Monday, May 31, 2010

Yes, it's about that time again - there's a lull in local production over the Memorial Day hump which makes this an ideal moment to look back at the outstanding achievements in local theatre for the second half of the spring season. Someday, these honorees may receive a plexiglass statue of Michael Phelps (above) holding a globe or lightning bolt or something; till then, however, they have to be satisfied with a piece of text on this blog - along with the knowledge, of course, that I refer to the Hubbies to generate my suggestions for next year's IRNEs.

So without further ado, let's get to it -

Best Ensembles

My Fair Lady, Stoneham Theatre -Michael Buckley, Neil A. Casey, Paul Farwell, Steve Gagliastro, Russell Garrett, Eric Hamel, Shannon Lee Jones, Robyn Elizabeth Lee, Jeff Mahoney, Angelo McDonough, Olivia Miller, Deb Poppel, Ilyse Robbins, Ann Marie Shea, Timothy John Smith, Meredith Stypinski, Scott Sweatt, directed by Caitlin Lowans

Robyn Elizabeth Lee is serenaded by Eric Hamel, Jeff Mahoney, Scott Sweatt and Angelo McDonough in My Fair Lady.

Great American Trailer Park Musical, SpeakEasy Stage - Leigh Barrett, Mary Callanan, Kerry A. Dowling, Santina Umbach, David Benoit, Caitlin Crosbie Doonan, Grant MacDermott, directed by Paul Daigneault

Hot Mikado, New Rep - Jordan Ahnquist, Edward M. Barker, Calvin Braxton, Cheo Bourne, David Costa, Michele A. DeLuca, McCaela Donovan, Aimee Doherty, Alaina Fragoso, Kennedy Reilly-Pugh, Lisa Yuen, directed by Kate Warner

Best Individual Performances

Paula Plum - Blithe Spirit, Lyric Stage

Jen O'Connor - Family Stories, Whistler in the Dark

Kerry A. Dowling, Santina Umbach (at left) - Great American Trailer Park Musical, SpeakEasy Stage

Karen MacDonald - The Blonde, the Brunette, and the Vengeful Redhead, Merrimack Repertory Theatre

Timothy John Smith, Robyn Lee, Russell Garrett, Paul Farwell - My Fair Lady, Stoneham Theatre

Nancy E. Carroll, Trad, Tir Na

Jason Bowen, Denise Marie - Othello, Actors' Shakespeare Project

Shelley Bolman, Bates Wilder - Opus, New Rep

Seth Fisher, Wendy Hoopes - Becky Shaw, Huntington Theatre

Best Direction

Jim Petosa, Opus, New Rep

Best Music Direction

Chauncey Moore (with Danny Holgate) - Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, Lyric Stage

Best Design

James P. Byrne, scenic design - The Little Mermaid, Wheelock Family Theatre

Frances Nelson McSherry , costume design - Hot Mikado, New Rep

Cristina Tedesco, scenic design - Opus, New Rep

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Exit through the Banksy Effect

People are often surprised to discover that I despise Shepard Fairey but adore Banksy (one of his images, at left). But . . . aren't they both graffiti artists? these types usually sputter. Yes, but one's talented, the other isn't. And that makes all the difference. At least to me.

Other people feel differently. Indeed, what's most frustrating about the Fairey cabal is how they imagine the case against street art (and it's a genuine case) somehow transforms their vacuous "rebel" into a real artist. Only sorry - spray painting other people's imagery on still other people's property does nothing of the sort; it can only buy you cachet in the cool, foolish crowd that follows art but doesn't understand it.

Meanwhile it's true that you can legitimately oppose Banksy for vandalism and trespass - but at the same time, you have to admit the work itself is bitterly, humanely brilliant, and instantly memorable, and has been for nearly a decade. In fact Banksy seems to be the only street artist who reliably comprehends the nature of street art. Shepard Fairey just plasters his dopey "Obey" logo all over everything - but Banksy's work is usually politically up-to-the-minute, and also quite site-specific; it looks like it belongs where he has put it. If he "vandalizes" the street, then he activates it, too: it's no surprise that his graffiti, so clever and so tailored to its site, often becomes a local touchstone. And he's just so damned funny - his sense of satire qualifies him as a kind of Daumier of the street, in fact, and he's so far ahead of the pack intellectually that sometimes it seems the pretensions of the whole movement are riding on his coattails (a phenomenon which already has its own name, "the Banksy effect").

Welcome to the rat race: early Banksy.

The artist himself seems aware of this irony, and his new movie, Exit Through the Gift Shop (now at the Kendall Square Cinema), operates as an acidly hilarious satire of his own milieu - or rather the arty milieu that has lined up to exploit his milieu. Got that straight? I know it's hard to, particularly when you're watching Exit, which is, amusingly enough, a documentary not about Banksy but about the celebrity of someone who for years hounded the artist because of his celebrity. (Even though Banksy insists on a strict code of anonymity from all his associates.)

Yes, the movie's central concern is (wait for it) the paradox of anonymous celebrity. The fame of the unknown. Lady Gaga gone underground - that's Banksy. And that contradiction - and its ramifications - may be what makes his movie one of the funniest of the year.

Which isn't to say that the artist isn't (almost) as rich as Lady Gaga. He is; Banksies have sold at auction for hundreds of thousands of dollars. It's hard to begrudge him the cash, however, when his workshop keeps churning out such high-quality, politically edgy stuff - and when the mechanics of maintaining its secrecy, as the projects grow ever higher in profile (see below), have by now reached astronomical levels of complication.

So it's no surprise the issue of his anonymity/celebrity has figured more and more prominently in Banksy's work. He has already issued parodies of Paris Hilton's notorious recording efforts with titles like "Why am I Famous?" and "What Am I For?" and even ridiculed the collectors who have paid so much for his own pieces. At a deeper level, these japes hint at a more serious question that has emerged about his career: can you be a celebrity and still be genuinely political, authentically "street"? In fact, Banksy's greatest challenge may be shielding his work from his own increasing success - and the resulting efforts to "out" him. For how could he carry off his ongoing critique of power if his identity became known? His secrecy is his identity. If we find out who he is, his career (at least as we know it) will be over. And the rearview mirror is full of pop artists like Warhol and Basquiat whose edge was compromised, or ruined, by their celebrity. To his immense credit, Banksy doesn't want to follow in their footsteps.

Much better than "Obey:" Banksy on the West Bank.

Although plenty of other people would like to follow in his. Which leads us to Exit Through the Gift Shop, and its putative subject, Thierry Guetta (a.k.a. "Mister Brainwash"), a would-be documentarian who seems to have spent years tracking the likes of Shepard Fairey and the even-lesser street talent "Invader." Guetta seems like a sweet, shaggy obsessive-compulsive in the thrall of street art, to the point of following artists onto precarious ledges and rooftops (I'll say this much for Shepard Fairey, he's got guts). His finest moment probably comes when he's nabbed by security while documenting a particularly daring "installation" by Banksy in Disneyland. Guetta may come off as a scruffy stoner, but he doesn't crack under pressure; and his video of the park's reaction feels quite a bit more subversive than the artwork itself.

But like many an obsessive-compulsive, Guetta doesn't have what it takes to pull together his hours (and hours) of footage into a completed work; when he tries, the results scan like a bad acid trip. So Banksy "suggests" that Guetta try his hand at actual street art instead - while Banksy plays documentarian.

What happens next may well prove a source of debate for years to come. To hear Guetta tell it, he quickly put together a giant show of art, staged in an abandoned L.A. studio building, and modeled loosely on Banksy's own "elephant in the room" show a few years before (below). Banksy gave the event his imprimatur, and their now-joint "documentary' morphed into an account of Guetta's struggles to mount an extravaganza that would prove hipper and more ambitious than his mentor's. 

Given Guetta's seeming jittery incompetence, the actual work of the installation fell to an army of assistants - who worked frenetically, and without direction, round the clock - even as L.A. hipsters lined up outside the building for a chance to ogle the goods. The surprise is that - as even the installers dazedly admitted - while the logistics of the show were a nightmare, the pieces themselves were actually professionally produced, and kind of fun; a Warhol soup can re-configured as a spray can was one typically witty gambit. The show became a sensation - it ran for weeks - and Guetta sold something like a million dollars' worth of art. Now established, he began planning a similar show for New York, and soon was signed by Madonna to do her "Celebration" album cover.

The famous "elephant in the room" from Banksy's "Barely Legal" exhibit in 2006.

But did Guetta himself really produce his own images and objets? It does strike one that much of the stuff seen in Exit was probably by Banksy's studio (although it had been drained of any sense of protest). The Michael-as-Marilyn paintings look a lot like Banksy's Kate-Moss-as-Marilyn parodies, for instance. And none of Guetta's "Mr. Brainwash" work has actually passed through the hands of a gallery (he organizes his shows himself), so his whole operation has never been vetted by outside eyes. Indeed, it's quite possible that some, and maybe all, the collectors snatching these items up were doing so on the hunch that they could actually turn out to be cast-off Banksies.

Which leads one into a fascinating hall-of-mirrors-style artistic debate. Who is zooming whom, to be honest, in the tale of Banksy and the aptly-named "Mr. Brainwash"? Or is anyone zooming anyone? Yes, I know, Ty Burr insists that Thierry Guetta is for real, because "this story’s too good, too weirdly rich, to be made up." Uh-huh. Add that to your next letter to Santa, Ty. The only real question is whether Madonna and the hipsters "know" at some level what they're participating in. It's obvious that Banksy takes Mr. Brainwash as an Art-Basel-style inflation/desecration of street art. That, of course, doesn't mean he didn't set the whole thing up. But has anyone really been duped (aside from Ty) by his machinations? Or is the Mr. Brainwash phenomenon a tongue-in-cheek mode of self-critique by the hipster herd, an art-zombie march to Banksy's tune-at-one-remove?

Of course Mr. Guetta may have been a kind of dupe, as he innocently ripped off his idol without ever guessing at Banksy's deeper intentions. Then again, maybe Guetta was in on the scam, and appreciated it as a kind of giant conceptual graffito sprayed across the art world. Perhaps some members of the movie's audience have been fooled - but then again, Exit wouldn't be much of a movie if Guetta's show had failed, would it. The point is, I think, that it doesn't really matter either way. However you slice it, Banksy has made his horrified statement about his own success via this factotum - and Exit Through the Gift Shop probably stands as the largest work of conceptual art ever realized. Which does give me some pause; I mean, I know Banksy is brilliant - but is he that brilliant? Dr.-No brilliant, hollowed-out-volcano brilliant? Indeed, the movie seems to me to hint at some frightening new arena of artistic endeavor - the "flash mob" gone meta, in which actual human society becomes an arena for staged, "faux-real" events. 

On the upside, however, there is the following to ponder: Does this mean Banksy could be clever enough to engineer sending Shepard Fairey to prison? 

And keeping him there?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Call Scott Brown today

Today, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted to end the military's discriminatory "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. This vote was the first step toward overturning the 1993 law, which has resulted in the discharge of more than 13,500 service members. The repeal has been attached to the Military Reauthorization Bill, which must be approved by the full Senate.

Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown voted against the repeal in Committee and has said he will vote against it again in the Senate - even though 77% of his constituents disagree with him. You can tell Senator Brown that bigotry has no place in the US military by calling his Boston office at (617) 565-3170 or his DC office at (202) 224-4543. Ask that he reverse his vote when the Military Reauthorization Bill reaches the floor of the Senate. America's gay servicemen, who deserve your support and respect, will thank you. As will I.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Something about Mary

Mary Beekman leads Musica Sacra.

This season Musica Sacra is celebrating both the 50th anniversary of its founding and the 30th year of conductor Mary Beekman's artistic leadership - and the icing on the cake of this year-long party was last weekend's "Mary's Playlist" concert, a compendium of Beekman's favorites from her three decades of conducting the group.

Few local arts organizations have had that kind of long-term relationship with a leader; by now, in fact, it's hard to imagine Musica Sacra without Mary Beekman, who was her usual gently authoritative and precise self onstage last Saturday. Her playlist wasn't really much of a surprise, either - fairly eclectic, yes, but generally moving and humane, flecked here and there with touches of open-minded whimsy and experiment.

The group itself sounded much as it did when I heard them a year or so ago - Musica Sacra still is strongest in its sopranos, but Beekman nevertheless sculpts a rich and balanced sound, with a remarkably sensitive dynamic, from her assembled forces. And the chorus seems to know she's drawing out their best; particularly at the concert's close the mutual admiration of this little society was quite palpable, as alumni crowded the stage to sing along with the group's signature encore, the immortal "Teddy Bears' Picnic."

Not everything on Mary's playlist was quite so heavy and dark - there were lighter selections to be savored, such as "Hello, My Baby" (yes, Michigan J. Frog's favorite aria) and "I Wanna Be Loved by You" (Betty Boop's signature tune). I think it's clear from these selections that Ms. Beekman has superb taste, but it's also an eclectic taste in formal terms, and so the concert ran the gamut from Elgar to Mäntyjärvi. I most enjoyed the mournfully beautiful "My Love Dwelt in a Northern Land" from Elgar, as well as James Erb's "My Lagan Love" and especially the haunting Civil War song "Tenting on the Old Camp Ground," which Union and Confederate soldiers may well have heard each other singing across the fields they were battling for. Meanwhile such onomatopoeic experiments as Norman Dinerstein's "Frogs" struck me as good ideas that sometimes outstayed their welcomes; but "Three Choruses from ee cummings" by Peter Schickele (yes, that Peter Schickele) was a delight both melodically and formally. And Mäntyjärvi's "Double, Double, Toil and Trouble" and especially Jim Papoulis's "Kolenna Sawa" ("All of Us Together") were pleasingly adventurous. Actually, some of the chorus needed to attack the stomps and body claps of "Kolenna Sawa" with more passion. But somehow you got the impression Mary would soon see to that.

Master Harold . . . and the girls

Pinter with TV personality Joan Bakewell in the late 60's; their affair inspired Betrayal.

A few months back I wondered whether Pinter was still "possible" - whether in an age that had absorbed his techniques into an ironic culture of sketch comedy, there was still a way to access the atmosphere of threat his work was once known for.

Well, I'm still wondering that after taking in Another Country's production of Betrayal (at the Boston Center for the Arts through June 5), which does boast a clever concept for its set, but conveys little sense of the play's mood or themes. It's too bad, because the actors all have talent, and perhaps with stronger direction the piece might have cohered into an elegant, if arch, retelling of Pinter's famous account of his own checkered romantic history.

Of course Betrayal is far from the rawest Pinter; instead, it's a late, somewhat lesser play - perhaps the last and least of the major plays, autumnal in mood and less brutal than most (at least superficially). The piece casts a coldly melancholic eye back on the author's betrayal of wife Vivien Merchant with TV personality Joan Bakewell (above, interviewing her lover), with whom he carried on a clandestine affair for several years - so clandestine that many early viewers of Betrayal imagined it was about his later affair with Lady Antonia Fraser, whom Pinter eventually married after divorcing Merchant. Bakewell cleared that up some years ago, although even she wasn't aware that Pinter had fathered a child with another woman while carrying on with her.

So Master Harold was a busy boy in his heyday, and it's obvious now that in his "memory plays" of the 70's he did, indeed, have quite a complex personal topography to mine. Betrayal may be the most accessible of these works, even though, as everyone knows, its narrative moves backward in time - well, it actually hops backward, then goes forward a little bit, then hops backward again, the better to limn the tiny betrayals nested like Russian dolls within the larger arc of its characters' adultery.

And the most striking thing about the current production is designer Dahlia L'Habieli's unit-set solution to the staging problems this structure creates. L'Habieli's conceit is to situate the reverse-engineered story in a kind of conceptual art gallery (appropriate enough to Pinter's literary set) in which hang paintings from the various years of the play's action; in between scenes, gallery personnel enter to shine lights on the various dates attached to the paintings to convey that we're taking another backward quantum leap. Clever, no? I thought so.

If only the acting were at the same level as the design concept, all would be well. But alas, the cast has developed its performances via the "Meisner technique" (it's even announced in the program) which a Pinter play requires about as much as a fish needs a bicycle. The Meisner technique (for those unaware) is the source of the catch-phrase "in the moment," and emphasizes spontaneity and a highly attentive, almost improvisatory, performance style between actors rather than the development of interior landscapes; it's great for work without a complex subtext. But of course Pinter depends on subtext, on actors negotiating not only each other but their own subterfuges, wounds, and hidden agendas; it's inward as well as outward. Indeed, Betrayal is basically structured as a slow reveal of a complicated inner history; if that history isn't worked out, the play doesn't really happen.

And here it doesn't really happen; indeed, even its poignant bottom-line arc, from weary disillusionment to headily naïve passion, is only fitfully in view. As Pinter-factotum Jerry, actor Robert Kropf most often seems aware of what he should be doing long-term, as it were; but even he changes far too little over the course of the play, and too often gropes for "fresh" moments, opting for spontaneity over stealth. As the object of his adulterous affection, Lyralen Kaye (at left, with Kropf) sports an intriguingly camouflaged presence that might be right for Pinter - but she keeps things so low-key that we never feel there's really any blood on the floor. Likewise Wayne Fritsche is far too meek and arch as cuckolded husband Robert; there's a cruel, even nasty streak in this character that Fritsche seems unable to convey. He's better at playing regrets - the one scene that mostly clicks is his sad discovery of his wife's infidelity in the script's famous "Torcello" interlude. Meanwhile director Gail Phaneuf pours on the dolor with an inappropriate emo soundtrack. But Betrayal might be better played more in anger than in sorrow.

Monday, May 24, 2010

All in the family

After five years of a bristling existence on Boston's fringe, Whistler in the Dark remains the most daring theatre company in town. In fact, there's no one else even in their league (Harvard and B.U. lag far behind in terms of intellectual challenge, albeit in different directions). Their last show was Naomi Wallace's almost-over-literate diary of a plague year, One Flea Spare. Next season, they're taking on Howard Barker's The Europeans. (Which will make three Barker plays this determined troupe has produced in its short life.) Their idea of a crowd-pleaser is Ovid's Metamorphoses. I repeat: nobody else in town has that kind of balls.

And no doubt our city-wide lack of cojones is behind the fact that the current Whistler project, Family Stories - a surreal, blacker-than-black comedy by Biljana Srbljanovic - counts as the play's local premiere, despite its being penned in 1997. That's right, 13 years ago. Yes, think of that - thirteen years of new play development have filled our local stages with warmth and heart and quirk - not to mention several tons of "uplift." But I can't think of anything that's "developed" that's half as savage as what Srbljanovic calmly serves up here. [Correction! (I've been highly correctable of late, it seems!) I've been informed Family Stories was produced once prior in Boston, eight years ago, by the Market Theatre. Whistler in the Dark still has balls, though.]

The Serbian playwright's conceit is that we're watching children of a warzone play out their "family stories" - violent, brutal fantasies and games that both reflect and refract the destructive adult behaviors they observe around them. The twist is that the children are played by adult actors - yes, adults playing children playing adults - which doesn't so much distance us from their playground horrors as pull them that much closer, while illuminating the childish impulses behind the savagery that inspired them. Not that everything is fun and games - one little girl seems so damaged that she actually believes she's a dog (and is treated as such); her debasement is "real." And the fact that every new day calls for some new sadistic pastime (the parent figures get repeatedly offed in highly creative ways) conjures a powerful sense of the way civil war turns everything - morals, meaning, even time itself - into a repetitive form of chaos.

That said, it must be admitted that the Whistlers don't quite get the tone of the play right: two of the actors - company stalwart Jen O'Connor and newcomer Danny Bryck - capture well the childish affect of their characters. But there's a slightly more ironic, self-aware edge to the work of Melissa Barker and (especially) Nate Gundy that occasionally comes off as arch, and subtly undermines the script with a sense of knowing snark. And director Meg Taintor hasn't found a way to convey the satire of political figures we get the impression the kids are sometimes aping (no doubt Srbljanovic's original Serbian audience picked up on these cues immediately - we don't) . I also felt a real through-line only from O'Connor over the course of the play, which gave the impression that its savagery doesn't progress; which perhaps it doesn't - but it does accrue, and these kids should develop a meta-awareness of their ongoing relationships (and frustrations) with each other outside the confines of their "play."

All that said, much of the action remained almost mysteriously absorbing, and the constant violence, well-designed by Meron Langsner and Mark Villanueva, was always gripping. The set was perhaps too bare-bones - a greater sense of a blasted urban heath was called for, I felt - but in a way this made the text even more strangely free-floating in its ramifications; it was a while, in fact, before I was quite sure what the actors were intended to represent. So let's just say that if you're the type that likes reaching your own conclusions about a play, and you're up for violent confrontation - at least of the theatrical sort - then Whistler in the Dark is for you. Through May 30.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Run the Marathon!

The Boston Theatre Marathon, that is. Today from 12-10 PM at the Boston Center for the Arts. Fifty plays in ten hours; the line-up is here. At least run part of it! I'll be there roughly from Hopkinton to Natick.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Prelude to a quip

Perhaps time hasn't been kind to Prelude to a Kiss. Or perhaps director Peter DuBois hasn't. Either way, the Huntington stumbles slightly with its revival of Craig Lucas's AIDS-era parable (which runs through June 13). Under the sitcommy direction of DuBois, what seemed poignant in 1988 seems - well, slightly forced, and just plain odd, in 2010.

Back then, the central piece of fabulism in the play - the magical kiss by which the souls of a dying old man and a young bride trade places (at left) - seemed like a touchingly off-kilter metaphor for the transformation that so many young gay men were going through: they were suddenly withering into shadows of their former selves, turning partners and lovers into caregivers desperate to connect to the young souls trapped in those dying bodies. But even then, it was worth noting that Prelude to a Kiss didn't waste too much breath on that sad situation; Lucas included a scene or two in which unhappy husband Peter poignantly tended to the elderly (male) body of bride Rita, but for the most part, the play was concerned with his desperate attempts to magically remedy the situation. Indeed, the script has its most kick not in its Freaky-Friday-meets-Longtime-Companion moments, but rather when it plays like a long-form Twilight Zone episode, complete with cries like "Wait a minute - YOU"RE NOT RITA!!!"

At any rate, if Lucas's conceit is to work, it can only work through actors who convey an unexpected soufulness - or a least a soulmate-ness - through their quirky, cable-TV-level banter. But at the Huntington, director DuBois has cast a nice but average Joe and Jane (Brian Sgambati and Cassie Beck) as his star-crossed, or rather kiss-crossed, couple, and we struggle to see what's so special about their not-particularly-electric chemistry, or, to be blunt, what's so individual about Beck's Rita at all. Beck is clearly a snappy comedienne, and she has a friendly presence - but when she's actually somebody else, she doesn't seem all that different; if her body's new occupant didn't slip up so often on her life trivia, you kind of think he might have gotten away with the whole scam. As for the romantic charge that should by all rights have gone missing from Rita & Pita's love - well, to be honest, it never really surfaced to begin with, even though its existence must be what sparked their whirlwind courtship.

This turns Prelude to a Kiss into kind of a head-scratcher - and its revival is likewise a bit of a puzzle; was anyone crying out for new productions of Craig Lucas? We just got Reckless from SpeakEasy last winter - but taken together, these stagings suggest to me that it's no surprise the playwright's reputation has faded as the AIDS crisis (which served as text or subtext to his biggest hits) has receded in the public mind. Yes, of course, AIDS is still with us - in fact, its incidence has been increasing of late. What drives the resonance of Kiss, however, is the physical decline associated with AIDS - which today is far better controlled than it was in the eighties, however tragically prevalent the disease may be. Lucas does have a deeper interest in questions of spiritual transference and mystical flux - but if anything, the SpeakEasy production of Reckless, imperfect as it was, drew out this subtext better than DuBois does here.

Still, there are good moments to savor here and there. Brian Sgambati grows more affecting as Peter, and Nancy E. Carroll (just back from Broadway!) and Michael Hammond wittily tiptoe up to the edge of caricature as Rita's clueless parents, without going over that edge. As the elderly gent who discovers himself unexpectedly going down the aisle, MacIntyre Dixon finds a subtle comedy in his under-written scenes - but again, seems to miss whatever elusive mystical essence Rita brings with her into his own dying frame. In various supporting parts, local stars Timothy John Smith, Jason Bowen, Cheryl McMahon and Ken Cheeseman acquit themselves well; let's hope we see them all on the Huntington stage again, and soon. Although I hope next time they won't be quite so often on the run: the show feels slightly over-designed (as 'cinema,' apparently), and some part of that over-design is always rolling on or off. But at least the rumble of the set-pieces distracts you a bit from the thinness of the script.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Flagging Spirit

Kathy St. George reaches out to the unknown in Blithe Spirit. Photos by Mark S. Howard.

The spirit is willing in the Lyric Stage's new production of Blithe Spirit (which plays through June 5); and you can't say the flesh is weak - indeed, everyone is obviously putting their shoulder to the wheel in this earthbound version of Noel Coward's famous 40's farce.

But maybe that's the problem - here, the flesh is too strong; everyone's so strenuously trying to put the show over that it never achieves the sense of sophisticated ease that was Coward's ideal. In a word, you can't be "blithe" when you're breaking a sweat. And everyone's trying so hard because, I think, deep down they're all aware (old pros that they are) that nobody's quite right for what they're doing.

Now when it comes to small theatre, we're all used to the approximate - and no doubt Rex Harrison wasn't available for this production. And can you really complain when a local cast includes Paula Plum, Anne Gottlieb, Richard Snee, Kathy St. George and Sarah deLima, all of them dragging a veritable litany of awards or nominations behind them? No, I suppose you can't.

Still, Coward only thrives when it's precise. And precise in an amusingly off-hand manner - a manner that's not director Spiro Veloudos's strong suit, to be honest. Veloudos is a clever comic director, but you'd never accuse him of too light a touch; he likes to nail things down, whereas Coward affected such indifference that he actually advised actors to keep delivering their lines straight through their laughs. Something tells me that didn't actually happen often in Coward's productions, of course, but it gives you an idea of the atmosphere he was trying to conjure: since he dashed the play off in just half an hour, darling, he couldn't possibly wait for you to finish laughing as there was a yacht waiting for him bound for the Riviera!

To be fair, the Lyric cast does win those laughs; Kathy St. George in particular practically wrestles them out of the audience. But there's little sense of elegant sheen to the evening, and the pace is often stumbling, and to be honest, even the theme of the play feels obscure. Just about all of Coward's best scripts depend on the same plot: the duel between old sex and new sex. Usually old sex wins out (Private Lives, Present Laughter); sometimes no sex wins out (Blithe Spirit); and sometimes there's a hard-won tie (Design for Living). (New sex almost always loses, which may be why conservatives always adored Coward, even as he toyed with bisexuality and various forms of ménage right before their eyes.)

Paula Plum and Richard Snee ponder some astral bigamy.

But director Veloudos - and alas, star Richard Snee - seem never to have awoken to the importance of the emotional backbone of the play. As Coward factotum "Charles Condomine" (a reference to "condominium" or "condiment"? You decide!) Snee does a heterosexual version of debonair pretty well - probably better than Coward did - but he seems to have confused "debonair" with "disinterested," and thus appears bored with both new and old sex. That is, in either controlling second wife Ruth (Anne Gottlieb), or impetuous late wife Elvira (Paula Plum), whose blithe spirit has been accidentally summoned from the beyond by the eccentric Madame Arcati (St. George). To be blunt, the arc for this "astral bigamist" should be the typical Coward one of delight in the return of romantic excitement, followed by frustration as that excitement devolves into petty egotism. But here that arc never happens.

Even though, as Elvira, Paula Plum does her best to strike a romantic spark. The smart, sensible Plum doesn't naturally have the touch of exoticism we expect from Elvira, but she compensates with a really wonderful sense of romantic swoon (plus she looks great in costumer Charles Schoonmaker's Lily-Munster get-up). Likewise St. George, who usually plays sprites, is simply miscast as Madame Arcati - the joke here is that the medium is more a British bloodhound (albeit with an unexpected mystical talent) than a flibbertigibbet. But St. George doesn't take no for an answer, and slowly she wins the audience over through sheer enthusiasm. Alas, as the slightly-brittle Ruth, Anne Gottlieb doesn't really get the same chance; Veloudos has directed her too obviously (her control issues should creep up on us, not be declared in the first scene), and for once Schoonmaker has gone wrong by costuming her in the same vampy style he has given Elvira.

All this isn't enough to actually sink the show - it just keeps it from soaring. There are nice touches here and there, and Brynna Bloomfield's set gets the job done (although it doesn't blow apart with nearly the poltergeistic brio of the wittier Trinity Rep version last spring). And after the cast settles in (there were a few dropped lines on opening), a smoother rhythm may develop for Coward's banter. In short, it may simply take some time for this soufflé to rise; for certainly these talented folks have the spirit in them to be blithe.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Too much Schütz?

David Hoose conducts. Photo by Michael J. Lutch.

The German composer Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) may be an acquired taste. Or at least that's my conclusion after sitting through “Schwanengesang’’ ("Swan Song") his acknowledged masterpiece, and the last thing he ever wrote. Also, I think, the longest thing he ever wrote. Actually, at times it seems like the longest thing anyone ever wrote. This dying swan takes almost two hours, in fact, to finally give up the ghost.

Oops - did I say that out loud? I didn't mean to. I'm all about re-discovering the neglected works of the past, you know, but sometimes - well, some works have been neglected for good reason. And alas, “Schwanengesang’’ may be one of them.

It is of historical interest, of course; Schütz is considered the greatest German composer prior to Bach, and the thirteen motets of “Schwanengesang’’ give one a sense of why: their style is limpid yet austere, subtle yet humbly expressive. And as with the work of the great Johann Sebastian (and Schütz's contemporary, Monteverdi), the piece resounds with an undeniable piety and faith - qualities which are rarely heard in serious music today, more's the pity.

Perhaps, then, the two hours of “Schwanengesang’’ count as simply too much of a good thing. Or perhaps the trouble with the work lies in its central text - the enormous Psalm 119, both the longest psalm and the longest chapter in the Bible. It's essentially an ecstatic hymn to following the prescripts of the Torah, and thus is embedded in Jewish observances (several verses are read prior to the blowing of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah) as well as, interestingly enough, Eastern Orthodox ritual. The psalm is of further intrigue in that it's an acrostic - each of its stanzas begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet; indeed, legend has it that King David taught Solomon to read via Psalm 119.

But ripped from a liturgical context, its limits as musical text become clear fairly quickly. Here's a chunk of an early stanza:

I rejoice in following your statutes
as one rejoices in great riches.

I meditate on your precepts
and consider your ways.

I delight in your decrees;
I will not neglect your word.

Now a later stanza:

Teach me, O Lord, to follow your decrees;
then I will keep them to the end.

Give me understanding, and I will keep your law
and obey it with all my heart.

Direct me in the path of your commands,
for there I find delight.

And even later:

Your decrees are the theme of my song
wherever I lodge.

In the night I remember your name, O Lord,
and I will keep your law.

This has been my practice:
I obey your precepts.

Got the idea yet? Well, it goes on like this for (count 'em) 176 verses.

When you combine this rhetorical repetition (through so many very similar stanzas) with an austere, subtle style, you get . . . well, I think most non-believers like me will agree on what you get. Nevertheless, David Hoose, music director of the Cantata Singers, has fallen in love with the stuff, and so last Friday night we got the whole thing. And I mean the whooole thing. Which, since Hoose didn't exactly keep his foot on the gas pedal, clocked in not at the promised 80 minutes but at 110 - not including the closing Psalm 100 and Magnificat (which suddenly perked things up considerably and were lovely). Clearly Schütz in shorter doses - or perhaps merely with more emotionally compelling texts - can be wonderful. And I suppose "Schwanenesang" does logically cap a season which has been dedicated to this composer. But if Hoose thought he was demonstrating in this concert that the work deserves a place in the modern repertory, I'm afraid he instead proved just the opposite.

Hoose did capture, I think, the appropriate tone of gentle humility. And the concert never grew maddening - just mildly, sweetly numbing. The Cantata Singers, for their part, soldiered on with admirable commitment. Still, the group was hardly focused enough to deliver the kind of pin-point singing required to convey the subtle musical differences Hoose insists are latent in these verses. Then again, “Schwanengesang’’ would challenge the resources of Boston's best professional choruses. The Cantata Singers have announced that Ralph Vaughan Williams will be the focus of their programming next year; one hopes there's not a "swan song" lurking in his back catalogue, too.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Please don't

Amanda Peet shops around for bourgeois morality in Please Give.

Please Give, the new film by Nicole Holofcener, has been met with almost universal praise, but it's hard to see why. I don't mean that it's a disaster on the scale of Greenberg or Shutter Island (both of which were greeted with plenty of bizarre hosannas). To be honest, I don't even mean that it's bad. It's mildly entertaining, actually. But only mildly. What's most memorable about Please Give, in fact, is the sense we get of how far it stubbornly remains from achieving its true potential; Holofcener's writing (she scripted the movie) is wickedly acute, but her direction is always gently, delicately deflating; she somehow manages to constantly undermine her own best material.

Of course encountering even a mature premise makes many film critics do back-flips, and understandably enough. If I spent the year sitting through Iron Man 2 and Kick-Ass, I'm sure Please Give would look like King Lear to me, too. Instead, of course, I spend the season in live performance, so when that winds down, and I'm forced back into pop culture for a spell, it takes me awhile to adjust to the sandbox, or to the critical voices chattering therein. To be honest, reading, say, A.O. Scott after watching a mainstream (or even an arthouse) film is rather like watching one of those Look Who's Talking movies; the words seem to be being uttered by an adult, but the sensibility we perceive behind them has long since gone infantile.

But back to Please Give, which follows the parallel paths - and somewhat-parallel moral choices - of several upscale New Yorkers. Heavy lie the comfortable heads of these Manhattanites, Holofcener wants us to know - or at least some of their heads lie heavy. Perhaps the heaviest-headed is Catherine Keener's Kate, a successful vintage furniture dealer who, we are expected to believe, feels there's something wrong about marking up her goods. Yes, you read that right. She's guilty about covering her costs, and even profiting from glibly trendy New Yorkers.

Right. Now to me, this itself was a hard sell, especially in a successful career woman who's clearly pushing fifty. Beyond that, even the idea that what Kate does is rapacious or something is a little hard to figure; how, exactly, is margin supposed to be a bad thing? You don't have to be a Republican - or even a libertarian - to appreciate that retail works a certain way, or to find Keener's constant sighs and furrowed brow as she goes about her lucrative business more than a little ridiculous.

To be fair, even Holofcener begins to realize this, and starts making little jokes at Keener's expense (when she returns an expensive vase to its owner, for instance, he promptly breaks it). But when it comes to the really black comedy she has conjured at the center of her movie, the director seems unable to land her own punches. What could be bugging Keener's Kate, for instance, is how precisely she gets her stock - she basically raids estate sales, picking up 50's classics from families trying to offload mom's tacky coffee table or couch, and then turns right around and resells it (at that mark-up) as Upper-West-Side "irony." Ok, so far, so amusingly vulture-like. But Kate and hubby Alex (Oliver Platt) have also bought at a discount the apartment next to theirs, in the hopes that its elderly occupant, Andra (a refreshingly bitter Ann Guilbert) will soon drop dead (so they can remodel).

Thus Kate is preying on not just the dead but the nearly-dead - yet Holofcener can't seem to bear to direct this situation as sharply as she has written it. When Kate guiltily throws Andra a birthday party, for instance - with its subtext of "Damn, too bad you're still alive!" - we sense an opportunity for some serious satire of bourgeois hypocrisy, but Holofcener has such an earnest, gentle touch that the scene goes limp, even as its lines draw blood (the joke within the joke is that Andra is a hard-boiled, loveless old bag whom everyone would like to see buy the farm). In short, Holofcener has written an Ealing Studio comedy, but she thinks she's directing a millennial women's picture - and the results are relentlessly half-baked; we almost get the feeling that Holofcener, like her main character, feels guilty about what she's doing.

Not that nothing in the picture works - it just never works as well as it should. Actually, scratch that - some things in the picture just don't work. An affair between the gorgeous Amanda Peet and the so-not-gorgeous Oliver Platt, for instance, was even harder for me to believe in than Catherine Keener's stricken conscience. And the subplots involving Andra's granddaughters (Peet and Rebecca Hall, who's better here than she was in Vicky Cristina Barcelona) were diverting, but didn't seem to really go anywhere. Some aspiration toward generational (and even spiritual) scope seemed evident in Holofcener's writing - but aspiration toward what, specifically? I really had no idea.

Still, the scenes between Kate and her spoiled (but at least self-aware) daughter packed some ironic punch; I particularly liked the stand-off in which the brat snatches away (for herself) the twenty bucks Kate is trying to give the homeless. If only Holofcernes had been able to follow through consistently on the clear-eyed POV she shows here and there, she might have made quite a movie. As it is, Please Give devolves into a weird sermon - involving a pair of $200 jeans! - on the idea that "charity begins at home," or something like that. Which only made the movie itself feel like a charity case.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Who's next at Boston Ballet

Yurika Kitano and company member Isaac Akiba in "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux." Photo by Liza Voll.

I spent last Wednesday night at Boston Ballet's "Next Generation" program, which is a chance for students from the Ballet's many schools, north and south, to strut their stuff before an audience of relatives and friends. The "spring showcase," of course, is an annual rite of passage, but this year the kids got to perform on the stage of the Opera House itself, during the company's run of "Ultimate Balanchine," so the concert was just that much more exciting for everyone involved. There was also live music this time around, provided by the capable New England Conservatory Youth Symphony, under the direction of Steven Karidoyanes, which sounded its spirited best in the opening "Thunder and Lightning Polka," which one guessed from its polish was one of the group's showpieces.

The Opera House program was limited to the Ballet's pre-professional and trainee students, so we didn't get to see the littlest ones in the Ballet's programs. The cuteness factor was therefore kept to a manageable level (more's the pity), although the youngest girls in their toe shoes were still plenty adorable, despite their obvious aplomb (when one sweetheart took a spill, she simply carried on with remarkable self-possession - she was no baby!). I'm not sure why it's so delightful to see lines of determined young people carry off graceful moves in sequence, as was the case in the "passagework" section; it just is.

But it's worth pointing out that, perhaps because of the Opera House setting, the Ballet had clearly raised the artistic bar for the rest of the program; in fact, some of the performances of the evening would not have been out of place in its own season. Jorma Elo, the Ballet's resident choreographer, had contributed a short new work, "One Concerto," set to a chunk of Philip Glass, which the trainee students (particularly the women, Danyla Bezerra, Julia Mitchell, Amber Neff and Melanie Riffee) carried off with swiveling élan; the surprise, however, was that this punchy little number turned out to be one of Elo's better ballets. I'd like to see the professionals of the company itself do it, and I certainly hope the Ballet doesn't forget about it.

Other highlights included appearances by the members of Boston Ballet II and the company's corps, with whom the trainee students often blended seamlessly in a lovely, if somewhat long, excerpt from Bournonville's Napoli. Showing everyone how the thing is done, however, were Yurika Kitano and Isaac Akiba (both of whom rose through the Ballet's training programs) who sparkled in Balanchine's "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux." Mr. Akiba in particular did the best dancing I've ever seen him do, with clean jumps of startling grace and power. I even thought I caught a glimpse of the trainees taking notes.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Soprano on the cutting edge

Michael Maniaci in action.

There's a spectre haunting the early music movement.

The spectre of the castrato.

Don't laugh; to some period music professionals, somehow approximating the combination of female range and male lung power typical of the notorious castrati has become a kind of musical holy grail. In a way, it's understandable; period musicians are constantly striving to replicate lost practices and instruments, the better to perform music written prior to the instrumental revolutions of the nineteenth century in the manner in which it was originally played. Their pursuit of this ideal has led to a revolution in our approach to Handel and Bach, and even Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. But the one period instrument that seems to lie permanently beyond our postmodern grasp is the voice of the castrato.

No one (so far) has actually suggested we bring back the castrati, of course, for obvious reasons. But the yearning to experience what Mozart and Handel once heard - and wrote music for - is often palpable in the early music world; indeed, it's not too much to say that a small cult of the castrato has sprung up there. The countertenor, of course, has meanwhile become ubiquitous - but even the greatest of these falsetto magicians, it must be admitted, often lack the agility, range, and power of a great soprano. The involution of their technique often mutes, or even blurs, their diction, and as they inch up toward (but usually never quite reach) coloratura territory, they tend to grow more studied and careful.

Thus, I suppose the appearance of the "male soprano" was inevitable - singers who claim that through anatomical or hormonal anomaly, they've retained their pre-pubescent voiceboxes into adulthood. Michael Maniaci (at top), who sang a program of Mozart with Boston Baroque last weekend, is one of the most successful of this rare new breed. Before you ask, the singer claims that during puberty, his vocal chords never lengthened and coarsened as is typical of the average male; aside from that, Maniaci explains, he's just like any other grown man.

How, exactly, his hormones "missed" his larynx, the singer doesn't really explain - but the proof of this kind of thing, as they say, is in the pudding, and I have to admit that at first blush, Maniaci sounds strikingly different from a countertenor. His voice blooms at the top of his range, which is, indeed, up around a coloratura high C, where he's utterly agile and free, throwing off gorgeous top notes seemingly at will. What's curious about Maniaci, however, is that his vocal production is quite uneven. The castrati had voices that smoothly slid down into a high tenor (and there is one extant recording - the last castrato died in 1922! - that hardly dazzles, but does support this claim). But Maniaci's voice weakens as it drops, and then slips off a cliff at its low end (much, to be honest, as a countertenor's does). And to be honest, his diction and phrasing sparkle on his high notes, but blur as he goes further down.

There is, however, that gorgeous top to his voice, which shone brightest in "Ah se a morir mi chiama" from Mozart's Lucio Silla (Maniaci's program was drawn from early works for castrati by the young genius), and especially the joyous "Exsultate, jubilate" (K. 165), which Maniaci sang brilliantly, and which is becoming one of his signature pieces.

Yet one wondered - was Mr. Maniaci that much stronger than a radiant soprano would be in the same parts? It was hard to argue that the timbre of his top notes was so different from those produced by a woman; and while he had power, it wasn't overwhelming power (indeed, plenty of sopranos could have flattened him). What's most striking about him, in fact, is simply that these high C's are coming out of a male body - but this effect in many ways feels cultural, or even political, in its ramifications rather than purely musical. And to me, the image of a woman in male dress, singing, say, the trousers role from Idomeneo (which was originally taken by a castrato) has much the same cultural and political edge. The only difference is that the soprano has the range for the whole role. (Indeed, Mozart wasn't happy with the castrato who first sang in Idomeneo, and rewrote the part for a tenor.)

Such questions of cultural interest vs. musical quality perhaps were top-of-mind for me because in the rest of the concert, which was given over to instrumental Mozart, Boston Baroque often acquitted itself brilliantly. The opening overture from The Impresario, another very early work, was exuberant and charming. The ensemble was less spirited in the following overture to La clemenza di Tito, but still played with warmth and feeling. The "Haffner" symphony, which closed the concert, brought back the high spirits, and seemed to surge along with an energy that was practically rollicking, with light, pointed playing from the winds. Alas, there were some wrong notes squawked by the natural horns right at the end, but somehow this seemed easy to forgive in a performance so splendid in every other respect.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Lia Cirio and Pavel Gurevich in Ultimate Balanchine. Photos by Gene Schiavone.

You still have time to catch Ultimate Balanchine, an evening which demonstrates what even the New York Times has grudgingly had to admit: Boston Ballet now has the chops to float freely between the romantic, modern and post-modern repertory. Yes, Bostonians - New York says it's ok to go the Ballet! So what are you waiting for?

Well, if what you've been waiting for is artistic challenge, you'd better hustle: Ultimate takes its last bow this weekend, and its opening pieces, "The Four Temperaments" and "Apollo," are as astringent and stripped-down as any modern classicist could want. But hang on till the end, you traditionalists - the concert wraps with "Theme and Variations," one of those jewels in which Mr. B. lovingly cut the romantic tradition to a dazzling new precision, and you can feast your eyes on all the tutus and tiaras you could possibly want.

To be honest, I did have one caveat about the program: in the first moments of "Four Temperaments," the Ballet didn't seem to be putting its best foot forward. The work represents Balanchine at his coldest - and its structure may be his most rigorous, and that's saying something; plus its movement (set to Paul Hindemith's commissioned score, which is a small classic in its own right) is unusually aggressive. With its lunges and splayed legs and thrusting pelvises, you feel as if Mr. B. is turning angrily on the vocabulary of ballet itself. Which isn't to say the piece doesn't coalesce, like all his great works, from choreographic fragments into concluding grand themes; it does. But some of the younger members of the company - who took the opening duets - didn't seem to know how to express the work's atmosphere of alienation; they weren't able to express intent without emotion, so they seemed a bit blank.

Still, Megan Gray and Paul Craig threw off some sparks, and once the principals moved in for the major variations (named for the medieval "Four Temperaments": Melancholic, Sanguinic, Phlegmatic and Choleric), the piece righted itself. It was great to see dancer John Lam back, and back in his usual sinuous form, as "Melancholic," but the surprise was how well everyone danced - Eric Cornejo and Nelson Madrigal, not dancers one associates with cool modernism, cleanly essayed "Sanguinic," Kathleen Breen Combes (returning to the stage after a recent injury) tore through "Choleric," and even the somewhat erratic Carlos Molina impressed with a loose, gangly grace in "Phlegmatic."

The opening frieze of "Apollo."

The second work on the program (although in terms of Mr. B.'s development, its earliest) was the rarely-seen "Apollo" (above) of 1928, although here presented in the reduced version Balanchine completed in 1979. Set to a score by Stravinsky, it represents the choreographer at his least layered and most narrational: the sun god summons three muses (Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, and Calliope) with whom he, well, muses, before selecting one as his consort (Terpsichore, the dancer, in case you hadn't picked up that Apollo=Mr. B.). Here the dance came off beautifully, even if its ensemble seemed slightly mismatched. Gurevich is a god, yes, but not a sunny one, and he and the bodaciously grounded Cirio didn't seem to quite connect as a couple; yet their dancing, both individually and together, was superb. As Calliope (the muse of poetry) Rie Ichikawa seemed a bit frail, but rising star Whitney Jensen made a gleamingly poised Polyhymnia (the muse of mime). Watching Jensen - who I think is only 18 or 19 - I myself mused at how unfair the gods can be. All the young women of the Ballet (including Jensen) work themselves day and night to achieve technical perfection - but Jensen simply has that little something extra that you notice (and she seems to have had it since the first time I saw her on the Ballet stage); there's a sheen of serene poise to her work that simply seems to have been bestowed by, well, maybe Apollo.

James Whiteside and Jaime Diaz soar in "Theme and Variations."

The finale, "Theme and Variations," seemed a world away from the heightened clarity of "Apollo" and "Four Temperaments," but it shared with them an underlying sense of structure and attack. The audience gasped audibly ("At last!") when the curtain parted to reveal a dazzling chandelier, swaths of gauze, and a veritable army of dancers glitteringly dressed for Tchaikovsky (whose gorgeous Suite No. 3 provided the score). But needless to say, beneath the piece's plush surface, Balanchine's talent for thematic development was just as exposed as it was in "Four Temperaments:" "Theme and Variations" builds into a kaleidoscopic formal statement by its curtain. On opening night, this development was anchored beautifully by leads Misa Kuranaga and James Whiteside, who danced together with poised sympathy, and separately with something close to perfection. The gigantic corps likewise danced with truly stunning synchronicity, the clarity of its line never admitting variation. I know many look down on ballet for its relentless pursuit of what is essentially superficial physical perfection; but when confronted by that perfection in the flesh, it's hard to deny its power - or, ironically enough, its surprising sense of depth.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Talkin' trash

Mary Callanan, Kerry A. Dowling, and Santina Umbach, the ladies of the Great American Trailer Park. Photo by Mark L. Saperstein.

I don't have too much new to say about SpeakEasy Stage's shiny production of The Great American Trailer Park Musical. But then neither does it, so we're even. After the challenges of Adding Machine, you can't really blame SpeakEasy for just kicking back with this amusing little show, which is just as much a prefab vehicle as the "manufactured homes" parked around Jenna McFarland Lord's day-glo set (yes, there are plastic palm trees and pink flamingos, too). There is, I think, a kind of dark underside to the fact that director Paul Daigneault has assembled a top-notch cast to put this piffle over; I really wish all these people were out doing better things. But hey, you know? Whatever.

And I can't deny that the crowd I saw it with last weekend loved it, in the same way that rock nerds love Amanda Palmer and Catholics love Nunsense: the product has been designed to match their needs exactly, and so they clutch it to their chests. Many in the press saw beneath the plastic surface of Trailer nuggets of character and "real warmth," as well as genuine insights. Yeah, right. To me, this valentine to white trash rings a little false in its patronizing affection; its trailer park denizens aren't organizing tea parties or packing heat in public - instead they seem harmlessly marooned in the Clinton era, with their Budweisers and black babies and strippers-with-hearts-of-gold (tellingly, when they turn on the tube, Sally Jessy Raphael's still on it). These folks are, in short, the antithesis of the gay, urban, Obama-supportin' SpeakEasy crowd, and you could see the whole production as a kind of whiteface minstrel show designed to compliment its audience and dissolve their anxieties about, you know, "The Other."

That is, if you were feeling critical, you might feel that way.

But I'm not, so I'll only note that there should be at least a few new twists or cutting-edge jokes in this Soho-by-way-of-Park-Slope pastiche, and there really aren't. Maybe the software program that wrote it didn't have that capability. Nor are the songs exactly fresh (a clone of "It's Raining Men" actually makes an appearance). But you don't really mind, because the cast is so winning. Director Daigneault has hitched the great Leigh Barrett, Mary Callanan, and Kerry A. Dowling (who's in particularly fine form) to the show, and has also discovered delightfully ditzy newcomer Santina Umbach (above, with Callanan and Dowling) who just about steals every scene out from under her high-powered co-stars. There are equally strong turns from David Benoit, Caitlin Crosbie Doonan and Grant MacDermott - in fact, the whole cast. Everyone knows exactly what they're doing, and they do it very well. That I happen to think it wasn't worth doing, at least not by Boston's premier mid-size theatre, I'm sure many will feel is beside the point. Then again, in cases like this one, criticism itself is beside the point.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Classic update

The three little maids of Hot Mikado. Photos by Andrew Brilliant.

In one of the most famous songs in the The Mikado, Ko-Ko, the executioner who doesn't really want to kill anybody, sings about the "little list" he keeps of those who "never would be missed" if he ever did pull together the courage to exercise his professional prerogatives.

And in the middle of some of W.S. Gilbert's wittiest lyrics comes the following:

"The nigger serenader and the others of his race . . . I've got them on the list! They never would be missed!"

As many commentators say today: these lines are dropped in contemporary productions. And needless to say, they're never missed. No, they're never, ever missed.

Still, it's worth remembering that once the n-word was in The Mikado. And shocking as that racist smear seems in a such a charming confection (and it's all the more shocking because it's so offhand and unthinking), imagine the irony that must have weighed on the stars of Hot Mikado, the jazzy update with an African-American cast that Mike Todd produced for the New York World's Fair in 1939 (silent movie below; a similar update, Swing Mikado, had already played on Broadway). We have to imagine their feelings, because no record of their outrage - or resignation - exists; all we know is that they changed the line to "banjo serenader" and soldiered on. Which is really much better than W.S. Gilbert deserved.

The great Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in the 1939 production of Hot Mikado.

Then again, how could we (or they) ever give up on The Mikado, one of the most sweetly silly works of art ever produced, and certainly a legacy for the ages? It's a sad fact that even the greatest art comes with the racist and sexist baggage of its era attached - always. (Always.) To shun that art based on its reflection of its prejudiced milieu would be a mistake that - well, let's just hope a similar judgment is never passed on us, because rest assured, even the most progressive among us is harboring assumptions that will horrify future generations. Civilization is, in the end, a long effort to salvage our best selves from the worst that lurks within us.

Still, what's striking about Hot Mikado - at least in the version pulled together by David H. Bell and Rob Bowman in 1986, which the New Rep has on tap through May 22, is how warm and sweet-spirited it is toward its source. We just saw G&S violated (rather than "plundered") in the Huntington's crass extravaganza Pirates! last year, so the dangers of updating these operettas is understandably top-of-mind for many of us. Never fear, however: Hot Mikado trims material here and there (it's only two hours long) - some of which, I admit, I missed (particularly the thrilling choruses at the close of Act 1). But most of its jazz and swing versions of the original songs are wonderful - and sometimes exquisite, as in the delicate keyboard line that guides what may be Sullivan's most beautiful aria, "The sun whose rays are all ablaze." And if the show's tone is a bit broader than that of the original, it's just as cleverly sentimental, and that's the real trick.

The Mikado makes his big entrance.

And fortunately, the New Rep has done the show up right, with a crack ensemble that sings and dances its talented heart out, a tight back-up band, and brightly rendered (if perhaps slightly Disneyfied) design. Alas, there's no real chorus, which is too bad, but the cast is so energetic and talented that newcomers to G&S may not even notice the gap. Perhaps first among this cast of equals was McCaela Donovan as a pitch-perfect Yum-Yum, who was romanced by a dashingly intelligent (and beautifully voiced) Nanki-Poo in the person of Cheo Bourne, while receiving top-notch back-up from Michele A. DeLuca and Aimee Doherty (who really unleashed her pipes in "He's Gonna Marry Yum-Yum"). What these two white chicks were doing in Hot Mikado, I've no idea, but I didn't really mind - I'm all about the color-blind casting, donchaknow! Then again, I guess the New Rep didn't want us to think about this as the "black" Mikado or something - instead, I guess it's supposed to be just multi-culturally hot. (You can see how self-conscious this kind of thing quickly gets.) One eyebrow did go up, however, when the piece's villainess, Katisha, turned out to be the cast's only Asian. What was up with that? Again - who knows, but it was good to have the talented Lisa Yuen onboard, who triumphed not only over her odd casting but a wayward microphone, too.

There was more strong singing and smart comic work from Edward M. Barker as Poo-Bah (so it was too bad the part was so trimmed down), and a bemusedly imperious (and delightfully self-amused) turn from Kennedy Reilly-Pugh as the Mikado himself. The one gap I felt in the cast was Calvin Braxton's Ko-Ko; Mr. Braxton's musical and movement skills were clear, but he didn't give us the knowing sophistication we usually expect of Ko-Ko, and didn't really replace it with anything else. Still, if Braxton was a bit blank, he nevertheless knew how to play amusingly nervous riffs on his jokes.

The physical production was sharp and stylish - Francis Nelson McSherry's clever costumes mixed and matched kimonos and zoot suits on Janie Howland's brightly colored, slightly toy-like set; yet somehow the design didn't feel as adult or sophisticated as the music. Meanwhile director Kate Warner's production notes went on in a predictably politically correct manner about how she hoped the production would expand the multicultural context of the operetta, blah blah blah, but luckily once the curtain rose she let us forget all the Huntington-development-department-We-Are-The-World crap and have a good time (and at any rate, as I mentioned, the racial casting felt kind of scrambled, anyway). Alas, her direction proved at times nearly frantic (we were grateful for the relative calm of "The sun whose rays"), but Warner did keep things moving, and no one ever wished for a slow summer show, did they. Still, I couldn't help feeling that the production never really tapped into the relaxed sauciness you can feel even in that silent clip from 1939 - and without that unforced freedom, the show may be fun, but will it ever be "hot"? I'm not sure. Then again, sometimes fun is enough.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Alone in the dark with Thomas Quasthoff

I'm late with my review of Thomas Quastoff (at left); can it really be that the great bass-baritone sang for Celebrity Series a whole week ago? (Yes, it can.) I think I've been dragging my feet about this one, however, because for once I'm not really sure what to make of it. There was little to fault in Quasthoff's program, which only occasionally delved into chestnuts like Schubert's “Erlkönig." Indeed, Quasthoff devoted the central portion of the concert to Swiss composer Frank Martin's dense, challenging “Sechs Monologe aus Jedermann," and closed with several somber songs from Brahms (from the late Op. 94 and the very late Op. 121, written as the great composer succumbed to cancer).

You couldn't ask for a more serious program - in fact, that last Brahms opus is named "Four Serious Songs" - and Mr. Quasthoff's selections, which dwelt on isolation, suffering, and the question of spiritual salvation, seemed to resonate with his own personal circumstances. The singer, of course, has triumphed over intense physical challenges, and it was hard not to hear an echo of that struggle in the first song of his set, Schubert's roiling "Prometheus," in which the fallen hero proclaims:

Who helped me
Against the pride of the titans?
Who rescued me from death,
From slavery?
Did you not accomplish it all yourself,
My sacred, glowing heart? . . .

Here I will sit, forming men
After my own image,
It will be a race like me,
To suffer, to weep,
To enjoy and to rejoice,
And to pay no attention to you,
As I do!

Details of the singer's biography were unmistakable here (Quasthoff even sings sitting down), which poses an interesting problem for a reviewer (or at least a sensitive reviewer). Quasthoff's career depends, of course, on the civilizing truth that in music, the physical is transcended, and I feel uncomfortable even discussing his personal challenges - except insofar as they touch on a theme of isolated struggle that ran relentlessly through the concert, along with a certain attitude of defiance. It was hard to shake the impression that, while many of the singer's fans may find in their very enthusiasm for him a comforting balm to their own beneficent egos, the man himself was there to shake them out of that happy impression. To be blunt, while most singers attempt to connect with the audience across the proscenium, you could feel Quasthoff holding back - and for thematic reasons. We are all alone, he essentially sang over and over, and each of us is in a separate, private hell.

Applause somehow seems ridiculous before this kind of grave statement, and yet it's impossible not to applaud Quasthoff's singing. He does have one of the great bass-baritones of our age, with a clarion, burnished top and a bottom that's clear even at oceanic depths. The singer also has considerable power; he can both rumble and blast at will. What's more, Quasthoff's intellect is obviously far more formidable than many a vocal star's; his selections, as I said, were almost prickly in their brooding braininess, and his approach was thoughtful to the point of being over-considered.

Still, it must be said that Quasthoff occasionally seems to not so much hit his pitches as find them (although this tendency may have been exacerbated by his consistently deliberate pacing). Likewise pianist Justus Zeyen, though certainly a sympathetic accompanist, seemed to fudge his playing here and there (the demonic rippling of “Erlkönig," for instance, was a dramatic, but staccato, blur). And then there was the banter - a lot of it, and some of it amusing, but a little rude ("Shit happens!"), some of it tinged with a hint of sourness, and some of it directly peremptory (Quasthoff demanded the audience not cough even between songs). The eventual impression was of a self-serious profundity unaware of its own slips into vulgarity.

But in my book, if you've got the goods, the rest is forgotten, and Quasthoff certainly has the goods. And the whole concert was hardly doom and gloom: Quasthoff essayed a gentle melancholy in Schubert's “Im Frühling,” and his Erl-king had a truly scary intensity. And I was grateful to be introduced to Martin's troubling “Sechs Monologe aus Jedermann," (that's "Six monologues from Everyman" - I hope everyone in the audience knew what "Jedermann" means), which made the frightening most of Hugo von Hofmannsthal's brilliant text; rarely in music has the terrible moral meaning of the approach of death been so unsparingly portrayed. And though Quasthoff had a few problems with the high end of the final set from Brahms, over all his handling of these heartbreaking, yet subtle, pieces was exquisite. The three encores - “Auf dem Kirchhofe’’ (the cemetery) and “Unüberwindlich’’ (the bottle) by Brahms, and “Seligkeit’’ by Schubert (the afterlife) - were a maybe little lighter than what had come before, but not much. Then again, in a world of singers almost too eager to please their audiences, perhaps Thomas Quasthoff's dark vision counts as something of a tonic.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Loves of a blonde

There are four more where these came from: Karen MacDonald in The Blonde, The Brunette, and the Vengeful Redhead. Photo(s) by Meghan Moore.

Whatever else I may say about the A.R.T., I must admit they made one great artistic contribution to the city's theatre scene.

They fired Karen MacDonald.

And freed from her avant-garde shackles, MacDonald took the town by storm, triumphing at Gloucester Stage, the Huntington, the New Rep, and now the Merrimack Rep. I feel for Ms. McDonald, of course - I'm sure she misses that regular paycheck from Harvard. But we're all so much better off since they let her go. The tragedy is that there's no company in town who can offer her a steady job - or rather will offer her a steady job; both the Huntington and the A.R.T., the two organizations with the financial heft to field a repertory company, refuse to do so for pseudo-intellectual reasons. Which isn't so much a tragedy as a scandal. Another scandal, while I'm on the topic, is the number of great performances we might have had from Ms. MacDonald while her light was hidden beneath the pretentious basket of the A.R.T. In the past year alone we've had at least three terrific turns from her - and prior to that? How many artistic poseurs have obscured her true talent by now? Hmmm . . .

But let's not dwell on the A.R.T. - that way madness lies! Ms. MacDonald is currently lighting up the boards in Robert Hewett's The Blonde, the Brunette, and the Vengeful Redhead, a one-woman show that originated in Australia but has all but taken the global stage by storm. And it's not hard to see why: the script offers a virtuoso actress an opportunity to essay seven utterly different characters (and jump the gender line twice). Better still, it goes somewhere interesting. I don't want to overrate the play - its language is rudely vital but not remarkable, and it has at least one scene (involving a victimized little boy) that pushes the bounds of taste - but it holds you, in the manner that a good story always does. Be warned, however - this is not the broad sex comedy its title seems to promise, although there is some sex (and plenty of comedy). The story revolves around an inadvertent murder, and takes several dark, hair-pin turns; it leads toward what looks like redemption, it's true, and Mr. Hewett's tone is hardly cold; but it's always hard-boiled in something like the manner of an old-fashioned noir.

Some have complained that the author's episodic structure is a mere theatrical gimmick, but they couldn't be more wrong. In fact, Hewett's varying monologues actually put over persuasively his underlying point, that no single perspective can ever serve as an accurate representation of reality. Indeed, the play operates a bit like Kurosawa's famous Rashomon, only in reverse - in that classic movie, we slowly realized, as we listened to its characters, that we would never understand what actually happened at the scene of their crime. In The Blonde, the Brunette, and the Vengeful Redhead, however, we begin to grasp the "truth" of the matter at hand; but we simultaneously realize the people we're listening to - the people who were there - never can understand what actually happened to them. Indeed, as the script develops, we perceive that its "story" is steadily evaporating; almost all its action, it turns out, has been based on misperception. So the play has been about a blonde leading the blind - all the characters' moral decisions, good and bad, have been made in various levels of ignorance. As that eponymous blonde announces near the finale (as she reveals that she's not even a blonde at all): "Nothing is what it seems." Only in the play's last moments, in fact, do its truly good characters recognize each other and begin to grope their way closer in the dark.

For a moral philosopher, of course, this represents a crushing kind of quandary (and who knows how Saint Peter puzzles it out). But for a theatre audience, it's pretty much business as usual - we know that what we're watching onstage isn't what it seems; it's "the lie that tells the truth." Indeed, at the Merrimack, we slowly realize even the scene changes - which at first seem to reveal Ms. MacDonald changing costume from one character to another - are illusions, too. I'm not sure if this meta-theatrical detail was the idea of director Melia Bensussen, but it's in keeping with the general thoughtfulness of the production (for once this director has left her identity politics at the door). And of course Ms. MacDonald is superb throughout - I heard she had some line trouble on opening night, but that was gone by last weekend, and we could simply luxuriate in a long demonstration of the actor's art; as she did in last summer's Last of the Red Hot Lovers, Ms. MacDonald has devised subtly different voices, looks, attitudes, and body languages for every personage she inhabits; she even makes a convincing dude. My favorites among her characterizations were probably the dotty lady down the street, the trashy, double-timing neighbor, and especially the knowing, not-really-a-blonde Tanya. But any student of acting could take any of these seven performances as a master class in how the thing is done. The only question as the curtain fell, in fact, was: where will Karen MacDonald do it next time?