Wednesday, June 30, 2010

More evidence that Gaga may go the distance

Yes, I admit to having been a Lady Gaga fan since that video in which she came out of the pool between the Great Danes with a chunk of stucco on her head. So I've been glad as the evidence accumulated that yes, she really wrote her songs, and yes, she could really sing and play piano. This latest video - bootlegged from a cell, I think, hence the lousy audio, during a recent benefit hosted by Elton John - may actually showcase one of her best songs yet (at least to my mind). No, it's not an original chord progression, but somehow it just kicks ass. Let's hope it finds a way onto an album or a single.

[Sorry - the record company suits have pulled the video! I guess even they could tell it was a great song.]

Monday, June 28, 2010

I'm late with my opinion on the new Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport (above). But that's because, I admit, I've been thinking about it quite seriously, and for some time.

Which is what it deserves. The new hall is an obvious game-changer for the Rockport Music Festival, although that's not really one of my famous "predictions;" the game has, in fact, already changed - the Festival seems to have vaulted from the regional to the national stage, attracting performers like Garrick Ohlsson and Midori. Moreover, every single performance in the new hall this summer has already sold out.

Which makes criticism a bit superfluous doesn't it. Still, it's easy to see why the hall has been such a smashing success: its interior is both subtle and stunning, with a stage "wall" that's actually a huge window onto the open harbor - a masterstroke in and of itself - that's only the centerpiece of a lovely interior beautifully appointed in walnut and Douglas fir.

And it's easy to hear why, too: the hall has a transparently clean acoustic unlike anything else in Boston. I'm not sure I've ever heard, in fact, a hall with as sparkling a top and as rumbling a bottom - this building gives great bass, guys.

What's also remarkable is the connection the Shalin Liu somehow makes across the "footlights;" something about the rake of the seating and the carefully calibrated height of the stage seems to dissolve the distance between performer and listener. There's no "proscenium" in the Shalin Liu; perhaps not even a "stage." The hall is intimate in the most literal sense: you feel as if you were rubbing elbows with the musicians.

This, however, leads to the one catch in acoustician R. Lawrence Kirkegaard's design; the space doesn't blend or cast a warm "halo" over the sound; at least on the floor, the hall seems to be simply transmitting the sonic data with unparalleled accuracy to the listener. But what that means is that when a large ensemble is playing (I heard Boston Musica Viva), you hear the music with something like the same balance issues that the actual performers experience onstage.

I'm sure that with soloists and quartets there'd be no problem - and alas, I'm not sure how, precisely, larger groups could address the issue. And to be honest, in any hall, when you sit in the first few rows, you're in a similar situation; Symphony Hall doesn't really sound like Symphony Hall until you're almost halfway back in the first section of the orchestra. So my advice is: if you're hearing a large ensemble at the Shalin Liu, think about the balcony.

Trust me, you won't mind sitting there - the view from above may be even more gorgeous than it is on the floor. Who thought of that giant glass aperture onto Rockport Harbor? Whoever did deserves a Pritzker. (I assume it was architect Alan Joslin, who worked on Seiji Ozawa Hall, but actually surpasses it here.)

Just don't let the Pritzker committee see the hall's exterior. Here a raft of good intentions have pretty much paved a road to you-know-where. The town of Rockport didn't want some chilly chunk of modernism louring over its lovely village square, so it insisted on a neo-nineteenth-century façade - much like what stood on the site before. But the results look a little Disneyfied, à la "Main Street U.S.A.," as this kind of thing often does. My only thought is that the maroon accents of the paint job don't help matters - while a subtler palette could.

Inside, however, things almost couldn't be more subtle. Indeed, the whole thing is to die for, my friends, from the chipped-granite sea-cliffs making up the opposing walls to the lovely, rippling panels that roll into place before the back window. (Don't do that, though (please), unless the glare from the sunset is really too intense!) The circulation is squeezed a bit here and there, I suppose, but at least it always makes sense (and if you're used to Jordan Hall, you'll think it's spacious!). Overall, the hall is a dazzling achievement - and not merely a new venue, but a new standard of what a local venue can be.

Oh, yeah - what about the concert? Well, I heard Boston Musica Viva do a set of early-modern to contemporary works - everything from Ives to Cage to Gunther Schuller, who was there to offer some opening remarks - but I'm afraid this venerable ensemble wasn't really ready for prime time with this particular program.

The concert opened smoothly enough, with Michael Gandolfi's Grooved Surfaces, a set of nearly-whimsical rhythmic aperitifs that the group brought off with panache. It may have been merely standard academic post-minimalism, but it was nice to listen to. Things began to slide a bit, however, with John Cage's Credo in US, a dance score for then-closeted boyfriend Merce Cunningham, which I'd never heard before, actually, but somehow sensed wasn't going too well even though much of it consisted of people literally banging on tin cans.

Composed in 1942, the piece includes not just that canny percussion but also a pre-recorded sound loop - here a scrap of Dvořák's From the New World that seemed to be being broadcast from the surface of Mars. Which was a pretty witty meta-comment on the piece, if you ask me, by Boston Musica Viva (Cage merely asked for "something like Beethoven or Shostakovich"). After all, the work's cheeky conceit is that as European high culture collapsed in World War II, anarchic American force would triumph - by literally banging on cans. Actually, this is a little dumb - a lot of Cage, beneath the music-of-chance smoke and mirrors, is a little dumb. And alas, sometimes conductor Pittman seemed to be cueing effects that just didn't happen - the "radio" operator often looked a bit lost, and the pianist, slightly panicked. Then again, if a Cage piece is played "incorrectly," does it really matter? At any rate, the percussionists generally seemed to know what they were doing, and stayed in synch, and said pianist, Geoffrey Burleson, soldiered on heroically, kind of like the Russians at Stalingrad.

But alas, if Charles Ives is played incorrectly, you can tell, and if anything, the Ives "Five Street Songs" that followed were more ragged than the Cage. I've been lucky enough to hear these performed by the likes of Dawn Upshaw, so maybe my expectations for the performance were a little unrealistic. But mezzo Pamela Dellal simply didn't have the power to cut through the ensemble, particularly when conductor Richard Pittman exacerbated the hall's balance issues by playing the opening number from the aisles. And at any rate, when you could hear her, she couldn't project Ives's distinctive blend of bitterness, rue, and longing. Nor could the rest of the group, actually. At their deepest level, these songs are about the facets of disillusion, but while Pittman had re-ordered them to possibly interesting dramatic effect, he seemed content to coast on their raucous surface. And his players were happy to ham everything up, too. Oh, well.

Next came the Schuller, "Four Vignettes," with titles like "Atmospherics" and "Found Objects," and the usual reliance on such formal devices as complicated rhythms and prettily alienated effects. At least it was short and sweet - although in his remarks, Schuller mentioned he had composed the piece with Liszt in mind. Which only made me wonder what he'd been smoking at the time (I'd like some of it). Fortunately the instrumentalists recovered their composure here, although there still seemed to be a missed cue here and there.

Finally came "Boston Fancies," from Steven Stucky (a favorite of BMV) who's even more of a formalist, and even more in love with "miniatures" - this time of two types, called "Ritornelli" and "Fancies," which were supposed to be strikingly different, but weren't really. Then again, this piece too was short and sweet - and you got the impression Stucky would be doing another one just like it in six months' time. The concert closed with a witty postscript from Bernard Hoffer’s Ma Goose (a work commissioned by BMV for its family programs) which conflated Old King Cole and Nat King Cole to amusing effect. It was probably the most ingratiating performance of the evening, and closed the concert on a high note. But to tell true, the audience left singing the praises of the hall, not the program.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Say it ain't so, Joe: Dan Shaughnessy and dramatic license

Now I'm no fan of Johnny Baseball, but I couldn't help but feel a little twinge of sympathy for it when I read the complaints from Dan Shaughnessy (at left) about it in the Boston Globe.

Shaughnessy is a long-time sportswriter at the daily, and thus a long-time observer of the Red Sox, and so I was interested in his perspective on the musical (which posits that racism, not Babe Ruth, was at the root of the team's long inability to win the World Series). For the record, Shaughnessy also has his own theory about the same period, and even his own book - The Curse of the Bambino, which some construe Johnny Baseball as debunking. Still, Shaughnessy's response to the show as entertainment was positive - although he also wrote:

". . . I walked out of the theater bothered by the unnecessary blending of fact and fiction. I fear that most of the ART patrons now believe that Mays tried out for the Red Sox at Fenway in 1948 and was sent packing by a racist general manager named Joe Cronin.

It never happened. Robinson and two other black players did try out at Fenway in 1945. It was a sham. That episode is mentioned in “Johnny Baseball,’’ but the scene we see has Mays at Fenway in 1948, and a posse of Yawkey’s drunken “baseball men’’ turning him away.

Shaughnessy seems to feel this is a smear on Cronin (who was a player for, and then a manager of, the Sox). He sighs that "Cronin passed away in 1984 and can’t defend himself, and family members who still live in New England are saddled with this unflattering portrait."

But does Shaughnessy have a valid point, or is he merely quibbling? It's true that Mays never tried out at Fenway - he was, instead, passed over by Red Sox scouts; but the A.R.T. says so in a program note, which reads: “Willie Mays did not try out at Fenway Park in 1948 or ever. . . . For dramatic purposes we have Willie Mays trying out at Fenway Park in 1948.’’ Shaughnessy cites book writer Richard Dresser as admitting: "“We knew it was one of the liberties one takes to make things clear in a dramatic story . . . We felt that the truth of the situation was that the Red Sox passed on Willie Mays. That was the larger point we wanted to make. We compressed those things in the service of telling the story.’’

Shaughnessy's response? "Sorry. That's not ok."

Dresser's excuse, I admit, is a little weaselly. On the other hand, Shaughnessy's point would be much stronger if he could say that if Cronin had indeed been at that fictional Mays tryout, he would have signed him - or at least fought Tom Yawkey's bigotry and tried to sign him.

But that also seems unlikely. In fact, in his article Shaughnessy plays a little narrative sleight-of-hand of his own. For Joe Cronin was manager of the Sox during that notorious "sham" tryout of Jackie Robinson in 1945 - a scene in which another Globe writer (Clif Keane) later claimed there were shouts of "Get those niggers off the field!" There's also the unflattering fact that as long as Cronin remained manager, the Sox remained white as the driven snow; in fact, it was just months after he retired that the Sox hired their first black player (they were the last major league team to do so). Coincidence?

I don't know. But why doesn't Shaughnessy make those points clear? I'm likewise not sure. He's on firmer ground, though, when he notes that the Sox were still only a few years behind the times - the first major league team integrated in 1947, the Sox, in 1959. That still leaves about 74 years of "the Curse" unaccounted for.

Which leads me to a longer, deeper critique of the silly Johnny Baseball than I really want to write - but it looks like I'm going to have to. Right now I'll simply say - since when was racism wrong because it prevented you from winning the World Series? Are those really the values of Red Sox Nation?

Actually, don't answer that. I don't want to know.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

How good is Alan Ayckbourn, anyway?

The sardonically seductive author.

Gloucester Stage's new production of Alan Ayckbourn's Table Manners is remarkably strong; so strong, in fact, that it bumps up against the inevitable question about this prolific British playwright:

Just how good is Alan Ayckbourn, anyway?

But first, there's really no question that Table Manners, the "first" part of the stage triptych The Norman Conquests, is an effective entertainment. There's likewise no question it's a startling achievement in stagecraft: the sexual conquests of the eponymous Norman orbit each other across three separate scripts but a single time frame; in fact each comedy takes place in a separate room of the same country house over the same weekend. And the scenes in the separate plays all click together like a dramatic Rubik's cube; given a turntable set, they could be acted together in interconnected sequence - and indeed, a full, seven-hour version recently played (in the round) in New York to rave reviews. This interest in teasing apart and pasting back together what used to be called "dramatic unity" is typical of Ayckbourn - How the Other Half Loves, for instance, brilliantly stitches together two separate times in the same place.

But if Ayckbourn expands the structure of dramatic possibility in one way, he seems to almost shrink it in another. For there's also no question that embedded in his modest farces are echoes of truly great dramatic literature - Table Manners sometimes mimics The Cherry Orchard, in fact, and Chekhov in general seems to hover over much of Ayckbourn's oeuvre like an ancestral ghost. The only problem is that the Russian master haunts the playwright's achievement as well as his characters.

For if Chekhov's great theme was 'weakness,' then Ayckbourn's, to be honest, is simply 'smallness.' It's not that his characters fail in their passions - it's that they don't really have passions to begin with. There's no grand manner in Ayckbourn, and no grand manor, either, as there's no gentry left, just the bourgeoisie: and they live in apartments, hotel rooms, and cramped little houses, where the only manners on display are "table manners," i.e., codes of consumption. And the playwright is pretty rigorous in his diminished expectations - in play after play, the food isn't very tasty (in Table Manners, it all comes out of tins - and a "salad" is a single lettuce leaf); the furniture is second-hand, and even the romantic getaways are to places like "East Grinstead."

Of course there's no romance anymore, either, just sex - so no "romantic getaways," just "dirty weekends." And as in life, so in drama: Cyrano de Bergerac has given way to No Sex Please, We're British. In a way, Ayckbourn is the poet, or perhaps the critic, of that decline - only he never really leaves the sex farce behind; instead, he beautifully limns its limits. Designed for the theatres in which he once worked, his scripts remodel their repertory staple without ever altering its basic floor plan; the new additions and wings operate as just more apartments and hotel rooms, nestled above, under, and within each other like so many nesting Russian dolls. The structure gets bigger, but the scale remains the same.

This sense of trivial iteration makes it easy to dismiss Ayckbourn as "the British Neil Simon." But that quip is problematic for several reasons. The first is that Simon, too, could be quite good, in plays like Lost in Yonkers - more telling is the fact that while Simon occasionally summoned the seriousness for something more than a sitcom, Ayckbourn has been remarkably consistent over the years; his work may be repetitive, but it's generally of the same pretty-high quality. Which means Ayckbourn regularly achieves a sense of real drama - the characters are drawn deeply and sympathetically enough that we understand everyone's point of view, and realize that no one is entirely in the right; at several points in The Norman Conquests, for instance, we can feel whole systems of feeling, and maybe even philosophy, pivoting on trivia.

Ayckbourn also has a subtle political dimension that's both liberating and reactionary - something which Simon relentlessly eschews (more on that later). And he's completely happy with unhappy endings - Table Manners, like most of his "farces," ends with a stab at freedom that feels somehow like a downer, because we know its promise can't be real. And that may be the gist of Ayckbourn - in his world, passion and hope and liberty and even art are all false dreams that he and we know can't be realized. Seen that way, his very smallness is of a piece with his aesthetic; form and function are as one in Ayckbourn. And isn't that supposed to be a good thing?

Like many a critic, I'm not completely convinced by my own argument - but something tugs at me about Ayckbourn; he can't really be dismissed just because he's limited and dispiriting, and just because he insinuates that the dinner theatres are right and Shakespeare and Chekhov are wrong. How you feel about him may reflect how you feel about Reg, one of the characters in Table Manners who's obsessed with building balsa-wood models of airplanes. Intricate and beautiful, they're obviously metaphors for the plays themselves, and smart, sardonic Reg is probably a factotum for Ayckbourn, too (tellingly, he's cuckolded - seemingly - at play's end). One feels the defeat implicit in Reg's pastime - why doesn't he try to work on a real plane? But at the same time, balsa wood models are beautiful when perfectly rendered - and who hasn't peered at a perfect one in admiration?

The talented cast of Table Manners. (Eric Levenson)

Up at Gloucester Stage, Table Manners is pretty nearly perfectly rendered, too. Or at least its imperfections hardly matter. Several members of its solid cast - Steven Barkhimer, Sarah Newhouse, Richard Snee, and Jennie Israel in particular - are doing their best work in recent memory, and director Eric C. Engel has drawn from them, and from his whole ensemble, a beautiful sense of - you know, ensemble. Here and there I wished for a bit more shading on this or that aspect of this or that character - I loved Barkhimer's impish wit as Norman, for instance, but wondered if there shouldn't be a slightly stronger twist of bitters beneath it. Meanwhile Barlow Adamson is perhaps slightly too credible as a possible beau for another disappointed character. And one actor, Lindsay Crouse, is miscast, but covers for it with an impeccably detailed performance that almost convinces you she's got the character's inner conflict goin' on, too.

I had a few other quibbles - the set, in which everything was at the wrong angle, worked as a kind of obstacle course for the actors (which is very Ayckbournian), but its metaphor was a bit obvious - and one poor audience member actually took a spill over it, too. And though Engel rendered the surface of the script beautifully, he didn't quite pull off - in part because of Ms. Crouse's miscasting - whatever emotional resonance can be wrung from its big twist, when its most sexually-judgmental character suddenly succumbs to Norman's rather-resistible charms. There's more pathos to be found there, or perhaps more punch - at any rate more something.

But what gave the evening real resonance was, oddly enough, what a friend of mine summed up with the comment, "This play feels dated now - and that's what's interesting." I couldn't have agreed more. Ayckbourn's whole conception of Norman - immature and irresponsible and innocently selfish, but still fighting for spontaneity and life - recalls a masculine ethos that today has been utterly crushed; nowadays, masculinity is defined by either power or pathology, but not by poetry. And maybe more's the pity. Norman's seductions (of even his wife's sister!) do seem contemptible, until we meet his wife Ruth, one of Ayckbourn's most brilliant creations: Ruth is sympathetic and strong, and calmly competent and utterly suffocating. To her, romance is faintly ridiculous in and of itself. And if a play can be construed as a reflection of a pitched cultural battle, then there's no denying that since the debut of Table Manners, the Ruths of this world have won. Indeed, when I perused Louise Kennedy's review in the Globe, I felt a weird frisson of recognition: this was Ruth talking. But can any artist actually predict his critics? Perhaps in his next Rubik's-cube-style script, Ayckbourn might consider including the audience, too.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The uses of entertainment

Cinderella (McCaela Donovan) ventures "into the woods."

I suppose Into the Woods isn't quite top-drawer Sondheim; that is, it's not in the magic circle of Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, and Sweeney Todd. It's slightly less virtuosic, slightly less ground-breaking.

But it's also produced more often than the "Big Four" - I think we've seen three different productions in the last few years here in Boston, in fact. Why? Perhaps because it's not too challenging, and not too dark - like Goldilocks's porridge (to borrow a fairy-tale metaphor), in terms of challenge, it's just right. Plus it's studded with some of the master's loveliest melodies, including "No One is Alone" and "Children Will Listen," as well as the happy, mindless march that powers the title tune.

So I was happy to welcome yet another Into the Woods into the woods around Waltham - and happier still to find the recently re-christened "Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston" (I think we'll shorten that to "Reagle Music Theatre") has mounted a moving and sophisticated (if not flawless) version. It's powered by two knock-out performances, from Broadway vet Rachel York (below left, as the Witch) and relative-newcomer McCaela Donovan (above, as Cinderella), and boasts a nearly-as-strong supporting cast. At the same time, the company seems to have made a jump in its production values, too: the set, by Janie Howland, is more sophisticated and conceptual than was typical for the glitzy, but literal-minded "Reagle Players" (although the design has a few problems, more on that later), and the orchestra, led by musical director Charles Peltz, sounded much cleaner and more cohesive than it has in times past; in fact, in one leap, Reagle has landed in the landscape of a typical SpeakEasy, Lyric, or New Rep musical.

Okay, back to the show itself. Just in case you're a Sondheim virgin, Into the Woods was inspired by Bruno Bettelheim's 1976 blockbuster The Uses of Enchantment, which analyzed the tales of the Brothers Grimm in terms of child psychology - in a word, how the stories allowed kids to grapple with subconscious desires and fears at one remove. With librettist James Lapine, Sondheim set about producing a similar set of fairy tales for grown-ups, in which adult issues could be dealt with via a similar code.

Just after the success of Into the Woods, of course, Bettelheim committed suicide, and soon his reputation endured blow after blow. Still, the common-sense basis of The Uses of Enchantment remains a cultural touchstone, perhaps due in no small part to Sondheim - and the way he and Lapine wittily extended the fairy tale into a more complex moral universe. In their show's first half, four famous stories (Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Little Red Riding Hood) are braided together via the device of the Baker and his Wife, who are seeking talismans to lift a curse of sterility visited on them by a wicked Witch. All the figures of the various stories intersect and interact in those eponymous "woods" - a metaphorical site of fear and desire, of moral uncertainty and fraught encounter, in which circumstances and even identity are constantly shifting.

The twist in Into the Woods is that once these fairy tales are "finished" - and everyone has achieved their wish - the story goes on: all that self-actualization has resulted in a new catastrophe, in which a vengeful giantess (widely interpreted as a personification of the AIDS crisis) appears to mow down the population. Thus as it makes the leap from the 70's to the 80's, Into the Woods likewise limns the transition from adolescence to maturity, and from individual to community - and of course, the awareness of the multiple moral perspectives that transition entails.

If that sounds like a lot to swallow in an evening's entertainment, rest assured that Sondheim and Lapine make the morals go down easy. I'm sure plenty of people have enjoyed Into the Woods without pondering any of this. What's memorable about the Reagle version, however, is how it subtly grows in scale and power as it proceeds: by the finale, largely thanks to McCaela Donovan's delicately devastating version of "No One is Alone," I confess my heart was in my throat - right where Sondheim and Lapine intended it to be.

Prior to that, there were a few bumps on the path to grandmother's house. The first act of Woods is famously intricate, with a book that starts and stops repeatedly as librettist Lapine weaves together his separate tales with Sondheim's many songs. At Reagle, at least on opening weekend, all this didn't quite cohere - subtle gaps and beats kept slowing things down, and at the same time the advance of the "First" and "Second" Midnights didn't quite register. The set - a striking statement in which trees would descend onto the pages of an open book - didn't seem to help things; several actors tripped over its steps, and it seemed to subtly frustrate director Stacey Stephens's attempts at flow. Still, in the more simply-structured second act, things improved, and the assembled ensemble shown all the brighter.

Chief among these many lights was Rachel York, a Broadway vet (and Reagle regular) without a real peer in Boston in terms of musical theatre ability. She won the IRNE for last summer's Hello, Dolly!, and something tells me she'll be back in contention next spring for her work here; her Witch is both hilariously broad and yet - amazingly - deeply touching; her rendition of "Stay with Me" was the most wrenching I've ever heard, in fact. Damn, this gal has chops.

The surviving - I mean supporting - cast of this grim fairy tale - Gregory Isaac Stone, McCaela Donovan, Doug Jabara and Allison Russell.

Barely a step behind York, however - despite those glass slippers - was local star McCaela Donovan as Cinderella. Donovan recently impressed as Yum-Yum in the New Rep's Hot Mikado, and she carried on - after a slightly-subdued start - at the same high level here; as noted, I'll never forget her take on "No One is Alone;" with any justice, it would become the standard version.

The supporting cast likewise glittered - I particularly savored the subtle acting and rich singing voices of Shannon Lee Jones and Doug Jabara as the Baker and his Wife, as well as Allison Russell's satisfied sense of happy appetite as the obnoxious Little Red Riding Hood. Alas, Ayal Miodovnik was somewhat hampered as the Big Bad Wolf by a cumbersome mask, but he was a lot of fun as the fatuously swaggering Prince, and newcomers Gregory Isaac Stone and Brennan Roach impressed as Jack and Rapunzel's Prince, respectively.

There were a few gaps in the ensemble - Catherine Lee Christie contributed a fine singing voice but not much more as Jack's mother, and in the part of the Narrator, local TV personality Scott Wahle came off as - well, a local TV personality (his costume of anchorman-suit-and-tie didn't help things); to be fair, Wahle was better, but hardly outstanding, as the script's "mysterious old man."

These missteps were forgotten, however, amid the production's many pleasures. In fact, I'd say the other theatres in town should watch their backs; as I predicted last summer, Reagle seems to see an opening for a jump from a "merely" community-based theatre into a full-fledged regional presence, and with Into the Woods, they're putting their best foot forward.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Lady with All the Answers doesn't really offer any

Stephanie Clayman as Ann Landers. Photo by Elizabeth Stewart.

The Nora Theatre Co.'s The Lady with All the Answers, at the Central Square Theater through June 26, purports to be a biography of "Ann Landers," the pseudonym for Esther Pauline ("Eppie") Lederer, the Chicago sage who via her ubiquitous advice column led an ongoing national salon in the pages of the press for 47 years.

Lederer's long success in the role of "Ann" (she was so popular that identical-twin-sister "Popo" soon carved out a competing chunk of turf as "Dear Abby") wasn't much of a mystery. She may have been no student of the human soul, but Eppie had a keen eye for the emotional (and moral) bottom line - you couldn't pull one over on her; and of course she had an army of experts on call who could advise on the technicalities of virtually any topic. She also had a style - a punchy, wiseacre chirp with an ethnic lilt that had somehow been drained of all ethnicity, and was spiced instead with her own brand of 40's slang: "Bub, you've got a geranium in your cranium!" was a typical line.

Did anyone ever actually talk like that? I mean besides "Ann"? Well, apparently Eppie did; or so playwright Rambo would have us believe. He doesn't really try to crack the veneer of Lederer's linguistic vim and vigor, but does a pretty good job of capturing its cadence, and making it sound roughly like conversation. Although in The Lady with All the Answers, Eppie's the only one talking; the play's conceit is that she's holding court in her plush Chicago apartment (perfectly rendered in Louis Quinze and Chagalls by designer Brynna Bloomfield) as if it were a talk show set, chatting across the fourth wall to the audience about this or that famous letter or opinion. But at the same time, she's trying to crank out her most famous (and most personal) column - the one that announced her divorce from Budget Rent-a-Car bigwig Jules Lederer, her husband of 36 years. Yes, public face and private heartbreak. Sexual betrayal - and how to hang the toilet paper! This double device is unwieldy at times - intermission arrives because Eppie declares she needs a bubble bath - but to be honest, it does kind of capture the column's funny yin-yang tension between tragedy and trivia.

But the playwright treads so lightly in Eppie's private life that we actually learn none of her secrets. The script's raison d'être would seem to be to get behind that famous column - but Rambo steadfastly refuses to do so. We learn hubby Jules was having an affair "with a woman younger than his daughter" (that daughter would be Margo Howard, who kept the advice dynasty going with "Dear Prudence"), which meant the marriage was over. But we do wonder why, exactly - Eppie was constantly advising other couples to go through counseling, patch things up for the sake of the children, try to learn to trust each other again and see the marriage through. So why couldn't she take her own advice?

Likewise her famous (and utterly understandable) feud with "Dear Abby" is acknowledged, but given the comic brush-off (after a reported five-year silence, the two did reconcile, below). We do learn a few things about Eppie that hint at a powerful, and possibly mercurial, personality - such as the fact that she dropped a standing fiancé to marry the handsome Jules (whom she met while shopping for her wedding veil!). Perhaps Eppie was more demanding and pampered (all those bubble baths!) than she, or Rambo - or perhaps Margo Howard, whose protective presence seems to hover over the play - lets on.

"Eppie" and "Popo" - a.k.a. "Ann Landers" and "Dear Abby."

On the plus side, we also get a sense of Lederer's considerable political energy (she was a liberal Democratic operative, and her connections to many of her experts came from her friendship with Hubert Humphrey), which you'd think could open up for us a whole new perspective on "Ann Landers." After all, Eppie was hardly politically mainstream; she was progressive, and Jewish, and pretty much a proto-feminist, all while insisting she was a "square" with a WASP name out of Leave it to Beaver. Playwright Rambo doesn't really limn these contradictions, but does perhaps his best work while detailing Lederer's frustrating campaign against the Vietnam war. Her change of heart over, and eventual championing of, gay and lesbian issues is likewise quite touching. Eppie was certainly on the right side of most of our political struggles, even if her commercial connections and general social M.O. left many progressives and feminists sneering.

Some of the edge of this material is lost, however, in the smooth bubble bath of nostalgia at the Central Square Theater, where Daniel Gidron has directed the play as a light crowdpleaser - which is probably precisely how it was intended. And it is entertaining - and even moving in its more-political segments. I just think it could have been a little bit more. As Eppie, actress Stephanie Clayman is certainly likeable and full of pep - she earns the right to wear that famous perm. And she nails a Midwest accent so eccentric something tells me it's drawn from recordings of Lederer herself. But Clayman doesn't really push the envelope when it comes to the deeper feelings that must have tugged at Eppie while writing that fateful column; she pauses and sighs a lot, it's true, but once the column's done, and read aloud to daughter Margo, Clayman hardly seems emotionally exhausted; instead, she actually lets out a great big yawn. Oh, well, so much for Jules, off to bed!! This probably squares with the expectations of the audience - which really wants just one more Ann Landers column, rather than an investigation of the whole phenomenon. But anyone who thinks The Lady with All the Answers has answered any of the open questions about Eppie Lederer has a geranium in his - or her - cranium.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Boston Globe print edition reaches out to its three remaining readers

Does the Onion read my blog? Possibly. God knows this parody of the Globe's audience profiling could have been lifted directly from the Hub Review's pages! Although just btw, I've actually changed my mind about the long-predicted demise of dead-tree media like the Globe. With the iPad and other devices becoming so popular, the transition from print to - well, not the Web, but some sort of app-driven, licensed "cloud," with a valid revenue model attached - seems a lot more possible than it once did.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Shakespeare on YooTube

George II, Henry V, and William the Conqueror.

The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.

That's a line from Henry VI, not Henry V, so the folks at the Federalist Society didn't have to say it at their Shakespearean fête for Andrew Card and John Yoo last Tuesday at the Cutler Majestic, which was titled "Shakespeare's Henry V and the Law and War."

But they might have kept it in mind, as it suggests the author they revere didn't return the favor. But then the Federalists also never seemed to consider whether Shakespeare, though able to parse an argument with the precision of Oliver Wendell Holmes, could really be interpreted through, or even constrained to, the prism of jurisprudence. Indeed, you got the sense as the evening proceeded that it had never occurred to these august professionals that Henry V might instead be holding a prism up to them.

But then the Federalist Society seems confused about a lot of things these days. It was founded in the Reagan years to provide cover for trendy "isms" like "originalism" and "libertarianism" - which have since come up a cropper in the reality-based community. Bush v. Gore and Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission revealed "originalism" as a transparent sham, and the recent financial crisis shredded the pretensions of libertarianism. But shorn of its intellectual pretexts, the Federalist Society still soldiers on, just like nothing's wrong, as a kind of Slytherin-style neocon frat for the likes of Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, John G. Roberts, and Clarence Thomas.

I know - that's quite a rogues' gallery, and when you consider the Federalists think of themselves as disciples of James Madison, you kind of throw up in your mouth a little. But like a lot of people, I've got a jones for evil as an aesthetic, particularly intellectual evil; I get a kind of sleazy thrill whenever I'm in close proximity to articulate apologists for atrocity. Indeed, my guest list for the perfect dinner party would probably include the likes of John Yoo, Henry Kissinger, and Pope Benedict.

So I had to be at the Federalist show. I knew their claim that Shakespeare could serve as a source for some sort of debate over war crimes was preposterous, but the evening promised not just Andrew Card, Dubya's chief of staff, but also John Yoo, Mr. Mistoffelees himself, the legal mind behind Guantánamo and so much more, in the flesh. And I don't think I was alone in finding him an irresistible draw. The Federalists themselves seemed startled at the size of the crowd their event attracted; they've been doing these Shakespearean shindigs for years, but had never scored a hit like this one. But they had some inkling as to the reason for their sudden popularity; cannily, they kept their star under wraps for a big reveal late in the show.

So - what's Yoo like in person?

Well, anyone hoping for the thick atmosphere of jovial, self-satisfied evil that steams off Henry Kissinger was bound to be disappointed. Yoo isn't particularly charismatic, although he's a coolly accomplished charmer, and knows when to be self-deprecating, even self-effacing. Indeed, he's oddly blank, if intriguingly sleek, with a sense of the agile versatility one expects in a digital utensil from Apple; in short, not so much Old Scratch as Old Scratch's iPad.

And he did prove quite the serviceable villain, as Edgar might have said, during the Bush administration's strange, eventful history; Yoo crafted secret memos justifying detention, extradition, and torture of "enemy combatants," as well as the arguments behind what amounted to our modern surveillance state. His stated excuse for these assaults on the Constitution and Geneva Conventions was a novel legal gambit, largely of his own devising, called "The Theory of the Unitary Executive." This "theory" essentially placed the President above any check or balance, or indeed above any constraint or law whatsoever, in time of "war" (a state which the President could declare himself), and its intellectual shelf life was short once it had been fully revealed. Indeed, when pressed, Yoo was forced to admit his theory gave the President the power to bury people alive and crush the testicles of innocent children.

Now to my mind, bending Shakespeare to the service of this kind of thinking is an atrocity in its own right. But I was still game, in a sporting kind of way, to entertain a little sympathy for the devil, largely because the Federalists had enlisted a few libruls to speak on its panel and act in its drastically abridged version of Henry V. I didn't even mind that director Steven Maler had tailored his text to avoid too deeply discomfiting his guests of honor. After all, I figured, if you're going to get Goering and Goebbels to your production of The Merchant of Venice, you've got to play Shylock a certain way.

Of the performance itself, let no more be said; there's a popular impression that lawyers are akin to actors, but based on this experience, I'd say that may be a delusion. Fans of bipartisanship can take heart, though, in the fact that the Democratic actors were just as bad as the Republican ones. Here and there hints of actual personality flickered in the readings of J.W. Carney, Jr. , and Patti B. Saris. And there was one exception to the general rule: Kerry Murphy Healey brought real wit to the role of Katherine in the play's charming final scene, and this seemed to loosen up Jay B. Stephens - who had clearly been cast as Henry because of his resemblance to Dubya - who began to have a little fun, too. The legalese of the period was spoken clearly, that's for sure - and there was a kind of meta-wit in some sequences that may have been unintentional, but was nonetheless striking; the opening scenes, for instance, in which the archbishops and advisors dream up convoluted rationales for Henry's invasion, are usually played as satire; here they were delivered with naive earnestness. After all, this is what lawyers know; it's what they do.

Of course no one in the audience expected a viable theatrical performance here; but did the intellectual performance have to be so mediocre, too? Because it turned out there was really nothing to be said for Mr. Yoo's "theories" and memos, either. Or at least Yoo didn't really say much of anything in their defense. Of course by now his "unitary executive" snow job is widely scorned, and his memos have been repudiated by the executive branch and invalidated by the Supreme Court. The party's over, and to his partial credit, you could tell he knew it; he didn't bother with any kind of coherent justification for his conduct or his career. Now and then he attempted to put over the half-baked idea that the Bush administration was pursuing a moral policy - that somehow, unfortunately, affronted normal moral sensibilities; this was a transparently self-defeating ploy. More often, Yoo deftly dodged and parried like the clever Harvard grad he is, citing (as shady neocons tend to do) the malfeasances of liberal icons like Lincoln and FDR (and, of course, "Obama the First") to distract us from his lack of coherence.

His attempts to link his situation to Henry V were likewise unconvincing. Yoo tried to claim that Henry was unconstrained by "international law" - even though he'd just heard a long first act in which Henry solicited permission for his invasion from the Church, the international institution which was basically the UN of its day. Yoo likewise stumbled in his insistence that Henry was pursuing a moral rather than a legal case for war. That, of course, is what Henry says. But is that what Shakespeare says? Few scholars would agree; indeed, when Henry insists to his men (while disguised) that the king's cause is just and his quarrel honorable, he gets the unvarnished reply "That's more than we know." But seemingly John Yoo knows more than Shakespeare.

Fantasy vs. reality: George II as he was, and how his fans still see him.

But then again, how could Yoo defend the "theory of the unitary executive"? It amounts to "The President can do whatever he wants, because of, you know, terrorism and stuff." It's so dumb it makes your head hurt. But panelist Andrew Card (there were several former Bush appointees onstage) seemed unaware of its stupidity; he monotonously insisted that 9/11 "changed everything," although how (or why) this should be so, he couldn't explain; he seemed to imagine that the fact that he (and his whole incompetent administration) had been stunned by 9/11 meant that it counted as some sort of transformative moral and legal event. I suppose Card could be forgiven his moral tunnel vision; after all, it was he who tried to rouse Bush from his absorption in My Pet Goat (above) with the admonition "America is under attack!" (It famously took the President seven minutes to respond, and I don't think he then cried, "Once more into the breach, dear friends!"; "Once more into Air Force One, dear friends!" was probably more like it.)

But the central problem with Card's view, of course, is that however shocking the attack on the World Trade Center was, terrorism had existed long before 9/11; it existed in FDR's and Lincoln's day, and in James Madison's day; it existed in Shakespeare's day. The Constitution was devised in times of terrorism, and the consensus regarding its interpretation was achieved in times of terrorism. There was no need for Yoo's theory, and, in fact, claims that the abuses it unleashed protected us from various acts of terrorism have fallen apart under serious scrutiny.

The other neocon panelist on view - Bernard J. Dobski, of Assumption College in Worcester - was if anything less impressive, placidly babbling in a convoluted manner about just war theory, and proclaiming that Henry V "founded the modern British state." (Uh-huh. Quick, cue the War of the Roses!) But then the sole invited librul, Suffolk's brilliant Michael Avery, briefly turned everything around with a calm diatribe that left Yoo and Card's house of cards in ruins; by the time he was done, their flimsy arguments littered the field like the French at Agincourt. I think even if I weren't in agreement with Avery's politics, I'd have been impressed by his devastating competence - and the Federalists were, too; you could watch the color drain from their faces as he spoke (and the audience cheered, myself included).

For a moment, it looked like a real debate might begin, as the mask of courtesy dropped (I confess at that point I was hissing Yoo), even as the Federalists begged for "civility." But really - how do you remain civil with someone who argues for crushing children's testicles? ("So glad you could come!") Nevertheless, order was restored, and the faintly ghoulish garden party ground on.

Little that was enlightening ensued - although I do want to say a few more things about the very pretext of the evening, which everyone onstage seemed to think was a valid one. It was, after all, a kind of reprise of a famous debate in D.C. in 2004, and by now the Beltway identification of George II with Henry V has probably achieved the status of conventional wisdom.

But what is this wisdom based on? There are parallels, yes, between Harry and Dubya in terms of biography - both led wasted youths, both followed in their failed fathers' footsteps, both led foreign wars of dubious justification. But the idea that Henry V the play justifies, or even illuminates, the actions of the Bush administration is patently untenable. Indeed, on a point-by-point basis, there's almost no correspondence between the actions of Shakespeare's Henry V and our George II. Harry, of course, led his troops into battle personally (while Dubya's never seen combat) - and though Shakespeare dramatizes his underlings attempting to manipulate him, we never feel that Harry is out of touch, or in a bubble. Likewise Harry makes no claims to his nation that prove untrue - even Shakespeare would never have been able to hang onto audience sympathy through a scene like that - and of course there's no secretive vice presidential figure with an agenda of his own on the scene, indeed no one with power or connections to rival Harry's. In short, there's no Lord Cheney in Henry V. And while Harry makes plenty of ethically questionable decisions - he threatens townspeople with rape, and executes prisoners - these actions all occur on the fly, in the thick of battle. In short, they have obvious "sunset clauses," and however they complicate our view of Harry, to interpret them as a basis for jurisprudence is patently absurd.

Which brings me to a deeper problem with the Federalists' conceit: Shakespeare with the human bits cut out has no real meaning. Director Maler edited most everything (like the death of Falstaff) that couldn't be crushed a little into a legalistic brief; as a result, this Henry V lasted only about an hour. To be fair, Maler left in events like Henry's execution of his old drinking buddy Bardolph, but these were stripped of their thematic salience - in a word, that the war had made Harry inhuman. As a result, the sense that Shakespeare was mounting a complicated critique of his hero, that he was deconstructing his barnburner even as its flames grew brighter, was completely lost. But then Shakespeare's basic method would of course be a mystery to the legal mind: no contract could ever operate like Shakespeare's texts, which are often structured to point to at least two contradictory conclusions at the same time. This, of course, is central to his greatness; but it's also what makes his style the antithesis of legalism. You can't "debate" his competing perspectives; they can't be synthesized; they're embedded within each other.

Perhaps as a result of this peculiar form of literary blindness, the Federalists turned Henry V precisely on its head. I got the impression that they had the idea that somehow Shakespeare meant for Harry's military success to demonstrate the propriety of his various ethical lapses, that the Bard, and even God, agreed with his cause. But instead, Harry's crimes and misdemeanors are clearly meant to complicate and undermine, and perhaps even overthrow, our impression of his heroism. Make no mistake, the St. Crispin's Day and Harfleur speeches are the best pieces of battle propaganda ever written, combining as they do both masculine competition and community in flights of unparalleled poetry. Yet while their rhetoric rallies the grunts on the ground, it doesn't really connect to them; when Harry claims to his troops that their sacrifices will "gentle" their condition - that is, make them gentlemen - we and they know he doesn't mean it; it's just bullshit, only bullshit at a pitch that only Shakespeare could achieve. Don't get me wrong, it's stirring stuff - that's why it's neocon catnip; it's just not a brief for the War on Terror. And Shakespeare would have scorned the idea that it was, and would have laughed at the claim that his genius could possibly be in consonance with big, dumb, Jeff-Jacoby-style slogans (yes, the neocon mouthpiece was onstage, too) like "God is on our side!" or "The ends justify the means!" That kind of thing belongs in the cable series Band of Brothers - a show that the panelists seemed far more familiar with than Henry V. Maybe the Federalists should stick to a script from HBO next time.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

It's okay if you're dressed as Betsy Ross

I was walking through the financial district today, as I often do, when I nearly bumped into a Freedom Trail tour guide, dressed in colonial costume, shepherding a gaggle of tourists towards the Old State House.

I immediately recognized her as a local actress I've often seen and written about.

Just as she recognized me.

And as she did so, all the color drained from her face.

She didn't break character, or even acknowledge me - she hustled those folks off in a hurry - but I do want to say to her (and all her compatriots): your secret is safe with me. Although why should it even be a secret? I don't think any less of you as an artist, or as a person, or as anything, because you have this job. There is nothing wrong with dressing up as Betsy Ross. Either in the privacy of your own home, or on the streets of Boston. And what you're engaged in is education, after all, which is always laudable. I know this time it's a little funny too, for some reason, but it's still laudable.

And don't worry that I'm going to remember this the next time I see you onstage. Because I won't. I'm not going to snort to myself and think, "Ha! She can't play Cleopatra - I've seen her dressed as Betsy Ross!!!" That's not going to happen, because frankly, your name is legion. As I've long worked downtown, I've seen half the Boston theatrical community dressed as either Abigail or John Adams. And I wish I'd seen the other half, too. Especially if they, you know, mixed it up a little. Why not hire Ryan Landry as Betsy Ross? Or cast Karen MacDonald as John Adams? Now that would be an education.

Walking in Memphis . . . I mean Beverly . .

A scene from Memphis.

Just one more rah-rah for the home team. Broadway handed the Tony for Best Musical to Memphis on Sunday. But if you were a fan of the North Shore Music Theatre (in its former incarnation, under Jon Kimbell) you saw Memphis . . . wait for it . . . seven years ago, in 2003, when it was a world premiere up in Beverly. It's nice to know, of course, that New York does eventually catch up to the Boston suburbs - but needless to say, it will cost you a lot more to see Memphis now than it did then!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Escape from New York

I'm back from a few days down in the Big Apple, taking in theatre, dance, and art. And you know what? I came back with a deeper appreciation than ever of our own arts scene. The three shows I caught (Race, the Tony-winning Red, and the Off-Broadway Pulitzer nominee The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity), were all strong shows - but none were truly superb. And to be honest, none were as good as the best of what we have in Boston. None were as powerful as the Huntington's All My Sons, or unfolded as cleverly as Merrimack Rep's The Blonde, the Brunette, and the Vengeful Redhead, or were as laugh-out-loud funny as SpeakEasy's The Savannah Disputation. And Jesus Christ, the theatres! They made me looong for the Calderwood Pavilion. The Golden Theatre, where Red is showing, is one of those second-tier Broadway houses with no lobby, a sleazy john, and an exit right into an alley. And Second Stage, home of Chaz Deity, is a godawful Rem Koolhaas not-so-cool house, with acid orange walls, uncomfortable seats, and even windows (?); it's all formalist quirk sans coherent vision (like most of Koolhaas, actually). Anyway, I'm home, and will write about all those shows in more detail this week.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

There goes whinin' Timon

Allyn Burrows as Shakespeare's tragic fragment.

People are often shocked by Timon of Athens - because it usually turns out to be so playable. Shakespeare veterans are less surprised - indeed, as I often comment, in performance the verities of middlebrow Shakespearean assumption are often up-ended; in my experience, Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth almost never work on stage. Meanwhile some of the best productions of the Bard I've ever seen have been of obscurities like Timon and King John.

I think just about everything Shakespeare wrote is worth doing, of course - even plays like this one, which is partly by Thomas Middleton (or so goes the current scholarly vogue). The great strength of Timon is the stream of eloquent invective in its second half, when its eponymous hero has been reduced to penury. After years of living large - largely via parties and gifts to his BFFs - Timon falls hard, abandoned by said fair-weather Fs, and spends the rest of the play in rags, atop a hoard of gold he has stumbled upon, venting his spleen in curses so mysteriously riveting that they could only be by Shakespeare. And of course his situation - Timon was generous to a fault when he was bankrupt, but now that he's rich again he's only willing to fund mankind's self-destruction - resounds with the kind of deep ironies we associate with the Bard at his best.

Beyond that, however, I think that Timon of Athens must be regarded as more a fragment than a play. It's all the more fascinating therefore, to my mind - it's like seeing one of Shakespeare's first drafts, or perhaps his first version of someone else's scenario (not an uncommon occurrence, probably). He has sketched in some speeches of astonishing power and sophistication, and suggested a sense of the piece's thematic structure. No doubt if he'd worked on it longer, he would have begun to weave his usual web of secondary characters and begun to elaborate his themes through the interwoven strands of a double, or even triple, plot. Slowly, methinks, the traces of Middleton (or whoever wrote most of the first half) would have vanished beneath the same dramatic embroidery that transformed, say, the "Ur-Hamlet" into Hamlet.

But Shakespeare gave up on Timon of Athens. Perhaps, as some have suggested, he saw that Timon was a dead end in tragic terms - or perhaps he couldn't conjure a proper Iago-like antagonist for him. What's clearly missing from the first half, it's true, is a sense of Timon's motivation - what's driving his folly? Shakespeare never tells us.

And neither does the Actors' Shakespeare Project's new version of the play, which, like the script itself, feels split in two: the first act is done in the company's standard style, with lots of self-conscious collegiate clowning, which doesn't really get us anywhere emotionally, even though it's structured via several very clever conceits. All the pratfalls fall away, however, in the starker, second half, when star Allyn Burrows often has the stage to himself, or shares it with another naturally fluent Shakespearean, Will Lyman. Their exchanges probably count as the strongest stuff ASP has done in some time, and may be the most unaffectedly mature work I've seen them do ever.

Of course there simply isn't the rhetorical material for that kind of acting in the first half - but the best productions of Timon compensate by creating a mise-en-scène which allows us to identify with his delusions without questioning them. A famous Stratford, Canada production located the play in an elegant 20's milieu, complete with an original score by Duke Ellington. An even better version at the same theatre plunked the play down in Steven Spielberg's and Steve Jobs's charity set, in which everyone was dedicated to fighting AIDS in Africa while nibbling hors d'oeuvres from Wolfgang Puck. This kind of staging elides the lack of character development in Timon, while making new to us the play's cold, central insight: that almost all fellow feeling is greased with a healthy dose of lucre. Some have argued from this premise that the play is an indictment of hedge funds and late capitalism. But it's not, not really; Timon's not an investment banker, and it's quite obvious that the sources of his wealth in both the first and second acts are utterly mysterious, and merely pretexts for his ruminations on mankind's moral character. The play, in short, is concerned with a flaw in the human heart that was manifest long before Bernie Madoff set up shop.

The ASP version of Timon's high-class milieu.

Perhaps director Bill Barclay knows this, but he doesn't let us sympathize with it. Barclay has cut the play well (if more conventionally than I think he realizes), and clearly understands it deeply, but he also gives us a first act that's styled as an epic-theatre clown show; Timon's friends are obviously double dealing, and his ship is obviously sinking - the production sees through the rich-and-famous lifestyle so completely, in fact, that we wonder why our hero can't. And in the meantime, Barclay has served up the piece as something like "Brecht does Everyman" (or maybe Ben Jonson) rather than Shakespeare-by-way-of-Middleton.

Which isn't to say that Barclay isn't full of good ideas. He is - I kept admiring what he was doing purely in intellectual terms, in fact, and the moment when the set came crashing down just as Timon's world did was an undeniable coup. Still, the broad playing gets repetitious - even if the cast is capable - and the crude hijinx sometimes seem to go wrong in tone. The giant surreal canvas that Barclay signals is to be taken as parody, for instance, looks a lot like de Chirico and Miró, with maybe some Kandinsky and Noland mixed in - does Barclay really think these people were charlatans? I don't.

As I said, however, these missteps are forgiven in the second act (the "Shakespeare part") particularly when Will Lyman's Apemantus is onstage. There were also solid turns from Daniel Berger-Jones and Bobbie Steinbach - although once again I missed a bit the sense of masculine camaraderie that is central to Shakespeare (he's often concerned with love between heterosexual men), and which ASP's cross-gender casting always seems to compromise. Meanwhile I felt star Allyn Burrows wasn't quite as rawly compelling as he could have been, as he never penetrated to the heart of Timon's agony; but he does coast beautifully across the surface of his speeches, and occasionally conjures some truly haunting moments. The finale was particularly effective - the exhausted Timon simply expires at the close of the play (just as he's about to achieve some measure of vengeance), which Burrows conveyed by burying his own head in the earth: a simple but devastatingly pregnant image. For a moment, you could feel Shakespeare pushing beyond the tragic and into the sadly absurd - before he abandoned this particular form forever (Timon is the last play before the romances). And it struck me that if the Actors' Shakespeare Project, which has a new artistic director in Burrows, can hew to the standard of its best work here (and in its last production, Othello), it may be about to embark on a new phase of its career, too.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Out of gas

Marianna Bassham and Robert Serrell struggle with Gaslight.

Stoneham's revival of Gaslight has gotten nearly-rave reviews - which, I confess, struck me as more mysterious than any of the plot "twists" in this creaky old chestnut. I suppose Patrick Hamilton's 1938 chiller marked a big step up in terms of craft from the melodramas on which it was based (it ran for years on Broadway, for a time with Vincent Price). And of course it provided the source for the famous Ingrid Bergman film, which I suppose counts as a minor classic (although it doesn't hold up all that well today, either - film buffs might be interested to know that a Hamilton play also served as the basis for Hitchcock's far-better Rope).

The trouble with Gaslight is basically that it's just an entertainment vehicle, and over the years its format has been brought to a much higher pitch in various more-entertaining hits (like Wait Until Dark and Deathtrap - even Sleuth is essentially a descendant). Hamilton's premise - a wife being driven mad by her psychopathic husband - is of course a solid one, but the playwright's construction now looks clunky, and his dialogue - well, let's just say the actors have their work cut out for them.

And it's true most of them do their best to put their lines over. I basically went to the show to see what local star Marianna Bassham (at left) could do with it, but I'm afraid the answer is: make it work, but not much more. This is partly because she doesn't have much to work with in the performance of co-star Robert Serrell, who plays hubby in a calm monotone that I guess is designed to drive us crazy as well as Bassham, and almost does just that. But alas, it also deprives the show of the tonal variety it needs to stay afloat. Christopher Webb manages better as the detective ex machina who rescues the heroine - he and Bassham strike a few sparks, even though their scenes seem quite choppy at times. Local stalwarts Angie Jepson and Dee Nelson contribute effective cameos, and Katy Monthei's atmospheric set is spookily lit by Jeff Adelberg (whose work is almost always a little spooky, come to think of it). I have to admit the audience I saw it with seemed to enjoy this script's very mild thrills - perhaps for their very mildness - but it was hard for me to shake the impression that Gaslight may at this point be out of gas.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Is Metropolis racist? Or just sexist?

Hands off, Rotwang - and that goes for the mechanical one, too!

That got your attention, didn't it. But seriously, such questions did occur to me as I settled down to watch the restored Metropolis at the Coolidge Corner this weekend. The audience was a typical Cambridge/Brookline crowd - gray as an average symphony audience, slightly disheveled, full of the kind of people who wear socks with sandals, have a degree in Sociology, and shop at a food co-op but somehow always miss the grooming aisle.

And they were all white. Every last one of them.

So as I surveyed this aging sea of Caucasians, I wondered to myself - what if I began to insinuate the same things about Fritz Lang and Metropolis that, say, Isaac Butler or J. Holtham - not to mention a raft of others - are always insinuating about Shakespeare? How would old Fritz hold up to the Parabasis treatment?

The answer is: not all that well. Metropolis is, indeed, a little bit racist. And a whole lot more sexist. Cinematically it may be a teacher's pet of the professoriat, but it traffics in hilariously bigoted, reactionary imagery. The local fleshpot in the eponymous Metropolis, for instance, is some kind of nightclub/den-of-sin called "Yoshiwara" - named after a notorious red light district in Edo-period Japan - and Lang introduces it with a kaleidoscopic dissolve through images of leering Asians and Africans. Eek! The OTHER! The movie all but screams.

Not that there are any people of color at "Yoshiwara" - far from it; the crowd (at left) looks like they just came from a Skull and Bones initiation, actually, as they ogle Brigitte Helm in her "Whore of Babylon" get-up (I could have sworn I spotted a Bush scion in drooling close-up!). This is a little odd, given that Metropolis is supposed to be a futuristic vision of cosmopolitan sprawl; still, it's good to know to whom, precisely, Lang's honest Germans can turn for their sex and drugs in the future: blacks and "Orientals" - just like in Weimar!

As for the sexism - uh, where to begin? Metropolis may be futuristic in its décor, but in its sexual politics, it's positively medieval. Lang's mom was Jewish, but he was raised a Catholic, and boy, can you ever tell. His movie's heroine, "Maria" - that's "Mary" to those of you who don't speaken zee Deutsch - is given an evil, robotic doppelgänger by the mad inventor "Rotwang" (we won't go into that etymology). Thus one of the movie's Marias is a holy virgin who prays at a giant altar studded with more crosses than Golgotha; the other's a mechanical whore - whom we first spy lounging beneath a satanic star (at top)! That's right - she's the virgin and the whore. Golly - can you guess which one wins in the end? In a cathedral, no less?

Ok, ok, enough - but it's good to remember exactly what you're watching (that is, Cecil B. DeMille with droids) when faced with the elaborate snow job the film nerds have mounted for this re-re-re-release of the grand-daddy of cinematic SF.

I'm not kidding with that "re-re-re" bit, btw; I think this marks the third or fourth "restoration" of Metropolis I've caught over the years. My appreciation of it, you'd think, should have grown by leaps and bounds by now. But remarkably, the film always makes the same impression: visually, it's stunning - really more than stunning, as within its imagery lie coiled the tropes of most of the science fiction films ever made. It's the ur-text of big screen SF - plus it's the ur-text of pop Marxism, too, with its olympian capitalists camping it up in their penthouses while "the workers" toil to their deaths underground. Plus it's got Brigitte Helm in pasties - what's not to like, Herr Professor?

Wall Street as Babel, by way of Breughel.

Well, since you asked - in dramatic terms Metropolis is a snooze. And its big set-pieces - a riot, then a flood, then another riot, then a burning at the stake (it's climax after climax!) - are about as thrilling as a round of after-dinner mints. This is because a) we don't care about any of its characters, and b) Lang hadn't yet learned how to film action - or, to be honest, how to really shape a complicated cinematic sequence (M, by far his best film, marked a huge leap forward in that regard). Metropolis isn't as dull as, say, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, or The Spiders, which hail from the same period of Lang's oeuvre. But trust me, you'll still be checking your watch.

But wait! you may say. Didn't the restored material - discovered in Argentina two years ago - a least partially change your assessment?

I hate to say it, but not really. The film nerds want you to believe that now the picture "makes sense" - only it still doesn't, not all the time; several narrative lacunae still dot the "plot," even with added title cards. The new footage does clear up Rotwang's motivation in building, and then re-programming, "Bad Maria," which is somewhat interesting. But it also adds minutes to a subplot that we don't really care about - then leaves that plot hanging anyway.

And worst of all, it includes no new visions. And that's what you go to Metropolis for. Indeed, I'm tempted to say that the less this picture makes sense, the better it is; the more fragmented and impacted its weird sexual hysteria is, for instance, the more it can be excused as semaphore from the subconscious rather than considered artistic statement. And the more chaotic the car crash between technology and the Old Testament seems, the more the pagan ziggurats and reptilian robots pop as visual artifacts. For make no mistake, Metropolis is full of wonders that have oft been repeated, but never really topped, with the sick sexual vibe of the robot Maria topping the list. This famous "costume" (which uncomfortably encased the real Brigitte Helm) remains one of the most psychologically resonant props ever constructed, nearly a century after its creation.

And to be fair, in the new print at the Coolidge, the robot Maria, and most everything else, look terrific. (And the movie sounds great too - don't worry if you missed the live performance, the Wagner-lite score by Gottfried Huppertz was almost as influential as the rest of the picture.) So if you've never seen the gigantic sets or the clever in-camera illusions, or the bizarre octagonal architectural motifs (or Brigitte Helms's boobs, for that matter), by all means go.

Just don't be surprised if you check your watch.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

"Black and White" returns

Last weekend's encore performances of "Black and White" at Boston Ballet (excerpts above) gave me a rare chance to reconsider what I thought was one of the signature cultural events of 2009.

And I changed my mind about it. A bit. Not that it struck me as any less brilliant - Jiří Kylián's masterpiece is one of the most ambitious and free-ranging evenings of dance of the last few decades, and Boston Ballet brought it off thrillingly. And the Boston press, which was positive, but lukewarm, last year - I think I was the only one really raving - all came around, as they are wont to do (if a bit slowly).

What surprised me about the piece's revival was how differently the individual components of "Black and White" - which was pulled together from a few seasons of work created by Kylián for Nederlands Dans Theater some twenty years ago - impressed me on this third viewing. The big, bold showpieces ("Sarabande" and "Falling Angels") seemed to me just as striking as ever, but a bit flatter than I remembered them, even as the work's first two sequences, "No More Play" and "Petite Mort," seemed to open up to surprising new depths.

This was partly because they were danced a bit better this time around - particularly "No More Play," whose bitter geometries were carried off with cold panache by Kathleen Breen Combes, Erica Cornejo, Nelson Madrigal, Yury Yanowsky, and especially Sabi Varga, who seemed to find his own voice in Kylián's physical language - a style which welds together folk and classical motifs in a way that conjures isolation rather than community. Indeed, almost all of "Black and White" had clearly settled further into the company's bones, which only argues for more repertory performances of dance; great dance perhaps most fully blooms when it has become unconscious - and that takes time.

It takes time to understand a dance, too. "Black and White" is often as thematically dense as many classic plays, and it's certainly denser than almost any recent play I can think of. (And part of its appeal is that it often straddles the conceptual line between dance and theatre.) It's a commonplace that our comprehension of a play accretes over many performances and interpretations. Yet dances, even great dances, get far fewer public outings. I've seen most of Shakespeare's plays half a dozen or even a dozen or more times - and of course I've read them several times, too. Only you can't "read" a dance, and I've seen the great Balanchine dances at most two or three times apiece.

Still, thanks to YouTube, you can ponder "Black and White" at length - it's all there (with even one dance, "Sweet Dreams," that Boston Ballet didn't do), although in a different order than seen here, and even though watching it on your computer screen (sometimes broken up by varying camera angles) is hardly like watching it live. Still, you get the gist of it, I think; and it was interesting to me to just check in about details of certain sequences I wasn't sure about (it can be tricky taking in all the details of a fully realized dance, even on your second or third try).

So after repeated exposures, what do I think about this dance? Well, the first thing is that a better title for "Black and White" might be "Sex and Death." Because its seeming sexual scenarios are always arenas of aggression, haunted by a persistent sense of darkness and doom. The standard subtext of a pas de deux is seduction; here, it's usually blunt force, or even rape. Or maybe murder. Often the spectre of death is just off-stage, embodied, for instance, in the black, rigid ball gowns that stand watching the action of "Petite Mort" (a sobriquet for the orgasm that pretty much sums up Kylián's theme). And there's more than a hint of mortality in the shroud that ripples through the same piece like a dark tsunami to sweep all the dancers from the stage. Elsewhere the fatal is even intertwined with the natal - those same rigid ball gowns "birth" male dancers at the top of "Sarabande," and at the close of "Falling Angels," the women of the company seem to freeze in a position of labor that's also stiff as rigor mortis.

Although we really should replace the "sex" in "sex and death" with "sexual politics," because almost every interaction in "Black and White" is about power - there's really not much actual sex in the ballet at all. Instead, sex infuses everything else, engendering anger, dismay and isolation. The men of "Petite Mort" silently wield phallic rapiers before they woo - and when they manage to mount their respective mates, the women respond with closed, blocking knees, above which the males hover like birds of prey (an image which recurs again and again in the ballet, like so many of its motifs). In "Sarabande," the dancers rage at the female forms from which they have been cast - at one point even holding their shirts around their faces like vaginal frames and screaming out at the world. And if "Sarabande" infantilizes men, then "Falling Angels" mechanizes women - they come striding out at first like lionesses on the savannah, calm and powerful, but soon are obsessed with ever-more intricate routines that make less and less sense. No real leader emerges from their ranks; no real "story" evolves - this is a collective, not a Mark-Morris-style community. And of course no men appear; by the time the dancers sink to their backs at the finale, their legs spread wide, we realize we may as well have been watching robots as women.

There are, of course, interludes of rapture in "Black and White" - beautiful duets dot "Petite Mort," and even the men of "Sarabande" get some devastatingly lyrical solos. These, however, are laughed off the stage at the close of the dance, and even the pair dancing of "Petite Mort" and "No More Play" is quickly subsumed into the ongoing battle; the participants only get reprieves, not release. And the battle goes on and on - history hangs over "Black and White" like a second shroud. Its last, wacky number - "Sechs Tänze" (Six Dances, to Mozart's German ones) - is a campy take on lords and ladies that quickly devolves into sexual anarchy, with power structures toppled, men leaping into each others' arms, and giant drag queens stalking the stage like amazons. What's funniest about "Sechs Tänze," however, is that it's the first piece Kylián choreographed in "Black and White;" although now a ditzy show-topper, it's really the source of the whole piece, and the suite might better be read in reverse, as a long investigation of the serious themes buried in its silliness. And the picture Kylián paints, for all its sexy glamour, isn't very pretty. "No More Play" is a portrait of modernist despair that ends in exhaustion, "Petite Mort" an elegant image of baroque sterility - meanwhile "Sarabande" and "Falling Angels" reveal men and women who have completely disengaged from one another. Meanwhile ""Sechs Tänze" is gay camp - that holds court against a persistent, menacing rumble. Still, it ends in a bemused shrug, as celebratory bubbles fill the stage. Freedom at last from the power games of the past? we wonder to ourselves. Well, even the dancers don't seem sure. Whether those bubbles are a sign of real hope or just one more seductive illusion remains an open question.