Sunday, February 28, 2010

Diamond delivers

Nikkole Salter examines a dramatic specimen in Stick Fly.

Ah, Lydia R. Diamond. My pointed criticism of this female, Black (sure, I'll capitalize it, though maybe I should capitalize Female too?) playwright's early work has brought a veritable avalanche of hatred down on my head from the likes of the oleaginous Isaac Butler, the pissy J. Holtham, and the fatuously repellent Rob Weinert-Kendt.

But now, funnily enough, Diamond has gone and written a very good play - Stick Fly, now at the Huntington through March 28. It's a remarkable and entertaining piece of craft, a genuinely funny comedy of racial manners that pivots persuasively into domestic drama. So I have to reverse myself and admit there's much more to Ms. Diamond than being "sexy and connected," as I once suspected. But at the same time, the thing that may drive the blogosphere crazy again is that Diamond has made this major artistic jump by, indeed, addressing her own psychological issues around race (and with remarkable good humor) rather than projecting them onto history. As my friend whispered to me at intermission, "It's like she's been reading your blog, and agreed with you!"

Now of course that's impossible - Stick Fly was written some time ago. But it's striking that Diamond has abandoned her usual slave-girl narratives - which struck me as utterly false - and turned a fresh and honest eye (for the most part) on a young woman much like herself: smart, educated, hyper-articulate, and fluttering at the edge of the upper echelons of African-American wealth and privilege. This is her actual milieu, she knows it well, and her new honesty about the construction of "race" among the upper classes gives her play a refreshing edge. In a way, of course, the success of Stick Fly may be merely one more example of the wisdom of the old advice, "Write what you know!" But it's good to see the old saw still has some teeth in it.

Of course, this wouldn't be Lydia R. Diamond if there weren't a few twists here and there in the telling of the tale. I was surprised, for instance, to discover that while she had set her play on Martha's Vineyard, she had located it not in Oak Bluffs, the historical center of the Island's black community, but in the snootier, far-whiter Edgartown. I myself summered for years in Oak Bluffs with my partner, and we loved its wholesome yet jazzy vibe (amusingly enough, we could never stand snobby Edgartown). But class - or perhaps the better word is status - may be Diamond's true subject (more on that later), so I soon understood why she had re-located black Vineyard life to a town where it seems just about everything is painted bright white. (Alas, Diamond also seemed about to play fast and loose with history at one point with an implication that the Vineyard's first seacaptain of color was active in the slave trade - he was actually a whaler. I think that line could be cut.)

But in general, Diamond's writing is taut and "true," as Louise Kennedy might coo, and she lays out a situation and a set of characters that by today's standards are surprising in their scope, and hint at the ambitions of such canonized writers as Miller and O'Neill (and maybe even Chekhov). Diamond sets her scene, a typical summer-vacation gathering, in the ancestral home of the LeVays, one of the most prominent black families on the Vineyard - only the house comes with an unusual provenance: it's the inheritance of the family matriarch, who for some reason is missing from this particular outing. Actually make that two matriarchs who are missing - the LeVays' long-time housekeeper, "Miss Ellie" has been replaced by her daughter, Cheryl, who seems almost like family (with a stress on "almost").


Into this intriguing scene, redolent as it is with history and possible doppelgängers, Diamond drops - well, herself, actually; but her factotum is named "Taylor," an almost-too-striving entomologist (that's someone who studies bugs) engaged to Spoon, the second son of the LeVay clan, who after years of "floundering" (according to his father) has only just found himself as a novelist. Dad's much sweeter on his more-successful son, Flip, a plastic surgeon who has a distant look in his eye for all the social flash he commands - and who also comes accoutred with a white fiancée, Kimber, a pale porcelain goddess from (wait for it) Kennebunkport, i.e., Bushville, one of the Democratic Vineyard's corresponding Republican stars in this country's galaxy of privileged enclaves.

We sense immediately this could lead to quite a comedy of manners indeed. And sure enough, Kimber - who has actually rejected her family's lifestyle and works with black kids in the inner city - is soon being dissed by Taylor for her white-girl guilt with something close to mania. (Or maybe egomania.) It's a hackle-raising scene - especially since Kimber is forced to endure it purely for the color of her skin - that kick-starts Diamond's somewhat leisurely exposition into higher gear. Even more strikingly, the rant is very much in Diamond's former dramatic voice. But this time that voice doesn't control her play; indeed, it's held within a much larger structure, which in effect critiques it. And to her great credit, it's clear that the playwright (via her other characters) seems to realize that given the situation - these people are all going to be family - Taylor's behavior is destructive and socially impossible; indeed, her attitude of adopted oppression becomes almost a topic of mockery from the LeVays, who want for nothing and are, as they say, highly assimilated. This in and of itself is quite interesting. But I think Diamond doesn't take the next step which could have transformed Stick Fly from a very good play into a great play.

This would have been to investigate the links between Taylor's obvious need for status and the real sources of racism (which after all is only the most unfair and arbitrarily evil form of status-seeking). Indeed, oddly enough, Kimber is more in touch with racism as a grave moral problem than Taylor is, and is clearly doing more to fight it than Flip (or any of the LeVays). Diamond hints here and there at this theme - at one point Kimber unthinkingly describes Cheryl as being like the LeVays' "slave" - but the playwright generally steers clear of these very fraught waters, the better to focus on the issues that drive Taylor's sensitivity.

These turn out, believably enough, to be abandonment-related (Taylor was raised by a single mother), a complex which Diamond teases out via the hidden truth about Cheryl: she's actually the daughter of Mr. LeVay by Miss Ellie, and so a half-sister to Flip and Spoon, and what's more - although this is never spoken aloud - a possible claimant to the more-stately mansion she's been cleaning (which, as I noted earlier, is bound up with matriarchy, not patriarchy). With these strokes, Diamond seems to be edging toward her own take on the mode of Chekhov and O'Neill - that is, toward some of the deepest social statements naturalism so far has been able to make.

Not that she's quite there yet. There's a sudsy subplot about a past sexual liaison that doesn't lead anywhere in particular, and strange as it may sound, Diamond's heroine (i.e., her own persona), who first opened the door to all this drama, begins to get a little bit in the way. Taylor remains amusing, and actress Nikkole Salter contributes a brilliantly detailed and compelling performance that keeps her character sympathetic even when she's at her most abrasive; but as the play moves forward, we begin to realize that the playwright has developed so much intriguing material that her heroine is now actually the least interesting person onstage. We understand her completely, indeed we know her almost too well - it's everyone else who has become tinged with mystery. Suddenly all sorts of political and sexual live wires begin to spark, if only briefly: Diamond drops hint after hint about sexism and the possible unconscious emasculation of black men, about class consciousness among African-Americans, about the perils of compromise, and about a matriarchy that is all-powerful but absent (Mrs. LeVay never appears, much as we wish she would). Flip begins to look more haunted, and Kimber more strangely opaque, even as Cheryl edges toward tragedy, and Mr. LeVay toward coldness-unto-cruelty; Taylor's problems with sorority girls do begin to look like nothing next to this.

But Diamond can't give her up, and she can't quite give up on using Cheryl as Taylor's factotum either, just as Taylor is her own (yes, there's a double doppelgänger-thang going on in this show, a fact which Diamond underlines once or twice in case we miss it). The focus of the second act seems to move to Cheryl, but really doesn't (despite a wonderful performance from Amber Iman), when it really should. Indeed, to my mind its rising action should lead inevitably to Cheryl's confrontation with Mrs. LeVay; but instead, the curtain falls on a plaintive Taylor wondering, only half-ironically, "Do you think they liked me?" The answer, of course, is that we do, we really do, but there are simply bigger fish to be caught in Diamond's suddenly-wider dramatic sea. At the same time, one does wonder somewhere if the playwright isn't merely following a well-worn set of treads in American theatre (and especially television!) by teasing us with political conflict, then diverting us into domestic drama. (I had to almost slap myself as I thought, "Wait a minute, Lydia - what about racism???") Because ironically enough, to keep the focus on Taylor, Diamond is forced to paint Kimber as a kind of white-plaster saint; Flip remains a cypher, and even Spoon, the most sympathetic of the LeVays, doesn't get a chance to grapple with the reality of his new sister. O'Neill and Chekhov, and even Miller, would have gone further with all these characters.

But of course these issues only mean that Diamond now promises even greater achievements than Stick Fly. It's actually very high praise to be complaining that a new playwright hasn't matched O'Neill or Chekhov! It means, in fact, that the dramatist has artfully managed the coordination and deployment of a host of issues that usually bring down lesser talents. Ms. Diamond is now in Tracy Letts territory, and she has clearly got structural chops that better August Wilson's; I'm not sure she has her own unique voice yet - the sense that her language is connected deeply to her themes. (Right now her style is a little too Aaron-Sorkin-West-Wing-esque.) But that may come with time.

Of course it must be said that Diamond has been blessed with a remarkable production at the Huntington. Kenny Leon's direction is insightful and seamless, and while the entire cast is strong, there are particularly detailed, utterly-lived in characterizations from not only Salter and Iman, but also Rosie Benton (Kimber) and Billy Eugene Jones (Flip). (Just as an aside, the production also gives one hope, as it comes hot on the heels of All My Sons and Fences, that the Peter DuBois regime at the Huntington has finally found its feet.)

Yet great productions of new plays inevitably and appropriately give the spotlight over to the play itself - and its writer. Needless to say, my attitude toward Lydia R. Diamond has shifted from "Oh God - not her again!" to "Hmmm - how far can she really go?" In Stick Fly, her heroine is devoted to examining the various "bugs" she encounters; and my guess is that while the playwright has clearly taken a hint from her own character, she still hasn't quite managed to keep focus on what's in front of her. In other words, I think that with this very strong new play, Diamond has broken out of writing about who she is and what she wants, and has begun to write about what she has seen and what she knows. More, please.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Why, oh why, oh why-o

Leonard ponders the closing of NYC's Ohio Theatre here. His take: "the theater community hardly remains united when it comes to advocacy." Somehow the comments from that community seem to back up his thesis.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Walters replies, sort of . . .

. . . but it's more of the same illogical weirdness. It's true I have turned off the comments section for awhile, to avoid the kind of flames that "Troll-Watcher" posted on Walters's blog. (I can tell he's never been through what I've been through before, with physical threats, etc.) If he thinks that's the equivalent of banning someone with a known identity, then he's, well, just more pompously silly than I thought. Walters also opines that I may be feeling "guilty" about parodying J. Holtham's viciousness. Really? Would I could parody that asshole all day long! (It would be so easy.) Walters does say his reasons for banning me are in the paragraph in which I discuss the rather obvious motivations for Holtham's and Butler's blogging. Sigh. He really hasn't figured that one out? Poor Scott.

[Update: Walters has apparently taken down the post. I guess even he realized just how lame it was.]

Terry Teachout has an interesting idea, BUT . . .

As I've noted before, many New York bloggers are in a tizzy because the Royal Shakespeare Company is coming to town next summer to, well, show up their Shakespeare. (And it turns out a lot of their money is coming from Americans!) The fact that the RSC is building its own temporary stage has given the Wall Street Journal's Terry Teachout an interesting idea - why not keep the stage, and reserve it for performances of the classics by regional theatres? This is of course an appealing suggestion - no doubt related to the fact that Teachout actually travels the country, looking at, and reviewing, theatre outside New York. But there is a problem - just as New York is quite sure its Shakespeare is as good as anything the Brits could offer, so the Big Apple is equally sure that its theatre is superior to anything going on in the rest of America! So technically, for most New York bloggers, Teachout's suggestion would be a lose/lose: first they'd be shown up by the RSC, then they'd be shown up by Peoria!

On another, unrelated, note, it's nice to see Teachout's rave for Israel Horovitz's Sins of the Mother, which he rightly notes "in a better-regulated world would now be playing on Broadway." I couldn't agree more, and just wanted to add that the play's Gloucester Stage production earned it an IRNE nomination for Best New Play.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Johann, Johann & Johann

The statue of Bach outside the Thomaskirche in Liepzig.

If I had to do a quick, back-of-an-envelope list of Bostons' best singers, Teresa Wakim, Thea Lobo, Ulysses Thomas, and Jason McStoots would all be on it. So I was eager to hear them sing together in last weekend's Exsultemus concert devoted to the church music of Leipzig in the era of Bach. This relatively young ensemble, which generally is in residence at the First Lutheran Church in Back Bay, has recently been programming in-depth looks at the sacred music of various musical centers of the German baroque. Last weekend's concert centered on Liepzig, and offered an unusual chance to hear not only the period's big kahuna in his heyday, but also the music of Johann Schelle and Johann Kuhnau, the previous Johanns in the prestigious Lipezig position of "Thomaskantor" (that is, Cantor to both the St. Thomas Lutheran Church and its School - see photo above).

The program opened with a happy blast on the First Lutheran organ from Bálint Karosi, who attempted, but to my mind didn't quite pull off, Bach's Prelude and Fugue in C Major (that's BMV 545, not 846), in which the blistering dialogue between pedal and keyboard felt a bit impacted and awkward at points.

Karosi was much fleeter and light-fingered, however, once he joined the ensemble upfront to play organ for the Kuhnau and Schelle. Of these two composers, Kuhnau, who immediately preceded Bach as Thomaskantor, is the better known - but Schelle's chamber cantata Dazu ist erschienen der Sohn Gottes made me wonder why, at least as its vocal line was essayed here by bass-baritone Ulysses Thomas. I last heard Mr. Thomas as the Commendatore in BLO's Don Giovanni - in which, for reasons unknown, the director decided to amplify his voice. Thomas didn't need amplification then, and certainly doesn't need it now. Indeed, up close and personal in the First Lutheran Church, his voice seemed bigger than ever, and imbued with an astonishing depth and range of color; it's the kind of voice in which you can sense one burnished shade of bronze moving over other, even deeper ones. Mr. Thomas is not yet a fluid actor, but he sings with an open sincerity that's quite appealing (given the tendency of so many baroque singers to emote in roughly the same smooth, sugary way). He was also lucky in the passionately committed back-up he received from the instrumental ensemble, particularly from violinists Laura Gulley and Jesse Irons.

The Kuhnau works that followed seemed somehow less forceful, but were still lovely. Soprano Wakim and tenor McStoots found an exquisite lyricism in each; Wakim was her usual luminous self in the slightly-meandering Und ob die Feinde Tag und Nacht ("Although Our Enemies Day and Night"), and McStoots likewise brought the handsome melodiousness he's known for to the tighter Laudate pueri Dominum ("Praise ye the Lord, ye children"). The instrumental ensemble was again superb, but special praise must go to Tom Zajac, who acquitted himself exceptionally well on the notoriously difficult early trombone.

Wakim and McStoots joined forces with Thomas and alto (if usually mezzo!) Thea Lobo for a ravishing final cantata by Bach, Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe ("Jesus gathered the Twelve to himself"). The blending of these four great voices (although the soprano didn't join in till the end) was probably the highlight of a very rich and rewarding program (even if on the instrumental side, period oboist Graham St.-Laurent seemed to struggle a bit at first). The next offering from Exsultemus is an afternoon devoted to "Lent in Dresden" on March 14, again at First Lutheran. Period music enthusiasts will not want to miss it.

The women of Urbanity Dance.

It's only sophomore year for Betsi Graves Akerstein's Urbanity Dance, but the troupe looks stronger than it has any right to, with more dancers, more fans (the performance I saw nearly sold out) and more artistic ambition than companies twice (or gosh, even three times!) its tender age. Already Urbanity is commissioning new musical work, toying with high technology, and making innovations in its dance development process. But I'm afraid the company's burgeoning ambitions don't always bear artistic fruit - at least not this time around; Akerstein and her dancers are pushing the conceptual limits of what their art can be, but to communicate their fresh ideas they're too often sticking with the dated language of jazz dance, and a collective approach that guarantees them a broad appeal, but limits their interpretive depth.

Of course it's a bit ridiculous to expect a fledgling troupe to begin immediately competing with the likes of, say, Nederlands Dans Theater. And certainly having broad appeal isn't exactly a bad place to be. Urbanity's sophomore year hardly qualifies as a slump. Still, it would have been nice to see some steps forward (even baby steps) from the company's debut. And frankly, the troupe's logistical prowess produces such a polished effect (there were dozens of costumes, lighting effects, and even a giant projection of computer graphics this time around) that high (perhaps unrealistically high) artistic expectations almost inevitably ensue.

Still, nothing in the concert dragged, and the pieces moved uphill in quality (always a good sign). Big Red Door, a collaborative venture between Graves Akerstein and her dancers, had its moments - particularly in a brief, struggling duet for Jon Arpino and Becky Anderson - but these didn't amount to all that much in the end. Urbanity has a weakness for earnest, rather broad vignettes revolving around obvious symbols (last year's concert featured a girl-sized cage; this year we got the eponymous "big red door," above left). At first I didn't really want to think too hard about what, exactly, that "big red door" might literally refer to - but by the end of the dance, with its many rather generic movements, the symbol seemed so generalized that I didn't much care what it might refer to. The good news was that Big Red Door featured two male dancers (Arpino and Theo Martinez) as strong as the many women who form the core (and corps) of Urbanity, and whenever they were around, the piece had some real kick.

Which was more than you could say for Little Blue Dot (above), an ambitious attempt to say something or other - I'm not sure what - about dance and navigation via the Global Positioning System. Oddly enough, the original music commissioned for the work - composed by the talented Mu-Xuan Lin after the choreography was set - proved quite intriguing; it was the dance itself that was abstractly inert.

Luckily the troupe seemed to double down after this elaborate misfire. Red Smoke Rises, by Michelle Chassé, took its Elmer Bernstein score just about where we thought it would, but Urbanity's jazz-dancy aesthetic slid into Bernstein's brass like a hot hand into a long, slinky glove, and the piece - lit in lurid, neon red - was undeniably fun. Better still was KK Apple's Big White Moon, a genuinely haunting meditation on the loss of youth that included several motifs of innocence - including slo-mo versions of happy, heedless running - that were unexpectedly poignant. This piece deserves a place in Urbanity's "repertory," if that's what they're building.

The final dance on the program, Green Grass Grows (again by Graves Akerstein) summed up, it seemed to me, both this promising troupe's strengths and current limits. Set to music from "The Knee Plays," the minimalist divertissements scattered through Philip Glass's epic Einstein on the Beach (and featuring vocalists simply counting to eight over and over), Grass featured not just a large company but also many blocks of literal turf. The dance played out as something like Busby-Berkeley-does-Buddhism, but actually, that's a pretty interesting thing to attempt, and you had to admire both Graves Akerstein's choreographic skill as well as her guts for trying to make sense of this notoriously obscure stretch of chant (which still puzzled plenty of people in the audience). The only trouble with the piece was that the Urbanities (the Urbanites?) didn't yet have the clean precision that minimalism really requires. But like its subject matter - and this appealing troupe - this dance can only grow over time.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

When is a terrorist not a terrorist?

In one of the most embarrassingly unconscious self-accusations in recent memory, Newsweek weighs in on why Joe Stack, the guy who flew his plane into an IRS building, was "not a terrorist" here. The brilliant Glen Greenwald tears Newsweek a new one here. Over at Mother Jones, Kevin Drum teases out a possible argument that Stack doesn't qualify as a terrorist: his gripes against "the system" were too crackpot to qualify as political justification for what was, obviously, a terrorist act. Your mileage may vary on that one, but for me it's Drum's argument that doesn't quite qualify as a political justification for not calling Stack a terrorist.

Meanwhile Mark P. Shea wonders aloud, "Why aren't we waterboarding Joe Stack's daughter right now?" After all, she called her dad "a hero," and she certainly could be connected to the crazy-tea-baggin' underbelly of American culture. What does she know, and when did she know it? Charles Krauthammer, what's your opinion?

[Update: It turns out Stack's daughter moved to Norway some years ago. Make that high-tax, but almost all-white, Norway.]

Taken together, all this "debate" does begin to get at a central question about those who support torture in this country, which is: are they racist, consciously or unconsciously? What does it mean when we're so reluctant to call a crazed white man who flies his plane into a building a terrorist? Why is waterboarding his white daughter so completely out of the question for these people? In other words, is support for torture really a form of racism? Newsweek editors, discuss among yourselves!

The Globe gets ugly

There seems to be a kind of small-scale panic going on over at the Globe these days regarding Boston's brutalist architecture. A few weeks back someone named Sarah Schweitzer published a kind of ode to the city's ugliest buildings in the Globe magazine; then Robert Campbell, long a champion of the blight his alma mater (Harvard) has inflicted on the local landscape, penned a similar paean here. Both argued that majority opinion on these concrete dinosaurs was about to change. I demolished their arguments (if not, alas, the actual buildings) here.

Last week, Campbell revealed what may be the source of the panic: a British city has chosen a postmodern structure to raze, based on a country-wide popular vote. (And that building, though no looker, is merely mediocre; it's hardly as hideous as Boston City Hall.) Egad, Muffy! "Taking architectural criticism to an extreme, a British city plans to tear down a building because it’s too ugly," Campbell sputtered; fancy that - the masses are revolting, without any guidance from the tastemakers! But like many a clever Harvard man, Campbell knew better than to actually oppose the oncoming mob with their torches and pitchforks; instead, he re-directed them to other local architectural atrocities: the South Station Postal Annex (yikes!), and the Government Center Garage (aargh!).

Now no one could deny these give Boston City Hall more than a run for its money in the Ugly Betty Architectural Sweepstakes; at the same time, however, it's hard to imagine public anger building toward them because one is tucked away in what amounts to an industrial zone, and the other is - well, a parking garage. We don't hold warehouses and garages to the same standards we expect of public monuments.

What Campbell and Schweitzer really can't face is that the dislike of this kind of modern architecture isn't a "fashion," as they claim - instead, they are the ones in the sway of fashion, albeit a fifty-year-old fashion. They both operate in a nostalgic mode which has long been set for them in aesthetic stone (or maybe concrete); they can't see the objects of their affection for what they are - a response to a singular set of political circumstances which have long since vanished and aren't coming back any time soon. We don't have to live in bombed-out fortresses anymore, as if we'd survived Dresden, nor do we have to continue to pretend that industrial design represents "progress." Hard as it is to accept, these ideas were fashions that always mapped to intellectual fantasy more than urban reality.

Campbell and Schweitzer may have a point in keeping the highest iterations of the form, like Peabody Terrace, which is at least thoughtfully wrought, and (better yet) leaves a small footprint. But gigantic, sprawling dinosaurs like Boston City Hall? I'd say it's time for the wrecking ball - my only qualm comes from the sense that we're unlikely to do better, and may do worse, in replacing it. Indeed, what I think Campbell is particularly blind to is the one fact of Boston architecture that's evident all around us - up until about the 1920's, Boston's urban fabric more than cohered; it was remarkably vibrant, and studded with small masterpieces. Then for some reason, the city lost its architectural mojo mid-century, and nothing's been the same since. The question is why.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

On grabbing the third rail

This piece by Stephen Walt has been getting a lot of play on the web recently, and I can see why - it's a pretty good guide to surviving the smears that inevitably result when one states unpopular or controversial truths. Of course at the Hub Review, I don't so much grab the third rail of controversy as never let it go. And one thing I've learned is that time proving you right is in the end, little comfort emotionally - because it only makes your enemies more pissed off than ever. But you can find some comfort in the experiences of those who've made the same essentially-romantic gestures that you have, and the following bits of wisdom from Walt really resonated with me:

The more compelling your arguments are, the nastier the attacks will be;

Don't be surprised or disappointed when people tell you privately that that they agree with you and admire what you are doing, but never say so publicly;

And most of all:

When someone challenges a taboo or takes on some well-entrenched conventional wisdom, his or her opponents invariably have the upper hand at first. They will seek to silence or discredit you as quickly as they can, so that your perspective, which they obviously won't like, does not gain any traction with the public. But this means that as long as you remain part of the debate, you're winning.

So here's to winning anyway.

Song of the South (and the North, too)

Scenes from Black Pearl Sings! at the Merrimack Rep.

In days of yore, when fading stars of stage and screen needed steady work, they often turned to the theatrical form known as the "vehicle" - the script tailored precisely to the profile of a specific actor or actress. Of course "vehicles" still exist (A Bronx Tale, anyone?), but these days concepts or songs have often take the place of the star in the driver's seat. The 'virtual' vehicle - the show driven by its political stance (Avenue Q) or musical style (Jersey Boys) - has become the most common variant of the species.

Black Pearl Sings!, the new play by Frank Higgins now at the Merrimack Rep, is just this kind of machine - it basically takes African-American spirituals out for a feel-good theatrical spin. And for its first half or so, the script's dramatic mechanics, though obvious, work fairly well. In the second half, alas, the wheels fall off the chassis - but at least this happens for interesting reasons.

Author Higgins has basically taken a page from history - the "discovery" of "Leadbelly" (Huddie William Ledbetter) in a Southern prison by musicologists John and Alan Lomax in 1933 - then tried to turn it into a Hallmark card. He has changed the genders of his protagonists, and made a joke of the crime that sent Leadbelly to jail (Leadbelly had knifed a white man - he'd also earlier killed a relative - while Higgins's "Black Pearl" is doing time for cutting her husband's "pecker" off, which these days counts as a laugh line). The playwright has also modeled his heroine as a singer rather than an original songwriter, which makes her more malleable as a symbol than the flawed, fiery Leadbelly.

There's a method behind all these choices, of course - Higgins is interested in archetypes (or maybe stereotypes) because he has in mind not an individualized drama, but a celebration of the spiritual, and a political critique of the white appreciation of it as well. But while this is certainly an intriguing premise, it's also a challenging one, and Higgins doesn't seem quite up to the dramatic task he has set himself.

The playwright limits himself to just two characters, the imprisoned "Pearl," (Cherene Snow) and her discoverer, "Susannah," (Valerie Leonard), a Library of Congress investigator bent on finding an unknown song that "dates to before slave times." And he duly works up a set of conflicting motives for their uneasy cooperation: Susannah sees in Pearl her ticket to a prominent post at Harvard; Pearl sees in Susannah a ticket out of prison, and even a chance to make contact with her long-lost daughter. These two motivations are of course completely out of balance, ethically and emotionally, but that's part of the playwright's plan, and he uses this discrepancy to keep a serviceable level of tension going throughout his first act.

But once Pearl is freed - yet distracted from finding her daughter by Susannah's machinations - Higgins loses control of his play, largely because he is in no way an ironist (in fact, he all but drips earnestness). Yet he's attempting to limn a deeply ironic scenario; thus the tone of Black Pearl Sings! goes haywire as Pearl begins to sing for white audiences, and receives joyous acclaim, while Higgins forces her through unlikely narrative hoops to keep up a sense of her exploitation (Susannah's insistence on Pearl dressing as a prisoner onstage, for instance, just seems ridiculous). Of course in a way the playwright is hamstrung because the point he's trying to make implicates his audience, too - we, like Susannah, are more interested in Pearl's music than her history. We're exploiting the African-American spiritual as much as she is. And what's more, the playwright is, too.

I'm not sure if there's a way out of that artistic conundrum; but if there is, Higgins doesn't find it, and the tragedy he tacks on to the tail end of the script feels - well, tacked-on. The final irony, however, is that his play is still often affecting because the African-American spiritual is indeed a most powerful thing, and Cherene Snow has the voice to deliver it a cappella with tremendous emotional force (and Valerie Leonard's no slouch vocally, either). What's more, Snow underplays Pearl to poignant perfection - and if Leonard slightly over-indicates Susannah's highstrung nature, she still gets points for sweetly negotiating just about every white-chick cliché on the books (she can't dance, can't get a man, etc., etc.). Over the course of the evening these two talented women do achieve a strong sense of connection on stage. So once again we find our performers redeeming at least their material, if not the terrible history that said material seeks to limn.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The rose window at St. John the Divine in New York.

One of the great achievements of the early music movement - and Martin Pearlman's Boston Baroque in particular - has been its reclamation of Monteverdi from his lapsarian status as "that Italian guy before Bach." Last weekend's performances of the great composer's Vespers of 1610 only cemented that achievement. Monteverdi should have always been set somewhere on the boundary of Big Three territory, in that he brought pre-baroque forms such as the madrigal to the highest pitch they ever reached. But as early music pioneers have made us more and more familiar with his masterpieces, his status as a forger of new musical form has begun to seem to rival Beethoven's and Wagner's. Monteverdi of course all but invented opera, but nearly as original is his Vespers, a work unprecedented (at the time) in its scope and ambition, and one that all but defies categorization even today.

Of course on the surface, Monteverdi pretty much follows the normal structure of the Catholic rite of vespers, the evening ritual in which a series of sung psalms and antiphons leads to a Magnificat, a canticle dedicated to both the glory and humility of the Virgin Mary. In fact the Vespers was written, many believe, as a kind of audition for the top musical post at St. Mark's cathedral in Venice (Monteverdi got the job).

But it's hard to look at this piece as a résumé-builder, even for a genius; instead it sometimes feels like a kind of musical big bang, a technical, stylistic, and metaphorical explosion that in a way kick-started everything. Monteverdi leaps from motet to sonata to psalm and back again, all while somehow maintaining a sense of unity; he splits and re-forms his choir at will, and sometimes provides them with up to 10 separate vocal parts, all operating in synchrony(the piece also calls for seven soloists). What's more, Vespers is set all over the performance space, be it cathedral, chapel or concert hall - sometimes we can't even see the singers, as they're intended as voices of the cosmos, responding re-assuringly to the profession of human faith.

Now I don't believe in God, but Monteverdi certainly did (he eventually became a priest), and frankly, sometimes he almost convinces me of His existence. There are few more haunting moments in all of Western music, for instance, than "Duo seraphim," his duet for two angels floating in space, singing the glory of the Almighty (they're eventually joined by a third, who fuses with them into a single note when they praise the Trinity). Here conductor Martin Pearlman placed his tenors, Derek Chester and Aaron Sheehan, in the balconies of Jordan Hall, to thrillingly plaintive effect, and Monteverdi's evocation of the mystery of God's presence gripped us not only as great music but also as great theatre (and maybe even great architecture).

Alas, not all the soloists fared as well from the stage itself. Mr. Pearlman had clearly instructed his singers to strip their styles down toward pure-tone singing, and so I missed some of the vocal richness I expected from Mary Wilson and Kristen Watson, who both shone to better advantage in operatic roles with Boston Baroque earlier this year; indeed, of Pearlman's soloists (almost all of them familiar from earlier programs) I felt only baritone Donald Wilkinson was operating at his best. And the wind section, though fine in unison, sometimes got a little ragged when each instrument was exposed for long stretches. Likewise the height of Monteverdi's polyphony - those 10-part-plus sequences - didn't always feel entirely coherent.

But this is, admittedly, an incredible challenge, and any roughness here may have been partly due to understandable opening-night coordination issues; at any rate the chorus generally sounded superb, and nowhere more beautiful than in Monteverdi's concluding Magnificat, one of the most touching ever written. And Pearlman's mastery of the total arc of the Vespers was always and everywhere evident. The piece calls for a high degree of editorial intervention; much of the instrumentation is suggested but not pinned down, the position of some motets is disputed, and precisely which antiphons should be included is never specified (Pearlman took his from the Feast of the Assumption, certainly an appropriate choice). It's no secret that Pearlman's decisions on these and other key points have led to a version that many consider "the" Vespers of our time (it's already won a Grammy). Certainly the "Pearlman version" limns every - sometimes contradictory - facet of the piece: its intimacy and its grandeur, its period "feel" and yet its strange sense of timelessness. His exploitation of every nook and cranny of Jordan Hall was also brilliant, and only makes me long to hear this version in New York on March 6, when Boston Baroque will bring the Vespers to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, surely a close-to-ideal venue for hearing Monteverdi's music of the spheres.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Too many great actresses! And a busy weekend.

At the knock-down-drag-'em-out IRNE nominations meeting a week or two ago, the toughest category was probably "Best Actress" and "Best Supporting Actress."

And why?

Because we just have too damn many great actresses in this town, that's why. And this weekend I get to see three of them, all of whom wound up on the IRNE ballot for their performances last year: Marianna Bassham and Anne Gottlieb square off in Not Enough Air at the Nora, while Karen MacDonald (thank you, Diane Paulus!) opens in boom at the New Rep.

Elsewhere on the "docket" (it's a busy weekend): last night was the Monteverdi Vespers at Boston Baroque (lovely, if not yet polished to a high sheen); today is Urbanity Dance in the afternoon, followed by Merrimack Rep's Black Pearl Sings this evening. Tomorrow I'm off to the matinee of Nora Theatre's Not Enough Air, then a concert of baroque cantatas from Exsultemus featuring some of my favorite Boston singers (Teresa Wakim, Jason McStoots, Thea Lobo and Ulysses Thomas). Then Monday, it's Karen in New Rep's boom.

And I may still try to squeeze in a showing of Part 1 of Red Riding at the Kendall Square. Think I can do it?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Shakespeare and polyphony

Last weekend's concert at Handel and Haydn, "Zest for Love" (which I gave a quick rave to here) was that rarity - a performance that opened up for me a new window onto Shakespeare. The evening was a kind of salon of instrumental music, madrigals, and spoken text (all from the Bard, delivered by actors from the Huntington) - an unusual, polyglot form that was nevertheless only reviewed by music critics, as basically a musical concert with the occasional poem. It hinted, however, at pan-cultural themes, rather in the way that Boston Baroque's Acis and Galatea - which paired visual and musical art - did last fall.

Of course such efforts inevitably are hobbled by the mania for critical specialization that has infected our discourse. Music critics in particular are almost mad to demonstrate technical expertise rather than insight or vision. This of course makes "criticism" easy in one sense, because frankly we're surrounded by stunning musical talent in Boston; in technical terms, most local professional concerts are superb.

But this critical tunnel vision means that the whole point of efforts like "Zest" and Acis is easily missed; the Globe review of "Zest," for instance, offered as one of its few critical ideas that "More solo pieces would have provided a change of texture, and illustrated where madrigals were heading at the end of this period, toward the solo aria." This is true - Monteverdi led the way from the madrigal to the aria - but it assumes that this salon must have "really" been about its music, and doesn't actually address the form of the performance, or what kind of artistic statements could be made by that form. As for the intriguing sense of intimacy that Handel and Haydn achieved - with conductor Laurence Cummings conducting, singing, and playing keyboards while vocalists wandered the theatre and instrumentalists came and went - this too has gone un-discussed in the print press. I remember being struck by a similar kind of blindness at Acis and Galatea. "What's with those paintings?" the puzzled musical aficionados around me sniffed, before getting down to haggling over tempi and dynamics, which are, as we all know, what opera is really all about.

Now I wouldn't say that "Zest for Love" was actually some kind of triumphant synthesis; but in its pairing of Monteverdi, English madrigals, and Shakespeare, I felt (as I almost never do) that something of the actual zeitgeist of their period was in the air. When I say "period," I'm speaking roughly: many of the vocal selections sung were from Monteverdi's famous "Eighth Book" of madrigals, which was only published about twenty years after Shakespeare's death. But of course madrigals had suffused the English scene by then for decades. And one of the most intriguing of the Monteverdi madrigals performed, Lamento della Ninfa, felt almost like a madrigal-opera, with dramatic solo lines breaking free from the generally polyphonic structure.

It was hard at moments like this not to think of the Bard, and of his heroes and heroines wandering through their own densely contrapuntal thematic landscapes - and even, perhaps, of a transference of cultural ideas between one art form and another. For one of the things that makes Shakespeare unique, of course, is the "thickness" of his plays. Most of the greatest push the idea of "main plot" and "sub-plot" so far that they're really more like braided statements, in which a single theme is repeated in a lower key, or inverted, or even played in reverse - the whole repertoire of musical counterpoint is apparent in Shakespeare's structures, which is what gives his relatively short texts a breadth and depth rivalling even the greatest novels. (The only other dramatist to get close to this intertwined complexity is probably Chekhov.) And in this way they're quite similar to the musical format of the madrigal, which takes a poetic text and develops it musically via "polyphony," or the interweaving of several musical voices.

The standard critical approach to the Bard, of course, is a literary one - he derives from Marlowe, who invented the dramatic form of iambic pentameter that the upstart from Stratford then took to town. Only Shakespeare's plays don't really feel much like the gorgeous pageants of Marlowe. They feel somehow utterly distinct, as if they're operating in some other sphere. And I began to wonder - could the madrigal have been as great an influence on him as his dramatic mentor? Was one of Shakespeare's most original achievements the creation of a form of dramatic polyphony? Is part of what makes him special that sense of musical denseness we get from great Monteverdi? In short, are the plays a dramatic representation of the madrigal?

It was hard, after seeing "Zest for Love," not to feel that something like that might be the case. And that this kind of musical salon might be the only format in which to explore such questions.

The new gay blades

Sports always lag behind society politically (whatever the hell Ken Burns may say about baseball). So it's some measure of how far gay rights have come that American figure skating has all but leapt out of the closet at this year's Olympics. Of course the gay blades now come in several levels, or flavas. Johnny Weir (above) does a full-on Adam Lambert, with make-up, corsets, and photo shoots where he teases his butt. Meanwhile Evan Lysacek sticks closer to the Brian Boitano profile, only Brian's wearing feathers and Vera Wang this time around. And of course up in the network booth, good old Scott Hamilton is all but speechless, only emitting the occasional yelp about how "dramatic" Weir's latest outfit is.

To a gay man of a certain age, it's rather like watching three different periods of gay liberation all transpiring at the same time, in a kind of "Gay Liberation On Ice!!" extravaganza.

Meanwhile a stranger question lingers - why are the foreign dudes still so often straight? The same odd arrangement holds for other American gay professions, like organists and harpists and (formerly) ballet dancers - overseas, these are straight professions! So why are they gay in the USA? Of course these days it seems more and more American straight guys are doing ballet - and more power to 'em! But what exactly has brought about that change? Enquiring minds want to know!

And this is "not terrorism" because . . . ?

Because it was a white guy? Because he attacked the IRS? Could someone please explain? And why do I feel like I was just introduced to Tea-bagging 2.0?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Remember the way pop used to feel?

Oh, man I was such a Prince fan! Sigh. This is a rehearsal from June 1984. Hat tip to Art Hennessey.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Back and forth to the future

People don't take love lightly in Legacy of Light.

It would be wonderful if someone wrote a great play about Émilie du Châtelet, one of the pre-eminent women in the history of science - and almost certainly a genius in her own right - who even today remains largely unknown because sexist convention kept her in the respective shadows of Voltaire, Newton and Leibniz.

Legacy of Light, by Karen Zacarias, at the Lyric Stage through March 13, purports to be that play. But it isn't, not really. It is, instead, a gently half-baked rewrite of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. Which makes it the second feminine rewrite of a play by a major male writer I've seen in the last two or three years (Theresa Rebeck's Mauritius was the other). I hope this isn't becoming a trend.

But anyway, back to the fascinating Émilie (at left), who not only played a key role in the dissemination of Newton's ideas (her translation of the dense and eccentric Principia is still the standard - actually make that the only - version in French), but also refined and even corrected some of them. In her spare time, she published key insights into the nature of light, and re-formulated Newton's conception of kinetic energy. And she managed all this while running a substantial household, busying herself with a succession of lovers, and keeping up a long relationship (sometimes sexual, sometimes not) with Voltaire, the leading, and most controversial, intellectual of the day (a polymath, she also became fluent in several languages, and between boyfriends translated the Bible).

Obviously du Châtelet was brilliant and tireless, but she was also insecure, deceptive, and sexually manipulative (perhaps out of necessity more than predilection). A play about her, one feels, should be dazzling, sprawling, almost too crammed with incident, and maybe even a little kinky. But alas, playwright Karen Zacarias cuts her grand subject down to New-Age size, and while Legacy of Light is sweet, everything in it is slight and pre-digested. The script echoes Arcadia by pairing Émilie's last days - she died at 42 after an unwanted pregnancy (the newborn also died) - with the travails of a harried, driven female astrophysicist in present-day New Jersey. But Zacarias has little of Tom Stoppard's theatrical ambition; instead of probing the collision between two ages, she seems to merely want to offer some sort of mystical encouragement to female scientists of the here and now. In Legacy of Light, all the wrongs done Émilie are made right via the whimsical intervention of the space-time continuum, as characters begin popping in and out of each other's centuries (à la the dreaded Sarah Ruhl). "Everything changes, but nothing is lost," the playwright purrs, so don't worry if you die in childbirth at 42, it's going to be all right a few centuries from now.

Which is an awfully nice thing to think, isn't it. And I'm sure female scientists, like everybody else, could use the encouragement. You can have it all, if you're willing to wait a few hundred years! Only it's worth noting that Zacarias can only whip up a mystical re-incarnation of du Châtelet's lost child, not the scientific insights that never happened because of her tragic death. So I'm afraid the trade-off between sex and science that Zacarias tip-toes up to but never quite wrestles with is nevertheless still very much with us. And the finale of the play, in which via chick-flick metaphysics Émilie's offspring are reborn even as our present-day lady scientist discovers a new planet, is wonderfully heart-warming but also, well, a total crock.

So I guess we'll just have to wait a little longer for a play worthy of Émilie du Châtelet. In the meantime, the Lyric production has its moments, mostly due to Diego Arciniegas, who gives us a wearily vain Voltaire who's still obviously carrying a torch somewhere for his better, brighter half. (He would have been lost in the mathematical thickets of the Principia without du Châtelet; at right is the frontispiece of their translation - for which Voltaire got credit - with Émilie holding the mirror that illuminates his efforts).

Alas, Arciniegas only manages to strike the occasional spark with Sarah Newhouse (both below left), who simply pounds her usual no-nonsense template down onto Émilie. We get little feeling for her affection for her aging consort, or her documented insecurity (poignantly, she doubted she had any real genius), and you can forget all about the thrill of discovery or the frantic drive that propelled her to translate Newton even as labor - and death - approached. Newhouse succeeds in making du Châtelet a kind of handsome, self-possessed executive, but that's about it; the sad thing is that we sense that's how the playwright envisions her, too.

There are a few good moments elsewhere in the production, mostly thanks to Susanne Nitter, whose natural eloquence nearly manages to make sense of that latter-day astrophysicist. (For some reason, after ovarian cancer she hires a surrogate to carry her husband's child, rather than simply adopting - even though said husband could care less; why??) Meanwhile Rosalie Norris does what she can with the role of the surrogate, even as the usually-reliable Jonathan Popp fumbles a double role as two masculine "puppies."

Director Lois Roach blocks well enough, but doesn't really "direct." But Charles Schoonmaker's eighteenth-century costumes are, as ever, to die (and maybe be re-incarnated) for. And Janie E. Howland's elegantly simple design manages to squeeze France, New Jersey, and even Newton's apple tree onto a single set. Would these real talents had a real play on which to expend their efforts.

It's Carnival

Photo by Andres da Silva.

All over the world - or at least in almost every country with a Catholic heritage - this week is Carnival. For a truly stunning photo essay on the subject, check out this week's "Big Picture" at

The ten greatest American plays?

What are the ten greatest American plays? A recent survey of 177 theatre experts and students quoted by the Denver Post cites the following:

1. Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller

2. Angels in America, Tony Kushner

3. A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams

4. Long Day's Journey into Night, Eugene O'Neill

5. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Edward Albee

6. Our Town, Thornton Wilder

7. The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams

8. A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry

9. The Crucible, Arthur Miller

10. Fences, August Wilson

Not a bad list, huh, although anyone might quibble here and there. So what were the next ten, ranked 11-20?

11. August: Osage County, Tracy Letts

12. Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet

13. Buried Child, Sam Shepard

14. The Iceman Cometh, Eugene O'Neill

15. All My Sons, Arthur Miller

16. (tie) You Can't Take it With You, Kaufman and Hart

16. (tie) Joe Turner's Come and Gone, August Wilson

18. The Piano Lesson, August Wilson

19. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee Williams

20. American Buffalo, David Mamet

Some 265 plays were cited in the survey. You can read the whole list here.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Marivaux meets the millennium in Island of Slaves.

Some twenty years ago, it seemed that no one had heard of Marivaux, and those that had merely thought of him as playing second fiddle forever to Molière. Nowadays, of course, you might be forgiven for reversing that ranking, as one of the Enlightenment's greatest authors has slowly edged back into the repertory. But it seems we prefer the second tier of his work to the first; plays like The Dispute and Island of Slaves - now in a broad but engaging production from Orfeo Group - seem to be seen far more often on our stages than The Double Inconstancy or The Game of Love and Chance. This is no doubt because we relate to the political edge of these works more than we do to the subtle arguments of the masterpieces - all of them delivered in a prose style, btw, that's so melodious it could be taken for verse (and which inspired its own epithet - "marivaudage").

Ah, well, I suppose every step forward requires at least one step back - and even if there's no way anyone could call this production "musical," second-tier Marivaux on a kazoo is still better than most of what's coming out of today's dramatists. But didn't we just see Island of Slaves two or three years ago, in a wild, Robert-Woodruff-on-acid (and when is he not on acid?) production at the A.R.T., you may ask? Yes, I think we did. In that version, Woodruff brought his usual paranoid intensity to bear with a vengeance: drag queens stalked the stage like amazons, and poor Karen MacDonald was actually strapped to a giant wheel and spun like a top! Yeah, that was lofty, all right.

Orfeo keeps something like the same familiar aesthetic, but doesn't go quite so far over the top, spinning or not. The eponymous archipelago is here a kind of pop junkyard, where spooky sound-effects echo off the dirty, Saw-like sewer-tiles, and folks roam about in punked-out, quasi- Louis Quatorze duds. The text has been cleverly updated and adapted by Neil Bartlett (who was also known to pop in at the A.R.T.) to maximum comic, but negligible poetic, effect. There are plenty of laughs, however, and the structure of the play is still there: two shipwrecked master-slave couples wash ashore on a desert isle, inhabited only by, yup, slaves - and a brutal regime of "re-education" for the helpless aristocrats begins. Marivaux's satire of the justifications for servitude (France had by his day only just abandoned its medieval near-serfdom) is of course terrific - but we realize he has a subtler argument up his sleeve (of course) as the freed slaves begin to descend to the same moral level as their former masters. This is where Woodruff began to paint with too broad a brush - here director Kathryn Walsh doesn't make the same mistake, but she doesn't exactly pull Marivaux's themes into tighter focus, either.

Indeed, Walsh often seems content to frame Island of Slaves as merely some kind of crass, wacky hoot. In one of the weirder director's notes I've ever read, she frets no end about the meaning of "author" and "authority" (we wouldn't want to be slaves to the text, now would we???) and let's us know that we're really the authors of what we're going to be watching.

Well, too bad none of us are Marivaux, huh! I guess we're just shit out of luck on that score. For make no mistake, Walsh has indeed nearly succeeded in eliminating the author from this production. She manages to get his ideas roughly over, in a TV-friendly, lowest-common-denominator kinda way, but that's about it. The Globe will love this, of course, but more experienced viewers may find it a bit tiresome. And why, precisely, do qualms over authorial authority only surface in the case of dead white males? I mean, does Ms. Walsh claim authorship of Toni Morrison's Beloved because she read it, or saw the movie?

But you know, it's all good (right?) - I'm trying hard not to hold its director's post-baccalaureate babble against this funny, sharply-designed production. A deeper problem, however, is that you can tell Walsh doesn't really care for the little sting coiled in Marivaux's insight that these slaves may be no better than their masters - because she doesn't let either her maid or her manservant slide very far toward perdition (so their eventual redemption doesn't really ring true, either). And I simply can't tell whether it hurts or helps that the aristocrats in this production aren't particularly poisonous, or make too much of an impression. The smart, strapping Hannah Husband is obviously miscast as the simpering Euphrosine, and Jared Craig is likeable but too lightweight as her comrade-in-arms, Iphicrates. Meanwhile Amanda J. Collins displays strong comic chops as lady's-maid Cleanthis, but oddly, she's got a bit more aristocratic porcelain in her composure than her boss does, and while she's quite funny, she skates along the surface of the role (until her final speech, which at last resonates with real frustration). And this is a problem, because Marivaux charts the temptations of power most clearly through her character - so if she doesn't have a real arc, in a way the play doesn't actually happen. Luckily Daniel Berger-Jones, a mainstay of Orfeo, is better as the protean master-of-ceremonies, Trivelin; he manages to morph from savage autocrat to ironically soothing bureaucrat at will, and on cue.

But the show really belongs to Risher Reddick, whose performance maybe owes more to Jackie Gleason (or Chris Farley) than it does to commedia dell'arte, but who nevertheless always knows just how to punch a punchline. His Harlequin is so sloppily likeable, in fact, and so dominates the production - sometimes this almost feels like a showcase - that he pretty much squashes flat any critique Marivaux might be attempting to construct of his character. Of course you can't blame a comedian for doing what he does best, but I do wish this Island of Slaves had more to offer than consensus politics and broad populism. Because with more internal character development, the show's strangely-frustrating ending might make some kind of sense; right now, despite the "edge" of the production, it rings politically false. Because in case you haven't noticed, the aristocrats in America have mastered that whole "populist" thang (see Palin, Sarah); indeed, they do it better than Ms. Walsh - or the other "authors" of her production - ever could. So maybe it's time we all began to move on to our own enlightenment about authors and their authority.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The triumph of "Love"

I simply don't have time this morning for a full review of Handel and Haydn's "Zest for Love" program, which repeats on Sunday, but I felt I had to write a few lines to try to persuade anyone who might be on the fence, or who hasn't yet thought of this as a potential Valentine's Day treat, to by all means go. The concert is another musical "salon" from this always-experimenting company, though not everything in it is strictly musical: there are also spoken texts, all from Shakespeare, delivered by actors from the Huntington Theatre. The musical program, assembled by conductor Laurence Cummings, is mostly madrigals (and mostly Monteverdi, with Shakespeare at left), but also features two wonderful instrumental obscurities: a passionate Quarta sonata from Dario Castello - marked by fierce bowing from violinists Christina Day Martinson and Susanna Ogata - and an absolutely gorgeous Ciaconna from Tarquino Merula. The Shakespeare readings, subtly directed by Peter DuBois in an unexpected fit of maturity, were often superb - actor Lee Aaron Rosen in particular impressed (even more than he did in All My Sons); this performer could have great Shakespeare in him, given the chance. The H&H singers, particularly Teresa Wakim and Lydia Brotherton, were in fine form, and while diction was at times a bit blurry, the musical balance was usually exquisite. Perhaps most importantly, the evening's theme - "love," of course - was hardly given the swoony treatment one might expect on Valentine's Day; indeed, this counts as one of the deepest statements on that hallowed emotion I've heard in some time. The juxtaposition of Shakespeare's verse and Monteverdi's madrigals even opened a new window for me onto the Bard - but more on that later. For right now, just go. Tickets for the Sunday afternoon performance at Sanders Theatre are available here.

Friday, February 12, 2010

A master class in Shakespeare with Brian Cox

A little early to start, but not much! Thanks to my friend Marie for sending this clip my way.

The blogosphere is also reeling . . .

. . . over this news. The Royal Shakespeare Company is coming to New York for six weeks in 2011. And they're bringing five plays. Most shocking of all, it has been revealed that a full 40% of the RSC's fundraising comes from America.

Not surprisingly, the usual suspects are apoplectic. How dare anyone imply that America is hungry for great classical theatre, and that New York just doesn't supply it? Right. For my part, I'm already whipping out the old checkbook!

Do they know whereof they speak?

This is just a brief note about another troubling aspect of the theatrical blogosphere these days - its seeming indifference to actually seeing theatre. One problem with Bill Marx's recent put-down of All My Sons, for instance, was that he seemed to be positing that the Huntington wasn't doing enough new work. But of course the Huntington devotes itself largely to new work - yet Marx was happy to insinuate that All My Sons was not the exception but the rule. I wondered - was he being intentionally dishonest, or does he just not know what's going on? Can he be unaware at this point that Boston is swimming in new work, that about two-thirds of what we see is new, as demonstrated by Art Hennessey?

Meanwhile I've been battling with various bloggers over my criticisms of Lydia R. Diamond. They've been babbling about whether I'm a Kantian, or a racist, or a bigot, or a bigoted Kantian racist - but it has slowly come out that none of them seem to have read or seen Diamond's work. They're just throwing political punches in the dark; they have no knowledge of the artwork at hand (they're probably skimming it right now!). And I just read a screed against David Mamet's Race on yet another blog in which the blogger sticks carefully to lines (ripped out of context) which have been widely published on the Net. So I had to wonder - has he even seen the play he's sneering at?

It's also hard not to notice that once a string of comments gets going, it almost inevitably slides away from aesthetic considerations - and even away from texts and plays - and into ideological warfare.

So I wonder - is theatre blogging at all about the art itself anymore, or is it just politics by other means?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Pimping the professors

It's really all about kids and Shakespeare, don't you know.

My recent tangle with Bill Marx actually included some e-mail exchanges "off-line," in which he asked that we continue a more "rational discussion" in private. I don't trust Marx, and am hardly interested in any private discussions with him, so I told him to scram, of course. But what has lingered in my mind from his missives was his puzzlement over a neologism I coined in my comment on his blog - "the academic-theatrical complex." What on earth, Bill asked me twice, could I have meant by that?

I was puzzled by his puzzlement. Isn't the meaning obvious? It seemed to me that even those who might not know of Eisenhower's famous warning about the "military-industrial complex" should be able to guess at its sense and significance in a college town like Boston. Our two largest permanent theatres operate, of course, in relationships with Harvard and BU, and what's probably the center of our urban theatrical life - the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center of the Arts - was made possible only through the sponsorship of BU. Boston Playwrights' Theatre, our one producing outfit dedicated solely to new scripts, is likewise an arm of BU. And our local schools cast a shadow even over those theatres normally thought of as independent of the academy; many local theatre figures work or teach at Brandeis, Harvard, BU or Emerson.

Even Bill Marx himself, of course, is employed by a university - he's a lecturer at BU. So perhaps his puzzlement wasn't so puzzling after all. As Mark Twain once said, it's hard to make a man believe something (or perhaps even perceive something) when his paycheck depends on believing the opposite.

But on the other hand, how could Bill's boss be to blame for any of the theatre's current problems? Particularly when it all but built the Calderwood Pavilion?

Well, it's an interesting question, isn't it. But I often wonder if, say, Exxon (or maybe Enron, as I sometimes like to call Harvard our Enron of High Culture) came to town and built a bright shiny new theatre, wouldn't folks be a little suspicious of the kind of shows that played on that company stage? (Imagine whole seasons devoted to arbitrage and hedge strategies.)

I think they probably would.

So why are those same folks so unsuspicious of our universities, which are, in the end, corporations, and often act just as ruthlessly as Enron? Particularly when the plays our colleges choose to produce align so closely with their latest pet theories and projects?

For in the end, woozy theory is largely what the humanities are often selling these days - even if there's not much in the way of practical application to be had from it. Thus it's no surprise that our university theatres should be obsessed with "developing" new theatre, rather than discovering it. Indeed, people are often surprised when I point out that of the great works of the past twenty years or so - the new stuff from Tony Kushner, the pieces from Edward Albee's renewal, the last testaments of Sarah Kane, the wild experiments of Caryl Churchill - none have reached our university stages. Not one. Stoppard and August Wilson are still done by BU, it's true, but in general, our universities could not be less interested in the greatest theatre of our time.

Instead, they home-school their own lesser variant of it and try to pass it off as the real thing. Hence most of the new plays we see come direct from "development" programs, or are produced by the favored playwrights of a handful of graduate schools - or are simply written by the professors themselves, like The Miracle at Naples and How Shakespeare Won the West, scripts obviously designed to pad résumés, which nobody really needed to write or see.

But if the academic-theatrical complex hasn't produced much genuine art, it has gotten the hang of producing pop. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Diane Paulus, the lady who seems to have a special knack for pimping the professors. More on Paulus and her ever-attendant "buzz" in the second part of this series.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A belated Christmas present from Trinity Rep

Some have greatness thrust upon'em in Twelfth Night.

For those reeling from the recent pseudo-Shakespearean atrocities at the A.R.T., or discomfited by the 6-actors-in-36-roles stylings of the Actors' Shakespeare Project, Trinity Rep's Twelfth Night should come as a welcome - and bemusing - balm. With a shockingly low actor-to-role ratio (of approximately 1:1, if you don't count Viola, who does double duty as Sebastian), an honest-to-God set, and (ka-razy, I know!), most, if not quite all, of the text, this Twelfth Night represents a return to something like recognizable Shakespeare.

And at least in its comic interludes, it's also a remarkably rich account of the play, probably the best Bard we've seen in these parts for some time. Director Brian McEleney's approach is refreshingly free of academic or political dogma, and perhaps because he has played Malvolio himself a few times (as he does here), there's a level of comic invention in his scenes and the schemings of his tormentors that may be broad, but is also most wonderful. Alas, things thin out a bit elsewhere, and the play's complex, melancholy music isn't always heard where it should be. But even if this Twelfth Night doesn't represent an artistic epiphany, it nevertheless demonstrates that there are more things in heavenly verse than are dreamt of in Diane Paulus's philosophy.

It's also nice to see that Providence is a bit ahead of the Boston curve when it comes to casting: there's a mix of ethnicities in the Trinity company, and thus in the cast of Twelfth Night, that doesn't even figure as a statement; it's just the way things are, and should be. Amusingly enough, the one bit of political correctness that I'm actually grateful has attached itself to Twelfth Night - the openness to a romantic relationship between Antonio and Sebastian (at least on Antonio's side!) - was, however, also missing. But you can't have everything!

What I missed far more was a truly poetic, interior dimension to newcomer Cherie Corinne Rice's Viola (she was actually at her best doing brisk, brusque double duty as twin brother Sebastian). Rice did capture some touching moments of melancholy here and there, but she was perhaps somewhat circumscribed by two problematic performances surrounding her: Annie Worden's Olivia was oddly haughty and more sex-starved than grief-stricken, and Joe Wilson, Jr. was morosely elegant as Orsino but also somewhat forced. Thus little romantic atmosphere was conjured by the twists of their various encounters, and the play's deep probing of identity (this is a play about self-love, after all) never even surfaced. Perhaps as a result, Stephen Berenson's rather blank Feste seemed to be talking only to himself, and McEleney's Malvolio was left hanging high and dry once he was declared mad, for the character's final imprisonment, lost in a series of false selves, should strike us as a variant on the romantic delusions that have come before. With Shakespeare, at his greatest, everything is connected, and as Twelfth Night represents the fullest flowering of a certain mode of his comedy (before he plunged into "the problem plays"), much is lost when the subtler facets of the piece are ignored.

But to tell true, this was all easy to forgive once we were swept up in the warm humanity of this production's strongest scenes (Malvolio's gulling and Viola's duel). Here Trinity mainstays Fred Sullivan, Jr. (as Toby Belch), Stephen Thorne (as Sir Andrew) and Mauro Hantman (as Fabian, with Sullivan, McEleny, and Anne Scurria, above) were at their deliciously hammy best, and line after line (even some lines that actually aren't in the play) popped with specificity and wit. Meanwhile McEleney's Malvolio, though snootily malicious, somehow hung onto our sympathy, and Rice blossomed as a physical comedienne when given the chance (her duel with Aguecheek was the best I've ever seen). In a word, this is how Shakespearean comedy is done, folks.

I had a few quibbles elsewhere. The show is clearly set on the literal "Twelfth Night," the end of the Christmas season - and perhaps therefore the music was largely transcribed onto various carols, some of which worked ("The Twelve Days of Christmas" cleverly corralled the audience into the revelry), and some of which didn't (the melody of "Auld Lang Syne" made for too sentimental an ending). But even when I didn't agree with the production's choices, it was still delightful to see music featured so prominently in a production of Shakespeare (even if Feste wasn't a gifted warbler). And Eugene Lee's striking set - a decrepit country house at holiday-time, into which the elements literally poured - was subtly detailed and offered ample opportunity for pratfalls. All in all, this production should make Shakespeare fans feel like kids on Christmas morning.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Boston Lyric Opera breaks out

The sacred meets the profane in The Turn of the Screw. Photos by Jeffrey Dunn.

It was nice to see that with The Turn of the Screw, local critics have once again caught up with me (sorry for the self-congratulation, Bill!). About a year and a half ago I began raving about Boston Lyric Opera, and let's just say I was met with polite disdain - one critic actually snickered at my enthusiasm; didn't I realize how out of step I was? Now, of course, everyone thinks BLO is brilliant - one reviewer has even said their transition began "about two years ago!" Oh, well. This whole process moved faster for BLO than it did for the Boston Ballet, so maybe that's progress!

But back to The Turn of the Screw, which proved deeply satisfying both musically and intellectually. The work is putatively sourced, of course, in the famous Henry James novella, which cleverly hinges on the question of whether a pair of sexually-charged ghosts haunting a governess's charges are, in fact, "real," or just products of her own repressed psychology. Composer Benjamin Britten and librettist Myfanwy Piper gave the screw an extra twist, however, by nearly-explicitly linking the material to Britten's own life and issues, and BLO seemed unafraid to let this very loaded scenario unfold onstage.

Britten, of course, was a (semi-) closeted gay composer who notoriously surrounded himself with boys, both on-stage and off. From Peter Grimes to Death in Venice, every single Britten opera pivots on a young boy (all in all, he wrote them into some 30 works), and Britten spent his life - which he shared with tenor Peter Pears - perennially involved professionally and psychologically with one young man after another. Boston's own Benjamin Zander was one Britten protégé, as was the movie actor David Hemmings (who originated the role of Miles in Turn of the Screw).

All this only sets Britten squarely in a long line of artists obsessed with very young men or women in a troubling way (Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Dodgson and J.M. Barrie come immediately to mind, not to mention Michael Jackson, Bill Wyman and Roman Polanski!). But before we actually make that leap to the likes of Roman Polanski, we have to remember that even though it's undeniable Britten was possessed by an infantile psycho-sexual complex, none of "Britten's boys" ever accused him of abuse (his adult lover Pears, it seems, operated as a kind of chaperone). When librettist Eric Crozier fell out with Britten, in fact, it was over his emotional, not sexual, connection to the boys. And indeed, the composer's history was one of sometimes abruptly dropping his young charges once their voices broke, or some other even purer boy soprano appeared on the scene - which was psychologically crushing to his former favorites. So it's not a pretty picture, even if it was a perversely chaste one.

And somewhere Britten knew that - at least based on the evidence of The Turn of the Screw. For he and Piper all but drop the crux of the novella - whether or not "Miss Giddens" is "imagining things." In the James original, we never leave the governess's perspective, and only see the ghosts from her P.O.V.; in Britten, the ghosts have their own, individual scenes with the kids - and even a long scene by themselves. They're real all right. And BLO stage director Sam Helfrich took this new twist and ran with it all the way to the basement of the Park Plaza Castle (BLO's temporary digs for this production), where his Quint and Miss Jessel hung out in utterly quotidian dishabille, smoking cigarettes and lazing on a four-poster. We knew this was happening beneath us because the images of these almost too-too-solid lovers were beamed onto large video screens before us (see above), so that we were watching both the opera's text and subtext simultaneously.

This troubled many critics, but I don't think they were being too perceptive. It's true that Helfrich's gambit undercut the spookiness of the Park-Plaza-Castle setting, and robbed the ghosts of the eerie glamour they enjoyed in such sophisticated entertainments as The Innocents (at left), Jack Clayton's brilliant film version of the story. But it matched precisely Britten's intent: to give a dislocated sense of double meaning to everything in the opera. Indeed, this may be the most inspired example of what Wagner called gesamtkunstwerk, or "total artwork," I've ever seen: the staging precisely mirrored not just the dramatic idea of the piece, but its musical idea as well.

Why is this so? Because Britten's score floats between two worlds, too. The composer opens The Turn of the Screw with what sounds like a standard Schoenberg-style tone row, but configured so that its permutations remain tonal throughout the opera - in fact, they float between two keys (A minor and A-flat major, according to Bettina Norton and Michael Kennedy). So as you can see, there's a whole lotta duality goin' on, which is why the combined video-and-live-action effects were so weirdly resonant.

What gives an added horrific sheen to the proceedings is that what shards of actual melody Britten gives us are often based on children's songs, or what sounds like sacred chant; the final effect is of dislocated sacred music cast over utterly profane action, through which James's tormented governess floats helplessly, like a disembodied conscience. Is it too much to map this weirdly contradictory atmosphere to Britten's own situation? Not when the ghosts seem more interested in young Flora and Miles than each other, I'd argue, and when the tenor, Vale Rideout, not only sounds but even looks a bit like Peter Pears. Thus it was hard not to read this Turn of the Screw as not so much an adaptation of James as an evocation of the Britten/Pears environment - devoted to sacred innocence, but underpinned by a sexuality only just kept in check; onstage we may have been watching two little children singing with aching purity - but behind them we could also make out two corresponding slatterns making love on a bed.

It's frankly hard to imagine any local theatre company (particularly the gay ones!) making a statement this sophisticated about a situation so politically and morally fraught; that alone made The Turn of the Screw memorable as an occasion of truly adult theatre. That the evening was also gloriously sung, and ably played, was to me the icing on the cake. Soprano Emily Pulley, a regular at the Met, proved scarier in her intensity than any of the supernatural forces she battled, and came apart utterly convincingly, even while deploying a flexible soprano of both richness and power. Meanwhile veteran mezzo Joyce Castle (at left, with Pulley), who is celebrating 40 years on the operatic stage, provided a sturdily sympathetic Mrs. Grose. As Quint, Rideout was vocally almost eerily appropriate, as noted, and bravely edged toward a sense of perversity that seemed malevolent yet oddly vulnerable. There was less to do for Miss Jessel, but Rebecca Nash, making her American debut after a series of raves in Europe, revealed a commanding soprano that justified the hype. Young Flora was played by the adult Kathryn Skemp, who was nevertheless physically and emotionally quite convincing as a young girl; alas, at times her trained soprano sometimes overwhelmed Miles, but generally one could feel her keeping in appropriate balance. On the night I attended, I caught the self-possessed Ryan Williams as the possessed little boy, exuding a confidence which made his piping treble all the more poignant. In the "pit," as it were (the orchestra was visible throughout - another good idea), Andrew Bisantz conducted sensitively and with a strong sense of drama.

Overall this was a triumph in just about every way, and gave some idea of what Boston Lyric Opera, with the greatest resources of any opera company in the city, can do with sophisticated repertory. The wonderful Ariadne auf Naxos is next, and something tells me tickets are already going fast.