Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Lady lives the blues

The conceit of Lanie Robertson's Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill (now at the Lyric through April 24) is that the audience has been transported back to one of the last stands of the great Billie Holiday, in a seedy juke joint in Philly in 1959. Make that one of her very last stands: given the performance's putative date, Holliday would be dead in a few months; and at the fictional Emerson's (deftly enough, but perhaps not dingily enough, evoked at the Lyric), she rambles in between numbers on a famously hard-luck life that we sense even she realizes may be coming to a close.

But the script aims to be more than a tear-jerker; it attempts to evoke Holiday in all her contradictions - both the overwhelming odds she faced (crushing racism, sexual exploitation, various addictions) as well as her bad taste in men, her own self-destructive tendencies and the famous sense of humor which somehow got her through everything. (She's even able to chuckle ruefully about past dates at Carnegie Hall while dodging the narcs at Emerson's.) And alas, at this worthy goal I'm afraid that playwright Robertson largely fails; perhaps she was hamstrung by the episodic nature of her own conceit, but Lady Day jerks back and forth between tragedy and comedy (and fragility and crudeness) with little sense of accumulating build, and the talented Jacqui Parker (above left), who certainly has the range for both the highs and the lows of Billie's life, has neither found a match to the singer's flawed vulnerability within her own more powerful persona, nor cracked the challenge of conjuring the meandering mood that might cloak the script's deficiencies.

But oh, the music. The Lyric has engaged Danny Holgate - who himself tickled the ivories once in Lady Day, and who worked for years with the legendary Cab Calloway - to do the arrangements for the show, and I think they will become the stuff of local legend, too. Superb is the only word for Holgate's versions of such standards as "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," "Easy Livin'," 'Tain't Nobody's Biz-ness," and, of course, the songs most identified with Holiday, the hauntingly bitter "Strange Fruit" and "God Bless the Child" (co-written by Holiday herself). And Parker, who's blessed with a warm, smoky alto, has simply never sounded better. It's true she doesn't sound much like Holiday, and (thank God) doesn't try to simulate the lilt of the singer's famously fragile warble. Instead Parker makes the songs her own, which is the greatest thing any singer can achieve. It helps that she's backed by a truly remarkable pianist (and music director), Chauncey Moore, who seems able to follow her anywhere, and has his own low-key but suitably sympathetic dramatic presence. Whenever these two were working their musical magic, I all but forgot about the play itself. Indeed, I forgot about almost everything, save the enduringly poignant mystery of Billie Holiday.

Today's Poem

The ruins of Warsaw, 1945.

Song on the End of the World

On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends
Women walk through fields under their umbrellas
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder
Are disappointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels' trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet,
Yet is not a prophet, for he's much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
No other end of the world there will be,
No other end of the world there will be.

(Warsaw, 1944)

Czeslaw Milosz

Monday, March 29, 2010

The 2010 Hubbies, Round 1

Spring is already here (maybe!), so it's time, of course, for the first round of the Hubbies, the virtual award (think of it as a statuette styled, should it ever actually exist, in the form of Michael Phelps, at left) bestowed by the Hub Review on the best performances of the year.

The season so far has been a time of transition (as it always is). The big trend in the local performance scene, I think, could be boiled down to:

The Huntington turns it around

Peter DuBois's freshman year at the Huntington was by and large a disappointment; his sophomore term (with the exception of A Civil War Christmas) is by and large a smash. And not a moment too soon, because the People Who Hate Theatre in this town have been busy anointing Diane Paulus's Not-Theatre at the ART as the next big thing, and we were expected to pretend along with them that stagings of music videos (Sleep No More) and club scenes (The Donkey Show) were the actual mandate of a publicly-supported university theatre. Thank God Paulus and her husband have been caught with their hand in the Harvard till (it's always nice when bad art and bad ethics go together); maybe now we can hope we'll be waving good-bye to The Diane Paulus Show sometime soon. Of course so far DuBois hasn't tackled Shakespeare (or any other major classic) either, but All My Sons and Fences gave us hope that the Huntington could reach the same pinnacles in classical theatre that Nicholas Martin achieved. Already, this season is arguably as good as anything Martin put together; we haven't suffered through another How Shakespeare Won the West, and Lydia R. Diamond finally came through with a good play. All My Sons was great, Fences was pretty damn good, Stick Fly proved smart and entertaining, and even Becky Shaw is at least interesting. More to follow; but in the meantime, on to the Hubbies:

Best Ensembles

Adding Machine, SpeakEasy Stage - Brendan McNab, Liz Hayes, Amelia Broome, Leigh Barrett, David Krinitt, John Bambery, Sean McGuirk, Bob DeVivo and Cheryl McMahon

Stick Fly, Huntington Theatre - Nikkole Salter, Jason Dirnden, Amber Iman, Billy Eugene Jones, Wendell W. Wright, Rosie Benton

Indulgences, New Rep - Benjamin Evett, Leigh Barrett, Neil A. Casey, Steven Barkhimer, Joel Colodner, Ed Hoopman, Tony Larkin

Best Individual Performances

Karen MacDonald (left) - All My Sons, Huntington Theatre, and boom, New Repertory Theatre

Marianna Bassham - Not Enough Air, Nora Theatre

Sandra Shipley - Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Publick Theatre

Cherene Snow - Black Pearl Sings!, Merrimack Rep

Casey Seymour Kim - 4:48: Psychosis, Gamm Theatre

Ben Chase - One Flea Spare, Whistler in the Dark

Risher Reddick - Island of Slaves, Orfeo Group

Fred Sullivan, Jr., Stephen Thorne, Mauro Hantman, and Brian McEleny - Twelfth Night, Trinity Rep

Timothy John Smith - Groundswell, Lyric Stage

Benjamin Evett - Indulgences, New Rep

Diego Arciniegas - Legacy of Light, Lyric Stage

Joe Lanza - [title of show], SpeakEasy Stage

Best Direction

Kenny Leon - Stick Fly, Huntington Theatre

Paul Melone - Adding Machine, SpeakEasy Stage

Tony Estrella - 4:48 Psychosis, Gamm Theatre

Best Design

Charles Schoonmaker, costumes, Legacy of Light, Lyric Stage

Susan Zeeman Rogers (set), Gail Astrid Buckley (costumes), Jeff Adelberg (lighting) and Aaron Mack (sound) - Adding Machine (above), SpeakEasy Stage

Cristina Todesco (set), Katherine O'Neill (costumes) - Island of Slaves, Orfeo Group

Friday, March 26, 2010

Adding Machine scores, but does it add up?

Adding Machine's view of cubeland. Photos by Mark L. Saperstein.

SpeakEasy's new production of Adding Machine offers reviewers a critical dilemma: how to praise the production while damning the play? For the show clearly represents what many consider Boston's most reliable theatre company firing on all cylinders: the cast is among the city's finest, the direction by (Paul Melone) is consistently imaginative, and the design - by Susan Zeeman Rogers (set), Gail Astrid Buckley (costumes), Jeff Adelberg (lighting) and Aaron Mack (sound) is brilliant, beautifully integrated, and often outshines everything and everybody else. It's hard to imagine a better production of this musical being seen in the Hub (and, judging from photographs, SpeakEasy's designs may actually trump those seen in New York).

But then there's the musical itself - or rather its source, The Adding Machine, by Elmer Rice, a piece of expressionist agitprop which was a sensation on Broadway in the 20's. It seems we're awash in expressionist agitprop these days (we just saw a retread of Machinal at the Nora, and Paradise Lost is losing its way currently at the ART), and I'm afraid Adding Machine only reminds us why, exactly, these theatrical elephants long ago found their way to the theatrical elephant graveyard.

This particular pachyderm is styled as a kind of fever dream about capitalism, mechanization and the question of free will - as well as bigotry, numerology, re-incarnation, and a whole bunch of other stuff. As you can tell from that laundry list, it's a mess thematically, but its central problem lies in the fact that source author Elmer Rice decided to design his play as both a cri de coeur against his hero's milieu, and against his hero himself.

Now this is a tall order, dramatically. Shakespeare and Chekhov pulled it off, of course (and if musicals are your point of reference, so did Sondheim) - but the trick to this kind of thing is a subtle, inflected view of both hero and milieu, and how they're tied together. Diatribes against one and then the other don't really work; they merely induce in the audience a form of theatrical whiplash.


But diatribes are very much the order of the day in Adding Machine; the show's hero, "Mr. Zero," (the reliable Brendan McNab, looking both spooked and spooky) is portrayed as addicted to the mysteries of math, yet ground down by mindless routine at both his accounting job (where he labors in a literal trough) and at home (where his suffocating wife and her friends break into choruses of "Kike! Nigger! Wop! Fag!" at their cocktail parties).

As you can see, Rice painted with a broad brush, even for 20's agitprop, but in Adding Machine the musical, the original play's excesses are at least shrink-wrapped in a cool, post-minimalist score (by the talented Joshua Schmidt) that gives everything a strangely ironic edge, and often beguiles in its own metronomic way. Real melody always seems about to break free from Schmidt's harmonic "units," as it were - which neatly conjures a subtle sense of numeric imprisonment much like Mr. Zero's.

Still, Schmidt's tunes can't triumph over Rice's dramaturgy (or his cartoonish politics, with which you get the impression Schmidt and fellow librettist Jason Loewith agree). The pathetic Mr. Zero, always essentially a human adding machine, is replaced by an actual adding machine at work, and he responds, in a frenzy of indignation, by offing his boss. That's pretty much the only time he stakes out anything like a claim to his own humanity, however. Indeed, after the murder, he calmly returns home for dinner (this is one of the play's occasionally acute strokes), and is soon apprehended for the crime, convicted - and executed.

Ah, but his existential journey has only just begun. Rice (and his later librettists) take advantage of Zero's life on death row to tease out some intriguing questions about the troubling issue of free will - another inmate, for instance, is actually comforted by the knowledge he'll be punished forever for his crimes; that's not as worrisome as the moral doubt that would ensue if he weren't. But in the afterlife (brilliantly imagined here by designer Rogers as an iceberg of a shroud, below), it turns out all moral bets are off, and for a brief moment, Adding Machine seems about to come together thematically, and out of thin arctic air, it seems, dramatic stakes briefly materialize.

Is there sex after death? Brendan McNab goes from hero back to Zero in Liz Hayes's eyes in Adding Machine.

They don't last long, however. While roaming these frosty "Elysian Fields," Zero hooks up with Daisy (Liz Hayes), a young woman from work who not-so-secretly carried a torch for him - and even committed suicide to follow him upstairs, as it were. But even this kind of devotion can't shake Zero out of his conventional identity, or his pawn's-eye view of the world. Loving Daisy would require an independence of mind that he just can't muster, and even the suggestion that he rebel against the mystical rule of numbers outrages him. "What kind of dump is this anyway?" he cries in indignation, while the miserable Daisy is left with what may be the best line in the show: "I might as well be alive!"

So it seems that Mr. Zero actually deserved his fate, and even his job - so why did he look so depressed in Act I? But Rice and company aren't done with the flip-flops - in the finale, Zero's soul is put on the assembly line for re-incarnation, and suddenly he once again rages against the machine like a standard-issue romantic hero (even crying "Nooooooooo!" as he meets his doom). At this point, one has to admit that Zero has become little more than a rag doll, to be plopped on one side of the existential dilemma, then the other, at the whim of the playwright. And whatever sympathy we had with him has long since curdled into irritation with his creators, who keep reconfiguring the challenges that life (and death) throw him, only to reveal they're all zero-sum games anyway.

What's frustrating is that there probably is a third way out of the dichotomies of Adding Machine - surely, for instance, Zero's mystical attachment to numbers isn't really the same thing as bigoted convention, as the musical implies. (I think a few independent eccentrics, like say Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman, would disagree with that assessment.) And surely there's a genuine tragedy to be found in his story - of a man so besotted with math that he was fooled into selling his soul to it. But Rice and his adaptors simply don't know how to tell that story.

Sadder still, you get the impression McNab and company would have known how to play that story, if it had been written. Surely they would have known how to sing it. There's not a weak voice in this crowd, but special mention has to go to the warbling of Amelia Broome, Leigh Barrett, and John Bambery. The acting is even more evenly excellent; clearly this will be nominated as one of the best ensembles of the year in the coming awards cycle, but I was particularly taken with not only the leads but the witty inflections of Sean McGuirk and Cheryl McMahon. You'd be well advised to catch all these local pros at the top of their respective games; just don't be surprised if in the end you feel Adding Machine doesn't really add up.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Beauty salon

Moritz von Schwind's "Schubertiade."

Back in the day (that is, back in the Viennese nineteenth-century day), musical evenings with Franz Schubert were so common they had their own name - "Schubertiades" (a drawing of such a gathering by a Schubert contemporary is above). People are sometimes surprised to learn that the young genius made his name in people's living rooms rather than the public stage, but in fact his musical output only occasionally made it to the concert hall. His operas saw a smattering of failed productions, and the symphonies sometimes made it to the public ear, but his reputation was built in the salon.

Last weekend the Handel and Haydn Society attempted to conjure something like a latter-day "Schubertiade" on the stage of Jordan Hall, and met with some (if not complete) success. The Society, which is devoted to historically-informed performance, has actually been tinkering for a while with not just the orchestration of its music but the presentation of it as well. The idea is that to really appreciate period music, you have to experience it in its original context. Thus Handel and Haydn concerts of late have turned into somewhat casual, omnibus affairs, like the famously sprawling concerts of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and we've been advised that it's quite okay (contrary to modern opinion) to applaud in between movements if we so desire (many people at Sunday's concert took the Society up on that one).

There are arguments to be made against all these propositions, I think, but at the same time they seem harmless enough, and playing nineteenth-century dress-up is actually kind of fun (alas, the fact that it is inevitably "dress-up" undercuts much of the reason for doing it in the first place, but never mind). What came over last weekend, however, was the difficulty of really achieving anything like verisimilitude in this kind of endeavor. The Jordan Hall stage was set with appropriately German-Victorian furniture, and there was even a gesture toward period dress (Susan Consoli looked both bemused and smashing in an early Romantic gown and feathers). An actor - Jim True-Frost (of The Wire fame) - was engaged to interpolate bits of Byron and Shelley into the musical mix, and there were even audience members onstage with the performers (looking a bit out of place as they turned off their cell phones). Nobody served drinks, but I'm sure that's coming.

The trouble was, of course, that the modern assumptions of class and comportment that inevitably arise in a space like Jordan Hall contradict the sociable, aristocratic intimacy that the H&H performers were trying to conjure. I got the impression that this kind of gambit could, perhaps, be pulled off in a smaller setting, perhaps in a Brookline or Wellesley mansion. But in a concert hall, even one as atmospheric as Jordan Hall, the proceedings inevitably become a bit arch.

There were other issues. Jim True-Frost stumbled through his readings, even though some were quite famous (such as "Ode to a Nightingale") and even though he was on-book. Sigh. I get the impression the actors engaged by H&H for these evenings (I've now seen three) don't always take the assignment as seriously as they would a "proper" theatrical performance (at H&H's last such salon, Nikkole Salter of Stick Fly actually forgot the immortal lines of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 - amusingly, many in the audience murmured the missing couplet for her, from memory). If H&H is going to mix the musical and the poetical, it needs, obviously, to treat one as seriously as the other, with as much rehearsal and shaping given to the poetry as to the music (and maybe more). And let's not risk any more minor celebrities from cable TV, please, at least not when there are classically-trained actors like Will Lebow and Sandra Shipley around (come to think of it, that pair might have just pulled off this assignment).

Okay, enough said (but trust me, somewhere Shelley and Keats are smiling); back to the music. As noted, the concert program, devised by H&H bassist Robert Nairn (at left) was built around Schubert - we got both the "Trout" Quintet and the Lied which inspired its famous variations, as well as the less-often-heard (but still terrific) “Shepherd on the Rock,’’ for soprano, clarinet, and piano. There was also the lovely Andante from Mozart’s "Kegelstatt Trio" for clarinet, piano, and viola.

That was it for the serious music, frankly, although Nairn also programmed a series of lesser, but always diverting, works by the likes of violinist Giovanni Viotti and the operatic composer Rossini. These didn't share any great sympathy with the music of Schubert (or Mozart) but the conceit here was that they were devised for the great double bassist (and salon star) Domenico Carlo Maria Dragonetti; perhaps not coincidentally, they also allowed Nairn himself a chance to shine, which he did, along with the other H&H players on hand. Soprano Susan Consoli sounded ravishing on “Shepherd on the Rock,’’ which also gave period clarinetist Eric Hoeprich a chance to strut his eloquent stuff, and the Mozart was likewise subtle and affecting. And certainly the performance made a case for period instruments in all these settings - except, perhaps, in the case of the last offering, the "Trout" Quintet. Here it seemed to me that the fortepiano - or at least this fortepiano - came off as deliciously warm, but also a bit blurry (and to tell the truth, pianist Ian Watson was himself a little blurry here and there). Nevertheless, the ensemble was generally in fine form, with spirited turns from Daniel Stepner (whose retirement as concertmaster we still lament!) on violin, and Guy Fishman on cello. Together with Eric Hoeprich on clarinet, these old H&H hands did kindle something of the intimate fire that must have flickered in the original "Schubertiades."

Polanski's ghosts

What happens to kitty-cats who get too nosy in Polanski's latest.

Who would have thought Roman Polanski still had it in him? Or that, given his legal troubles, The Ghost Writer, still in post-production when the director was arrested and incarcerated last year, would ever make it to theatres?

Yet here the movie is, thanks to editing by Polanski while under house arrest, and its sleek sophistication not only haunts and provokes, but also gives ample evidence that, perversely enough, the old perv is not merely an astute moral analyst but also perhaps the last surviving avatar of adult-oriented pop cinema. Indeed, whatever his sexual tastes may be, The Ghost Writer reminds us that on screen Polanski has always been most interested in grown-ups.

Perhaps desperate times drew from the director a renewed energy - indeed, The Ghost Writer may be meant as a kind of baleful warning of what we'll all miss out on if he is, in fact, imprisoned in America. Well, Roman, all I can say is, message received and understood. Certainly at least in technical terms, The Ghost Writer is at least as strong as, and perhaps even a bit better than, his Academy-Award-winning The Pianist. Its ambitions, of course, are smaller, and it devolves into genre-style twists at its finish. But for most of its length, it's like no other film seen in years - utterly calm in its command, with a mysterious sense of surface believability and what used to be called "atmosphere," along with a barely-hinted-at contempt for the postmodern histrionics of not only our newest filmmakers but even such "masters" as Scorsese (whose ridiculous Shutter Island makes something of a bleak companion piece to Ghost). Everything is scaled just right in Ghost Writer, and there are no immaturely obvious flourishes of "style." Polanski's manner (and it's his own manner, not a pastiche of quotes and references) is meant to not only subtly direct our attention but also call no attention to itself - and it succeeds utterly on both counts.

It helps that the script resonates in all sorts of ways with the director's perennial themes and personal dilemmas. As in many Polanski films, the plot centers on an innocent drawn into the power games of an evil elite: Ewan McGregor plays a nameless ghost writer hired to finish the memoirs of a former British PM (Pierce Brosnan) - because his earlier "ghost" has literally given up the ghost: he wound up drowned in an apparent suicide. Once McGregor is ensconced with Brosnan in his Martha's Vineyard hideaway, however, he begins to guess that his predecessor's death may have been anything but a suicide: the manuscript he was editing begins to give up clues that he was on the trail of something terrible in the PM's past, something having to do with the CIA, rendition, and torture. Indeed, right on cue, the World Court in the Hague announces an investigation into that very chapter of the PM's past, and everyone suddenly wants to get their hands on the manuscript MacGregor is revising.

We soon realize we're in a classic Polanski set-up: isolation in a gothically romantic locale (here Brosnan's ulta-modern beachhouse, which is more Hamptons than Chilmark, but never mind - this locale isn't so much Martha's Vineyard as an address in Polanski's mind); intimations of a horrifying conspiracy operating just beyond our field of vision; a subtle erotic undertow flecked with glints of morbid wit; and, of course, a superbly detailed mise-en-scène.

Many in Polanski's cast deliver the performances of their careers.

This last factor may be what's most delicious about The Ghost Writer. Scale has always been of primary interest to Polanski - he loves getting maximum mileage out of minimal detail (think of the hem dipped in blood in Tess, or the broken glasses glinting from the goldfish pond in Chinatown). And in Ghost Writer, his mojo for precision is back in a big way. It's been a long, long time since a popular movie has exhibited the kind of sophisticated sense of proportion seen here, and I found myself mentally stretching out in (and snuggling up to) the director's mature, confident juggling of cinematic time and space. Polanski knows just where to place his camera, just when and how to open up (and then close down) his point of view, and precisely how to direct his actors; Pierce Brosnan, Tom Wilkinson and the great Olivia Williams do the best work they've ever committed to film, and Ewan McGregor isn't far behind as "the ghost." Only Kim Cattrall, as the PM's conflicted mistress, stumbles here and there (but never disastrously, and she recovers elegantly by the finish).

Of course to many viewers there is the problem of the director's admitted crimes. It seems useless to point out to these people that the list of artists linked to serious sexual crimes includes James Brown, Michael Jackson, Caravaggio and Leonardo da Vinci; when I brought up The Ghost Writer at a recent dinner, in fact, I was immediately met with a shouted chorus of "I-had-a-friend-who-was-date-raped-how-can-you-even-mention-that-film!" Discussion of the work's merits probably can't take place in the current atmosphere. But I would like to at least whisper that Polanski's work (unlike, say, that of Woody Allen) may have in one way actually grown in depth since his crime. In the director's heyday, he objectified sexual evil into vampire counts, depraved billionaires and even the Devil himself. All that has changed.

What we feel in films like The Pianist and The Ghost Writer, in fact, is a newly complex, almost mournful tone toward evil. The Pianist ends with a haunting coda, in which a single "good" German disappears into the Soviet gulag. And in The Ghost Writer, Pierce Brosnan's PM is utterly compromised morally, and yet has his reasons for his crimes, and ironically enough, believes his best hope for salvation lies with the United States, which Polanski points out (with tongue firmly in cheek) is now a safe haven for torturers. So not only can we savor the weird sense of "house arrest" that floats over the movie, which largely takes place within the confines of an ultramodern beachhouse/prison, we can also ponder Polanski's impish implication that the United States is in no moral position to extradite anyone for anything, given the blood on its hands. We're no better than he is, in other words. This will make some moviegoers scream in indignation, I'm sure, but it's a message rarely heard in pop cinema these days, and perhaps it's worth hearing.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Misdirecting Mr. Sloane

Feel the danger? I didn't either.

Given the talented cast of the Publick Theatre's Entertaining Mr. Sloane (at the BCA though April 3), the fact that the production is an odd, earnest misfire counts as more mysterious than anything that happens onstage in Joe Orton's early black comedy (and first hit), a scabrous satire of what lurks beneath the surface of bourgeois gentility. The playwright is certainly a known quantity, and this version doesn't seem to have any kind of ART-like interpretive ambition up its sleeve; we take it as roughly a "standard issue" revival, and almost the entire cast - Sandra Shipley, Nigel Gore, and Dafydd Rees - has already won numerous local awards and accolades (the one exception is newcomer Jack Cutmore-Scott).

Yet one local critic described this production (and she meant this as a compliment) as "silly-sad." To which I can only say, wrong and even more wrong - this is a play in which a brother and sister conceal the murder of their father because they want to have sex with his killer, after all. The funny thing is, that critic's observation was accurate, even if her assessment was as loopy as the characters' morals. This production doesn't have even a distant tang of Orton's uniquely wicked, anarchic energy; it is, instead, something "silly-sad." But what went wrong, exactly? Why is the production so awkwardly saccharine? Why does it feature only one striking performance (Shipley's) when it should feature four? And how, really, could director Eric Engel emasculate this hilariously vicious play into something like Androgyny and Old Lace?

Of course perhaps it's unfair that all eyes should turn toward the director when good casts go wrong. Engel has certainly done solid work before, but usually with women, and he's clearly made one major misstep here (in the casting of the eponymous Sloane), while also failing to draw any real commitment out of either Nigel Gore or Dafydd Rees. It's possible the actors rebelled against his suggestions - I somehow sensed that Gore, at least, was uncomfortable with internalizing the malicious gayness of his character, Ed. But Rees should really have been able to play the cantankerous, doomed Kemp in his sleep.

Then there's Jack Cutmore-Scott, the British Harvard undergrad making his professional debut in the complex role of Sloane. The character is a mercurial mix of sex and opportunism, a literal killer with a killer bod to grease his way out of any scrapes his amorality might get him into (whether said grease is applied to desperate women or closeted gay men is of little import to Sloane). But while Cutmore-Scott certainly has theatrical potential, with gorgeous looks and a presence to match them, he's woefully miscast here. His "Mr. Sloane" is a confused cherub obviously on the lam from Eton, not Borstal, and the young actor simply looks lost as the character finds himself trapped in a web of his own making.

Luckily, there's Sandra Shipley to distract us from all this fumbling (although I do worry that whenever I see Shipley in an Engel production, she dominates it completely). Shipley is a bit more mature than the role's stated age of forty-one, of course, but you hardly care, as she's in fine, daft form, and game for anything - she's even a hoot in a Benny-Hill-style négligée. Still, even Shipley is a bit too - well, lovable, for lack of a better word. In fact, Sloane's too lovable, too. The trouble is that Joe Orton was not a particularly lovable playwright, and while he always has some sympathy with his characters, he also perceives (and insists on) their dark undersides. Indeed, Orton may be the only gay author I can think of who writes such unapologetic gay villains. The closeted Ed, for instance, is an utter creep, and we're meant to see him as such - a sexual predator on the down low who deploys an outraged false morality to cover his tracks. In fact, Ed almost encapsulates Orton's central themes: the hypocrisy of social convention, and the utter amorality of the drives it seeks to contain. There's nothing particularly lovable about that worldview. Which may be why this Mr. Sloane is only intermittently entertaining.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

From the ridiculous to the sublime

Tragedy meets comedy in Ariadne auf Naxos. Photos by Jeffrey Dunn.

I wasn't surprised that Boston Lyric Opera's production of Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos (which you still have a little time to catch) turned out to be one of the best operatic productions of the season. But I was surprised (a bit) as to the reason why.

I had expected this version (imported from the Welsh National Opera) to be remarkable in its witty physical comedy, after visits to rehearsals and chats with its director; instead - and probably most opera lovers will be glad to hear this - it was carried by some truly sublime singing. Boston Lyric is becoming known for assembling strong ensembles (rather than showcases for star turns), as evidenced by last year's Don Giovanni and this winter's Turn of the Screw. I'm happy to report that Ariadne auf Naxos belongs in that august company - indeed, it may boast the strongest cast of the three. The Strauss score features four notoriously difficult parts - the Composer (a pants role), Ariadne, Zerbinetta and Bacchus, and it's common for one or another of these (usually Bacchus) to prove second-class. But in Edyta Kulczak (Composer), Marjorie Owens (Ariadne), Rachele Gilmore (Zerbinetta) and Brandon Jovanovich (Bacchus), BLO put together a quartet of powerhouses. This production will be remembered most of all as a night of glorious singing.

Indeed, if this Ariadne foundered slightly early on, it did so because of its stagecraft. Which is ironic, since the opera is so much about theatrical conventions and inside jokes. The famous set-up is that "the richest man in Vienna" has commissioned two works - a tragic opera (titled, of course, "Ariadne auf Naxos") and a baggy-pants comedy (performed by a visiting commedia troupe) - for the entertainment after a huge banquet. The trouble is that both pieces have to be finished by nine o'clock, when the fireworks are set to start. But the banquet drags, time runs short, and it's suddenly announced that the tragedy and the comedy will have to be performed simultaneously. You can guess what happens next.

This opening "prologue" (as it's called) depends theatrically on a sense of growing chaos as time ticks remorselessly away - and the theatrical side of things is important, because much of this sequence is recitative rather than aria. But in this version, things seemed far too calm backstage, with hardly enough frenzied rushing hither and yon (often you see both the banquet and the fireworks roll by), and little sense of an impending artistic car-crash. Oddly enough, the bemused tone of the proceedings was just about right, and mezzo Edyta Kulczak gave an impassioned reading of the Composer's dismay at what was about to happen to his/her beloved score. But the success of this kind of thing is, as they say, all in the timing, and the actor-singers just weren't clicking like a well-oiled machine. There were a few timing problems in the pit as well, where Strauss's subtle, shifting sense of ensemble seemed to fray at times under the baton of conductor Erik Nielsen (horns, that means you).

But Nielsen pulled his crew together once the "opera within an opera" began, and most of Ariadne's music (and particularly her transfiguring finale) sounded superb. Everything else about the production grew more original and intriguing, too. The tattered set (beset, despite its artificiality, by actual winds) was surprisingly evocative, and the sophisticated lighting, by Tim Mitchell, seemed to literally glow from the stage itself. As Ariadne, Marjorie Owens deployed a formidably Wagnerian soprano, but gave it haunting touches of mournful delicacy as she wept in her abandonment on her famous rock, and she nailed her diva-esque tantrums once the harlequins showed up, too. Her girl-group back-up (of Naiad, Dryad and Echo) likewise hit just the right tenderly droll notes. The commedia troupe proved not quite as rowdy as I might have liked, but this was forgotten once Rachele Gilmore launched into Zerbinetta's famous aria, a killer piece of coloratura in which the soprano explains that to get over one guy, you simply have to find another (as she has herself, over and over). It would be hard to think of a better Zerbinetta than Gilmore, with her ripe, lightly sensuous presence, and her deliciously pure and agile voice, and this set-piece almost couldn't have been more delightful.

The finale of Ariadne auf Naxos.

The big surprise of the evening, however, came with the arrival of Bacchus; from his opening bars, tenor Brandon Jovanovich let it be known that he had not only the range to hit the pitches (which climb into the stratosphere) but also the power to blow out the back wall, too, and his final duets with Owens felt like the promised series of (at least vocal) fireworks (Owens just won the Grand Finals of the Met auditions, and Jovanovich is off to the Met as well, along with Chicago and San Francisco, so this may be your last chance to hear these performers here in Mudville). Not that the final moments of Ariadne turned into a series of vocal guantlets; quite the contrary, in fact. If anything, the mood of the piece deepened just as it should, and with a little help from a truly inspired lighting effect from Tim Mitchell (which pulled together both those impending fireworks and Bacchus's invocation of the eternal stars), the final moments achieved something like transcendence. Out of a lifetime of theatre- and opera-going, this Ariadne's closing tableau will stick with me as one of the great stage images I've ever seen. If you catch the last performance, I'm sure you'll agree.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A new play by Shakespeare?

The Arden Shakespeare has just published Double Falsehood, or the Distrest Lovers, and with that single stroke a Shakespearean outlier has edged its way into the canon. Kind of. The script's claim to "canonicality" should become even stronger next summer, when the Royal Shakespeare Company produces it for the first time in eons.

Of course to be accurate, Double Falsehood would have to be termed a play by William Shakespeare, John Fletcher, and somebody named Lewis Theobald, the producer who first mounted the text in London in 1727, explaining he had adapted it from three separate manuscripts of a play called The History of Cardenio. We know from contemporary accounts that a lost play of that name by Shakespeare (and his seeming protégé, Fletcher), based on a famous episode from Don Quixote, was performed in London in 1613.

Theobald's script was a success back in 1727, but was soon ridiculed (by Alexander Pope, among others) as hackery, and probably a fake (Theobald refused to publish his supposed sources). Now the Arden has decided otherwise, largely based on the research of editor Brean Hammond, a professor at the University of Nottingham, who claims that Shakespeare's hand can be seen "in Acts One and Two, and part of Act Three." Hmmmm. The proof of this kind of thing, it seems to me, is in the playing. Could one of our university theatres consider The Double Falsehood for a production soon, as the RSC has? Or will we have to rely on one of our fringe theatres to take on the challenge? Only a year or two ago, the ART produced its own dreadful update of Cardenio, penned by Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt and avant-garde playwright Charles L. Mee. Somehow that misadventure seemed to sum up the problem with our academic theatres - we can't get them to do the real thing, instead they offer up their own house version of it. Perhaps with a little nudge from the Arden Shakespeare, that situation could change in the case of Double Falsehood.

Monday, March 15, 2010

All about Becky

Victim or victimizer? Eli James and Wendy Hoopes work it out in Becky Shaw. Photos by T. Charles Erickson.

Reviewers seem to be confused about Becky Shaw (now at the Huntington through April 4). Gina Gionfriddo's New York hit is funny, they admit - but is it actually any good? People aren't sure about that.

And to tell true, the New York reviews were all over the map, too (the show's hit status derived largely from the NYT's Charles Isherwood, who liked it). But all the critical uncertainty is understandable. Becky Shaw has a solid idea at its center, but its meandering dramatic structure muddles and muddies its themes - so much so that some people haven't been able to perceive said themes at all. What's more, we sense that the muddle isn't accidental; it's intentional. This is a play that wants to keep its big idea a secret.

And why?

To answer that question, we'd have to ponder the current state of American academic playwriting in greater depth than would be wise for any healthy person to do. Suffice to say, however, that Becky Shaw simultaneously reflects, refracts and subverts the dominant mode of How We Write Now.

Or perhaps I should say "How They Write at Brown," as Gionfriddo studied playwriting at Brown University, set Becky Shaw in and around its environs (the eponymous Becky is even a dropout from the school), and devised its themes around the opposition between the mores of sensitive, politically-correct campus life and those of "the real world." Gionfriddo even gets out the old yellow highliter in the last act in case we don't get her point, with characters openly taking aim at what many consider the most liberal school in the Ivy League.

It would seem that the academic-theatrical complex I've often discussed is beginning to go meta, or at least get alarmingly self-conscious. Of course not only Gionfriddo but her director, the Huntington's Peter DuBois, went to Brown, and trendy alumni of the playwriting program once run by Paula Vogel (whose Civil War Christmas also ran at the Huntington) today seem to dominate new play production. Indeed, a kind of "Brown school of playwriting" is much in evidence these days, with an emphasis on feminist or identity politics, loose structures, and a preponderance of quirk and/or whimsical flights of fancy. Some people (myself included) find the School of Brown a little tiresome (to us it's immature, self-indulgent and vapid); a like-minded friend of mine even once opined that "If it's from Brown, flush it down!"

I wouldn't go that far, but it's good to see somebody a bit more hard-headed than Sarah Ruhl emerge from the school's playwriting program. Gionfriddo is clear-eyed about the narcissism of the Brown house style - and of the feminized Brown culture in general - but is also, to be honest, likewise clear-eyed about the brutal, male-dominated Real World. The conflict between these two universes - and the similarity between the forces that drive them - is the heart of both Becky Shaw the character and Becky Shaw the play. And to go a bit further, if I had to guess which side Gionfriddo actually sympathized with in this ongoing culture war, my bet would be on that brutal Real World.

Hence the playwright's muddled structure, I think; Gionfriddo somehow feels she has to hide something from teacher, even as she pokes fun at her school. Or maybe it's that very obsession with being funny that muddies the thematic water - like other Brown playwriting stars, Gionfriddo is better at surface than structure, and sometimes goes to great lengths to work in a good wisecrack; in Becky Shaw, she even devotes a whole character to witty epigrams, which does a lot for the yuk factor but kind of fucks up the play's flow.

That flow comes and goes, through so many odd little eddies, that it takes quite a while before the central quartet of Gionfriddo's play has established itself on stage, and we've understood the theme of the work is their underlying correspondence, rather than their opposition. First, there's Max, the self-possessed young financial manager, who's been adopted by the wealthy family of Suzanna (Keira Naughton), the Slaters, whose patriarch has just dropped dead, leaving them in sharply reduced circumstances. Meanwhile Suzanna's mom, Susan (Maureen Anderman), is digging herself into an even deeper hole with the help of a new boyfriend. Poor Suzanna is, understandably enough, distraught by both her father's death and her new-found debts. Max, however, is brusque and almost brutally efficient, a classic class-A asshole with a motormouth, a taste for porn, and a seemingly bottomless reservoir of tough-guy aphorisms. In short, a real guy's guy's guy's guy. Mom, meanwhile, seems to have checked out in some basic way from having to deal with anything or anyone. Before the first act is over, however, something a little weird has gone down between Suzanna and Max that we can't quite understand - a bit of quirky grief-sex that, though not, I suppose, technically perverse (they're not actually brother and sister, after all), still lets us know that stranger revelations about these two are in the offing.

But before Gionfriddo gets to that, she fast-forwards a few months to Suzanna's new husband, Andrew (Eli James), whom she married in a whirlwind courtship that seems to have been based on mercy sex, too. Next comes the eponymous Becky herself, a blind date set up for Max, who turns out not to be the hard-bodied bad girl we imagine would be right for him, but rather an aging waif in a demurely frilly dress ("You look like a piece of cake," Max snarls), who despite her seeming insecurity lets slip some coolly acute appraisals of the world around her. As with Max and Suzanna, we soon realize that All Is Not As It Seems with Becky.


Got all that? Good, because it's a rather complicated set-up you need to track what comes next: the Date from Hell, and the ensuing Fall-Out. Max and Becky are robbed on their Big Night (at gunpoint), which traumatizes Becky so badly that she begs for more contact with Max, to get to "closure," as she puts it. But Max, despite a brief post-mugging tryst with his date, has dropped her like a rock, and intends to leave her that way. Enter Andrew, the New Age husband, a guy so sensitive he actually cries at porn, who begins to minister to the seemingly stricken victim. And thus threatens his marriage to Suzanna. Who may be more into Max, anyhow.

Got all that? If so, you may have begun to piece together the playwright's amusing theme: that the same selfishness and longing for love are driving both Max's master-of-the-universe act and Becky's victimhood. They're both desperate to be loved, preferably by someone above them in the social register, but they go about it through opposed strategies: Max takes utter care of the Slaters, while declaiming constantly on his own heartlessness; meanwhile Becky lets everyone know how broken and needy she is, all while plotting her next move on the same family. Most amusingly, she understands precisely how to manipulate to her own advantage the kind of college-bred sensitivities rampant at Brown; she's both a victim and a subtle victimizer, and Max alone immediately recognizes her as a predator in his own league. Becky's name reminds us of Becky Sharp, the scheming antiheroine of Vanity Fair who capitalized on her beauty and feminine wiles, and it's amusing to watch Gionfriddo work up a parallel vixen for the age of identity politics - one who ensnares people not with her looks but her lack of looks (Becky always dresses badly, in a klutzily over-feminine way), and not with her charm but instead her vulnerability.

The shock of recognition: the cast of Becky Shaw.

Thackeray, of course, lavished his sardonic attention on Becky Sharp, while Becky Shaw moves mostly behind a veil of mystery which makes us see her as more device than character. Neverthless, this cracked quartet does set up an amusing satire of contemporary mores. The trouble is that Gionfriddo has to rely on a kind of emotional deus ex machina to resolve her plot - she has hubby Andrew make a sudden leap into maturity which isn't really believable, and even happens off-stage. Perhaps it has to, because the playwright has meanwhile become re-involved with Mom, who spouts postmodern epigrams worthy of Wilde (if he had written for Showtime, that is), and whose self-centered wisdom brings down the house, but only re-iterates (instead of further developing) the themes of the play.

Then again, Gionfriddo's real aim may be to simply reveal her underlying correspondences rather than develop them. So what we get is Becky Shaw - a flawed but funny look at the current cult of victimhood that closes just as it gets really interesting (and Becky is left alone with her true double - and target - the icily nasty Max). Your mileage may vary with this production as well as this play, however, because even though everyone in the company is talented, director Peter DuBois hasn't quite teased out the right performances from them to really make the text sing, or sting. Seth Fisher's Max, for instance, is far too cool a customer to really hook us in that mysterious first act; he's definitely hilarious, but his carapace of competence is almost bland - he needs to be a bit more of a hothead, a bit more poisonously male, to truly set off his odd liaison with Suzanna and make us wonder what's really going on beneath his gleaming, powerful hood. Keira Naughton's Suzanna is likewise a bit too calm and collected at first; and thus we find the news that she has married in just a few short months utterly unbelievable. Eli James is a better match to hubby Andrew's crunchy profile, and Wendy Hoopes also manages to somehow put over the weird hiddenness of Becky, even if their big scene together is the oddest in the play. And Huntington vet Maureen Anderman knows just how to serve the hilarious ham Gionfriddo has sliced for Mom - it's simply too bad the character is so obviously peripheral.

It's such flaws that make the Pulitzer Prize nomination for Becky Shaw seem - well, like a reach. Still, I suppose the money question is the following: is Gina Gionfriddo better than Sarah Ruhl? In a word, yes. Becky Shaw may be awkward, but it does come together in its own way, and nobody in it leaps into a parallel universe or builds a house of string. Even though it's from Brown, it may still be a keeper.

Boston theatre community joins hands for Haiti

Word has reached us (via IRNE critic Beverly Creasey) of an exciting benefit for Doctors Without Borders' relief efforts in Haiti. Titled "Let's Duet for Haiti," (yeah, but you got a better title?), the evening will feature such talents as Leigh Barrett, Amelia Broome,Mary Callanan, Aimee Doherty, Maurice Parent, De'lon Grant, Paul Farwell, Maureen Keiller, Maryann Zschau, and, as they say, many more. These local stars will be taking over the Roberts Studio Theatre at the BCA for one night only, Monday, March 22. Tickets are just $29.00 and can be purchased at www.bostontheatrescene.com, or by calling 617-933-8600.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Sophie's choice

Craig Mathers, Anne Gottlieb, and Marianna Bassham try to breathe life into Not Enough Air.

Watching Becky Shaw last night at the Huntington, I was struck by how playwright Gina Gionfriddo kept tossing little poisoned darts in the direction of the feminine victimization fetishes taught at Brown University (and really the entire academy). Would she could have also taken aim at Not Enough Air (through Sunday at the Nora Theatre Company), the disjointed update of Sophie Treadwell's Machinal that the critics did hand-springs for, but which left me (and the audience I saw it with) pretty cold.

Indeed, playwright Masha Obolensky (who's at Northeastern, not Brown, but what's the difference) could crib more than a few notes from Gionfriddo - that is, if she wants to really get at what she's pretending she's interested in: the dangerous psychological material that the notorious Ruth Snyder murder trial dredged up for playwright/reporter Treadwell.

That's right - Not Enough Air is a play about writing a play, which I guess is its excuse for being kind of a conceptual mess. But that's probably what comes of caring more about your theatrical effects (none of them particularly new) than you do about your characters. Treadwell's Machinal, though rarely produced today, made a Broadway hit out of the Snyder murder trial by turning it into an expressionist meditation on the entrapment of women in marriage and, you know, society and stuff. Thus Not Enough Air aims to be a post-expressionist (or post-meta-expressionist) meditation on an entrapped woman writing about the entrapment of women. Or something like that.

The problem, of course, is that Ruth Snyder (at left) wasn't really trapped, and neither was Sophie Treadwell. Indeed, it's telling that Ruth's murder of her husband (with the help of the lover she browbeat into the job) inspired not just Machinal but also James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. These different takes on the basic facts operate like opposed stars: to Treadwell, Snyder was a victim of a masculine power structure machine-like in its oppression of women ("machinal" is French for "mechanical" or "automatic"). To Cain, she was a brilliant, diabolical seductress. Both are essentially paranoid (or maybe hysterical) extrapolations of an almost amusingly tawdry murder case. The real Ruth Snyder was rather obviously neither a crushed violet nor a Venus flytrap; she was, instead, cruel, ruthless, and rather stupid. (Her hilarious missteps and inadvertent confessions basically sealed her and her lover's fates.)

This doesn't mean, of course, that Treadwell's obsession with her isn't interesting as a dramatic subject; the trouble is that Obolensky doesn't know how to dramatize said subject. Instead for about an hour we get poor Anne Gottlieb (as Treadwell) supposedly getting sucked into the Snyder case, but really just wandering through a gauntlet of popping flash bulbs, loud sound effects, nasty phalanxes of company men, and shadowy, noirish tableaux. We get the sense that we're supposed to be saying to ourselves "OMG! IT'S LIKE A MACHINE!" over and over again, but we soon get really tired of saying that and begin to wonder when the actual play is going to start.

To be fair, something dramatic does get started in the second act, when Obolensky trains her sights on Treadwell's efforts to conjure her own characterization of Snyder in the play-within-the-play. Briefly, something seems to be at stake for the characters, at least in the wary, menacing dance between Gottlieb and the ever-terrific Marianna Bassham as Snyder's fictional double. But the excitement these talented actresses generate when left alone together soon dissipates. Obolensky seems to want to convey that by opening up the Pandora's box of her repressed feelings about the "trapped" murderess, Treadwell destroyed her open, quasi-bohemian relationship with fellow journalist George Stillwell (the wasted Craig Mathers). This is a promising idea, but soon we feel ourselves filling in all the dramatic blanks for Obolensky on this score; the playwright simply can't seem to get inside Treadwell's relationship (or give poor Stillwell much of a characterization). And at any rate, Machinal didn't exactly turn Treadwell into a great artist (the rest of her oeuvre is hackwork); so we wonder if, in the end, losing whatever she had with Stillwell was worth that one success. Not that Obolensky would ever go there; instead, we're soon back to political stick figures, scenic out-takes from Chicago, and meta-theatrical constructs. Every now and then, I hoped the cast might just break into a chorus of "He Had It Comin'," but no such luck. What was most touching about the production, in fact, was charting its rise and fall on poor Anne Gottlieb's face: first she looked lost, then thrilled to be playing against Bassham, then lost again. This fine actress deserves better.

Oh, well. Needless to say, director Melia Bensnussen, who's made a specialty out of pounding a politically-correct template down onto Shakespeare, was pretty much indifferent to whatever emotional connections Obolensky hints at between men and women. Instead, as is her wont, Bensnussen emphasizes just about everything that's dramatically weak (but politically au courant) about Not Enough Air. The supporting cast - a roster of Boston's best actors - dash about with more than enough energy to put over the director's puppet show, but it's kind of a lost cause. David Remedios's sound design deserves praise, and John Malinowski certainly gives the lighting grid a workout. Beyond that, though, there's really not enough drama in Not Enough Air.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Of Strauss, slapstick, and Ariadne auf Naxos

The commedia troupe strut their stuff in Ariadne auf Naxos. Production photos by Jeffrey Dunn.

Denni Sayers can't help herself; when someone is hitting somebody else with a big kielbasa, you can tell she just has to get involved.

"Brilliant, that's brilliant!" she giggles as she launches herself from the director's chair of a rehearsal of Boston Lyric Opera's Ariadne auf
(which opens tomorrow). "But can you hit him on this note - " she turns to the rehearsal pianist, who responds with a tinkling phrase - "rather than this one?"

She takes the sausage from the tenor and wham! smacks the bass with it on the downbeat.

"Oh and hit him right there," she says, pointing to a precise spot on his forehead. "Got it? Right there." Wham!

The bass sinks in a graceful spiral to the floor; the tenor waves his blunt instrument around like a tom-tom, and the room cracks up. And Sayers returns, still giggling, to the director's chair to dream up another prime slice of slapstick.

It's a typical moment from Ariadne auf Naxos, the opera that sounds like high tragedy but often plays more like a Warner Brothers cartoon. Intentionally. Because Richard Strauss's masterpiece is the tale of an opera company - specializing in a chunk of high tragedy (about the abandoned Ariadne weeping on her rock) - forced to share the stage with a commedia dell'arte troupe. That would be Harlequin, Truffaldino and their comrades (see above) - but you can also think of their many descendants, from Charlie Chaplin to Roger Rabbit, instead - who specialize not in high tragedy but low comedy, in fact precisely in setting a banana peel before the path of august convention.

And Sayers (above left) seems like the perfect person to pull these two opposed artistic worlds into conjunction. Although according to her, Ariadne isn't just about deflating the pretensions of high opera; instead, it's about a synthesis of high and low, a new way of looking at life and art from both perspectives at once.

Funny thing is, she seems like the perfect person to pull that off, too. With her sparkling eyes and punkette 'do, you might imagine her banging her head in a club on Lansdowne Street. But instead, she's expending her considerable choreographic skill on finding just the right physical comedy to match one of the subtlest, and quirkiest, scores of the twentieth century.

That's right. Choreographic skill. "To me, it was a natural progression from choreographer to director," she explains. "Since choreography is all about finding character through movement, I found myself asked to help more and more not just with set-pieces of dance, but with dramatic scenes as well. I seemed to be good at helping singers get from point A to point B both physically and emotionally." Gradually, Sayers was cast more and more often as assistant director, and today she generally commands her own productions, although in the case of Ariadne, she's shepherding the vision of Neil Armfeld, a long-time associate who helmed this acclaimed production at the Welsh National Opera.

She's working with an entirely new cast, however. "But that's what keeps it fresh," she laughs. "Working with new people, finding the production inside them - that makes it a discovery again."

But what about those moments when she jumps in and says, "No, hit him here"?

Sayers gets a wicked look in her eye. "I know, I can't help myself! But the whole point is to find it organically, from within the performers. You try to draw it out of them, not 'set it on' them. And this cast has been wonderful - the working atmosphere has just been wonderful. I've got [rising conducting star] Erik Nielsen to handle the orchestra, and the cast sounds ravishing." [Speaking from having heard one rehearsal, in which Rachele Gilmore sailed through Zerbinetta's famous aria, they oh, so do.]

"Still . . ." Sayers gets that gleam in her eye again. "Sometimes a singer needs a little help finding it. In releasing it, I should say. That's where I come in."

Indeed, sometimes it seems that singers have that same problem with dancing that white men have with jumping. "They're very different from dancers," Sayers agrees. "A dancer feels the beat in the body; a singer sees it on the page. I can count beats with a dancer; with a singer, I have to say 'You have to get there by the end of the eighth notes.' What's great is that they get that. Luckily, I learned to read music as a child, so I don't have to work from a tape of the score or anything, like so many movie and theatrical directors do who work in opera. The music itself is right there in my lap. Which is a very good thing," she says with a meaningful look. "Because this score is so tricky!"

Which it is; Strauss is always shifting his time signatures and musical texture. "And of course you can never forget that a singer is always singing. The thing is to get them to not obsess about that as they move," Sayers explains. "As a choreographer you generally work from the floor, from the legs. As an opera choreographer, you work from the breath. You always have to support that, you always have to be in sympathy with that. And you have to design your movement directionally, to keep the vocal focus where it should be. Even if you're choreographing an intimate little conversation, you have to enable your singers to project a huge volume of sound out to people sitting in the dark a hundred feet away."

And then, in the case of Ariadne auf Naxos, you also have to deal with the big sausage. "Actually it's not all slapstick!" Sayers insists. "The opera isn't about ridiculing high tragedy at all - although maybe it's a little bit about ridiculing self-seriousness. Ariadne has to learn to get on with her life, doesn't she? And she does (below), with a little help from Harlequin and Truffaldino - and Bacchus (who swoops in on a gangplank in this production). The opera is in fact a profound exploration of how you move on from a terrible loss. What I hope this production conveys is a vision of two worlds colliding and learning something from each other. The tragedians and the comedians, for all their differences, end up in mutual admiration. And that's a beautiful thing."

The transfiguring finale of Ariadne auf Naxos.

String theory

Gil Rose conducts. Photo by Liz Linder.

I was feeling a little, well, strung out this weekend (having seen both Itzhak Perlman and the Artemis String Quartet), so perhaps I simply wasn't in the mood for "Strings Attached," the latest concert by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (last Saturday at Jordan Hall). Or then again, maybe the concert was simply as mixed a bag as it seemed. At any rate, it proved a rather rambling evening, with perhaps no very deep lows, but only one real high.

The composers on offer ranged from the fresh (Nathan Ball) to the locally familiar (Scott Wheeler) to the established (Betty Olivero) to the modern classic (Bartók, Babbitt). "Stained Glass" was the one world premiere, by the very-young Ball, who is currently a graduate student at New England Conservatory. As you might glean from its title, it was a bit earnest, and maybe even a little corny - a rippling piece of Aaron-Copland-meets-minimalism that aimed for something vaguely uplifting. Still, it arguably got to that uplifting place in an accomplished, thoughtful way, with a last-minute surge that hinted at more interesting things to come (the composer says it's the first part of a triptych).

So Ball clearly has promise; with Scott Wheeler, however, I think it's time for more than promise - but "Crazy Weather" (from 2004) didn't really deliver much more than that. Witty and highly wrought, it was nonetheless never really gripping; oddly, like "Stained Glass," it was at its most interesting at the finish, when a sudden burst of energy seemed to be released that to my mind called out for resolution in a larger structure. Meanwhile the next work on the program, Stephen Hartke’s three-movement “Alvorada’’ (from 1983), boasted more than enough length to really develop a musical idea, but just seemed to meander through its course.

As you might guess, by intermission I was in the mood for something really meaty, but instead had to suffer through Milton Babbitt's silly "Correspondences for String Orchestra and Synthesized Tape" (from 1967). "Here comes the blinkety-blink music," my companion sighed just before it began, and so it was hard not giggle as, sure enough, the recorded electronic serialism went blinkety-blink, just like outtakes from Forbidden Planet, while the orchestra tried to respond. Or rather correspond. To BMOP's credit, the string players gave their all under the guidance of Rose, and did manage to convey an impression of passionate exploration. What exactly they and Babbitt were looking for remained a mystery, however. Maybe it was Altair 4.

Finally we got to program's highlight, Betty Olivero's “Neharót, Neharót,’’ a song of mourning for the ongoing strife in the Middle East (the title translates from Hebrew as "Rivers, Rivers") essayed with fierce commitment by solo violist Kim Kashkashian. A strangely moving mix of wail and chant (accompanied by literal, recorded wails and chants) the piece is a richly embroidered work indeed - it's flecked with references to the likes of Monteverdi - and Kashkashian made an electric connection with the audience (the piece was written for her, and her identification with it seemed complete). My only qualm was the use of recorded voices; why weren't the singers live? I dislike "mediated" performance in general, and I worried at times that “Neharót, Neharót," like much of, say, Osvaldo Golijov, operated as a response to televised grief rather than the thing itself. Or is that actually the more appropriate mode for such a work? (Olivero has said the piece was inspired by television footage of a battle between Hezbollah and Israeli forces.) I confess I'm on the fence on that one, but certainly Olivero managed to conjure with these taped segments quite a complicated political and metaphoric space, of a kind that I doubt Milton Babbitt ever dreamed of.

The final selection on the program (which probably should have ended with Olivero) was Bartók's familiar Divertimento for String Orchestra (1939). BMOP gave the piece a solid reading, but seemed to offer few new insights into it, and I was a bit puzzled by its inclusion. I felt the pressure of a certain correspondence between it and the Babbitt and the Olivero (two included tape, two included politics!) which felt slightly forced, and which I decided to shake off. And alas, the work's complexity, offered so late in the day (as it were) seemed to only scramble further the musical message of the evening. If there's such a thing as too little, too late, then maybe there's such a thing as too much, too late, too. Which doesn't mean I wasn't grateful to BMOP for an introduction to “Neharót, Neharót." It just means that it's always a good idea to leave the crowd wanting more.

A visit with Uncle Itzhak

There isn't much to say anymore about Itzhak Perlman (at left). Not really. He long ago reached a level of technique that kind of beggars description, and renders criticism mute.

He knows it, too. Perlman's all too aware he's a grand master in the old style, now in a perpetual victory lap around the globe, the kind of attraction that musical people bring their ten-year-olds to see, just as their parents did with Pavarotti or Horowitz. And so he relaxes, and has a little fun, as he did at last weekend's sell-out Celebrity Series concert at Symphony Hall. After all, he's got nothing left to prove.

This attitude - or rather the marketing behind it - bent the Globe's Jeremy Eichler all out of shape, but I didn't much mind. Because to be honest, even if Perlman's style has congealed a bit, and he isn't pushing the envelope anymore, even if a quarter of his performance at Symphony was decided on at the last minute, then obviously tossed off (although brilliantly tossed off), he's hardly slumming, as Pavarotti often did. Nor has he become at all cynical or bored (as Horowitz sometimes seemed).

Indeed, Perlman is only too eager to show his audience a good time. And yes, bask in their admiration for doing that so effortlessly. True, he is hardly a selfless devotee to music; indeed, the spotlight is rather obviously on him rather than the music - much less his pianist, the amiable (and able) Rohan de Silva, who in only one or two pieces was treated as a true partner rather than an accompanist.

But Perlman is still a magician, and still able to do literally anything he wants to on his ravishing Strad. And truth be told, sometimes the music was the focus of the concert, and when that happened, only a fool would pretend that the performance was anything less than stunning. The opening Mozart was elegant and lightly plush, if a bit brisk (Perlman tended to keep his foot on the pedal throughout the concert); it was the following Franck sonata that was something of a revelation. The piece may be Franck's most popular, and for good reason: it's a strange, sprawling triumph that's both harmonically and melodically dense and structurally almost too bizarre to be called a "sonata"; the third movement alone seems to come to more than one crashing climax before righting itself with newly lustrous variations on its set of themes. For once, de Silva held his ground as an equal partner to Perlman - indeed, Franck may be more this pianist's forte than the violinist's. Nevertheless, Perlman's playing seemed to open up in the Franck; the tempos seemed just right, the tone appropriately lush; together, Perlman and de Silva held the audience spellbound (even Eichler had to admit he liked this one).

Alas, the Debussy sonata that followed (which is famously the composer's last composition) proved disappointing. Perlman seemed disinterested in its quirky mysteries, and his playing was fast and loose. But one dud doesn't ruin a concert. What came next amounted to a long encore, with Perlman shuffling through sheet music right there on stage, looking for something we in Boston might not have heard before. The schtick was actually charming - Perlman came off as an affectionate uncle to about 3,000 different people, and after all, why shouldn't classical music be a casual affair among friends?

The chosen works turned out to be (surprise, surprise) mostly light showpieces for the violin (by Kreisler, Heifetz, and the usual suspects) in which the piano played, well, second fiddle. Still, the Kreisler (a "chanson" in the style of Couperin) was gorgeous, and Perlman threw in a spirited take on one of Brahms's Hungarian Dances, too. Even the theme from Schindler's List sounded lovely (and made one wish John Williams could work it into a richer musical structure). By the end of the performance, the sense of affection between Perlman and his public was palpable; we could have gone on listening to him forever. And is that so wrong?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Quartet for the end of time

A promotional video for the Artemis String Quartet: Eckart Runge (cello), Natalia Prischepenko and Gregor Sigl (violins), and Fredemann Weigle (viola).

In a word, "Wow." Or in a few more words, "Wonderful, but . . ." and then "Oh hell, wow!"

Although actually, does "wow" really cover the small miracle the Artemis String Quartet made of Beethoven's String Quartet No. 15 (Opus 132) last Friday in their Celebrity Series debut? Somehow "wow" doesn't seem profound enough.

For what this youngish quartet from Berlin tapped into wasn't mere dazzle, although they have plenty of that at their command. Dazzle doesn't bring tears to your eyes. It doesn't make you reconsider your life and every mistake you ever made. It doesn't remind you of the fact that No. 15 is the quartet that inspired Eliot's Four Quartets, and their haunting obsession with how, precisely, artistic experience transcends time.

No, "dazzle" is what came earlier in the program, when the Artemisians (the Artemii?) essayed the early Quartet No. 2 in G Major (Opus 18), which is one of the most delightful pieces Beethoven ever produced. It's known as the "Compliments" Quartet, and as you might guess from that moniker, it's a sweetly diverting valentine to Haydn and (especially) Mozart. And in their all-around refinement and casually classicist technique - led by the calmly brilliant Natalia Prischepenko on first violin - the Artemis seemed to own it from its opening bars.

There's not, perhaps, too much meat on the bones of this delicious confection, however, and when the Artemis leapt forward in time (and Beethoven's development) to Quartet No. 11 (the "Serioso"), suddenly their very facility began to sound a little too light and self-satisfied. The last quartet before Beethoven's transcendent final phase (and written while Napoleon was attacking Vienna, the composer's home at the time) the "Serioso" is a compact, muscular-yet-almost-fragmented experiment full of hairpin turns and unexpected outbursts; listening to it, you feel you're overhearing some sort of private, impassioned argument, and Beethoven himself was quoted as saying it was not meant for public performance. Yet the Artemis seemed to imagine it could conjure the work's furies from the same impeccable craft it had brought to the "Compliments" Quartet. The results were, indeed, impeccable, but strangely empty. Thus my first impression of them ("Wonderful!") began to be tinged with caveats (as in "Wonderful, but . . . ").

No. 15, however, proved to be a revelation. Then again, it always is in great hands. Its famous central movement, subtitled "“A Sacred Song of Thanks from One Made Well, to the Divine” refers to the composer's (brief) return to health in 1825 after a bout of abdominal maladies (the great man would, however, pass away only two years later). It wouldn't be incorrect to term this movement a hymn, and one that might be the most poignant thing Beethoven ever wrote. Here what felt like misguided artfulness in the Artemis version of No. 11 seemed to re-coalesce as a transcendent sense of balance. The piece seemed to not merely resound with a profound sense of gratitude, but also prefigure the composer's awareness that death, inevitably, awaited him (as it does us all). And was it too much to hear in the strange, free lyricism of its last movements the sense that something lies beyond that, too, that death itself can somehow be transcended? If I had the talent of T.S. Eliot, I might have left Jordan Hall and begun writing my own Four (or Five) Quartets, I suppose. As it was, I had to content myself with a sacred song of thanks to the Artemis String Quartet.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The North Shore announces its season

The revived North Shore Music Theatre has announced its first slate of shows - Gypsy (July 6-25), Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (Aug. 3-22), Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Sept. 21-Oct. 10), and A Chorus Line (Nov. 2-21). The theatre will also revive A Christmas Carol over the holiday season. The productions will not be shared, as many expected, with Rhode Island's Theatre by the Sea, which is also owned by William Hanney, who purchased the NSMT property this winter. The new Artistic Director of the operation is Evans Haile, of the Cape Playhouse (who it seems will carry on in both jobs). On the downside, the North Shore won't be offering nearly as many people full-time employment as it once did; in an article in today's Globe, Haile even mentions a skeleton permanent crew of as few as 6-8, backed by a far-larger corps of temporary workers. Still, it's good to have the North Shore back in any way, shape or form. More information on the season is available here.

Friday, March 5, 2010

This weekend . . .

. . . is going to be a musical one, with visits from the Artemis String Quartet (above) and the great Itzhak Perlman at Celebrity Series. Artemis will be playing Beethoven, while Perlman will join pianist Rohan De Silva in sonatas by Mozart, Franck and Debussy. I'll also be catching the Boston Modern Orchestra Project's "Strings Attached" concert on Saturday, featuring the widely-praised Neharót Neharót by Israeli composer Betty Olivero. I'll also try to squeeze in a viewing of The Ghost Writer, the new film directed by Roman Polanski (and edited while under house arrest). You'll get to hear what I thought about everything next week.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Chronicle of a death re-told

The composer's grave outside Vienna.

It's been awhile since I've listened to Mahler's Ninth - the last time, in fact, was a performance by James Levine and the BSO that I felt slid from the sublime to the ridiculous. The trouble with the BSO version was that Levine's hyper-refined aesthetic doesn't really map to Mahler's, and so the Ninth, famously the composer's last completed symphony, and famously obsessed with the spectre of death, became in Levine's hands so lingeringly attenuated that it began to sound self-pitying.

But of course Mahler, even dying Mahler, is anything but self-pitying. The Ninth may not even be quite sorrowful, if you ask me. I'm not even sure it's only about death - although it's almost certainly about defeat. It's also definitely about struggle, and about something in that struggle going mad, and then something else surviving that struggle before slowly dying away in acceptance of its failure. If it does "die away," that is; the final, softly persistent theme does end, it's true, but only because the work itself must end; it's somehow more resigned than tragic. But a romantic idea has become attached to the Ninth that we're not merely attending an artistic statement but also a metaphoric funeral for the composer (who requested that he be buried in silence), and maybe a funeral for the symphonic form itself. For no one has really taken up Mahler's mantle, or the challenge of his expansion of the symphony into titanic new forms that, though thrilling, never actually led to the triumphant synthesis he was after.

So as you may be able to guess, the Ninth is in a way about Mahler going meta, and turning his post-Romantic temperament onto the very means of Romantic music itself. This makes him an ideal subject for Benjamin Zander, who is at his best in colossal musical rhetoric, and sure enough, his interpretation of the Ninth last weekend with Boston Philharmonic at Sanders Theatre did not disappoint. One wishes that the Philharmonic could command Symphony Hall for these huge endeavours - over and over again, Zander conducts great reckonings in small rooms, it seems, and as usual, the Ninth felt extremely loud and incredibly close at Sanders. And the demands of this challenging work pushed the Philharmonic's technical resources to their limit, and maybe (here and there) a bit beyond, at least in the winds (though not the horns). Also, Zander has separated his first and second violins, for reasons which remained unclear at least at this concert, and this may have contributed to a few problems of balance.

Then again, a certain lack of balance isn't exactly the wrong idea for the Ninth, and in general Zander's sense of the design of the work held together brilliantly even when the orchestra nearly didn't. Both he and his players were at their best in the complex opening movement, which is where the piece is most openly about drama, always a Zander specialty. The oddly jaunty second movement, a Viennese folk dance (the ländler) that seems to lose its bearings and work itself into a frenzy, also came off with exciting and precise attack. Things got a little rough in the third movement, but in the famous fourth, with its oh-so-slowly-dying fall, the Philharmonic recovered, and achieved a sense of haunting equipoise. The orchestra couldn't quite pull off the one coup the BSO brilliantly managed - which is to have the movement's final notes trail off so imperceptibly into silence that we can't be sure when they have, in fact, actually ended. Zander compensated by holding the following silence for several long beats, as I suppose we were to imagine Mahler's spirit passing. And truth be told, I'm sure many of us were.

Why did I ever bother with these people . . .

I did check out a few other theatre-blog posts this morning.

And then wondered why I bothered. Once you have some distance on these people, it's hard to get re-excited about them.

Don Hall, for instance, was spanking his monkey, as usual (no, I'm not going to link to his cage), and throwing his poop in my general direction. I realize that Don's lonely, and that he thinks of junior-high insults as some kind of siren call, or maybe something more like "won't you come out and play?' But no, asshat, I won't come out and play. Just deal.

Elsewhere, the blogosphere remains its self-serving self. Scott Walters floated a rather penetrating critique of the academic style of playwriting (and the overrated Naomi Wallace in particular) here. But the blogosphere was not going to have any of that! (They paid good money for that degree!) Matt Freeman replied with a non sequitur here; his argument is essentially "Criticism is just wrong. The end." Uh-huh. But oddly enough, utterly chastened, the easily-confused Walters agrees here! Of course, he says; if I don't like the style that's being supported by the academic programs, I should just write my own play! And if I don't like the way the U.S. is being run, I should go found my own country! Criticism is wrong! D.I.Y.!