch his work "grow to something of great constancy." Thus the fairies in the ASP Dream are just urchins from the 'hood, and the play's rhythms are reduced to rap, which of course delights the crunchy Cantabridgians in the audience, but I'm afraid leaves me cold. Bottom and the "mechanicals" are likewise patronized into excuses for parodies of ballet (which actually, via Balanchine, is the only place you can get a glimpse of the real Midsummer anymore), or the A.R.T., or - oh, who knows, and who cares. I mean what can you say when Theseus is styled as Donald Trump and Hippolyta is Pocahontas? There is one lovely idea in the show - the broken TV that fitfully shows images of Titania's lost votress, the mother of her changeling. For a brief moment, something like romance flickers through the theatre. More, please.

Michael Kaye and Maurice Parent toy with "love in idleness."

The surprise is that a few actors do make some headway despite the ongoing car crash of bad ideas. The "young" lovers, although they all look to be about 45, are played by pretty funny and resourceful actors, and their antics in the wood do prove amusing. So hooray for Mara Sidmore, Shelley Bolman, Jennie Israel, and Christopher James Webb! Alas, I didn't particularly care for Michael Kaye's pallid Oberon or Marianna Bassham's rock-chick Titania, but Maurice Parent did make a menacing (perhaps too-menacing) Puck. And Trent Mills occasionally had a good idea as a broader-than-broad Thisbe in what must have been the longest fifth act of this play I've ever seen. But then the final word on this production is that it's utterly self-indulgent - you could drive a semi through half the cues, and Robert Walsh and John Kuntz in particular are prone to stretches of schtick that seem to last for hours.

And I must say these performances almost seemed to me to blur into performances I remember from other shows - because frankly, one A.S.P. show is so much like another. I'm not sure, in fact, that any other local company operates in quite as tight a stylistic straitjacket - and isn't that a bit odd, given the supposed breadth and depth of the playwright in question, and the fact that they're constantly inviting new directors to work with them? Clearly a particularly virulent form of groupthink has set in. So how about it, A.S.P.? How about no more halter tops or cowboy boots for the women, no more 70's-rummage-sale costumes, and no more self-conscious fuss over interracial or cross-gender casting? How about you lose the air quotes, stop trying to be hip, and don't think about "the other," or feminism, or the color bar for just one production? Just try it. See what happens. You might be surprised. And you can count on one thing - the results would be like no Shakespeare production Boston has seen in years.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

All our sons

The Furies reach the Great Plains in All My Sons. Photos by T. Charles Erickson.

I realized about half an hour into the show that I was going to need all my superlatives for All My Sons, the new production of Arthur Miller's 1947 classic that singlehandedly re-instates the Huntington as a great regional theatre. The Huntington is back, and it rules.

But no, it's not a perfect production - in fact it's far from perfect; it doesn't nearly achieve the graceful complexity that Nicky Martin used to conjure on this stage. But it has something else that Martin rarely managed; it's the most rawly powerful piece of theatre I've seen not only this year (which is just a few weeks old), but perhaps in many years. This is one play that deserves the accolade of "searing drama," and the acting at the Huntington often blazes - and in the case of Karen MacDonald, should become the stuff of legend. I admit the production concept (see above) is, well, debatable in my mind, although it's certainly valid in many of its contentions. But the direction, by David Esbjornson, nevertheless brings both Miller's tragic depth and rhetorical power to life with at times almost overwhelming force.

Miller's tale of war profiteering and fate is, of course, a familiar one - even its resonance with the corruption of the Bush administration became a commonplace after the recent Broadway revival. Likewise the play's nearly-exact transcription of the tropes of classic tragedy into a modern American milieu is old hat. We're supposed to see through Arthur Miller now, because, our professors tell us, his conventions are melodramatic (and those of the Greeks weren't?) and his politics (particularly his sexual politics) naïve - while race, our current obsession, hardly figures in his best work.

Well - and I mean this in the nicest way possible - to hell with the professors. Because in the end, the academy hates Arthur Miller because he ennobled the white bourgeoisie, which in the la-la-land of the modern university, can never, ever be noble. Yet every time I've seen All My Sons, I've seen those evil bourgeois types fighting back tears, and last night at the Huntington proved no exception - when it wasn't all but weeping, the crowd was utterly transfixed. In a word, the play channels something like the classic idea of catharsis more devastatingly than any other mainstream play of the modern era, and the Huntington succeeds in capturing its harrowing passion.

It does so, I must admit, by relying on two central performances. Karen MacDonald (at left) is almost frightening at times as Kate Keller, the wife who understands (but denies) that her husband's playing fast and loose with the quality of the aircraft parts he sold to the war effort has brought the death of their own son down on their heads. MacDonald seems to capture every facet of this neurotic, manipulative, complicated, tragic figure - one of Miller's greatest creations, frankly - and at a few moments (such as her collapse when confronted with a letter from her dead son) she gets at something so primal you can feel the hairs rise on the back of your neck. Watching her here, it occurred to me that the dissolution of the acting company at the A.R.T. may in artistic terms be the best thing that ever happened to MacDonald. Her light was always under a basket there; here, she gives one of those performances that makes you feel you've been privileged to witness it.

MacDonald is matched in intensity (if not in variety) by hunky Lee Aaron Rosen as surviving son Chris, who has likewise buried all doubt about Dad and compensated with a consuming sense of idealism. Rosen's internal work has perhaps not quite reached the complexity it might (there's more self-deception at play behind Chris's heroism than we feel here), but his emotional attack is all but ferocious; at another hair-raising moment, we truly believe that the murder of his father is very much in the air, just as we should. And as his girl Ann (who was also once his dead brother's girl), Diane Davis brought both a hopeful toughness and hints of inner devastation to a part that can easily devolve into a dramatic contrivance.

Not all aspects of the production, however, were quite at this high level. Scott Bradley's scenic design (above) set this American tragedy not in the expected leafy suburb but instead in the barren landscapes of Edward Hopper. A stark farmhouse stood at one side of the stage, surrounded by a dry stretch of dead lawn, over which a very-empty sky loomed, from which threatening clouds and even visions of crashing bombers sometimes loured. This vision struck me as valid, I admit - still, I think I prefer to see Miller's Furies rise not from some modernist vision of American alienation but instead from this country's prosperously pastoral self-image. (And I probably could have done without the expressionist interpolations of Maya Ciarrocchi's projections.)

Some of the acting, I admit, also struck me as problematic. The play's flawed patriarch, Joe Keller, is actually not as fascinating a character as his wife, but he's nevertheless a larger-than-life figure of considerable cultural power, and it's essential that he have a warm sense of humanity, and a strong streak of typically-American up-from-his-own-bootstraps bonhomie; the arc of Miller's tale, which is basically the revelation of what lies beneath that happy American mask, depends on this. But the essentially-elegant Mr. Lyman (below, with Rosen) is nobody's idea of an Everyman, and he seems to have taken the ethos of the set a bit too much to heart; he's craftily, almost wittily alienated from his first lines, and when his wife tells us that he's "not smart," we don't believe her for a second. There were other glitches on opening night - a faltering cue here or there, and a few patches of blurry delivery; I know the characterization will come together, and already it holds the stage, but I wonder whether it will ever stand up to the towering performances surrounding it.

There were a few other odd notes struck here and there - as Ann's brother George, Michael Tisdale proved almost too eccentric in his defeated confusion. And while there was solid, believably detailed work from Dee Nelson, Ken Cheeseman, Owen Doyle, and Stephanie DiMaggio as the Kellers' neighbors and friends, their scenes hadn't always found a natural rhythm (perhaps this slightly awkward edge was intentional on the part of the director).

These gaps seemed like trifles, however, when MacDonald was haunting the stage, or once it began to dawn on Rosen what his own ideals were going to require of him. Why, precisely, seeing other human beings go through this kind of crucible should afford such a deep and resonant experience remains one of the mysterious truths of the theatre. And yet it is a truth. And do I really need to say that with a few small changes (just add "Cheney," "body armor" and "Blackwater" to the dialogue), the play's passionate call-to-arms, once pooh-poohed as preachy by Miller's detractors, is more timely than ever? Joe Keller famously realizes (too late) that the pilots killed by his defective parts were "all my sons." But aren't the soldiers currently facing death in Afghanistan also all our sons? Aren't those all our daughters in Iraq? Will America ever, ever listen to one of its greatest playwrights? Or must our ongoing American tragedy last forever?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

"Four new plays and maybe one classic"

I'm not as patient as my friend and colleague Art Hennessey, so I just did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation this morning against the current seasons of our major local theatre producers: the Huntington, the ART, the New Rep, SpeakEasy Stage, the Lyric, Merrimack Rep, Company One, the Central Square Theater, Zeitgeist Stage, and Boston Playwrights' Theatre.

I decided to class plays into three categories - "Brand New," as in a premiere or written in the last year or two; "Newish," as in written in the last decade plus; and "Classic," meaning at least twenty years old.

The numbers I got for the current season are the following:

Brand New - 76%
Newish - 12%
Classic - 12%

That's right - more than three-quarters of the plays on our major stages this season were written in the last two or three years. Almost 9 out of 10 were written in the last decade or two.

If you throw in the Actors' Shakespeare Project, our only local troupe dedicated to the classics, this moves the numbers a bit, but not much:

Brand New - 72%
Newish - 11%
Classic - 17%

Recent work still accounts for something like 83% of our productions. And I'm not even looking at the seasons of fringe and start-up groups, like Whistler in the Dark, which skew quite strongly toward new plays or self-generated work. Nor did I include the new-play "slams" or festivals or marathons that have sprouted like wildflowers in the last few years.

Now I know my friend and colleague Art Hennessey has taken on the mammoth task of tabulating the whole area's output for the past ten years. Which I think is a worthy project - but my impression has been that the production zeitgeist has been moving toward new work for some time now; it will be interesting, in fact, to see if Art can demonstrate the declining trend in classic work on the local stage. Certainly right now we have three or four Boston theatres which are essentially dedicated to new work, and many more which present it frequently. The "four classics and one new play" theatre-season cliché has become a canard as far as Boston goes. Indeed, the new model is obviously "four new plays and maybe one classic."

And guess what - gay-marriage states have lower divorce rates

According to Nate Silver, divorce rates in the fudge-packer states have "decrease by an average of 8 percent between 2003 and 2008."

Meanwhile, states that enacted gay-marriage bans "saw their divorce rates rise by about 1 percent over the same period."

I can't say I'm surprised. Not that I'm claiming gay marriage is actually "helping" straight marriage in some way - it could be that communities that actually value marriage, and thus experience a lower divorce rate, are also more likely to accept gay marriage as part of that equation. Still, it's also possible that gays, who aren't likely to marry until all the kinks, shall we say, are ironed out of their relationships, are also more likely to stay hitched, thus lowering the divorce rate somewhat for everyone.

And just btw, "In Massachusetts, which legalized gay marriage in 2004, the divorce rate has declined by 21 percent and is the lowest in the country by some margin."

So hooray for us. And tell that to your priest next time you see him stocking up on anal lube at Costco.

The Catholic closet

This is off-topic, yes I know, but it's so funny I had to post it. Andrew Sullivan notes that many priests buy bulk communion wafers online, at Then he noticed exactly what "customers who bought this item also bought." (Scroll down and look to the right. I do wonder if the communion wafers and the Astroglide come in separate shipments!)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Meanwhile, over at the Mirror Up to Nature . . .

Boston's nicest theatre blogger, Art Hennessey (sorry Ian, you're just too mischievous!) is compiling a spreadsheet of the last ten years to discover which playwrights (other than Shakespeare) are most often produced in the Hub. The blogosphere - or at least the young-playwright portions of the blogosphere - has been shaken recently by Terry Teachout's grand reveal that new work, not the classics, seems to dominate our stages (see post below). This pretty much aligns with my own observations, but Art has found that at least in Boston, classic playwrights that Teachout claimed had all but disappeared from performance have, in fact, retained a foothold. I can't wait to see how it all turns out.

The real generation gap

Last weekend I caught the Actors' Shakespeare Project's new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which the itinerant troupe set not in the woods surrounding Athens but in the alleys of the inner city. The piece featured several teenage actors, in gangsta or goth attire, as the fairies, Oberon had been transmuted into Keith Richards, and Titania I guess into Courtney Love. This is all pretty much par for the postmodern course - every recent production of Midsummer I've seen has been self-consciously harsh - but I'll get around to a full review of the production soon enough; what I've been mulling, actually, is the attitude toward Shakespeare - and maybe classic theatre in general - evinced by the artistic strategy behind it.

Clearly the production had been partially funded as a means of introducing inner city youth to the Bard - fair enough; Shakespeare has long been seen as something like Sandy Dennis in Up the Down Staircase, only in doublet and hose. And I'm all for introducing inner city youth, and youth in general, to my favorite playwright! Still, cutting Shakespeare down to the size of current pop culture (the poetry and music in Midsummer had either gone missing or turned to rap) always troubles me - isn't the point of education to expand a young person's horizons, rather than re-inforce their assumptions? And I began to wonder a bit about another generation, and what these kind of efforts might reveal about them.

Now it's no secret that a lot of people are worried, very worried, over the fact that theatrical audiences seem to be getting grayer and grayer with each passing year. Everyone's worried, very worried. And I suppose their fears are valid, although in classical music the trend seems even more pronounced (I've been to concerts where aging patrons have actually collapsed and been taken out by EMTs). The standard solution offered to this problem is that we must inculcate the theatre-going habit in young people. We must get more teens and twenty-somethings into the theatres!

Now I agree with that sentiment whole-heartedly, of course, but I don't think it tells the whole story. Frankly, I'd like to get our forty-somethings into the theatre, too.

Because to be blunt, the theatre has never been paid for by twenty-somethings; they simply don't have the cash, and so have always been confined to the last, student-rush rows in the theatre. This was the case twenty years ago, when I was that age, and I'm sure twenty years before that and twenty years before that.

No, it seem to me that's what actually different about the audience demographic these days is that the middle-aged aren't filling up the seats like they used to. Instead, the baby boomers are still going to rock concerts and clubs, earplugs in place, and pretending they're super-annuated guitar heroes and rock chicks. They don't want to be seen at high culture because that's like what their parents would like. Vice Presidents of Marketing tell themselves they're still rebels. Assistant Directors of Technology Implementation convince themselves they don't need Viagra.

Ah, if only - but sorry, you ka-razy kids, it's time to settle down and take your seats in, yes, high culture. And please don't tell yourself that your poor kids are going to take your place there, that they are going to carry on with western civilization while you go smoke a doobie! It can't work that way. You are no longer young. It's time to get with the classical program.

So maybe the next time the Actors' Shakespeare Project schedules A Midsummer Night's Dream, they should find a grant for casting middle-aged white guys as Peaseblossom, Cobweb and Mustardseed. Let's introduce the magic of Shakespeare to the baby boom! I wanna see a few paunches in fairyland, a few balding dudes with ponytails (ack!). That is the kind of outreach that just might save the theatre.