Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Will LeBow has his say

To all those who have been writing in - Will LeBow's open letter on the A.R.T. can be found here, at "www.LeBowTheatreEssay.blogspot.com." In other developments, LeBow lays into Globe reporter Geoff Edgers here, for distorting his message as "the stodgy old guard resisting the new exciting innovative regime." LeBow's quite right about the Edgers article - it does distort his letter - although frankly, that distortion merely reflects the attitude that suffuses the Globe in general, doesn't it.

Money quotes from LeBow's letter:

Monday, August 30, 2010

Hump play

This hump is hot! What - you wanted more?

The raves have rolled in this summer for Shakespeare and Company's Richard III - even the Times's Ben Brantley seemed to give it a thumbs-up (although, in a classic case of Brantley-speak, Ben slyly avoided ever ratifying the rave he seemed to be penning). So l thought, in my kindly, optimistic way, that maybe this time the Berkshire institution, so beloved of a certain boomer demographic, might have broken through to some new level.

But they haven't; last weekend Richard III seemed largely like business as usual to me, even though I haven't been to Shakespeare & Co. for several years: emphatic text (so emphatic the cast was sometimes hoarse), some broad, intrusive audience participation, several ideas that didn't quite cohere, some good acting here and there, and a whole lotta gonzo energy. Yes, lead John Douglas Thompson made a surprisingly sexy Richard. He's hot. But as a thought-through performance, Thompson's Richard didn't really exist; one of Shakespeare's greatest characters was here a propulsive blank. I'd be hard put, in fact, to name any clear decisions Thompson has made about the role at all, besides, in classic Shakespeare & Co. style, to play things faster and louder. A few other actors (particularly the women) made headway against his bad example, but they couldn't quite put the production over - although they did make the show intermittently entertaining.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Proof positive

This is just a quick post to announce that Boston's burgeoning fringe scene should take note of a (nearly) new arrival: the Independent Drama Society (a catchy title if ever there was one!) is wrapping the run of its very-solid production of David Auburn's Proof at the Factory Theatre this week - a show that, if not flawless, still displays a surprising level of sophistication and ability.

That's the good news, now the bad: I'm not a big fan of Proof, which has always seemed to me a vehicle rather than a play, even though, yes, it actually won a Pulitzer and a Tony (sigh). Author David Auburn mixes two parts Beth Henley to one part A Beautiful Mind to no clear thematic end, but the play is well-crafted, as they say, and it works, minute-to-minute. Or at least audiences seem to think so - it's one of the most widely-produced plays of the past decade.

Add to that record the fact that it only requires four actors and a single set, and you'll see why Proof has proven catnip to young theatre companies - so let's just be glad that the IDS (no, I'm not writing out that name every time) has mounted their version with care and intelligence, and found a non-Equity cast that could hold its own (at least on the surface) with many professional ones in town.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

An explanation for the A.R.T.?

There's a must-read article over at the Washington Monthly called "The Prestige Racket" which beautifully nails a major trend in higher education - raising prices to attract customers. The money quote is the admission by one university president that a college campus is "as a trophy, a symbol" to potential undergraduates. “It’s a sort of token of who they think they are,” he explains.

Could that be the explanation for Harvard's bizarre support of Diane Paulus? Does the new commercialized A.R.T. represent a hip symbol to the university's customers in the same way a new athletic center does, or a pristine lawn? Developing . . .

. . . as the curtain rises on Ed's latest folly

I've already gotten two e-mails protesting my giving Louise Kennedy even an inch of ground in the previous post.

But ponder, you Louise-bashers, the case of Ed Siegel (at left) before you go too far with the long knives.

Ed, of course, was Louise's predecessor at the Globe - but since he left, he seems to have really wandered off the reservation. The first major embarrassment came with his "me-so-horny" take on Sleep No More. I tore that one apart here.

You'd think he'd learn from his mistakes, but no; Ed's back with another cringe-worthy essay in the Globe magazine - this one attacking the reborn North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly.

Where to begin? Well, let's start with the North Shore itself. The non-profit theatre famously imploded - as in went bankrupt - a year and a half ago. The huge arena stood silent as a grave for months. Then theatre impresario Bill Hanney single-handedly raised it from the dead as a for-profit venture (coughing up millions in the process), and opened a season (in an amazingly short time) featuring Gypsy, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and A Chorus Line.

But this isn't good enough for Ed - after seeing just one show (a solid Gypsy, btw), he decides it's time for some tough love. Diane Paulus may be dismantling the A.R.T., and Reagle may be firing its best hope for future growth, but no, it's the North Shore - struggling to pull back its subscriber base with a season of two crowd-pleasers and two classics - that he feels deserves a kick in the pants.

Although while Ed tries to deliver a kick in the pants, he instead winds up flat on his face. His solution to the challenge facing the North Shore is - wait for it - to program less popular shows. No, I'm not making that up; that's really what he says. Never mind that the North Shore is a for-profit business now, and so there's no Board to make good any of the debts or obligations attendant on artistic risk. Other people's money is apparently no object to Ed. Indeed, his advice to the North Shore is to import "edgy" shows from non-profit theatres like SpeakEasy Stage up to Beverly. No, wait, it gets better! Ed actually excoriates the North Shore for doing shows (like A Chorus Line) that have toured in Boston, but at the same time wants them to re-mount productions that have played in Boston even more recently.

Right . . .

And what will happen if Bill Hanney doesn't follow his prescription? Well, he just won't go to Beverly, Ed says.

But I have to ask - who cares if Ed Siegel goes to Beverly? And how could he imagine anyone could care?

To be fair, Ed has one solid point to make amid all this drivel - it would be great to see more local stars like Leigh Barrett, Timothy John Smith, and Mary Callanan up on the North Shore stage. In the past, it's been obvious the North Shore's focus on dance (choreography helps fill that giant space) left many locals, who are great performers but not accomplished hoofers, out in the cold. It would be wonderful if that changed.

But complaining about a risky business venture that - even if it's showcasing Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (a fun show, actually) - is still doing the local area a great service isn't just mean-spirited; it's actually nuts. The Globe owes Bill Hanney an apology, and Ed needs to vanish back into the ether over at WBUR.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The curtain falls on Louise

I'd heard nothing from the rumor mill about it, so I was shocked, shocked to discover Louise Kennedy was departing her role as lead theatre critic at the Boston Globe (Don Aucoin, who filled in during a sabbatical last fall, will apparently take over, at least for the time being).

I know, I know - I might as well close the blog! My frustration with Louise's reviewing has fueled who knows how many posts at the Hub Review. I think I even rated a veiled reference in her farewell - a generally classy piece of writing, frankly.

Still, the issues that have bugged me for the past four years were very much in evidence even in her swan song. She admitted that "reviewing personally" was "the only way she knew how" - and then cited Kevin Kelly (a truly dreadful critic, far weaker than Louise) as her justification for this dubious practice.

Poor thing, so confused. Obviously all criticism is "personal" in some sense - but that doesn't mean the critic should stumble into simplistic equations between emotional response and artistic greatness. After the death of her father, for instance, Kennedy was moved to tears by Sarah Ruhl's Eurydice - which is (need I point out) largely concerned with the death of a father. To a bystander, this might have counted as merely predictable - but to Louise, it was proof positive of Ruhl's greatness; and it has taken her literally years to see through her mistake. Other examples abound - feminism is a core concern for Louise, for instance, so anything that could be construed as sexist was automatically suspect; she wasn't even entirely sure about that guy Shakespeare (and I think that case is pretty much settled, don't you?). And woe unto any playwright (like David Mamet) whose plot mirrored an event in her own life - if Louise took umbrage, well, clearly that playwright had made an artistic mistake!

But a penchant for the "personal" isn't actually what got Louise into trouble; ironically enough, it was her occasional brilliant review that drew raspberries from the Globe readership. Her critique of the Huntington's crassly-conceived Pirates!, for example, merely described the production accurately - but that accuracy led to an avalanche of invective from Huntington subscribers (egged on by that theatre's managing director, Michael Maso). The review probably counted as a high point in Kennedy's career - and the response, a low point in Maso's.

Perhaps that imbroglio made her shy further away from the controversial - for it must be said that in four tumultuous years on the Boston theatre scene, I can't recall her ever offering many (or any) salient thoughts on the pressing issues of the day. Nothing on Diane Paulus and the commercialization/destruction of the A.R.T.; nothing on the financial crises at Shakespeare and Company and the (former) North Shore Music Theatre; nothing on anything, frankly. Even she admits, in her farewell piece, that all she can recall from her tenure is a handful of impressions -"scraps," actually; she just doesn't seem to appreciate what that means.

Still, her list of the best productions of recent years is a solid one - and do I expect much better of Don Aucoin? Not really (I'm just glad the job didn't go to Joel Brown!). And frankly, I kind of doubt Aucoin will give me nearly as much material as his predecessor; if he strikes me as less error-prone than Louise, he also strikes me as blander. So here's something I never thought I'd say - I may actually miss Louise Kennedy.

Monday, August 23, 2010

A year to remember at Stratford

I'm back from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, which is enjoying its strongest season in years. The six productions I caught were all good to very good, although it was Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris (above), and a splendidly-produced Peter Pan that brushed greatness rather than the widely-touted Christopher Plummer Tempest (its most stunning image - Ariel retrieving Prospero's book from the depths of the sea - at left). What was clear from the eight productions my party saw was that new artistic director Des McAnuff was, indeed, the right choice to head the festival; to be honest, I can't remember Stratford ever being quite this consistent (but then we missed its apparent high point - a new play by Michel Tremblay - as well as its two bombs, King of Thieves and Two Gentlemen of Verona). Even the productions which I disagreed with (like McAnuff's As You Like It, at top) left me thinking seriously about their texts; more to follow later this week.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Walk on two Wilde sides

In Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband, the audience essentially gets two plays for the price of one. The first is an elegantly constructed farce that glitters with epigrams just as brilliant as those in Wilde's masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest (which would follow Husband in a matter of months). The second is an absorbing drama in which ethical lapses come back to haunt the flawed people who committed them - a drama that is subtle in its characterizations and calmly sympathetic in its moral perspective.

But you see the problem. An Ideal Husband often seems divided against itself, as sparkling archness and mournful self-awareness seem like incompatible tones; yet they co-existed within this particular author, and thus are constant bedfellows in this strange portmanteau-play, which is mischievous and moving by turns.

I confess I've never seen these two sides of Wilde brought into alignment - although the possibility of doing so remains tantalizing, and even though I mostly enjoyed Gloucester Stage's rendition, directed by local star Karen MacDonald, which runs through August 29.

But wait, there's more background. This production was inspired by a hilarious version done up in drag by Bad Habit Productions last winter (which I reviewed here). Working from a slightly trimmed text, the witty kids at Bad Habit whipped up a ditzy, Hasty-Pudding-style farce in which everyone was either slipping into or out of drag practically every minute; the results were a hoot, but blind-sided the serious half of the play; as I wrote then, the audience had to just sit through those parts and wait for the epigrams to crank up again.

Enter MacDonald, who was clearly hoping to weld those high spirits to a deeper reading of the drama. Alas, the resulting polyglot feels like neither fish nor fowl - although often it does fluff its feathers, or flex its fins. The trouble this time around is that the drama predominates, which makes the farce (and the drag) feel a bit forced - particularly since Wilde's factotum in the play, Lord Goring, is here played resolutely straight (and successfully so) by Lewis Wheeler. But the resonance of the drag motif depends on Goring being a closet case, frankly - so if he's definitely hetero, we wonder to ourselves, why is everybody else cross-gendered?

Oh, well, ours is not to reason Wilde, I suppose. The good news is that MacDonald does well by most of the scenes individually - she just can't make them hang together; I think she's a genuine director (in addition to being one of our best actresses). Which doesn't mean quite all of her dramatic ideas come off - and she misses completely the opportunity to make Wilde's villain, the seductive Mrs. Chevely, truly complex in the play's climactic scene.

Elsewhere, however, she draws credible work from a cast that hasn't always been ideally cast. Wheeler, as mentioned, is believable husband material, and if he doesn't convey the hint of hauntedness that makes a great Lord Goring (the play all too obviously parallels the author's own situation), still, he delivers Wilde's wit with confidence - and that's half the game. As the compromised powerbroker whose past has at last caught up with him, Brendan Powers proved almost as charming, although he seems a bit young for the role, and not, perhaps, truly guilt-stricken. The strongest performance in the cast came from Angie Jepson (above left, with Wheeler) as the sparkling Mabel - although she was double-cast as the scheming Mrs. Cheveley, which proved a stretch - she hasn't either the experience or presence (yet) for what may be Wilde's greatest character. As the naively unbending wife of that tainted powerbroker, Carrie Ann Quinn was even more at sea, I'm afraid, although she did grow in vulnerable complexity as the play progressed.

But somehow much of the Gloucester production, particularly in the play's superior first half, was subtly gripping despite these flaws. Then again, I've never seen this play fail (compare to Romeo and Juliet, which never succeeds). This version may not be ideal, but it's thoughtful enough to convey the essence of Wilde's ideas - and far more thoughtful than much of our regular-season fare. With it, Gloucester Stage continues to cement its reputation as our best local summer theatre.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Leaving on a jet plane (again)

Yes, the Hub Review is on the move again - on our annual pilgrimage to the wilds of Ontario (the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, to be exact), where we'll be taking in Christopher Plummer in The Tempest, as well as productions of As You Like It, The Winter's Tale, and more. We'll be back next week to tell you all about it.

Big Red and Shiny bites the dust

I was never a faithful reader of "Big Red and Shiny," but I was surprised to hear that the venerable Boston arts-scene site was closing up shop - apparently because its coder-in-chief, Matthew Nash, has simply had enough. (I can relate to that.) Its blog, Our Daily Red, will continue to operate.

Somehow it seems the Internet simply hasn't panned out for the local arts scene, has it. There are a few sites worth checking daily (like Art's and Greg's), a few that are relentlessly rah-rah, a few that mostly re-gurgitate press releases, and a lot of hit-or-miss experiments, arenas for personal venting, or outright failures (like Bill Marx's surprisingly middlebrow Arts Fuse - the poor guy just can't win for losing, can he). I know that Jenna Scherer runs (or at least used to run) a blog with a closed subscriber list - essentially a secret blog; I don't know if other print critics do the same thing.

I often feel quite isolated in this environment; I suppose I'm a little surprised that no one else locally - literally no one - has attempted long-form writing as I have, or really staked out any particular critical positions, as I have against, oh, Emily Glassberg Sands, David Mamet, Shepard Fairey, or the whole post-collegiate Parabasis crew. Instead there has developed a culture of mutual admiration societies, cliques and group-speak (if I hear the word "collaboration" one more time I might just barf), powered by ironically sweet little "I'm nobody! Who are you?" mental doodles from a zillion millennial Emily Dickinsons who are, in effect, always chasing (or hoping to chase) the almighty dollar. Indeed, sometimes it feels like the great freedom the Internet offers has been all but fled from by most of its writers. I confess sometimes I look around me at an opening, as the other reviewers take their seats, and just wonder silently, "What the hell do you people stand for?"

But that's just me.

And I suppose it's easy to see why nobody stands for anything; it gets very problematic very fast. Here at the Hub Review, we're constantly fending off nasty emails, even the occasional physical threat (and finally closed the comments as a result), and have to deal in the "real world" with crazed publicists, duplicitous arts administrators, conniving playwrights, and a host of other nice NPR supporters who are determined - and I mean quite determined - to make sure nothing really controversial, or even particularly coherent, ever surfaces on the Internet. Because that might hurt somebody's feelings. Particularly somebody who might advance somebody else's career.

So here's to Big Red and Shiny, for every time it ever made someone uncomfortable, or caused a ruckus, or kicked the comfortable where it counts. Everybody rise!

Not quite fully committed

I'm a fan of Gabriel Kuttner (at left), so I myself am unsure why it took me so long to catch up with his take on Fully Committed, Becky Mode's one-man, forty-character ode to the underbelly of the restaurant biz. Kuttner plays one Sam Peliczowski, an unemployed actor locked in the dungeon of a four-star eatery (loosely based on Tribeca's Bouley, which was king of the hill in the 90's, when Mode worked there). Sam spends his days desperately waiting for callbacks as he tries to "field" a bank of phones, and deal with the hordes of climbers, crawlers, and back-stabbers desperate to get a table (preferably #31) in the aerie above him. Of course coming face-to-face with the brutal reality behind the polite mask of society is always dispiriting, and this particular day is doubly depressing for Sam, as his co-worker has called in sick, the Zagats have shown up un-announced, the plumbing has backed up, and Naomi Campbell's personal assistant is on the line.

What's striking about this set-up is how little things have changed since the 90's. The Globe's Christopher Muther (who despite being very hip still works at the Globe, for some reason) sniffed that the play has dated - but what's almost eerie about it is how, a little more than a decade after its premiere, so much of its celebrity culture counts as current: Naomi Campbell, for example, was a notorious bitch-on-wheels then, and she's a notorious bitch-on-wheels now. "Vegan tasting menus" were ridiculous then, and they're ridiculous now. Plus ça change, etc.

Other things about the script have remained constant, too. It's still an opportunity for a tour de force from a solo performer (as he or she must essay not only Sam but everyone he talks to, from Ms. Campbell's caffeinated admin to the coked-up maître d'). At this, Kuttner succeeds brilliantly, cleanly leaping at will, and in complicated sequence, to nearly forty different accents and attitudes, from Brooklyn to London to Tokyo and beyond; if you tried to follow this performance on Google Earth, you'd end up covering the globe. Indeed, this may be the best vocal acting performance I've ever seen in Boston - and it delighted the crowd I saw the show with.

What's missing (at least on the night I attended) was Sam's own arc. Or rather the arc was there, but wasn't the rollercoaster-like plunge, then abrupt rise, that I recall from other productions. For after enduring a ton of metaphoric shit, Sam has to endure some of the real thing as well, before he gets in touch with his own "sense of entitlement" and begins to work those phones to his own advantage. (As you can probably tell, Fully Committed is partly popular because it offers actors a chance to enact a much-deserved Cinderella story of their own.)

What's funny is that Sam's arc should be the easy part; it's those zillions of unseen characters on the phone that are the hard part. Of course the steady calibration of his descent toward rock bottom, which comes in tiny blips between the screams of his many callers, is a challenge in and of itself. What's interesting is that Kuttner (or perhaps director Steven Barkhimer) should have lost track, a bit, of his leading man, because he has always been a fascinating performer despite being - well, a perfectly average guy, without a particular "look" that easily types him, or distinguishes him, either. In a way, he's an example of pure "talent" - his smarts, along with his technique and a little inspiration, are what have made him one of the city's top character actors. Maybe he just got distracted this time by all the many, many characters he had to enact.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Howling along with the Hound of the Baskervilles

It's strange the way theatre has set about mocking itself and its means, isn't it. Or perhaps it's not so strange - the theatre has to grapple with the current culture, of course, and in the current culture, knowingness is all; our collective self-image no longer trades in the romantic, or even the heroic, but merely in the self-aware. The avatar of the age is the viewer who has already seen it all, and seen through it, too.

Enter The Hound of the Baskervilles, another romp through the narrative thickets of a naïve classic and the broad tropes of matinee melodrama. After such local hits as The 39 Steps, Hound feels a bit formulaic itself, frankly; I'm more than ready for a parody of this kind of show. But Hound is also frisky and fun as a post-modern puppy, for the most part, and it's blessed with a crack comic cast (at left, doubling and tripling in all the roles, as required) and very tight direction from Thomas Derrah (who's more on top of this particular case than even Sherlock Holmes, methinks).

It helps a bit that - dare I say this? - The Hound of the Baskervilles isn't all that good to begin with. Before you start baying at the moon yourselves, I should add that while I enjoy the character of Holmes - who doesn't like hanging out with drug-addicted homosexuals? - the stories in which he stars are . . . hmmm . . . how to put this . . . "usually a clumsy mess" sums it up rather nicely, I think. Hound is a particular howler - the writing seems even more arcanely flat-footed than usual (a sample: "I had hardly expected so dolichocephalic a skull or such well-marked supra-orbital development. Would you have any objection to my running my finger along your parietal fissure?"). And alas, this time Holmes is off the scene much of the time, and the plot only counts as a "mystery" because its structure is so convoluted. I'd take a random episode of Scooby-Doo (the apotheosis of this particular form) any day.

Hmmm. Maybe I'm undoing my own argument a bit here; perhaps parodying this stuff is the only way to put it over! And if Hound has no underlying themes or subtext of its own (unlike, say, Irma Vep), at least it's not looking down its nose at its source (like 39 Steps); it thinks Sherlock Holmes is a hoot, and in the end it's pretty much faithful to the text (although wasn't Laura Lyons AWOL? I confess I 'rested my eyes' here and there, so maybe I missed her).

At any rate, let's be grateful that this particular cast has such sharp comic chops. Lead Remo Airaldi (late of the ART) is an odd physical match for Holmes, and he doesn't really do a "characterization" (or even a parody of one), but he consistently brings to bear that squeaky comic pique that he brought to everything he did at Harvard, and that makes most of the jokes work in an almost abstract way. And once he's in drag (a particularly peculiar form of meta-drag this time, with a bowler and braids) he's really a scream. Meanwhile Bill Mootos makes a perfectly clueless foil as Watson, and talented newcomer Trent Mills clowns his way brilliantly through the wide, wacky supporting cast of Baskervilles, et. al. Plus the show is smartly designed, and there are witty music and sound (and costume!) effects, too. I confess I think an adult may feel that this Hound gets a little long in the tooth before it's over, but as a kid's show it's one of the best bets in town.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Notes on Othello

Sigh. What I give up for this blog!

Ok, I finally went to the Commonwealth Shakespeare production of Othello last night because, I admit, several people were begging me to. "I know I won't like it!" I kept telling them, but they said what theatre people always say in reply: "Puh-leeeeeze! We want to know what you think!"

This is what comes of actually thinking about things, I suppose. The other critics hate you, but the performers secretly - well, I understand what it's like to work your tail off and send your vision into the void, where your best hope of being understood comes from that smart, bitchy queen who writes a blog.

Anyway, back to Othello. I didn't like it. First, for the usual reason: I don't like arena Shakespeare. Yeah, yeah, yeah, the original Globe was an "outdoor" theatre - no kidding! - but it was fairly small, and intensely focused, and had no planes flying overhead. And anyway, Shakespeare played indoors a lot, and his company bought an indoor theatre as soon as they could. Maybe indoors is better. I certainly think so. Or rather, I think it's better than watching tiny, puppet-like figures (with faces like pinheads) moving stiffly on a stage four hundred feet in front of you while amplified voices shout from four hundred feet behind you, and mosquitoes suck your blood. But I guess that's just me! Zillions of people turn out every year for this strange ritual - then return to the NASCAR circuit. (Just kidding - I know they go back to Cambridge and Brookline!!)

Arena Shakespeare at its best. The actual Globe's "pit" wasn't all that much bigger than that gazebo.

I do wonder, however, why we blow hundreds of thousands of dollars every year on an extravaganza which doesn't really deliver the real thing - i.e., Shakespeare. The answer, of course, is: We do it because other cities do! To which my mother would have replied, "But if other cities jumped off a cliff, would you do that, too?" Oh, well. Fat chance the fat cats who fund this kind of thing would ever listen to a wise woman like my mother. Still, couldn't we fund two - or maybe three - shows at smaller venues for the same price, and with better results? Just a thought.

To be fair, this Othello was clearly spoken (that's not always the case). And it was free of the really stoopid interventions we now expect from the loopier denizens of the local academy. Nobody showed their tits, and of my friends' famous "ART Checklist" (leather corsets; over-amplified music; funereal set), only one - water on the stage - made its dreaded, pointless appearance.

But then there's Steven Maler, artistic director of Commonwealth Shakespeare, and director of these summer shows. And why, exactly, is that true? As far as I know, Maler had no record of great Shakespeare going into the job, and - let's be honest, more than a decade later, he still doesn't. (Oh, I forgot, he won an Elliot Norton Award. I stand corrected!)

Of course, Maler is sexy, and good at separating wealthy people from their money. The funny thing is, he's also pretty good at directing other playwrights - I've seen some staged readings by him that were quite strong. He just has no feel for Shakespeare; he's in precisely the wrong job. To be honest, he is great at pageant, which is no small part of arena theatre; he's a resourceful and clever orchestrator of crowds and complicated set pieces. If all of the Bard were like the opening scenes of Romeo and Juliet, he'd be in business. But Othello is practically a chamber piece (it shrinks down to a chess game between four or five people), and when it comes to the nitty-gritty, you can feel Maler's just got no Shakespearean chops at all. He rarely draws strong internal work from actors, his blocking is abstracted, and his scenes seem cleverly aimless; I keep hearing a little voice in my head going, "The beat goes there, Maler, not there!" whenever I'm watching one of his productions.

And then there's his dreadful penchant for casting under-equipped TV and movie actors in demanding Shakespearean roles. A stage actor will typically get his Shakespearean sea-legs in the part of a spear-chucker, or Second Senator From the Left. But a typical Commonwealth Shakespeare press release goes something like: "This summer Zac Efron will essay his first Shakespearean role for Steven Maler - and it's Prospero!" This year we got Seth Williams (of The Wire and Oz) as Othello, and James Waterston, whose qualifications for playing Shakespeare are, apparently, being sired by Sam Waterston and being friends with Robert Sean Leonard and Ethan Hawke (who are also eminent pseudo-Shakespeareans). For the record, Williams at least stayed afloat, though he splashed pointlessly quite a bit - until he suddenly turned in quietly moving renditions of "It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul" and Othello's last moments of remorse in the play's terrible climax; I left thinking he might be able to do the role in ten or twenty years. Waterston, meanwhile, just sank. But he was in good company at the bottom of the tank. Marianna Bassham, one of my favorite local actresses, was thrashing down there too, trying to make Desdemona a kind of husky-voiced 40's siren, while Adrianne Krstansky (my other favorite local actress) worked on making Emilia alternately bitter and sleepy.

Oh, well; another evening I could have spent watching reruns of Two and a Half Men gone down the drain! But in the spirit of avoiding future bad productions of Othello, I thought I would throw out a few obvious interpretive pointers about the play. These precepts are all rooted in the text; this is what Shakespeare says, flat out; and yet directors and actors almost always ignore these guidelines, and then wonder why the play just isn't working. Of course the public wants to ignore these ideas, too; we want to "do" Shakespeare without listening to him; we'd prefer to grant ourselves the benefit of his greatness (thanks so much!), then pound him down into an enlightened, "improved" modern template - when of course he's deeper than that.

So in the interest of paying attention to the play, so that maybe it will work, here goes nothing:

Not Othello.

1) Othello is not Denzel. Or Taye.

We like our modern Othellos to be not merely hotheads, but hot bods as well. An understandable matinee-idol impulse, to be sure. Shakespeare's Othello, however, is an old soldier, weathered rather than beautiful, and engaged in an obvious May-December romance. To be blunt, if he and Desdemona are the hottest people in the room, then a key point in Shakespeare's vision has been occluded. We should never, ever expect that they would fall in love.

2) Othello has a tragic flaw beyond his jealousy.

Everyone "knows" that Othello's tragic flaw is jealousy. But he has another, secret flaw beyond that - perhaps alone among the tragic heroes, Othello is presented as psychologically unstable at the deepest level; his career, his success, his entire life is built around denying an inner terror of "chaos" that manifests itself in frightening "epilepsies." Iago's whole strategy wouldn't work without this (like Iago, Othello "is not what he is"). Therefore a corollary to this observation that I've seen manifested in the best productions is: Iago alone knows this secret about Othello; it's part of their kinship, their supposed mutual trust.

3) Desdemona is not a strong, modern woman.

Because strong, modern women do not acquiesce in their own murders for adulteries they did not commit (or for any reason, period). Is that clear? Yes, Desdemona defies her father - but she leaves him for another father figure. Endowing her with self-possessed, liberated power may make for a kicky Act One, but leads to inexplicable Acts Four and Five.


4) Desdemona and Othello don't have great sex.

In fact, some critics have insisted that Othello and Desdemona never have sex at all. Certainly, despite all the racial hysteria and talk of "the beast with two backs," the couple's wedding night is interrupted - and then their honeymoon is, too. Some readers have pointed out, in fact, that Othello's instructions to Desdemona on the night he kills her are weirdly like those of a bridegroom, and she asks Emilia to put her wedding sheets on what becomes her deathbed (why?). It's quite possible this couple never actually does the nasty (which of course would humanize both of them), and at any rate, some level of uncertain distance between the two, predicated on the wild elevation of Desdemona's purity (think how she's contrasted with the earthy Emilia), helps explain Othello's crazed behaviors.

4) Iago may be many things, but above all he is good at simulating intimacy.

By now Iago has almost become a totem for unfathomable evil - because his malice is so intense, and so unclearly motivated by self-interest. Sure, he has his "reasons" - in fact, the play sometimes seems like a catalogue of possible explanations for his behavior - but all these excuses are questioned or outright contradicted by the text at one point or other; thus a characterization can be built on one, or all, or none of them. The one thing that Iago cannot do without, however, is his talent for intimacy. Only Emilia, his one true intimate, sees through it - and even she, despite his abuses, never guesses at just how dark his soul actually is. Meanwhile everyone around him is utterly fooled by his social face, and he smoothly moves into relationships of absolute trust with not just Othello but also Cassio, Roderigo, and even Desdemona. "Deep inside," Iago may be a tortured, alienated void, but that's what the soliloquies are for - on the surface, he's a stand-up guy, your best and oldest friend. That's the whole point.

There are more where these came from (including "Is Othello an African - or an Arab?"), but I think that will do for know. Study these precepts, directors of Othello, and perpend! And now I've got episodes of Two and a Half Men to watch.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Can you tell me how to get off Sesame Street?

That dark blur is me fleeing the Sol LeWitt show.

I admit I was skeptical of the Sol LeWitt wall drawing "retrospective" (though many of the pieces had never been drawn before) at MassMOCA, even though - actually, perhaps because - it was met with universal praise.

And now that I've seen it, I'm even more skeptical. Actually, make that bored and appalled. And when I heard that MassMOCA was talking about keeping the damn thing in place for twenty-five years, I nearly threw up.

LeWitt is constantly described as "deceptively simple" and as "a master of conceptualism." Both these accolades seem highly dubious to me. First, there's nothing deceptive about him - he's just simple, pure and simple. And as for being a "master of conceptualism" - well, let's just say I could go with "a master of ANTI-conceptualism" just fine. Because the whole point of Sol LeWitt is that there IS no concept. Oh - I get it - that's the whole idea. Right.

Anyway, no one could ever say that Sol LeWitt isn't pretty. He is. He's the airheaded Andy-Warhol-starlet of minimalism, happily painting (according to very strict rules, mind you!) across acres and acres of virgin space. And thus he's beloved of a certain kind of art tourist, the kind that slowly turns around and says, "Now this is interesting . . ." even though their expression is completely blank. Don't ask them why it's interesting; they can't tell you; but one kind of optimistic void can recognize another.

Actually, scratch that - LeWitt is more like the Dr. Seuss of conceptualism than a blonde starlet of minimalism. Indeed, I kept humming to myself as I wandered through these galleries, "I can draw it round and round! I can draw it upside down!" Although I realize that's kind of a slur on Dr. Seuss, whom I adore, and who is clever and witty and anarchic, while LeWitt is just so dull you'd have to pinch yourself to stay awake, if the day-glo designs weren't burning permanent patterns into your retinas (below).

I will say that the show does point up how our perspective on minimalism has shifted over the years. Back in the sixties, confronted with the devastating example of Warhol, who could blankly deconstruct any kind of artistic stance with po-faced gay abandon, it seemed that art had to either be ironic, like pop, or blasted down into forms that irony couldn't reach. Minimalism offered a kind of safe haven, a space in which artists could still be macho by being mute. Sol LeWitt was an insider in this crowd - he actually worked at MOMA, in fact, along with other minimalists, and he was by all accounts the apotheosis of the "shy" networker, so it's not such a surprise that his career took off.

And of course he became more popular than people like Dan Flavin because he appropriated the color modes of that vibrant decade as his own (he favored either acid-trip saturation, or utter blankness, a la The White Album). And to be honest, his color fields do, still, pop in a pretty, Vogue-circa-1968 kind of way. And the zillions of students who actually drew these things did, I admit, maintain the required level of zen-like control; they're utterly pristine, like giant CDs still in their plastic wrap, gleaming with phony potential. Yes, it seems clear LeWitt's wall drawings now operate as a kind of SixtiesLand, a nostalgic setting, like Colonial Williamsburg, for a certain kind of American dream. (If only there were free hashish and a huge amp pumping out simple rock chords, it would be perfect.)

But I can't pretend that Colonial Williamsburg is a work of art. And except for that nostalgic sugar rush, there's really nothing to LeWitt. And twenty-five years??? What a waste of cultural space. Somebody hand me a paint roller, quick.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Classic Martin

Emily and George get lost in the stars in Our Town.

Not so long ago, Boston was home to three great directors - Nicholas Martin, Robert Woodruff, and Charles Towers. These days, only Towers remains (at the Merrimack), but we still get occasional visits from the other two, and this season you have (or had) the chance to see a double header from Martin - Our Town just closed at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, while the Huntington will open its fall season with his production of Bus Stop.

Both seem like "naturals" for Nicky, as he's universally known, but of course Our Town is the deeper play, and I had high hopes that the Williamstown production might prove as perfect as his best work at the Huntington (She Loves Me, Present Laughter). Alas, it doesn't quite reach that pinnacle, due to two of its central performances, but it's still easily the best production of Our Town I've seen, and will certainly be remembered fondly (I didn't catch the most recent Broadway revival, but this is surely superior to the Paul Newman version of several years ago). And for fans of meta-theatre, you can't get much more meta than this version, which is being performed only an hour or two from Peterborough, upon which Thornton Wilder modeled the eponymous "Grover's Corners" from his cottage at the MacDowell Colony. (As a little nod to that fact, Martin has cast an actual local professor as his lecturer on the region.)

This doesn't, however, make the production much more resonant than usual (most of the actors are from New York, after all), and one walks away from this rendition musing on the way that, perhaps unintentionally, it highlights one of the inherent difficulties of the director's craft. Like his recent The Corn is Green, Our Town showcases Martin's superb directorial intelligence - there's a subtle flow to the blocking, and moment after moment of insight and clarity in the shape and construction of the scenes; and the design work, by David Korins and Kenneth Posner, toys with Wilder's famously bare stage just enough but not too much.

But the production also reveals that when an actor doesn't have quite the emotional depths for his or her role, or is cast just a hairsbreadth away from the ideal - well, all the directorial craft in the world can never quite disguise that gap, particularly when (as in Martin's case), the director is by instinct attuned to questions of balance and proportion rather than "intensity" or shock.

And this Our Town is, I'm afraid, complicated by the fact that the versatile Campbell Scott's Stage Manager fails to grow from folksy irony to slightly-chilling stature (as he should). And as Emily Webb, the beautiful Brie Larson conveys tomboyish innocence perfectly but only seems partly able to access the role's streams of deeper feeling. Compensating for these slight gaps, however, are masterfully low-key performances from John Rubinstein and (especially) Dylan Baker as Doc Gibbs and Mr. Webb, respectively, and a delightfully awkward turn from Will Rogers as young George. There were also memorable cameos from Jon Patrick Walker as Simon Stimson and Emma Rosenthal as Rebecca Gibbs - and it was fun to catch local star Nancy Carroll in a short, but funny, stint as the gossipy Mrs. Soames.

And Martin does, in the end, convey the great emotional verities of the play, which still, I'm glad to report, communicates the terrible truth that life slips away from us before we appreciate it with a power all the more piercing because it's so unassuming. (How this play got a reputation for sentimentality remains a mystery.) This production in particular, it seemed to me, drew out the author's (at right, in his commemorative stamp) absorption with death in a subtle, but matter-of-fact, style (Emily's demise in childbirth often comes as a shock, but here Martin gently highlights the many hints of mortality that come before it). This didn't stop many in the audience from openly weeping at the climax nonetheless. And I confess I found it hard not to join in.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Picasso Problem

Why do comparisons with other great artists always diminish Picasso?

My personal brief for Picasso, drastically summarized, would probably run something like this: Pablo Picasso was the most powerful and versatile artist of the twentieth century. And one of the most powerful and versatile artists of any century.

Yet every time I see a show which contrasts Picasso with another great painter, I leave with renewed respect for his competition, and the sense that Picasso himself has been subtly diminished. I've felt the effect so often, if fact, that I've begun to call it "The Picasso Problem."

Take the current show at the Clark Institute, "Picasso Looks at Degas." You can feel the show trying to pump up the artistic stock of Degas through its demonstration of Picasso's interest in, and admiration for, the older artist (their conflated self-portraits, both in the Clark show, at top).

The odd thing is that while the show certainly succeeds in that aim, it seems to do so at the cost of slightly deflating Picasso.

Although hold on a minute - perhaps "admiration" isn't quite the right word for what Picasso felt for Degas anyway - "respect for and fear of" may be more like it.

Because as the relentless torrent of scholarship since his death has shown, Picasso may have been the most powerful and versatile artist of the twentieth century, but he was hardly its most original. In fact, almost everything we think of when we think of Picasso - from cubism and collage (Braque and Gris) to Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and all the fractured women who came after (African tribal art) - has been demonstrated to have been derived from the work of other artists. Indeed, the joke is that painters learned to hide their latest innovations when Picasso dropped by for a visit. And he was certainly aware of his reputation as a thieving visual magpie. Not for nothing did he quip, "Good artists borrow, great artists steal." (And needless to say, Picasso considered himself a very great artist.)

Which isn't to say Picasso didn't make all these influences "his own." But the sheer welter of identified sources has begun to bring into question what precisely the phrase "his own" could possibly mean. Yes, he blew through Braque and all but engulfed Gris. But confronted by an equal (or perhaps greater) talent, Picasso seemed almost stymied - he spent his life playing a tense game of artistic chess with Matisse, for instance, and he repeatedly returned to Velázquez, either in imitation or parody, as if desperate to test himself, or crack some secret code.

We can feel the same frustrated obsession moving beneath the surface of the Clark show - and, like Picasso, we begin to be fascinated, too, by the mix of commanding draftsmanship and extreme subtlety that's evident in Degas. Only like Velázquez (if not Matisse), Degas seems to have gotten the better of Picasso in the end; his superb graphic design, the tossed-off quality of his dynamic visual space (a minor sample above) - these attributes Picasso absorbed, perhaps utterly. But when it came to the dry delicacy, the cool, but not unsympathetic, insights of Degas's inner eye - these were "lessons" Picasso could never learn. Over and over again, in "Picasso Looks at Degas," the Spaniard seems crude and groping, and the Frenchman poised and refined.

The key to Picasso's success, of course, lay in his sketching hand - he had a natural "line" which seemed to balance precisely the opposed qualities of savagery and grace. You can feel this transfixing tension even in his doodles and cartoons, and his "development" charts, through many phases and modes, his growing mastery of the same contradictory effect in the surfaces of his paintings.

But was Picasso's sensibility operating at the same level as his fingers? It would be hard to argue "yes" - there are just too many famous Picasso works which seem cruel or even boorish upon careful reflection.

And those are qualities you could never assign to Degas. Take a pairing of images that is central to the Clark show: Degas's In a Café (L'Absinthe) (left), and Picasso's obvious response, Portrait of Sebastian Juñer Vidal (below right). The two seem almost paradoxically intertwined, yet opposed - one clearly inspired the other, but as something like a riposte. The Degas, for instance, is recessed; the Picasso, confrontational. The Frenchman's palette is monochromatic and pale, and almost off-putting; meanwhile the Spaniard's may be monochrome too, but it's a bold, insistent monochrome, and its central visage seems to almost glow - the color all but grabs you.

But if you feel you have to peer into L'Absinthe to perceive even what the painting is about, once you do, the emptiness evident in the subject's eyes is devastating in its lack of melodrama. This woman is so lost she has no awareness of being lost, and she has absolutely no thought of her own salvation (much less any observer). She exists independently of her artistic effect. In contrast, the couple of Sebastian Juñer Vidal seem to be performing for a public; the viewer is all but implicit in the frame (that red flower in the woman's hair is meant just for us); their bored decadence is meant to impress.

Again and again, something like this dichotomy plays out in "Picasso Looks at Degas;" Picasso has one eye on the viewer, hoping to shock, or flatter, or perhaps engender flattery through shock. Meanwhile Degas has reached a level of transcription that seems to exist purely for itself; he seems almost jaded by his own virtuosity, and is merely interested in capturing as precisely as possible the contours of his obsessions.

It's true this reserve sometimes flickers with a faint, cold fire that's hard to define. In Woman with an Umbrella (Berthe Jeantaud) (at left), for instance, his subject radiates a cool sense of challenge that seems to flirt with contempt - yet her expression is of such subtlety that as we gaze more closely, her affect, like the Mona Lisa's, seems to destabilize. Is she wounded and vulnerable? Or calculating and defensive? All we can say of Berthe Jeantaud, in the end, is that she is in the deepest sense remote and untouched. Which we never feel of Picasso's women - instead, in fact, we often perceive his canvases as attacks on their models; the images all but bristle with displaced violence.

It's perhaps worth noting at this point that many speculate whether Degas was impotent; we know he remained a lifelong bachelor - but not the kind of "bachelor" who, like John Singer Sargent, painted naked boys in his spare time. No, Degas was almost poignantly obsessed with the female form; he stared and stared at women; the Clark show is chockablock, in fact, with his many ballerinas, bathers, and whores. These are depicted unsparingly - there's always a tang of ugliness to them (even his dancers are plain) - but not unsympathetically. In fact, one of his bordello images, "The Madame on Her Name-Day," (above right) approaches the tragic, with its bulldog of a madame, who is so touched by the affectionate embrace of those she has debased (and whose unappealing nudity is almost child-like in its brazenness).

Needless to say, an image like that one - imbued with a perspicacity worthy of Balzac - was utterly beyond Picasso, and he responded to "The Madame on Her Name-Day" with a bizarre series of prints near the end of his life that seem designed to mock Degas - and banish his haunting example - but which of course only succeed in conjuring precisely the opposite effect. The Clark tries to put as positive a spin on these images as possible; after all, as Picasso was about ninety when he completed them, it's likely he was impotent, too.

But it's hard to feel any identification with Degas in these works. In the one below, "Prostitutes Chatting, with Parrot, Celestina, and Portrait of Degas," the Frenchman has been reduced to his own image, and is barely noticeable, high up on the right. It's the women who fill the frame - if they are women; they seem more like sirens or harpies, bright-eyed monsters giggling in contempt for the helpless male who cannot attack their voluptuous fortress (in which some sort of erotic "id" has been sublimated), while the "celestina" (or madame) glares like a blackened gargoyle from what looks like a nun's wimple. It's a creepy picture, fraught with perverse frustration, and no doubt it matched Picasso's mood quite well - at the end of his life, at last he was undone, unmanned, reduced to a voyeur - a "picture" gazing at another picture.

But even if Degas was a kind of voyeur among his bordello models, was his art really about voyeurism? And was the Spaniard's attitude toward his models at all like the Frenchman's? I'd argue "no" in both cases. Indeed, as I gazed at these last prints, I felt as if Picasso were shrinking before my eyes, and I thought of the old joke about him being, like life, "nasty, brutish and short." Nothing in this final suite of prints comes close to "The Madame on her Name-Day" - and frankly, together they feel more like a sneer at, rather than a tribute to, their supposed inspiration. Or perhaps they feel more like a desperate attempt at reductionism - for if Degas attempted to conjure from the transactions of sex the means of art, then Picasso seems determined to hammer the one back into the other. And perhaps that is what's at the heart of "the Picasso problem."

Friday, August 6, 2010

Grimm isn't so grim

In a way, I'd have to say that Grimm, Company One's "remix" of the Brothers Grimm, says something grim about the current state of playwriting. Out of the seven authors the ambitious young theatre commissioned to "re-imagine" the familiar folk tales, really only one - Kirsten Greenidge - came up with a new, fully-fledged play. The rest - some of whom have national profiles - delivered long-form sketches of one type or other.

Why did things turn out that way? I'm not really sure. But the very concept of the evening feels slightly past its fresh date, to be honest, and the familiarity of the tales may have proven something of a challenge to the authors, many of whom "play off" the originals rather than truly re-imagine them. (It's perhaps telling that Greenidge chose to "remix" the least familiar of the seven, the odd "Clever Else.") And several succumbed to the temptation of simply contrasting the Germanic whiteness of the original stories with the politically correct mores of our "post-racial" present, and so wound up with skits that might have played years ago on In Living Color or Chappelle's Show. In a way, this sometimes made the tales just as cutesy as their versions on the Disney Channel - just with, you know, outrageous attitude, etc.

But at the same time that I found myself disliking most of the scripts, I found myself liking the cast more and more as the evening progressed. They're basically out to show us a good time, and mostly sell the sketches, one way or another. And while perhaps there's no new Brando lurking in their ranks, there are plenty of resourceful and committed performers, who were up for pretty much anything, and had no trouble morphing from Southie girls to Snow White in a single bound. The lighting and design elements (particularly Arshan Gailus's imaginative soundtrack) were likewise strong - or at least as strong as they could be given how much ground they had to cover.

It must be said, however, that several of these writers (particularly the supposed heavy hitters) have written real clinkers. Gregory Maguire (of Wicked fame) and local scribe Melinda Lopez both left me bored with their respective tales; Maguire was repetitive, while Lopez was just flat. Somewhat better were the kickier, if looser and sillier, "Cry Baby Jones," by John ADEkoje, and "Half Handsome & Regrettable," by Marcus Gardley - which featured a very funny turn by company stalwart Mason Sand, as well as an appealingly gonzo one from Victoria Marsh. Meanwhile Lydia R. Diamond dusted off her core brand (racism!) for "The White Bride and the Black Bride," in which three young readers discover that - gasp - the Brothers Grimm liked the color white a whole hell of a lot more than they liked the color black. (You could make the same critique of George Lucas and Star Wars, but never mind.) Still, Diamond was at least witty in her development - and she's by now self-conscious enough to de-construct her own position halfway through. And the skit featured a real sparkler in newcomer Tasia A. Jones, whose freshness kept the slightly-tired political outrage lightly buoyant.

The best scripts of the evening were probably John Kuntz's "Red" (featuring Raymond J. Ramirez and Becca A. Lewis - both above left), and Greenidge's "Thanksgiving." Kuntz re-imagined "Little Red Riding Hood" as a sexual power game - only that doesn't really take that much imagination, does it? Still, even if "Red" was predictable, it was always creepily gripping, and Lewis - who'd been a model of versatility, btw, throughout the evening - was fearless as the "victim" who, of course, might be anything but.

Lewis also shone in "Thanksgiving," along with newcomers Molly Kimmerling and Nicole Prefontaine, who aced the accents as well as the buried resentments of three under-achieving townie girls, now all trapped in marriage and motherhood (the script revolves around their endless wait for their little girls outside ballet class). I was a bit worried at first that Greenidge was indulging in what I've begun to call "whiteface" - a new age variant of the minstrel show in which the (often formerly) racist white underclass itself becomes the object of affectionate comic stereotype. But in the end,"Thanksgiving" proved subtle and thoughtful enough to transcend such concerns. And hey, one out of seven ain't bad, is it? Particularly when all seven get the benefit of this kind of production?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

David Mamet explains it all for you

This week I'm hanging over at The Clyde Fitch Report, where I note that the reasons for David Mamet's weak direction of Race can all be found in his new book of essays, Theatre.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Marquis de Sade's Bad Habit

It's in the nature of things that a young theatre's reach should sometimes exceed its grasp. In fact, that's the way things should be. But I'm afraid Quills, Doug Wright's dark fantasia on the - uh - "irrepressible" Marquis de Sade, proves more than a stretch for the up-and-coming Bad Habit Productions, one of the "Cambridge Fringe" companies working out of the YMCA in Central Square.

The production does boast a charismatic lead performance from Timothy Otte as the gleefully perverted Marquis. But Quills requires much more than a single star turn - ghoulish as it is, it's essentially a black farce in slow motion that demands a high sense of style in both performance and design. And while there are glimmers of talent here and there in the generally fresh-faced cast, there's very little of what you might call mature control (one actor attempts a French accent, for example, while everyone else sounds American - except for one other newcomer, who goes slightly British now and then). Meanwhile the set is half-baked, and the costumes kind of inexplicable (they seem to float between multiple periods). The whole thing feels like a well-intentioned college production - appropriate to friends and family only, I'd say; but to any one else, it might seem positively sadistic.

In case you're unfamiliar with the play, it's a history piece that plays so fast and loose with history that it's essentially fantasy. It's well known that the Marquis spent his last years in the asylum of Charenton; Wright's conceit is that the hospital's administration set about trying to silence de Sade through any means possible - including eventual dismemberment. Of course nothing like this happened to the Marquis at all; perhaps the most horrifying thing about his whole career is that he died peacefully in his bed - and what's more, Wright's tormented torturer, the Abbe de Coulmier (Eric Hamel) was, in real life, one of de Sade's protectors, not punishers.

Oh, well, what are a few historical facts, I suppose, when you're bent on simplistic propaganda, as Wright is here. Having suffered through both Justine and Philosophy of the Bedroom in college, I have few illusions about the Marquis as an avatar of freedom; his sexual peccadilloes all depended on coercion or actual incarceration, and while modern types like to think of him as advocating something like today's voluntary S&M scene, he was actually more into sewing up vaginas that had been infected with syphilis and ejaculating over freshly murdered corpses. He wasn't so much an existentialist as an obsessive sociopath, and hardly a libertine but rather a slave to his own compulsions.

Wright's point, however, is that those who would control (or eradicate) the Marquis's savage impulses will inevitably become as monstrous as he. Fair enough; but does it really require over two and a half hours of stage time to make this rather obvious case? Apparently; but we tire of his slow, steady march toward the inevitable well before Quills reaches its climax (which does, I must admit, include a memorably creepy coup de théâtre). And it doesn't help that most of the cast has trouble declaiming the playwright's labored attempt at period speech.

There is, it's true, Otte's performance to enjoy; his high spirits buoy much of the play, and he seems utterly unfazed by his lengthy stretches of nude repartee. Even he, however, doesn't quite suggest the relentlessness of de Sade's obsessions - which might have helped Eric Hamel, who's thoughtful, but not much more, in the difficult role of the Abbe (a part I confess I've never seen come off). As the Marquis's "love" interest, Jenny Reagan also shows some potential, but I think should have a bit more avid energy. The rest of the cast struggles, in various modes and keys. Bad Habit had a recent success in their witty "drag" version of Wilde's An Ideal Husband (a production which will soon be reproduced up at Gloucester Stage); which may have led them to believe they were up for any kind of exercise in high style. But alas, where Wilde glitters, Wright lumbers, and as a result, this production of Quills sometimes feels like a kind of children's crusade.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Trouble in Tahiti may count as the most confessional thing Leonard Bernstein ever wrote. In 1951, the young genius - who was a happily promiscuous bisexual - had just married, in part to better his chances of winning the conductorship of the BSO (he'd been advised that marriage might quell the rumors about his sexuality). But the subterfuge didn't do him any good: Bernstein didn't get the job, and regrets over his wedding (below left) set in right on cue - he even began composing the one-act Tahiti, a poignant portrait of a frustrating marriage in which both husband and wife are deceiving each other, while still on his honeymoon.

The opera of course has interest despite its real-life subtext (and the fact that Bernstein's personal inspiration led him to write his own libretto); indeed, it's one of Bernstein's most successful blends of "high" and "low" musical modes, features one of his loveliest melodies ("There Is a Garden"), and is imbued with a delicate, Cheeveresque atmosphere (even though it was written before John Cheever, another closet case in the suburbs, had really hit his stride).

Recently Boston has had two chances to savor this intriguing musical mood piece - Opera Boston did it awhile back in a cabaret setting, and last weekend Boston Midsummer Opera offered a full production at the Tsai Performance Center, paired with Bon Appétit!, Lee Hoiby's charming tribute to Julia Child. The two pieces made a slightly odd couple, but both are meant to charm (if in very different keys), and both are short - the Hoiby is barely half an hour - and strong production values and voices put both productions over.

Bon Appétit!, however, clearly outshone Trouble in Tahiti - largely due to reasons of casting. The trouble with Tahiti was that its two stars, Sandra Piques Eddy and Stephen Salters, although both talented singers, weren't quite right either in timbre or presence for their respective roles. Tahiti is essentially a portrait of duplicity and fragility, but both Eddy and Salters are strong, almost sturdy presences, and neither seemed much prone to neurosis, even though the opera is largely concerned with their respective fantasy lives.

And Scott Edmiston's direction, as usual, displayed a light touch but not all that much insight; it felt cleverly shaped, but not deeply explored. He underlined the piece's satire rather than its conflicted emotional sympathies (he gave its strange "Greek chorus" trio all manner of amusing doo-wop routines), and politely deleted any sexual subtext from the proceedings. He also pulled the unhappy couple's (usually unseen) son onstage twice - which tended to twist the material into the standard form of boomer domestic drama (which it's not). Oh, well; if the production never quite hit the heights it might have, it still never dragged, and was fairly stylishly designed - and conductor Susan Davenny Wyner gave a good account of Bernstein's score in the pit. There was also some lovely singing (despite the Tsai Center's strangely muffled acoustic) not just from the leads but also from Megan Roth as the head of that chorus-trio (she was also most at home with her Andrews-Sisteresque routines). I hope to hear and see more of Ms. Roth soon.

And of course I'd like to see the wonderful Judy Kaye, the star of Bon Appétit!, again as soon as possible. Kaye, of course, makes the perfect musical Julia Child (ok, she doesn't have the height, but she's got everything else in spades), and she seemed to channel the chef's famous joie de vivre effortlessly as she whipped up a chocolate cake before our very eyes - on a facsimile of the set Julia used to cook on - all while singing her heart out. I suppose the piece is just a trifle, but to be honest, it gave me the happiest, most carefree time I've had in a theatre in months. (Maybe years.) The real surprise, actually, was the sweet sophistication of Hoiby's score, which seemed to perfectly nudge Child's already-nearly-musical musings into a soufflé of light melody and clever in-jokes (when Kaye intoned that "When making a chocolate cake, you need a battle plan!" the Marseillaise briefly cranked up). The crowd left the theatre in high spirits (we even got a free cupcake), convinced they'd seen something close to the ideal light-opera summer program.