Friday, April 30, 2010

Coming soon . . .

Leigh Barrett, Kerry A. Dowling and Mary Callanan share a brew in SpeakEasy's Great American Trailer Park Musical.

Yes, I know I still owe you my consideration of Conor McPherson's The Eclipse; I may get to that this weekend. That is if I have time between all the events I'm slated to see; this weekend is going to be a long one.

I kick-started it by checking out Theatre on Fire's version of Jordan Harrison's Act a Lady last night (you may have already read my blast of frustrated tweets about that as I was evacuated from the T last night; long story short - Jordan Harrison must be stopped!).

Tonight, however, I switch gears into classical mode with Handel and Haydn's "Bach Portrait" (Brandenburg No. 5, plus motets and cantatas), conducted by the wonderful Harry Christophers. Then tomorrow I'm off to the wilds of Lowell to catch one of my favorite local actresses, Karen MacDonald, in a triple play, The Blonde, the Brunette, and the Vengeful Redhead at Merrimack Rep. Sunday I return to town to kick back with SpeakEasy's The Great American Trailer Park Musical, featuring three leading ladies of our local musical stage, Leigh Barrett, Kerry A. Dowling and Mary Callanan (above). I'll also be dropping in on a Boston Ballet rehearsal of "Ultimate Balanchine," which opens next week.

But don't think the weekend's over! On Monday night the New Rep opens its steamin' production of Hot Mikado, with New Rep favorites Aimee Doherty and Cheo Bourne, and Tuesday I'll take in the final performance of Opera Boston's La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, the rarely-seen opera by Jacques Offenbach, featuring Stephanie Blythe, who just blew away Symphony Hall in the BSO's Elijah.

And then I'll take one night off before starting the whole process over again next Thursday.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

A very fair Lady

Paul Farwell romps through his role as Alfred P. Doolittle. Photos by Neil Reynolds.

The "sleeper" hit of the spring season is probably Stoneham's My Fair Lady, which you still just have time to catch. The production hasn't benefited from particularly strong press - I don't think it even got a Globe review, and the rest of its notices were somewhat mixed. But positive word of mouth has built around the show, and though I was skeptical, I checked it out last week.

And I have to admit I was largely charmed; although not flawless, this is still a "loverly" version of the timeless classic. Actually, it's more than that - there are the usual compromises that come from squeezing a show this large onto a stage the size of Stoneham's, and there's one weak vocal performance, and one obvious wardrobe malfunction; but for the most part, the show sails smoothly along, and actually grows more absorbing as it unfolds. By the finale, thanks to an unusual chemistry between its two stars, I felt it was the most touching version of the musical I'd ever seen.

Do I have to go into the plot, the original play, etc.? I didn't think so; let's just skip that. The question you probably do have, of course, is how Stoneham deals with the long shadow of the first Broadway production (preserved, pretty much, in the Oscar-winning film). And the answer is: quite gracefully, in general; under the solid, sympathetic direction of Caitlin Lowans, the production both dodges slavish imitation of the original and turns its own more limited resources to best advantage.

Timothy John Smith, for instance, is a tad young to play Henry Higgins, but he carves out an individual niche for himself right next to Rex Harrison's without ever actually imitating that famous performance - and unlike Harrison, he doesn't have to 'speak-sing,' which brings an entire new dimension to such standards as "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face." And luckily, newcomer Robyn Lee (at left) has the pipes for Eliza, too. Alas, she lacks the vulnerability that makes Eliza initially so appealing, but her natural heartiness serves her well at Ascot and elsewhere. And once wounded by Higgins's egotism, Lee seemed to steadily grow in emotional stature - the final, famous tableau had a genuine air of rueful romance to it, as well as the sense that Eliza was not so much capitulating as returning on her own terms.

There were other strong performances scattered through the cast. Paul Farwell all but pranced through the role of Doolittle - a role he may have been born to play; and he was surrounded by affecting turns from Russell Garrett as Pickering, Ann Marie Shea as Higgins's mother, and Shannon Lee Jones as his weary housekeeper. I'd add to that list Michael Buckley as the callow, love-struck Freddy, except that Buckley's singing voice lacked the power to fill out the top notes of the transporting "On the Street Where You Live." Buckley was unusual in this cast, however, which was filled with good singers, even in its choruses and cockney quartets.

There were, to tell true, a few more gaps. The pit band was fine, but simply couldn't supply the sumptuousness of the original orchestrations, of course. Meanwhile Ilyse Robbins's choreography made the most of singers who weren't really dancers, and Kathryn Kawecki's elegant set played the same trick with the adequate, but not spacious, Stoneham stage. The costuming, by the reliable Stacey Stephens, was likewise fine - until it came time for the iconic costumes Eliza wears to Ascot and the ball, when Stephens inexplicably faltered. Oh, well. My advice to future producers of My Fair Lady is to not attempt to better Cecil Beaton - just channel him. As this version does with so many of the original's virtues.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Chopin list

Maurizio Pollini at a recent New York recital. Photo by Jennifer Taylor.

It was somehow heartwarming to see that a great pianist without a marketing juggernaut behind him can still sell out a large house, as Maurizio Pollini did last Sunday in his Celebrity Series appearance at Symphony Hall. Of course Pollini has something besides marketing behind him - what he has, for lack of a better word, is civilization. Now brushing 70, Pollini is one of the last avatars of a lost ideal: the cultivated man. The son of a prominent modernist architect, and the scion of an extended artistic family, Pollini was raised in a kind of hothouse of aesthetic sophistication. He began public performance on the piano at age 9; by 18, he had won the prestigious Chopin Competition, which launched his international career.

Since then, Pollini has carefully built an enormous repertoire, but on Sunday, he returned to that early turning point, offering a tour through Chopiniana of all shapes and sizes. The concert was loosely structured to stretch from obscurities and experiments to warhorses like the "Marche funèbre" and the "Heroic" Polonaise in A-flat Major, but beyond that the program seemed to lack a unifying theme or point of view. Then again, Pollini's not really known as an original musical thinker: his style could perhaps be summed up as Rubinstein, Reconsidered. And then perhaps reconsidered again. For though Pollini's color and temperament owe a lot to the great Polish pianist, there's a thoughtfulness about his playing that edges toward rumination (and micro-management) rather than expansive statement. And given that structure is not Chopin's strong suit, this can sometimes give the impression of diffident meandering.

But rarely has meandering been so compelling. Alas, the opening Fantaisie in F minor was given a coolly energetic attack, but made no lasting impression; the four Mazurkas of Op. 30, however, were all given focused and distinct profiles. Likewise the Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor (which includes that notoriously funereal march) may have felt episodic - it's so variegated it almost has to - but each segment, considered individually, was highly wrought, and the whirlwind of triplets in the final Presto were brought off with dazzlingly grim sang froid.

Perhaps the richest, most satisfying playing of the program came at the top of its second half, in calibratedly lush readings of the two Nocturnes of Opus 48 (it was here, and in the encores, that Pollini's touring piano really showed what it could do). And from then on the pianist seemed to be on a roll. He accelerated steadily through the many shifts of the roiling Polonaise in F-sharp minor, then paused - barely - to ponder the unfolding of Ballade No. 4 (also in F minor), before hitting the gas again for the famous Polonaise in A-flat Major. He missed a few notes in the opening bars of this showpiece (or maybe just skipped them) but the excitement of the crowd was palpable as he charged at a seemingly ever-increasingly clip through the descending octaves of the "horses on the plain" section (he hung onto the climax, but just barely), before bringing the piece to a satisfyingly commanding close.

Perhaps this took a lot out of him, because Pollini had to be coaxed back (after four bows) for an encore. Surprisingly, the first of these was the B-Flat Minor Scherzo, Op. 31, as thorny and impacted a piece as any on the program, which Pollini dispatched with alacrity. His second encore, however, offered what the crowd was waiting for: the transportingly beautiful Op. 57 Berceuse, with its lyrical flights in the right-hand cascading back down onto its dreamily repeating left-hand motif. I'm not sure I've heard a lighter, or lovelier, version of this standard, and after a program of constant challenge, its gentle voice felt like something close to solace.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A memorable Idomeneo

Neptune makes his presence known in Idomeneo, re di Creta. Photos by Charles Erickson.

It isn't often that a Mozart work feels like a discovery. But Idomeneo, re di Creta, his first major opera, feels a bit like one, as it's long been overshadowed by the later masterpieces, and has only slowly made its way into the standard repertoire. Indeed, what's more intriguing about Ideomeneo is that over its course, you can almost hear Mozart discovering himself. Written when the wunderkind was only 24, the piece opens as a lovely, but standard-issue, "opera seria" (the leading mode of Mozart's day), with that format's usual choruses, noble solos, and tragic tone.

But slowly Idomeneo - which is basically a variant on the Iphigenia myth - edges away from tragedy and toward something more like mournful comedy; and Mozart begins to spin more duets and quartets as a lighter, yet more mature moral sensibility seeps into the proceedings. And somehow a mysterious alchemy occurs. By the final curtain, we can tell we're listening to the revolutionary who would write Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte.

This sense of discovery is redoubled when one considers the recent history of Boston Lyric Opera, which is presenting a beautiful and well-sung (if slightly trimmed) version of the opera through this weekend: slowly Boston has been discovering it, too. I've been arguing for some time that BLO - long derided as a suburban upstart - is actually our next Boston-Ballet-like success story, and Idomeneo serves, I think, as a ratification of that claim, the capstone to a startling season which has included such memorable productions (and superb vocal ensembles) as The Turn of the Screw and Ariadne auf Naxos.

Although no, the production's not perfect; in fact, it has a weakness right at its center. As the title character, Jason Collins is vocally adequate but not much more - and dramatically he seems to lean more toward fits of pique than conscience-stricken remorse (to preserve his life in a violent storm, Idomeneo has promised Neptune to sacrifice the first person he encounters on shore; that person turns out to be his son, Idamante).

Fortunately there's sterling work elsewhere in the cast. As Idamante (a breeches role), the lovely Sandra Piques Eddy struck just the right heroic profile, and what's more, her pure-tone mezzo proved luminously flexible, thanks to her utterly secure technique. Alas, as Idamante's love interest, Camille Zamora (at left, with Eddy) seemed slightly miscast, though she was generally appealing. Or perhaps the trouble was that she was simply upstaged by the great Caroline Worra as her rival, the spurned Elettra. Worra is blessed with a beautifully burnished timbre, and threw herself into her role with abandon, at times even teetering on the edge of comedy - she made Elettra's final meltdown one for the vocal and dramatic history books.

Elsewhere bass Craig Phillips offered a Neptune (suddenly revealed from the person of a pauper, at top) whose voice seemed as deep as the sea, and the chorus was in robust form throughout. In the pit, conductor David Angus led the orchestra with energy, although he had decided to mix a fortepiano (rather than a harpsichord) and period horns with a generally-modern ensemble. The results were not displeasing, although to an ear accustomed to period performance they sometimes sounded oddly mixed, neither fish nor fowl. But maybe that was the idea - to give this transitional opera a sense of musical transition, too.

Likewise, director Lilian Groag seemed to want to gently push the drama down the road we all knew Mozart would eventually go: toward a vision of gracefully balanced worldliness - toward the Enlightenment, if you will. Thus she framed the central drama of the opera as a play-within-a-play, put on by rustic villagers amid the ruins of a heroic past. Several reviewers didn't seem to get the point of this, but I have to admit, they had half a point themselves - Mozart puts this idea over just fine all by himself. Still, a few of Groag's interpolations struck me as truly inspired - having Neptune speak from the mouth of a pauper, for instance, summed up with beautiful economy a central tenet of Mozart's art: that the divine spark is in all of us. And at any rate it was wonderful to perceive in the direction an awareness of Mozart's larger political and dramatic meaning; would more local productions had this one's level of intellectual ambition. After all, Mozart (with his great librettist, Da Ponte) went further than Shakespeare ever did in transposing, and adjusting, our idea of nobility to the dimensions of actual humanity. This is the message of his life itself - that of a bourgeois genius who had to endure being literally kicked in the ass by various vacuous nobles - and you can feel its democratizing pressure in embryo, as it were, in Idomeneo.

But it must also be said that much of the power of this version derived from its physical production, including a truly stunning set by John Conklin (via a Glimmerglass production of, yes, Iphigenia), beautifully coordinated costumes by Constance Hoffmann, and even more evocative lighting by Robert Wierzel. I must say that after seeing his work here - and after last year's Rusalka - I'd have to rate Mr. Wierzel among the greatest lighting designers alive; his effects in Idomeneo seemed to literally radiate from the ancient columns of the set itself. Like much of this production, their luminous beauty lingered in the memory.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Talking 'bout an evolution

The criticisms leveled at Melinda Lopez's From Orchids to Octopi (at the Central Square Theater through May 2) are basically on target: its structure is a chick-lit cliché, and so are its sexual politics. But I still thought it was okay, particularly as it was commissioned by the National Institutes of Health to put over the theory of evolution in dramatic terms, and it manages to do that, pretty much, in an entertaining fashion.

Indeed, it's when the show is at its most didactic that it's also the most fun, thanks to some delightful costumes and props, broad but tight playing by the bemused cast (as they essay the roles of various fish, mammals and dinosaurs), and especially David Fichter's wonderful mural (at left, with the artist), which is slowly assembled over the course of the play, before being revealed in its entirety in a brilliant coup de théâtre.

Alas, it's true that Lopez's "frame story" is too much like too many other plays of late: contemporary professional woman (here "Emma") becomes obsessed with a figure from the past (here Darwin), and before you can say "Voyeurs de Venus!" or "Legacy of Light!" past and present have become intertwined, figures are popping in and out of space-time, reproduction has been muddled with creativity, and warm, uplifting life lessons have been dusted off from back episodes of Touched by an Angel. To make matters worse, the central relationship between modern "Emma" and her husband "Charles" (do I have to remind you of the names of the historical Darwins?) is likewise direct from chick-lit-journal-land: Emma's sweetheart of a husband is just becoming too successful, and isn't paying enough attention to her as she juggles the pressures of both an unexpected pregnancy and a commission for a mural about you-know-who.

These, I'm sure, are like the real problems of many couples, but let's just say that the original Darwins faced worse - plus these are problems (pregnancy, success) that a lot of other couples would kill for. So it's hard to feel too much sympathy for our New Age Emma and Chuck, particularly as Emma seems kind of high-maintenance to begin with. There's a more intriguing plotline revolving around the fears she entertains about that "genetic lottery" once she has learned more about it - but we get the feeling as these issues edged toward questions of reproductive rights (and even, possibly, "smushsmortion") they were trimmed back, more's the pity. And as for the quite-dramatic (and highly relevant) arc that Darwin himself traced - from Anglican trainee to biblical debunker - well, somehow that's never in the dramatic cards at all.

Still, even if her structure is both predictable and unwieldy, Lopez does craft her individual scenes well, and she has dreamed up some clever skits to convey the essence of that "genetic lottery," complete with Wesley Slavick slicing the ham deliciously as a kind of cosmic carnival barker who passes out mutations like prizes at a county fair to hopeful Paleozoics who line up for their big chance. There are also some snappy scenes with Debra Wise as a no-nonsense OB/GYN, and the play even generates a few chills with Tom O'Keefe's turn as the ever-mutating tuberculosis bacillus. Only Kortney Adams, as Emma, never gets to have any fun.

But Lopez's smartest move was getting real-life muralist David Fichter on board. His paintings for last season's Galileo have become the stuff of legend, and he has operated at the same delightfully high standard here (we even learned in a talkback that his own research generated some of Lopez's dialogue; now that's convergent evolution for you). I'm not sure what the Catalyst Collaborative@MIT, which sponsored From Orchids to Octopi with Underground Railway Theater, is pondering next, but my advice is: try to pick a subject that David Fichter can paint!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Fish tales at Wheelock

Margaret Ann Brady and Andrea Ross cavort amid Stacey Stephens's terrific costumes in The Little Mermaid.

The Wheelock Family Theatre's new production of The Little Mermaid gets so much right that I felt a little guilty about not liking it more. Director/designer James P. Byrne's solutions to the problems of evoking swirling schools of fish and scuttling squads of crabs, not to mention the shimmering, sinuous tails of the titular heroine and her friends, were always delightful, and the armies of kids impersonating these undersea denizens always charmed. Indeed, the show's at its strongest in the imaginative extravaganzas between its scenes, when iridescent fish swim about the auditorium, their tails twirling like kites as they poke about audience members as if they were so many stands of coral.

And you couldn't fault the production's adult cast, either: Andrea Ross made an appealing "Pearl" (not "Ariel," more on that later), and Margaret Ann Brady chewed the reefery just as she should as the Sea Witch. There were also hilarious pratfalls from Ricardo Engermann, and generally the performances were lightly comic and gently graceful.

The trouble is that the script, by Linda Daugherty, isn't quite seaworthy. Parents should note that this is not the popular Disney musical - despite a single song and a variety of music cues - but rather an attempt to meld its family-friendly revisionism with some of the dark drama of the Hans Christian Andersen original. Like the Brothers Grimm, Andersen favored tales that are grim indeed by modern standards, and often end with suffering (and explicit moralizing). Indeed, in her first incarnation, the Little Mermaid not only didn't get the Prince, but died for her efforts and dissolved into sea-foam. This turned out to be a bit much even for Andersen; he later revised the story to allow her some Little-Match-Girl-like redemption in the afterlife.

Adapter Daugherty clearly wants to temper the feel-good, you-can-have-it-all vibe of the Disney version with the sense of sacrifice (if not the religiosity) of the original. Which is certainly a laudable goal. The trouble is that beat by stumbling beat, Daugherty can't really pull it off, and she basically tries to keep the Disney tone (and pump up a gentle environmentalism) while smuggling in some of Andersen's old-school sexual vengeance without ever really harming - or even touching - "Pearl." It doesn't quite work, but the kids probably won't notice that. You may notice, however, that their focus tends to drift in between the appearances of the scary eels and the rainbow fish.

Still, there are those scary eels and those rainbow fish. And of course the good folks at Wheelock are also keeping a large number of local actors working. And is The Little Mermaid better than another trip to the multiplex? Yes, it is. You could do worse on a rainy day than taking a dip in this gentle, well-intentioned effort.

Friday, April 23, 2010

It's Mozart, Maurizio and musicals this weekend

Mozart's Idomeneo at Boston Lyric Opera. Photo by Charles Erickson.

It's once again a busy weekend. Tonight Boston Lyric Opera opens Mozart's first "opera seria," Idomeneo (above), which looks to have striking, old-school sets (courtesy of Glimmerglass), and, if the BLO keeps up its recent track record, a sterling cast as well. On Saturday, it's more things musical, although in very different keys: I'm diving into The Little Mermaid at Wheelock Family Theatre in the afternoon, and then one of my favorite musicals, My Fair Lady, at Stoneham Theatre that night. Sunday afternoon brings me back to classical, with pianist Maurizio Pollini at Celebrity Series.

And then I'll let everyone know what I thought.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Life in the rearview mirror . . .

No, people, I didn't make that comment on 99 Seats's blog. But I admit I wish I had. Isn't it just perfect? Not so long ago I called 99 Seats "dishonest," and he actually put it in his masthead, all ironically, of course (I think it's still there, somewhere). And now he's blithely rationalizing open corruption at two different theatres! (And remember he once worked at a theatre himself.) There's really nothing to say, is there. Except, of course, "I told you so . . ."

Thoughts on the 2010 IRNEs

The Independent Reviewers of New England had their big shindig on Monday night at the Cyclorama, and I heard a grand time was had by all (and Diane Paulus didn't make off with the bar tab, as some feared - aw, just kiddin' Diane, I love ya baby!). No, I didn't attend, because one or two people nominated have threatened me with bodily harm over the past few years - and that always makes for an un-festive atmosphere, don't you agree? Plus there are a few more nasties who show up regularly that I'd rather just avoid.

But of course I'm interested in who actually wins the awards, so I hate having to wait for the news - especially as this year I'd participated more forcefully in the nomination process. I confess I had a motive (though not an ulterior one) in doing so; I'd been a bit disturbed by the preponderance of awards given to a single company last year - a company I admire enormously, btw. Still, it seemed to me that inclusion and diversity should be a hallmark of the IRNEs, and so I was interested in making sure that the IRNEs were perceived as devoted to serving the entire Boston area theatre community. Thus, after much debate, we opened up the nomination process to five nominees (generally) for each category, and we considered nominations from as far away as Ogunquit and Hartford. In the end, we wound up giving nominations (excluding the musical nominations) to some 37 different companies (at top). What's more, 24 different companies walked away with at least one award.

The "downside" to this kind of approach is that the eventual winner sometimes wins by a hair. And of course I disagree with a few of this year's winners (as I'm sure everyone does); that's what makes a horse race, as my mother used to say. But overall, the benefits of throwing a wide net out to the community I think have been proven. The pendulum swung hard against last year's big winners this time around, but newer companies and lesser-known actors - some of whom have never been reviewed by the major dailies - got their first taste of wider recognition, which is great for them, and great for the IRNEs, too, because it re-inforces our reputation as being the critical voice for Boston's home theatre, the folks who will help us grow from the bottom up into the next Chicago or Seattle.

The Nortons, meanwhile, look more and more like the remnants of an old guard that's only interested in looking from the top down - at least that's the way it seems judging from their recently-announced nominations. As you can see from the chart above, the Nortons agree with the IRNEs that the Huntington and SpeakEasy Stage are the most reliable theatres in town, but note that the Nortons offer far fewer nominations; this is partly because their nominators have done their winnowing at the front end, by limiting the number of nominees to only three.

But they've also smashed together all musical performance into just a single award - and done the same favor to every kind of designer. The Nortons have also spread their nominations across only 16 local companies, less than half the number the IRNEs reached - indeed, more companies won an IRNE this year than were even nominated by the Nortons. What's really striking about the Norton list, however, is the number of players who have been shut out of the game. Trinity Rep down in Providence got zero nominations. The New Rep got nix. The Lyric Stage got zip. Lowell's Merrimack got nada. Meanwhile these four major companies pulled down 29 IRNE nominations. That's right - 29 to zero. Many smaller theatres were likewise ignored completely, even though the Nortons distinguish between "Mid-Size," "Small" and "Fringe" companies: Gloucester Stage, Stoneham Theatre, and the entire fringe scene at the Factory Theatre and the Central Square Y came up a cropper. What's most troubling about this situation is that there are well-known personal connections between some of the small companies that got nominated and a few of the nominating critics.

There are, of course, two companies that could claim the opposite snub - Orfeo Group and the Gold Dust Orphans were both recognized by the Nortons, but ignored by the IRNEs. Still, the discrepancy between the two award programs looms large; the IRNEs ignored two of the Norton companies, but the Nortons ignored almost ten times as many IRNE nominees.

It would be hard to argue that this gap is due to a higher standard over at the Nortons - because frankly, despite that supposed "winnowing," many of their judgment calls look - well, let's just say there's no accounting for taste. But the more likely reason for the concentration in the Nortons is that its critics just don't get out that much. The Boston Theatre Critics Association, which puts on the Nortons, is comprised of Caldwell Titcomb, Terry Byrne, Carolyn Clay, Iris Fanger, Joyce Kulhawik, Louise Kennedy, Sandy MacDonald, Robert Nesti, and Ed Siegel. Only one of these people - Louise Kennedy - has a full-time gig as a critic (the IRNEs are in the same boat), and as two more Nortoneers are her second-stringers at the Globe, her taste looms rather obviously over this year's nominees (as does the gap caused by her sabbatical last fall). The bottom line about Louise, of course, is that funny as it may sound, she's not really a theatre person. She's hardly insensitive, and she has a lovely writing style - but she's not really going to seek theatre out unless her editor tells her to. And other members of this merry band seem unlikely to take up the slack - there are fewer of them than there are of IRNE voters, of course, so it's unlikely they'll see as many shows to begin with (and none of them are as addicted as the most avid IRNE critics). Indeed, about half of them simply don't review regularly. The result is a critical vision that looks a lot like tunnel vision.

But then again, that probably maps well to an awards show that (let's be honest) is really for people who don't like theatre all that much, either. The categories are smashed together, the number of nominees has been reduced, and most of Boston's companies don't stand a chance in the selection process because the Nortoneers are more interested in celebrity than the art they critique - and so are the people they're trying to attract. One lack of passion seeks out, and validates, the other.

Of course every cloud has it silver lining. Poor SpeakEasy Stage, which was showered with IRNEs last year, got the shaft this season. But they can look forward to winning a Norton award - they have to, they're the only nominee for "Best Director - Mid-size Company." They've also got "Best Mid-Size Production" and "Outstanding Musical Performance" pretty much covered (2 out of 3 nominees in each). Company One has pulled the same trick in the "Fringe" category. Likewise the Huntington has to win "Best Actress, Large Company" - they're the only theatre in the running!

So while the Norton Awards won't be too long, they also won't be too suspenseful.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Don't look now

Javier Godino, Soledad Villamil and Ricardo Darín in The Secret in Their Eyes.

It's hard to guess what people would have thought of The Secret in Their Eyes (now playing at the Kendall Square) if it hadn't "stolen" the Oscar this year from Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon. No one would have mistaken it for a great film, or even a particularly interesting one - but neither would it have been met with the bristling resentment it has faced in some quarters (the Globe's Wesley Morris - Ty Burr's smarter partner - described it in his majorly-pissed review as "perfumed garbage"). After all, it's not this slick, oddly pretentious, but often amusing movie's fault that the Academy is filled with philistines. Is it?

Still, whatever virtues Secret possesses (and it has a few) will forever be overshadowed by the award it shouldn't have won, but did; it will be remembered as the Foreign Language version of How Green Was My Valley (which beat out Citizen Kane), or Crash (which beat out Brokeback Mountain).

Or perhaps this will be remembered as the year the Academy officially shut out the art film in favor of the arthouse film. For the Foreign Language Oscar was still known, believe it or not, for a loose association with artistic merit; Denys Arcand won it not so long ago, as did Pedro Almodóvar. Sure, none of today's most exciting filmmakers (Haneke, Sokurov, Akin) have ever won, and yes, Life is Beautiful (ack!) won in 1998 - but that felt like the exception, not the rule. Compare the Foreign Language Oscar to the Hollywood Best Picture year after year, and you'll notice a pretty consistent discrepancy in value between the two winners (with, yes, the occasional outlier, like No Country for Old Men).

Let's hope The Secret in Their Eyes doesn't mean all that has changed, but I worry that it has, if only because The White Ribbon is so much more interesting than it is in every imaginable way. And also because Secret feels like the avatar of a troubling new form - the standard Hollywood product re-configured for the "foreign" arthouse; call it "stealth" schlock. Its director, Juan José Campanella, has even directed "Law & Order" episodes - and it shows in his smooth handling of a twisty "plot" that's really more a police procedural than a mystery, and that shifts somewhat portentously to bald political themes, fatuous "romance," and other strange ruminations before it's over.

In fact, what's most admirable about the movie is that Campanella manages to make its weird pastiche of tones and modes from other arthouse hits kind of half-cohere under the "Law & Order" rubric. This is not aesthetically interesting, but it's technically interesting. Secret starts out, it seems, as a kind of rueful romance, but then transforms itself into a crime drama, and then into a comedy (there are some genuine laughs), and then into dark political comment, then conspiracy thriller with a last-minute, weirder-than-anything-yet twist, before its squealing gears shift back into romance at the finish. There's lost love, there's a rapist/killer, there's an evil junta, there's a fumbling police inspector, there's a vengeful lover - there's even full frontal nudity, male and female, to keep you awake if your mind's been wandering.

If all that sounds like it makes sense, rest assured it doesn't, but you kind of buy it while it's happening because Campanella is a smooth technician and his cast is talented; the movie is mildly entertaining, and you couldn't complain that it goes right where you expect it to, that's for sure. And there's one technical tour de force in the middle of the film that almost makes the whole thing worthwhile: in a dazzling piece of cinematic parkour, Campanella swoops down from a helicopter shot of a soccer stadium right into the stands, and through the roaring crowd - and then keeps going, via the magic of digital stitchery, as his suspect dashes across the innards of the stadium, eventually ending up on the playing field itself. This plays like Hitchcock on steroids, but of course in Hitch's hands, the chase would have resonated as some kind of metaphor; here, it's just an astounding feat, like a quad jump in the Winter Olympics.

So in the end, the strongest impression the movie makes is of a clever effort to touch base with as many previous arthouse hits as possible, while maintaining the structure of a Hollywood thriller. This, of course, is not an aesthetic project, but rather a marketing one - which clearly succeeded with the Academy. But do we really need "Law and Order" re-packaged as foreign film? Doesn't that kind of strike you as a harbinger of the end of foreign film, and the beginning of its incorporation into the globalized product line that "American" film has become? Time will tell, I suppose, but let's hope that the Secret of this film's success doesn't augur a trend.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

When Irish eyes are . . (well, you know the drill)

The talented cast of Trad.

Whenever I see a poster for Irish theatre in Boston, I can almost hear that little girl from Poltergeist screaming "They're ba-a-a-ck!" But Jaysus, Mary and Joseph, this time they literally are. The whole crew from the failed Súgán Theatre Company - which, as everyone knows, I destroyed single-handedly with one review - seems to have re-assembled (under the banner of the new Tir Na company) for Trad, a newish comedy by Mark Doherty, at the BCA through April 24. Two of the actors - Colin Hamel and Billy Meleady - were Súgán regulars, and it's helmed by Súgán founder Carmel O'Reilly.

Which brings back unpleasant memories of my days back at the Globe, when I criticized the Súgán for their boring productions and impenetrable accents, and O'Reilly's dim-witted Board sent in a letter saying I was racist. Yes, even though I'm Irish. At the time, it ticked me off; by now, I've been called a racist by almost every ethnic group discomfited by my criticism, so I'm pretty much used to it. And it seems only proper that my own ethnic group should imagine I hate them, too - it brings the mania for dodging criticism with identity politics full circle, and somehow that's a beautiful thing. In fact, I really should set up a date for J. Holman, Isaac Butler, that lady who said I was anti-Semitic, the guy who insisted I was anti-Native-American, and of course all the fans who have e-mailed to say I hate women, as well as that psychotherapist who said I was homophobic. They could all have a grand time at my expense (even though probably many of them secretly hate each others' ethnicities and genders!) and I'm sure none of them would ever think to themselves, "Wait a minute - maybe Tom Garvey isn't a racist; maybe we're all just second-rate!"

To be fair,Trad is at least first-rate among the second-rate. But what's troubling about its smooth, entertaining surface is how thoroughly it undermines the stance of its playwright. Mark Doherty clearly intends Trad to play as an affectionate, but genuinely barbed, look at the kind of schtick that puts Irish butts in seats. Thus the crusty traditionalism of the Emerald Isle is pushed to absurd extremes in the play's leads: "Son" is actually 100, and his "Da" is at least thirty years older, and seemingly on his deathbed as the curtain rises. Ay, but soon he's screwed on his peg leg and gone off with sonny on a darlin' little journey, all in search of a grandson spawned some seventy years before, in his offspring's single sexual "incident."

The rest of the play concerns their odd little odyssey across the back roads of Irish cliché, featuring encounters with two even crustier traditionalists (both played with bitter wit by the great Nancy E. Carroll), with whom they engage in dazed, nearly-senile banter about modernity, sex, America, and black people, and other things the Irish seemingly still hate. By now Doherty's mockery of Irish "trad" is being telegraphed in capital letters - but O'Reilly makes the mockery so gentle that it could be confused with bemused flattery. When Da (who's missing a leg) and Son (who's missing an arm) hop across the landscape to the sound of a merry fiddle, we sense Doherty intends an edge of ridicule to slide into the proceedings, but here they're just as cute as bejesus, they are, as they do their wee dance. Likewise Nancy E. Carroll is careful not to push too hard on the racism of one of her characters, nor the cold judgmentalism of the other. Director O'Reilly's idea seems to be that since the Celtic Tiger dropped dead (Trad was written in the heyday of the debt-fueled Irish economic bubble), somehow the edges in Doherty's writing should be sanded down. To which I can only reply - why? The renewed community spirit the Irish need now doesn't really depend on these blinkered reactionaries, does it?

Which isn't to say Doherty is Brendan Behan, much less Martin McDonagh; still, Trad feels subtly bowdlerized, and that seems to be the way the local critics like it. The Globe's Louise Kennedy adored the show, as it pretty much aligns with her seeming idea that art should be like comfort food (her buzzwords of "warm and wise" always conjure for me images of a creamy dramatic casserole). Not that Louise was alone; so far it seems every critic in town has come to the conclusion that Trad is just like Beckett, believe it or not. Which it is - if Beckett had written Waiting for the Odd Couple. Yes, Doherty takes some funny pokes at Beckett, with his withered ancients losing their limbs, but THIS IS NOT BECKETT. (What's troubling about this kind of claim is how it reveals how much these reviewers don't, actually, understand about Beckett.)

Still, it must be admitted that Trad, though hardly a deep statement, is often pretty funny. A lot of the humor I'm afraid is mechanical, but Carroll does get one hilarious monologue about a determined Irish farmer who dies of "erosion" as he loses one limb after another (rather like our heroes), and the playwright supplies a steady stream of witty one-liners. And maybe he's also come up with an arc, which I'm afraid Tir Na also ignores. I get the sense (spoiler alert!) that Doherty intends for Da to knowingly prepare his feckless son for the responsibility of his offspring before he, himself, departs for the great beyond; his death has not been denied, but merely postponed. O'Reilly and her cast largely ignore this dimension of the play, however, and so there's little or no tension between Billy Meleady's resentful Da and Colin Hamel's complacent son, and little sense that time is running out for both of them. So when Trad takes a turn toward the tragic at the last minute, it seems to founder. Meleady still wrings some poignance from his dying lines, but Colin Hamel just seems lost as the production's jaunty tone abruptly vanishes. Perhaps because it was actually the wrong tone all along.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Dance class

Revelations is still riveting, but . . .

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater came to town last weekend for its annual Celebrity Series visit, and, as always, closed its program with its signature piece (and Ailey's 1960 breakthrough), Revelations (above).

What was strange about the performance, however, was that Revelations - some fifty years old - was the most exciting dance of the evening. Which only underlined a troubling sense of stasis, and self-absorption in its own tradition, that's becoming apparent in the troupe. Make that an air-brushed tradition, btw; I've already posted about how the company elides or disguises its founder's sexuality (I note that this year, perhaps as a result of my writing, the company's gay dancers were put forward for interviews with local gay sites, although the effort came off as apologetic niche marketing rather than open acceptance of the truth about Ailey).

Of course it's always wonderful to see these dancers, who remain stunning in their virtuosity - but in a way their very ability only made the weak choreography last Thursday more frustrating; we wanted to see all this talent put to genuine artistic use. Instead, what we got were well-intentioned, but artistically flat, history lessons. The concert opened with "Uptown," a tribute to the Harlem Renaissance by talented company dancer Matthew Rushing, which meandered through tributes to Paul Robeson, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and other well-known figures of that famous period of ferment. I'd welcome a genuine dance about the struggles of any of these figures, of course - but Rushing leaned heavily on the spoken word, and lecture-like projected images, rather than the dance-drama of Revelations; indeed, sometimes it seemed like there was more text than music. And while each sequence was, yes, uplifting in a warmly generic way, in dance terms they were all a bit dull (the one exception was a hot jitterbug with a series of dazzling lifts and jumps).

Next came another tribute, to Judith Jamison, the company's current artistic director, titled "Dancing Spirit" (the title of her autobiography), choreographed by Ronald K. Brown. The piece offered what seemed like a loose evocation of the tutelage of a Jamison figure (the glorious Renee Robinson) by an Ailey figure (Matthew Rushing again) - a conceit which might have been quite intriguing if it had had any specificity. But as the whole thing was clearly intended as tribute, not exploration, Brown settled for more uplifting symbology rather than actual character, and he structured the piece pretty simplistically. Still, Brown has a talent for rhythmic jazz-African fusion, and the graceful footwork and sinuous beats, if not the actual design, of the piece were often dazzling. It also closed with a lovely lighting effect (a full moon wreathed with stars).

Finally came Revelations, in a version which struck me as more powerful and committed than has appeared in many a year - perhaps because the dancers finally had a chance to ditch the history lessons and cut loose with some really rich choreography. Of course the Alvin Ailey troupe does have a rich history, and this country's own history of racism and oppression should never be forgotten. Still, it's possible to become addicted to looking backward rather than forward, and it seems every year is an anniversary year for this troupe - 2010 marks the 20th anniversary of Judith Jamison's directorship, as well as the 50th birthday of Revelations. And commemorating history isn't quite the same thing as making it come alive (much less making it). That's the great feat that Revelations pulls off - and why it always feels like a revelation. But has the troupe lost touch with what Ailey revealed in that great dance and others? Sometimes, on Thursday night, it felt that way.

Such tweet sorrow, indeed

Yes, Romeo and Juliet - or rather R & J - have joined twitter. The Royal Shakespeare Company has launched a five-week "adventure" called "Such Tweet Sorrow" (props for the title, btw) in which Romeo and Juliet will unfold on twitter, Youtube, and other digital media. Charlotte Wakefield, this production's Juliet, or rather @julietcap16, has already begun tweeting, but Romeo is still apparently "too busy on his Xbox." Michael Boyd, artistic director of the RSC, says that the Diane-Paulus-like experiment "Allows our actors to use mobiles to tell their stories in real time and reach people wherever they are in a global theater." Oooo, he said global. That's so 2004! But I'm afraid the effort reminds me, as The Donkey Show does, of that 70's porn movie where the actress reads Joyce's Ulysses while she's being pounded. . . with Shakespeare himself in the role of that actress . . .

Friday, April 16, 2010

In time of Chanticleer

Chanticleer in flight.

We have a vibrant choral music scene here in Boston. Very vibrant. I've heard wonderful performances from the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Boston Baroque, and the Handel and Haydn Society in just the past few weeks alone.

But we don't have anything like Chanticleer. No, my friends, we don't.

I confess I was kind of speechless after "In Time Of . . .," their Celebrity Series performance last Sunday at Jordan Hall. Actually, scratch that - you know me - I couldn't stop talking.

Because I had never encountered a vocal group with this level of technique - that is, the very highest level of technique - with an adventurous sense of programming to match it. In musical (and intellectual) terms, Chanticleer reminded me a bit of Jane Ring Frank's late, lamented Boston Secession; they have the same smarts, and the same sense of fun. But even Frank's group, wonderful as it was, couldn't quite match the Chanticleer sound, which, if you care at all about choral singing - or just about the human voice and what it can do - you simply must hear before you die.

For the 12 men of Chanticleer probably come closer to encapsulating the full range of that collective voice than any group I know of. Its membership includes an almost hilariously deep bass, as well as a veritable posse of countertenor altos and sopranos, and just about every timbre and range in between. The quality of the voices is superb, but what's most striking is that under the music direction of Matthew Oltman, the ensemble's clarity and sense of interlocking pitch are utterly sure, and remarkable (if you're one of those few with perfect pitch, or one of the many more who claim it, these are your boys).

But wait, there's more: Chanticleer is also fascinated by the spatial aspect of choral singing; they're constantly breaking up into separate units, and fanning across the stage only to re-coalesce in some new configuration, which creates mysterious dynamics in their sound. A holy grail of choral singing is the creation of a kind of surround-sound, a sonority that simply seems to exist, hanging (or even moving) in space independently of its singers. This is one of those effects that require live presence; you can't ape it with microphones and speakers (or perhaps you can, but of course it wouldn't be the same - it wouldn't mean the same). And I actually lost count of how many times Chanticleer pulled off this deeply-moving miracle.

And then, as I mentioned before, there's their programming, which, to put it bluntly, was kind of mind-boggling in the consistency of its quality. The group was originally formed to sing neglected Renaissance and medieval choral music, for which they popularized a pure-tone approach which has become the de facto standard for period performance. They're a bit less rigorous about that method these days - a slight vibrato crept into even some of the Renaissance pieces - but perhaps that's partly because their repertoire has expanded from Gregorian chant all the way to the current noodlings of millennial DJ Mason Bates. I was actually slightly disappointed in the work from Bates, but Chanticleer's choices from the modern and postmodern periods were almost uniformly stunning. Chen Yi's exquisite Spring Dreams, Steven Sametz's in time of (a hypnotic rendering of the ee cummings text posted below), and Carmen Cavallaro's ravishing El Grito were all simply wonderful, in startlingly various modes. In one amazing sequence, the group pulled together selections from three centuries - the seventh (Gregorian chant), sixteenth (Palestrina) and twentieth (Jean Yves Daniel-Lesur) - to create a kind of biography of sacred feeling through a thousand years of musical thought. And then there was the stark emotional contrast between the rollicking Agincourt Carol (a happy hymn to war) and Dufay's Lamentatio sanctae matris ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae (a piercing lament for its forgotten victims).

Add to that rich renditions of works from Gibbons and Calvisius, and an encore of favorites like “Shenandoah," Gershwin's “Summertime" (with an unbelievable performance from countertenor Cortez Mitchell), the spirituals “Sit Down Servant,” and “Plenty Good Room,” and the gospel number "Straight Street" (featuring some delicious low notes from bass Eric Alatorre), and you have a concert that I think very few in attendance will ever forget. Certainly I never will.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

This just in: Huntington subscribers are kind of like Nazis, although that could be misinterpreted!

Wow. Lisa Timmel just keeps going and going. I noted yesterday the strange race-baiting implicit in a recent post from the Huntington's Director of New Work on the theatre's blog.

Now, over at Isaac Butler's Parabasics site, I see that local playwright-blogger (and friend of the Hub Review) Ian Thal was also struck by Timmel's language ("Wow. Really poor word choice here," Ian mused). Only Lisa wrote back that no, a connection to Nazi ideology was precisely what she had in mind:

I did intentionally invoke Nazi terminology because I'm writing for (tweaking?) an audience that has very rigid racial and gender categories but absolutely no ability to acknowledge it. Racism/racial discomfort up here tends to hide under some pretty high-falutin' language and ideas about what what is proper form, but it's racism all the same. At the same time, if you are familiar with the art works the Nazis labeled as degenerate, then you also know it's all the best art/artists of the early 20th century which is also what I'm trying to evoke.

Oh, my. Remind me to tell the next nice little old Jewish lady I meet at a Huntington matinee that she's kind of like a Nazi. ("And don't give me any of your high-falutin' racist backtalk, bubbie!") I also like this idea that Gina Gionfriddo and Lydia Diamond are up there with Schoenberg, Brecht and Chagall.

Alas, in a last-minute spasm of common sense, Timmel does add:

But you are right that it's probably a bad [word] choice for a blog post as it will get misinterpreted. I'll be interested to see if anyone else has the same reaction.

To which I can only add: Oh, don't stop digging now, Lisa! This is just getting good! I mean seriously - this woman thinks she's going to connect with her famously Jewish audience by telling them they're like Nazis? Although I have to admit, Timmel's not really insulting - because she's just so silly. I get the impression she thinks she's bravely facing down Goering in 1937. Instead she's preaching to the choir in Obamatown. That is when she doesn't have her foot in her mouth.

"It's very difficult to explain, but it's very funny."

Scenes from yesterday's tea party on the Boston Common, from Universal Hub.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

There goes the playborhood!

Over at the Huntington's blog, Lisa Timmel, Director of New Work, has decided to let us in on the philosophy guiding next year's season (which, like this year's, will be comprised almost entirely of new or "newish" work):

Some local critics [that means me, folks!] have complained that there is too much new work going on in Boston. The pleasure of experiencing a new play is very different from the pleasure of experiencing an older play and I think everyone has their goldilocks point: this theatre has too many new plays, this theatre has too few, and we’re all looking for the one that gets the balance just right. But that kind of categorical thinking unfairly limits the expansive and expanding experience of attending live theatre. A play is not important simply because it is old or because it is new. A play is important because of the specific story it tells and the unique way it is told. A play is not important simply because we choose to produce it; it is important because you come to see it.

I confess I kind of love this, because it's almost beautifully nonsensical, and doesn't actually address the arguments it pretends it's responding to - after all, who's arguing for old stuff simply because it's old? Is that why the Huntington thinks people love the classics - because they're old?

Then there's the odd claim that a play is only important because the Huntington audience comes to see it. I'm not sure what that even means, but it seems to fly in the face of the established fact that truly ground-breaking drama often plays to small houses.

But then things get really weird:

So, why new plays? Because the world changes and perspectives shift. Because American theatre, in all its forms, thrives on the new, it always has. Our theatre history is full of the degenerate melding of forms: immigrant melodramas, minstrelsy, vaudeville and musicals all of them bubbling up into the mainstream one way or another and getting whitewashed along the way. There simply is no other way to tell the story of this country and our selves without including new work.

"Degenerate melding of forms"? Oooo, don't you just love that academic dirty talk? And how about "Immigrant melodramas, minstrelsy, vaudeville and musicals, all of them bubbling up into the mainstream one way or another and getting whitewashed along the way"? I mean seriously, "whitewashed"? Do I spot Clybourne Park or Neighbors, or maybe The Scottsboro Boys on the horizon? Minstrelsy is so hot these days, there's so much to choose from! Or maybe we'll be treated to some world premiere, in which Stepin Fetchit moves in next door to David Mamet!

Somehow, somewhere, I sense Isaac Butler getting excited. But back to Timmel, who wraps with:

Incidentally, the answer to the question “Why classic plays?” is exactly the same: Because the world changes and perspectives shift. There simply is no other way to tell the story of this country and our selves without including plays from other places and other eras.

Yes, you read that right: we're doing this play instead of that play for the following reason. But if we'd decided to do that play instead of this play, it would be for the same reason.

Really, you can't make this stuff up.

[Update: Isaac Butler is, indeed, already excited!]

Alice for the iPad

An app that, as one critic put it, may be the best reason for buying the device. (Hold on a minute! We've been alerted that the app actually abridges the text. ACK! Why?? It would be perfect otherwise!)

Not ready for their close-up

The women of Les Bostonades.

Plenty of Bostonians are unaware of this - it's obscured by the print press's devotion to the BSO - but the Hub isn't only the hub of the universe in general, but also a hub of early music performance; indeed, our vibrant period music scene is probably what's most interesting about Boston when it comes to classical music. As a result, performance standards for period music have gone through the roof - it's rare that I go to a concert that isn't flat-out virtuosic.

So last weekend's performance by Les Bostonades, an up-and-coming ensemble that plays across the area, came as something of a shock, for these players, though talented, clearly weren't ready for prime time with this particular program. Their selections, from the French baroque, were quite interesting - I was only familiar with one, Couperin's lovely Huitième Concert dans le goût Théatral, and I'd never even heard of one of the other composers, François Colin de Blamont. The setting - Emmanuel's Lindsey Chapel (one of Boston's architectural gems) - was beautiful and apt. And I'm a huge fan of the vocal soloist of the evening, soprano Teresa Wakim (at left). Usually the kind of folks who dig this deeply into the repertoire, and who align with singers as talented as Wakim, know very much what they're doing.

So what went wrong? My gut is that rehearsal was lacking, although a certain cultural meme that's currently ascendant may have also had something to do with the disappointing performance. To be blunt, Les Bostonades never fully cohered as an ensemble - they came closest when backing Wakim, because she essentially served as their leader in her selections, but elsewhere their playing was ragged, and that's a problem when you're looking at an ensemble that features four violinists, all of whom seemed ever-so-slightly out of synch (with one even slipping out of tune, despite protracted re-tunings between numbers). And for the record, I'm afraid the smaller trio that opened the second half of the concert seemed even less cohesive. There's currently a vogue for "leaderless" ensembles, but this concert was a not-too-subtle reminder that it's rare for a group, even a talented group, to be able to put together a concert with just a few rehearsals and a sympathetic mix of personalities. The kind of sixth sense that frees performers from requiring a conductor usually comes from hammering out a style through hours and hours of playing together; but here it was quite clear that even basic consensus decisions - like a precisely defined beat - had never actually been reached.

Luckily, Wakim was in superb voice, and sang with more full-throated passion than usual. And her selections - Rameau's "Le Berger Fidele" and Collin de Blamont's "Didon" were both ravishing and surprisingly dramatic. "Didon" also drew from the rest of Les Bostonades their best playing - forceful, passionate, and infused (at last) with a genuine sense of ensemble. My guess is that this talented group gave most of their rehearsal time to this intriguing obscurity - the same amount of time they'll have to give the rest of their future programs if they're going to match the standards we now expect of the Boston early music scene.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Roger that, Sir Roger

During the breather between Beethoven's Fourth and Sixth at Symphony Hall last weekend, conductor Sir Roger Norrington was invested with an honorary doctorate by the New England Conservatory (above). It was a charming (and affectionate) gesture, but in a way an ironic one - because it was Sir Roger who had just taught us all about Beethoven, rather than the other way around.

Of course here in Boston, we always imagine that we're at the head of the class, even when we're actually in the last row (Norrington's Beethoven long ago took the world by storm - indeed, it's hard to believe his game-changing recordings of the nine symphonies were issued in the 1980s). And while yes, we've heard Sir Roger often over the last few years at Handel and Haydn, he has usually been conducting Haydn (at which he's quite wonderful); I believe this is the first time we've heard his take on Beethoven live in the Athens of America.

Thinking again about the concert, I'm drawn inevitably to that tired old critical cliché, "revelation." I know, I know - if you don't like that hobbled old warhorse, try, as suggests, "divination," "earful," or "epiphany." But really, the Sixth in particular was, indeed, a revelation - or at least a rapturous demonstration of the virtues of period playing and instrumentation. And perhaps it even stood as a witty, friendly rebuttal to Harry Christophers, H&H's current artistic director, who argues that period playing is best suited to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

For perhaps of any of the great composers, Beethoven has been most obscured by Wagnerian trends toward symphonic gloss and grandness. With the drier, more plangent tones of period instruments, you lose much of that golden, Germanic glare that coats so many modern performances, and suddenly a whole landscape of detailed musical architecture opens up before you; there were delicate little accents from the winds in the opening movement of the Sixth, for instance, that I swear I've never heard before. And Sir Roger's much-debated decision to follow Beethoven's own metronome markings does, indeed, sometimes shock (as in, can that theme really be going that fast?), but it also results in a sense of constant engagement, and transforms the music from "profound" pronouncement into brilliant conversation.

All this was immediately evident in the opening bars of the under-rated Fourth. Elegant, forceful, and beautifully constructed, the Fourth plays like a kind of turbo-charged classicism - but as it doesn't tap into the heroic depths found in its younger and older siblings, the Third and Fifth, it has never achieved their cultural profile. Norrington didn't, I think, change anybody's mind about that, and he seemed to lose focus in a surprisingly slack second movement - but he and the orchestra recovered brilliantly for a truly dynamic (even glittering) finale.

Then, of course, came the Sixth - the work you always argue with yourself over when you're trying to decide which Beethoven symphony is your most favorite one of all. Here it was leaner, and yet more lyrical, than you may remember it, while at the same time the scene-painting (the rippling brook, the bird-calls in the forest, the gathering storm) felt more specific than ever. Norrington generally kept things light and quick, but not rushed (perhaps he himself has eased off on the accelerator pedal), and he toyed bemusedly with tipsy rhythms in the "merry gathering" movement (with the winds repeatedly lurching in almost too late for their cues). The storm felt more sudden, and more tempestuous, than usual (kudos to John Grimes's galvanic work on timpani), and thus its aftermath all the sweeter. Like Beethoven's country folk, we, too, felt that something of great power and beauty had just passed overhead.

Monday, April 12, 2010

"Tricycle Guy" explained

A touching documentary everyone in Boston should see. And here's to Back Bay Bicycles, whose employees keep Louie moving for free.

A doll's life

Misa Kuranaga takes down the competition in Coppélia. Photos by Gene Schiavone.

Balanchine's Coppélia (presented through this weekend by Boston Ballet) is unusual in his oeuvre because it's not actually all by him - and thus it has a strange artistic resonance with its own storyline. Based on the same sources as Offenbach's far-darker Tales of Hoffmann, the ballet traces the romantic competition between peasant-girl Swanilda and the eponymous Coppélia for the hand (and heart) of Frantz, the girl-crazy village hunk. Coppélia at first seems to have the edge, as she's too beautiful to be real - because she's not real, in fact; she's actually mechanical. Swanilda, of course, eventually wins the day (and Frantz), by revealing the truth about her rival, but we can't help but notice that as she does so, the ballet goes through its own funny transformation: like Pinocchio, Coppélia blooms from a sweet-but-synthetic confection into the real thing: genuine Balanchine.

This is because as the great choreographer adapted an earlier ballet he had adored as a young man (and which influenced him deeply), he left much of its dancing (devised over the years by the likes of St. Léon, Petipa, and Cecchetti) intact. Even so, we can feel him peeking out, as it were, from behind the curtain of the tradition he loved: there's a peasant dance in Act I, for instance, that must owe its unfolding complexity to Mr. B, and there are similar glints of inspiration in some of the solos of Act II; slowly, the dancing becomes more and more like his own. But it's not until Act III - which Balanchine re-choreographed in its entirety - that the mysterious power of his mature command of the form envelopes the stage. Don't worry - it's worth the wait; and in fact, Balanchine (perhaps through some unconscious sense of compensation) throws just about everything he's got at the finale, and then some - including two dozen little girls in tutus (below) who come on like a pink streamroller of adorability. If they don't break your heart, well, you may be as cold inside as Coppélia.

It just doesn't get any cuter than this.

And until then, it's not like there's nothing to watch - or hear: in fact, the score, by Léo Delibes (of Lakmé fame), is probably the best romantic ballet music to be found outside of Tchaikovsky (its mazurka and waltz have both entered the standard repertoire), and after a little opening roughness, the Ballet orchestra, under the reliable baton of Jonathan McPhee, played it with lively fire. The Ballet's corps likewise gave that mazurka a forceful stomp, and leads Misa Kuranaga and Nelson Madrigal both charmed in their opening pantomimes and dances (even if they were playing against a set, borrowed from Pacific Northwest Ballet, that felt somehow high-school level - although don't worry, the sets improved with each act). Kuranaga doesn't, perhaps, project as much raw personality as the Ballet's other prima ballerinas - but her porcelain loveliness, ironically enough, is rather doll-like, which makes her competition (in Frantz's mind) with Coppélia psychologically credible. And her technique has always been utterly impeccable, which gave the relatively simple steps of the first scenes a lovely transparency.

And Kuranaga found the smart, saucy mischief required to put over the second act - in which Swanilda sneaks into the spooky workshop of her rival's creator, Dr. Coppélius (the wonderful Boyko Dossev, with Kuranaga at left) to give him, and her future husband (who has climbed in at the window!) the what-for by impersonating their fantasy Barbie run amok. Here the ballet eschews entirely the weird undertones of the original E.T.A. Hoffmann tale (in which the hero, via a magic spy-glass, perceives the robot-girl as real, and his real-life sweetheart as a robot). Instead, Swanilda delivers a standard-issue spanking about the virtues of real life over fantasy - with dotty old Coppélius getting the brunt of it rather than the merely-naïve Frantz, who simply comes to his senses once he realizes he's been in love with a cyborg. Still, even if the action's basically sitcom-level, Kuranaga and Dossev - probably the Ballet's best comic actor - made it a hoot, and the pair played off each other beautifully "in the moment," as they say; when Kuranaga couldn't quite pin on a veil for her Spanish variation, she just tossed it, in character - and Dossev, not missing a beat, retrieved it and began tapping it like a tambourine.

Of course the dancing pyrotechnics begin once the story has wound down, and Balanchine clears the stage for a dazzling set of wedding divertissements in Act III. Here we got all those little sweethearts, led by a graciously poised Dalay Parrondo, in "The Waltz of the Hours" - there were 24 for of 'em, I guess for every hour in the day - as well as a set of sparkling turns by such domestic virtues as "Prayer" and "Spinning" (no "MBA" or "Independent Career" for Swanilda, I guess). Here the biggest impression was made by young Whitney Jensen, who seems to always etch her solos with understated-yet-dazzling precision: her carriage is consistently perfect, her legwork remarkably clean. Next came an unexpected explosion of camp, when "War" and "Discord" came prancing on with spears, and in get-ups that Cher might have worn to the Oscars: the variations were cute, but soloists Melissa Hough and Jaime Diaz seemed to be spinning their wheels. And Frantz's closing variation did not go well - Madrigal, who's blessed with a ripely romantic stage presence, often seems to wane in power as an evening progresses, and here, although he did fine in his cabrioles, he just couldn't land his double tours (to be fair, the Ballet doesn't really have any danseur who can nail these reliably - it's their last technical gap).

The girls came back for a fond farewell, however (once again wrangled expertly by Balanchine Trust rep Garielle Whittle and children’s ballet mistress Melanie Atkins), to banish any thoughts of this sudden wobble in the performance, and the whole company got to gambol in one of Balanchine's most dazzling conceits - a huge "galop" bursting with energy and high kicks. Which made for a terrifically charming close to what is, in the end, a terrifically charming ballet.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Today's poem

in time of daffodils

in time of daffodils(who know
the goal of living is to grow)
forgetting why,remember how

in time of lilacs who proclaim
the aim of waking is to dream,
remember so(forgetting seem)

in time of roses(who amaze
our now and here with paradise)
forgetting if,remember yes

in time of all sweet things beyond
whatever mind may comprehend,
remember seek(forgetting find)

and in a mystery to be
(when time from time shall set us free)
forgetting me,remember me

ee cummings

Saturday, April 10, 2010

What if Desdemona had had a Sassy Gay Friend?

She'd be out shoe-shopping instead of pushing up daisies, that's what! (Only warning - Isaac Butler, don't watch this, it's like totally offensive! Don't, really, don't!!)

Dad's just not that into you, Ellen

In fact, he thinks you "don't like your country very well." I guess if you're gay you can't be Amurrican.

Friday, April 9, 2010

What's up this weekend

This weekend is (mostly) one of music and dance - Boston Ballet opened its sweetly-spun version of Coppélia yesterday (more to follow on that), while tonight Handel and Haydn unveils the always-provocative Roger Norrington's take on Beethoven's "Pastoral", with Symphony No. 4 thrown in for good measure. (I've consistently found H&H's Beethoven the most exciting in the city, btw - and yes, that includes the BSO's.) Tomorrow is still up in the air, but may feature either From Orchids to Octopi, My Fair Lady, a new music ensemble called Les Bostonades, or Le Cabaret Grimm (from another new group, Jason Slavick's "The Performance Lab") depending on factors not entirely under my control. Then Sunday it's a wrap, and maybe even a rap, with Chanticleer at Celebrity Series.

And then I'll let everyone know what I think.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Blown Glass

Tom and Laura seem as dismayed by this production as I was.

It's hard to think of two sensibilities more opposed than those of Tennessee Williams and Trinity Rep's Fred Sullivan, Jr., so it's no surprise that nearly everything in Sullivan's production of The Glass Menagerie, which closed last weekend at Pawtucket's Gamm Theatre, felt subtly, but deeply, wrong. Sullivan (who just wrapped a riotous turn as Sir Toby Belch at Trinity) is all about smart, funny, cynical insights - he's the kind of guy who would immediately tear away the silk shades that Blanche DuBois slides over the lightbulbs in A Streetcar Named Desire. But while Williams is all about insight too - like every other great playwright - he's nevertheless quite attached to those silks; he identifies with Blanche, not her attackers.

Of course in The Glass Menagerie, the playwright himself - or rather his factotum, "Tom" (Tennessee's given name) both conjures and destroys the haunted reverie that protects his female protagonists, the fragile, self-conscious Laura Wingfield (Diana Buirski), and her notoriously overbearing, but equally fragile, mother Amanda (Wendy Overly). But do I really have to go into the story of The Glass Menagerie? Don't we all know it by now?

Well, apparently Sullivan doesn't, because in his version, Mom is a kind of drill sergeant and it's son Tom (Marc Dante Mancini) who's so delicate he practically jumps out of his skin whenever she barks an order. Their ongoing war, which should be recalled so ruefully by Tom as he narrates his "memory play," is here sketched as a bitter mother-son battle royale like the one in Awake and Sing! (which, perhaps uncoincidentally, was Sullivan's last directing assignment at the Gamm).

Sullivan's apparent attempt to pound the template from that play onto this one is frustrating in more than one respect, because Wendy Overly brings a high level of detail to Amanda's harangues - this could have been a great performance if it had been pitched at a more graceful, vulnerable angle. But as she bustles about Patrick Lynch's period set (the only aspect of the production that feels right), we never catch a hint of the fact that she, too, is living in a kind of dream designed to ward off reality (Laura and Tom are very much her children). The rest of the cast is likewise prone to pushing things a little too far, and in the wrong key. Mancini overemotes like mad, while Buirski, though certainly a passable Laura, relies too much on technical tricks to simulate the character's famous quiet luminousness. Kelby T. Akin is a bit better as the "Gentleman Caller" who briefly seems to woo her - at least once he calms down after some opening broadness that, like so much else in the production, seems pitched to some nonexistent upper balcony.

There are a few "twists" in the production that I suppose are worth mentioning. Sullivan has decided to break the role of Tom in two, so we get the much-older author, in the person of actor Sam Babbitt (who looks nothing like Mancini) occasionally delivering the lines that sail across the fourth wall - although mostly Babbitt just hangs out on the sofa, watching the action with an air of "been there, done that, found a pill for it." This turns out to be not quite as irritating as it sounds, but it does undermine the play's mysterious atmosphere, and Babbitt's jaded, bemused look doesn't exactly jive with the tone of his lines. (When he sighs that he's been more faithful to Laura than he ever intended, we don't believe him for a second.) Meanwhile the issue of Tom's (and Tennessee's) homosexuality is made clear with a brief tryst on the play's iconic fire escape. This Tom was played as such a nervous nelly that the scene was by and large superfluous, but strangely enough, in its reticence it was probably the subtlest moment in the whole production.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

And I-I-I-I will always love this

This is just so wonderful in so many ways. Meet the talented Lin Chu Yun, the Asian answer to Susan Boyle, who has taken the Taiwanese talent show Super Star Avenue by storm. Feel free to skip ahead to the 1:10 mark (unless you speak Taiwanese Hokkien), where you will discover that if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then flattery can be the most innocent form of parody. (Hat tip to Gawker.)

Love on the run

They'll always have Paris; Jack Weatherall and Rae C. Wright count the hours as Mickey and Jean. Photo by Meghan Moore.

When a playwright leans on the laugh lines, and blows his characters up into caricatures, it usually means that he or she is desperate, because there's really no underlying conflict in the script's set-up, or no believable story arc, or its internal structure is a mess.

But what's striking about Richard Dresser's The Last Days of Mickey and Jean, the much-drubbed new comedy wrapping up its run at the Merrimack Rep, is that none of these things are true. The playwright has a bead on the central conflict of his eponymous pair, and has thought up a classic triangle through which to explore it. And his scenes actually track something close to a traditional sense of development, with a long sequence of what should be bruising revelations leading to a climactic dilemma. Indeed, if anything, Mickey and Jean has a better internal structure than the playwright's far-superior View of the Harbor, which premiered at Merrimack last year, and it's certainly more coherent than, say, such recent hits as the Nora's Not Enough Air or the Huntington's Becky Shaw.

Yet Dresser pushes the surface of his script relentlessly toward farce, and forced farce at that. Which is all the stranger because in a haunting coda, he suddenly does a 180 and delivers one of the best, most evocative stretches of new dramatic writing I've heard all year. Too bad it's only a few pages long!

So what went wrong? Why didn't the mature, autumnal mood of those last five minutes pervade, or at least inform, the previous 90?

Sorry, I wish I had an answer to that one, but I don't; my only guess is that Mr. Dresser is rather pressed for time these days - he's also writing the book for the higher-profile Red Sox musical at the A.R.T., and somehow I get the feeling that the Merrimack, which has spent the last few years developing his career, may have suddenly gotten the short end of the stick now that he's in the major leagues, as it were. Certainly Dresser's script gives the impression of having been thoughtfully structured, but finished at high speed, and "punched up" to hide the resulting holes in its dialogue.

The play's premise, in case you haven't heard, is intended to be a wicked riff on the last days of former Southie kingpin Whitey (a.k.a. James J.) Bulger and longtime girlfriend Catherine Greig, who have been eluding the law now for something like fifteen years (at left, a recent photo claimed to be of the pair in Italy). Bulger's career, which encompassed at least 18 murders, multiple robberies, a thriving cocaine business as well as the usual Southie rackets, and a famously close relationship with both the State House (through little brother Billy) and the FBI, has by now spawned an entire genre of crime fiction and film. Add to that his rumored sexual escapades with both men and women, as well as various sightings at drag bars, and you have a truly protean cultural figure.

Maybe too protean - there's simply more crime in Bulger's past than can be neatly tucked into the ninety minutes or so that Dresser alots himself, especially given the blackly comic spins the playwright gives the mobster's current plight and our fascination with it (the feds may not be able to track Whitey/Mickey down, but in one of the play's funnier gambits, the AARP still manages to). Dresser smartly perceives, however, that the dramatic essence of Bulger's story isn't his life of depravity but his talent for betrayal, the way he managed to stay afloat for decades by playing one criminal or governmental faction against another (even in his final escape, Whitey dumped his common-law wife for his mistress at the last minute). Thus the tantalizing question hovering over The Last Days of Mickey and Jean - will Jean betray Mickey? - is precisely the right one. And the script's bleakly satiric tone is likewise just right for the couple's isolated, pathetically paranoid existence, dashing from one safe deposit box to another in locale after locale (the play's set in a nameless hotel room in Paris). Dresser even provides them with the perfect foil - a nondescript, seemingly decent gent at the hotel bar who could offer Jean something like an escape hatch.

But the playwright errs in submerging Mickey's pathology beneath a standard sitcom persona of weary husbandry, even as he inflates Jean into a blowsy, too-needy whiner. And he fumbles the revelations which complicate both her own and her beau's back stories. The result is that Dresser never actually gets to the real comic drama he has set up for himself - we can almost feel it floating just out of reach as he busies himself with failed nods to Whitey's more outré escapades (such as the sudden appearance of a drag queen straight out of Jacques).

And alas, director Charles Towers actually exacerbates Dresser's mistakes by running with them. Thus the usually reliable Jack Weatherall almost makes no impression as Mickey, and the talented Rae C. Wright wears out her welcome as an over-the-top Jean (who comes equipped with an accent that hovers over the Boston area without ever landing in any particular neighborhood). And third wheel Christopher McHale seems to be totally thrown by that drag get-up, and never recovers in his final scenes.

But oddly enough, I hope that we actually haven't seen the last days of Mickey and Jean; the ideas behind it are just too good to be buried with this irritating first iteration. Several reviewers have remarked that the production felt more like a workshop than a finished production; my secret wish is that the script does, indeed, go back into development. Certainly the Boston area (if not Whitey Bulger) deserves better. And who knows, maybe in a year or two, once Dresser has gotten it into shape, we'll see it again at the A.R.T.