Thursday, September 30, 2010

What to see (there's a lot), and what's next

Pick a door, any door - there's probably a good show behind it.
Frankly, there's almost too much to see in town right now. Where to begin? Probably the best of the bunch is Nicholas Martin's expert production of Bus Stop at the Huntington - but the rest of the bunch is pretty strong, too. Fräulein Maria, which closes at the Paramount this weekend, is an absolute riot, and I've heard good things about The Laramie Residency as well (I can't see it till Saturday). (ArtsEmerson, which a friend described to me as "like having our own little BAM here in Boston!" has indeed, opened with a BAM.) Meanwhile 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is still buzzing at the Lyric, and Camelot is jousting away down at Trinity. If low-down humor is your bag, then the North Shore has up a crackling version of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels - or if you're a hopeless trend victim, SpeakEasy Stage is doing a solid version of Sarah Ruhl's silly In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play. Let's see, that's (1-2-3-4 . . .) SEVEN shows worth seeing up around town. Perhaps a record.

But wait, there's more - this weekend, I'm catching up with Stoneham's Glee-ful Perfect Harmony, which got strong notices, and closes Sunday. Then it's off to the ICA for a rare program of local dance from area stars Daniel McCusker (his company, above), Caitlin Corbett, and Kelley Donovan. Then comes the Laramie Residency, as noted, and finally, the opening of Handel and Haydn's season, with an all-Mozart program ranging pleasingly from the greatest hits (Eine kleine Nachtmusik) to the obscure (the overture and march from Mitridate, written when the boy genius was 14). This weekend also marks the kick-off of Handel Haydn's count-down to their two hundredth birthday (yes, you read that right). More to come on that. In the meantime, get online, or get out to the BosTix booth, and go see a show.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Far Cry goes further

The talented musicians of "A Far Cry."
I'm catching up late with A Far Cry, the "self-conducted" string orchestra of young virtuosi that has taken the local press by storm.  And I confess I was a little skeptical of them - their ethos seemed to me like a possible mis-application of that totally-awesome DIY millennial attitude that often leaves me shaking my head.

It's important to keep an open mind, though, right?  Right!  But as I settled into my seat and began to peruse the program for their "Primordial Darkness" concert last week, my heart sank.  "This is your shovel.  The music is your earth.  Dig in," were the opening lines - which maybe would have sounded better as a tweet; but the notes' author, Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot, kept digging from there.  We learned much post-collegiate wisdom from her, including that composer Iannis Zenakis "built metaphysical alternate universes" and that playwright William Congreve was "a flash in the pan" - because, as she mused sagely, "the entertainment business has always been fickle."  Uh-huh.  I closed the program trying not to dislike these kids before they'd even hit the stage.

Another new kid on the block

I've been remiss in not mentioning that we actually have yet another new theatre in town - the "Hemenway Project," designed by Handel Architects, at the Boston Conservatory (above).  As the Conservatory's old performance space had gotten so tatty I sometimes actually couldn't face seeing shows there, I'm very excited about the new venue.  And you should be, too.  An opening celebration is scheduled for the weekend of Oct. 13-16, with free guided tours for the public on Saturday, Oct. 16, and a tribute to Tommy Tune on the boards that evening, featuring Conservatory alum Chad Kimball (of Memphis fame).  More info is available here.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The hills are alive, yo

Julie Andrews reaches out in The Sound of Music.
How do you solve a problem like The Sound of Music?  The 1965 blockbuster (above, with additions) was sneered at by hipsters upon its release (Pauline Kael called it "The Sound of Money") to whom its creepy cultural underpinnings were all too clear. Usually Rodgers and Hammerstein, for all their corniness, were progressive in their politics; but this time, it was hard to make the same claim. Because they'd written a musical that purported to be about Catholics in Austria during the time of the Anschluss - and yet the fact that Hitler was Austrian and Catholic was somehow never mentioned. Indeed, the movie's subliminal message, that good Catholics resisted Hitler's advance, has been shown by historians to be preposterous.  (And the Austrians had no trouble later electing a former Nazi as President.)

The Sound of Music even scrambles what in many ways is most appealing about Rodgers and Hammerstein's legacy - their embrace of female sexuality.  In South Pacific and Oklahoma - in hell, all their musicals - the heroine is portrayed as a healthy sexual being with an appetite for physical love, which doesn't qualify her as a fallen woman. As long as sex goes hand in hand with emotion, R&H consistently counsel, it's okay (even their "fast" girls, like Ado Annie, are forgiven for their loose ways).

But The Sound of Music subtly whitewashes its romantic, as well as political, story.  Maria von Trapp was a 20-year-old orphan when she "fell in love" with the wealthy Captain von Trapp, who was twenty-five years her senior (not the seeming twelve or fourteen years between Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer in the movie).  It wasn't quite a case of "You Are Sixteen, I'm Going On Seventy," but given that the Captain threw over age- and income-appropriate women for his twenty-year-old, penniless nanny, there are undercurrents to their romance that, shall we say, the movie elides.  No wonder the Jewish, single, fifty-something Pauline Kael had a conniption when she saw it.

What probably drove her even crazier was the obvious fact that The Sound of Music is an absolute triumph of pop culture (and pop was her thang).  It's perfectly cast, paced, and produced, and visually it's one of the few movies you can really call "stunning."  The music - which is so harmonically simple it should be a total bore - is instead utterly charming and instantly memorable, and the lyrics are justifiably famous.  "This can't be happening!" you may tell yourself as you watch it, but The Sound of Music is a kind of an anschluss of entertainment, and as you watch it you realize - you will be assimilated. No wonder the movie has become embedded in the culture the way that only The Wizard of Oz and a handful of other family films have.

But it's also of course a totem of white culture - indeed, maybe no movie but Triumph of the Will is whiter.  And that has made The Sound of Music both cultural touchstone and target over the years.  Of late, however, the touchstone has won out over the target - in Moulin Rouge!, for instance, the bohemians all sang along with the title song sans irony, and now Doug Elkins has choreographed a whole suite of hip-hop and break dances to the movie's score in Fräulein Maria (at the new Paramount Theatre through this weekend).

The ridiculous contrast between these street moves and this whitest of movies is the show's big (though not only) joke.  Instead of lilting waltzes and lifts, the choreography hugs the ground, and darts here and there, sometimes defensively, sometimes seductively.  But if Elkins has taken The Sound of Music to the street, he's done it without really subverting (much less lampooning) it.  Indeed, although his scenario for "I Am Sixteen, Going On Seventeen" is about an aging queen trying to seduce a hung piece of rough trade, and "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" is set to the smooth moves of a naïvely posturing rapper, Fräulein Maria is clearly designed not to ridicule its corny source, but rather to bestow some of that source's golden-tinged innocence on the culturally disenfranchised.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Getting down and Dirty at the North Shore

After their great performances, these "Scoundrels" deserve a rest.
"What you lack in grace you more than make up for in vulgarity," the lead of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels quips at one point to his sidekick, and it's the kind of back-handed compliment that pretty much sums up the whole show.  Spawned in the shadow of The ProducersScoundrels starts out broad and bawdy - and then just gets broader and bawdier, its shenanigans always laced with smart-alecky, Mad-Magazine-style wit.  But this seems to be (again, as the show itself would have it) merely a case of "giving 'em what they want": Scoundrels survived a slew of lukewarm reviews on Broadway, went on to win a Tony for one of its stars, and seems to have been touring somewhere ever since.

And now it's at Beverly's North Shore Music Theatre, in a jazzy, snazzy production that should prove a hit, because it definitely gives the crowd what it wants - even though I began to tune out well before the last whoopee-cushion gag (although I'm speaking metaphorically; the whoopee cushion, oddly enough, never makes its appearance).  I'm hardly immune to raunchy humor - but I'm not a fan of repetition; and while Scoundrels seems to just want you to let out a great big horselaugh (which you're happy to do), it then wants you to do it again, and again, and again.  Indeed, its tone and attack never vary for two and half hours (the physical schtick in the second half particularly begins to drag).

But if I don't have the stamina of a horse, a lot of people do, and they were clearly enjoying the hell out of this show the night I saw it.  And to be honest, in many ways Scoundrels, which some have called "Son of The Producers" is actually quite a bit better than The Producers.  David Yazbeck's score and lyrics are definitely stronger: the finale's hook is actually memorable, as is "Great Big Stuff," which cleverly parodies its own stupidity - plus there's a hilarious ballad near the end that ruthlessly savages Broadway's sappy little broken heart.  And every now and then, hidden in its adolescent-suburban vision of sophistication (and its knowing acknowledgment of its own bad taste) there's a nugget of genuine, if crude, wit.  After all, listening to your kid brother's dirty jokes can be pretty funny.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The minstrel goes meta

Since World War II, mainstream writing on race in America has always had a reformist element - naturally enough, it always seemed. Racism was duly condemned as evil and false, and characters deluded by it were either censured, defeated, or eventually reformed.  Even ironic latter-day twists on this formula, like David Mamet's Race, still unconsciously clung to the quaint notion that character transcended color.

But Young Jean Lee's highly original The Shipment - the last performance of which you can catch at the ICA this afternoon - may be the first meditation on race I've ever seen that pretty much dispenses with that sweet sentiment.  To this young Korean-American playwright, racism is simply how the world operates, and how we operate, too - it's a crucial ingredient not merely of our social identity but of our actual, inner identity - if that really exists (Lee carefully sidesteps this question). As whites stereotype blacks, so blacks stereotype whites, and both play off their own stereotyping in not just their social presentations but in how they think about themselves. In short, racism is our actual lingua franca; you can't be hip, or even self-aware, without it.

This, of course, is a common belief in the academy, but it's rarely voiced so openly on stage, perhaps because it's such a coolly despairing point of view (and quite possibly a hardcore racist one). And certainly The Shipment, intriguing as it is, is also coolly despairing, even if that despair is concealed beneath a pastiche of energetic vulgarity and clever button-pushing - most of which turns out to be a deception, by the way.  Indeed, we eventually learn the entire show has been a deception; even its marketing has been a deception - it has been widely praised as a searing indictment of racism.  But frankly, "a sad acceptance of racism" would be closer to the truth.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Sex and Kansas City

For a gay man, seeing a play by William Inge is like stepping into the Way-Back Machine and coming out into a world in which gay culture was completely encoded into straight culture: Inge's vision of the empty sexual plains of the Midwest - into which a horny drifter suddenly intrudes (sometimes when we're lucky it's Paul Newman, at left) - is as gay as anything Tennessee Williams ever wrote, but it's also more closeted (like the playwright himself), and so embedded in the myths of the American heartland that it reads like some unconscious prequel to Brokeback Mountain.

Of course it says something about the American heartland that it pulled this playwright and his output so close to its hairy chest; indeed, Inge was so influential that his style sparked a cottage industry of hunk-at-large movies and plays (indeed, where would Newman, or William Holden, or Burt Lancaster, have been without him?).  At the same time, of course, gay culture all but took over the American arts scene - Inge orbited just outside a secret bi-coastal world that included not only Tennessee Williams but also Truman Capote, Thornton Wilder, James Baldwin, Frank O'Hara, John Cheever, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Jerome Robbins, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Philip Johnson - who wasn't gay in American high culture in the 50's?

Naked in the closet in John Cheever's "The Swimmer."
But it's no surprise that, as the closet door squeaked open, and the straight world grappled with gay liberation in the 60's and 70's, Inge wound up being discarded, and his work fell into contempt - he read, like Rock Hudson, as a form of dishonest camp. (Tragically, he committed suicide in 1973.)  But neither is it surprising that now, at least in the civilized portions of the world (where gay rights are kind of a done deal, so Inge's sexuality isn't such a big deal), this long-overlooked playwright is beginning to edge back into our good graces.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

What to see, and what's next

"Bus Stop" rolls in at the Huntington.
People are always asking me if there's a good show in town; the answer is always "yes," and usually (unlike with the movies) there's more than one.  Right now there are three (at least): The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the Lyric Stage, Camelot down at Trinity Rep in Providence, and especially Bus Stop (above) at the Huntington (which I'll review in a day or two, but which is just about perfect, and certainly Broadway-worthy).

This weekend marks a slew of new openings, though - including one noteworthy production, Young Jean Lee's breakout play The Shipment, which will run only this weekend at the ICA.  The controversial playwright herself will be in attendance to lead post-show discussions.

Elsewhere, the reborn North Shore Music Theatre opens Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and the keenly-anticipated ArtsEmerson season (you know, the one that has replaced the A.R.T. in terms of intellectual expectation) kicks off for real with Fraulein Maria (a flash mob warms up the locals for the coming show, below).

Something for everyone, I'd say.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Coming attractions

It's Sister Sarah to the sexual rescue, ladies!
By now I think Sarah Ruhl's reputation as our greatest living figurehead playwright is assured, and if it's not, then In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play (now at SpeakEasy Stage) pretty much seals the deal. As a friend who saw it in its failed Broadway run assured me, it is, indeed, better than Dead Man's Cell Phone or Eurydice. It's just not all that good. It's sometimes funny, but also both predictable and meandering; despite a national reputation, a MacArthur "genius" grant, and a slew of nominations for the Tony and the Pulitzer, Ruhl has yet to produce a play like American Buffalo or Curse of the Starving Class, or really any of the plays that made the names of America's great male playwrights.

But In the Next Room is still good enough to keep her nailed to the prow of a cultural barge that somehow includes the Ivy League, the Seven Sisters, Oprah, and the Times's Charles Isherwood (who I sometimes think should have stuck to writing about porn stars). And why? Because, as usual, Ruhl earnestly connects, not with any sort of personal artistic vision, but rather with the touchstones of the liberal arts college experience (her play is even derived from a book by a Smith professor). The uptight white women who can't function sexually, and the warm, black woman who can; the distant, inadequate straight guy, and the gay, flamboyant artiste; the clichés are all there, one after the other, straight from the campus coffeehouse.

I remember when I first saw Eurydice, I innocently fumed that it played like "meandering jottings" from some college girl's journal. Little did I know that was literally true (Ruhl wrote it while at Brown) - and what's more, that was the whole point. Another of Ruhl's "college plays" (Passion Play) has likewise seen regional productions all over the country, such is the nostalgic hunger for campus culture (especially as written by a woman) on our stages. Indeed, Ruhl's career is just one facet of a larger cultural movement I've written critically about before: the steady encroachment of the academy on the arts. Professors are no longer content to analyze our theatre; instead, they presume to direct it, via repertory houses and a farm system of new play development. To them, and their former students, Ruhl seems like a singular talent; but to a skeptic, she has rather obviously been manufactured by what I call the academic-theatrical complex.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

In what is becoming something of a ritual . . .

. . . the latest OK Go video.

Trinity finds a most congenial spot for Camelot

Yes, Lancelot, this is Camelot!
You have to feel for artistic directors these days - they can't approach a great old chestnut without some sort of radical excuse for doing so.  Don't worry, they tell us, we're not going to just "do" Our Town or You Can't Take It With You - we're going to "do" something with it!  The genders are reversed this time; or it's set on Wall Street; or everybody pees on the flag at the end; or a giant pineapple rolls through!  We're going to rip away the mask of gentility, and leave you shivering in the existential dark, staring your own failed, miserable existence in the face!   And you're going to love it!

Only of course nine times out of ten, you don't love it; the radical update, or reconstruction or what have you, falls terribly flat. You try to stare the meaninglessness of your own existence in the face, but you find yourself thinking about the grocery list instead.  That is when you're not happily daydreaming - as Emily urinates on George in the middle of Our Town - of innocent productions of chestnuts past, which gave you such pleasure, before Bob Brustein explained to you how wrong you were.

Monday, September 20, 2010

What's the worst piece of public art in Boston?

It's a common ritual for critics to hash out the best of the previous year (or decade), but picking out the worst . . . that's an unusual assignment. But one that local blogger Greg Cook - a man better known for sweetness than snark - has nonetheless bravely taken on.

And oddly, picking out the worst feels a whole lot more difficult than picking out the best!

For one thing, the field is crowded. When you're doing a "best of" list, you're dealing with (sadly) only a handful of contenders, guaranteed. But when you're trying to decide what the worst is, you find yourself surveying a vast wasteland, especially when it comes to public art. True, a few well-known disasters (like the Irish Famine Memorial, at left), come immediately to mind;but then you find yourself thinking of another candidate, and another, and another . . .

For not only is there an enormous field of contenders for the prize in question, there are almost as many reasons why they're bad. Indeed, nothing shows up critical folly like pondering the dreck of the past - because it always passed through some committee's critical filter, and was often even on somebody's "best of" list at the time! (Not so long ago, it seems critics thought wind sculptures were a good idea, for instance.) So it's worth remembering that public art is so bad partly because art criticism has been so bad.

Even so, you'd think a bit more quality stuff would get through the filter just by chance. But it's actually hard to think of any good (much less great) public art put up in Boston in the last, oh, forty years; I think, given Greg's apparent urge to have a contest about public art, it perforce had to be a race to the bottom. For it seems that not only has criticism wandered astray, but the culture has, too (after all, we just named our last big public works project after a ball player). True, some cities do better than Boston - but not all that much. Even Chicago's much-lauded "Cloud Gate" (below), though undeniably cool, is basically cool because it's very big and shiny, and thus elides the problem of "content" (the same way ball players do). Indeed, I suppose the last meaningful piece of public art I can think of may have been Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial (at left, which Boston's more-recent Holocaust Memorial essentially imitated).

Big, bright and empty: the celebrated Anish Kapoor succeeds in creating public art sans public content.
In general, critics (and intellectuals) want something politically and formally challenging in public art; plain folks just want something accessible and celebratory.  The intellectuals have an execrable record, it's true, but those who have resisted their prescriptions haven't done so well, either; they often come off as simplistic reactionaries, and the representational stuff they've insisted on erecting has ended up looking clumsy, sappy, or clumsily sappy. (It doesn't help matters that very few representational sculptors have reached the level of prowess that was common in the past.) In a nutshell, these days the critical establishment celebrates artistic modes that are inappropriate to the demands of public art, and the public's own nostalgic taste seems just as bad.

I suppose it's worth pointing out that the only recent "public art" that has made a splash locally has been the graffiti of Shepard Fairey. I hate Fairey because his work is plagiarized from other (better) artists, and because his rock-your-world narcissism is essentially as sentimental as the Irish Famine Memorial. Indeed, Fairey's success only underlines the unspoken crisis in public art: some folks seem to feel the only "authentic" way for an artist to enter the public sphere is to attack it. Clearly that can't go on forever - and at any rate, Fairey merely replaces nostalgic kitsch with hip kitsch, or gnostic dopiness; I mean seriously, what is Andre the Giant doing up on those Boston tenements? Fairey's almost as stupid as that big, sad pear in Dorchester (below).

So what's the solution to the quandary Greg Cook has so deftly put his finger on? Like everybody else, I'm not sure - and there's probably no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of public art, anyway.  The odd thing is that we yearn for it, even though we here in Boston seem to have lost the knack for making it, so we're going to keep trying.  But perhaps we're just not aiming high enough - there may be no formula out there, but there are people around who are getting it right, and maybe we should just follow their leads. Below are a few exemplars of the form (all of them essentially representational) that are worth checking out; this is what we could be aiming for.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The future of Irish dance is in their hands

World-class Irish step dancers Suzanne Cleary and Peter Harding re-configure "Lord of the Dance" for the table top, and "Irish hand dance" is born.

Stringing up the puppetmaster

Sometimes you really want to like a performer, despite his or her failings.

But sometimes, try as you might, you just can't.

I pondered this problem while watching Blair Thomas's new show, Hard Headed Heart, at the Charlestown Working Theater last weekend (which once again is offering a gutsy season, btw).  I wanted to like this show like hell.  Thomas is brilliantly versatile - in his "puppet shows" (somehow the phrase doesn't do these conceptual gambits justice) he plays most all the roles, and provides the narration, musical accompaniment, and sound effects too - along with just about everything else.  When he's not banging on a drum kit, or puffing on a tuba, he's expertly manipulating an array of evocatively-designed marionettes, and doing all their voices.  I've rarely seen a performer work harder.

And the "shows" themselves are marvels of ingenious design.  Each of the three pieces in Hard Headed Heart came with its own theatre - drama machines on wheels, if you will, equipped with in-house orchestras, stereo and projection systems, and all manner of props, tricks, and trap doors.  These pint-sized productions - and the contraptions that embody them - are almost relentlessly imaginative, and redolent with ghastly, Grand Guignol atmosphere.

But unfortunately the maestro himself, Mr. Blair Thomas, isn't a particularly warm or engaging presence - indeed, he plays puppetmaster with the kind of cold-blooded condescension that always kills things at the A.R.T.  (You can almost hear his type cackling, "Pathetic earthlings . . . don't you know Death is always pulling the strings???")  But alas, I'm afraid warmth - or at least humanity - is what's required to put over the crude rough-and-tumble of the first piece on the program, Lorca's "The Puppet Play of Don Cristóbal," (at top), with its long stretches of violence and its hearty embrace of lust; without it, the Punch-and-Judy cruelty just gets tedious.

A similarly snide distance undermined "St. James Infirmary," a meditation on the folk and jazz standard about the heartbroken drunk who has just seen his girl "stretched out on a cold white table" at the eponymous infirmary.  She was "so sweet, so cool, so fair,"  he moans, but the song is not only an elegy but also a defiant cry against death, with the singer's demand that at his own funeral, "a twenty-piece jazz band . . . raise Hell as we go along." Thomas's macabre version (at left), however, hid no such poignant, life-affirming punch; indeed, it merely got creepier as it went along, with the girl's skeleton taunting the grieving singer with her red, fuck-me high heels.  "I'm so blue my favorite hooker's dead," seemed to be the only message of this version.

Thomas's final number, based on Wallace Stevens's epochal "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" was likewise reductive - it seemed to want to shoe-horn this open-ended classic into the doomed-romance template of the rest of the evening.  Still, its melancholy accompaniment - Ben Johnston's String Quartet #4, which seems to slowly encrypt the hook from "Amazing Grace" - was gently appropriate.  And the piece's imagery - four back-lit scrolls on which panoramas were slowly, softly assembled - engendered something of the poem's quiet sense of meditation and ontological disruption.  Best of all, Thomas didn't actually "perform," and hence there was no metaphorical snickering to mar the piece's truly evocative moments.  More, please - and less.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

If you ever wondered whether our culture is driven by our technology . . .

. . . ponder that King Kong is now being readied for the Broadway stage. And why? Because we have the technology (at left). And once you have that, you just go out and buy the creative; Craig Lucas is actually doing the book, and Marius de Vries the music.  That's right - the music.  It's a musical.  So if you ever wondered whether or not the musical is being driven by technology . . .

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Lost in the labyrinth with Christopher Nolan (Part II)

What, if anything, is at the center of Christopher Nolan's maze?
In my first post on Inception, I attempted to explain why Christopher Nolan's blockbuster had incited such passion on the Web (and such recalcitrance elsewhere), using the director's own hints as guide.  And in brief, I found in the pitched battle over the movie a war between two cultures: the culture of film - with its attenuated but still real roots in theatre, music, and art - and the culture of the virtual, in which only genre and paranoid onanism hold sway.  Critics looked at Inception and saw everything it lacked: characters, narrative, resonant symbolism; but geeks simply saw themselves, writ large, and with superb skill.  To them, it seemed obvious that a dream should look like The Matrix (or some other cool action flick); because what else would a dream look like?  What is a film for other than to provide thrills, to serve as "a wild ride"?

Which isn't to say that Inception isn't brilliantly made, or that Nolan isn't very, very clever.  It is, and he is - what's more, the director clearly has his finger on something new that's embedded in the culture; his immense commercial success, built on movies of undeniable intellectual challenge, make his legacy impossible to ignore.  But the question remains - is that "something new" he has tapped into capable of making art - or is it simply replacing art?

In short, what is Nolan's legacy made of?  I'd argue that in their complexity, his films mirror art, and maybe even great works of art; but their material is always derivative of art (the way "genre" is) without ever quite becoming, Pinocchio-like, the real thing.  Of course it's been a staple of film criticism for a long time that pop can achieve the status of art - and it arguably has, in movies like The Godfather and Citizen Kane - but these days it seems the greatness of those pop baubles may have really been due to the actual sources of art leaking into genre on the down low.  A sense of the tragic isn't actually indigenous to Mario Puzo's The Godfather, for instance; Francis Ford Coppola worked it into his movie sideways, from his knowledge of opera and theatre.  Ditto Roman Polanski, and Orson Welles, and even Alfred Hitchcok.  And critics did handsprings over their movies because they sensed in them an old magic in a new, populist form.

But when Christopher Nolan goes to work - with a brain just as sharp as Coppola's, if not more so - he doesn't try to tap into theatre, or opera, or even the great movies of the past; he simply tries to deepen genre with more genre.  Thus as we get lost in the maze of a movie like Inception, we only meet up with - other movies.

The imagery for "The Dawn of Man" in "2001."
To see why this is so, ponder, for a moment, what many consider the "ambiguities" of Inception, next to what we think of as real ambiguity in genuine works of art.  And no, with apologies to William Empson, we won't even reach as high as Shakespeare - let's look again, instead, at Stanley Kubrick (in whose artistic vineyard Inception fans imagine Nolan is toiling).

Kubrick has his flaws, of course, but his movies are genuinely ambiguous - indeed, as we watch them repeatedly, an almost frightening sense of thematic depth often opens out beneath us.  Take 2001, for instance (above and below) - it took viewers a long time to appreciate that the "computer-goes-crazy" story of HAL hooked seamlessly into the meditation on mind and machine that was threaded through the whole movie.  Indeed, after repeated viewings, fans realized that much in the film was ambiguous - even early reviewers chuckled, for instance, that HAL seemed like the most "human" character in the movie, but only gradually did viewers realize what that meant.

Other assumptions - such as the unseen presence of "aliens" behind the mysterious monolith (an assumption of "genre," btw) - likewise collapsed over time.  By now, we appreciate 2001 as a strange, slow poem on the question of what, exactly a machine is - and whether we ourselves are anything more than that (and whether the universe is, either; note the visual parallels between HAL's "eye," below, and the sunrise above).

And the imagery for the dawn of HAL.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Mamet in the middle

It's always painful watching a really terrible production, but it's positively excruciating watching good actors suffer through a bad play that's been directed even more badly.  You can see the realization that they're bombing slowly register in their eyes, but of course it's not their fault - and none of the actual perpetrators of the disaster are on hand to take the blame, either.  That awareness may be what makes the New Rep production of Boston Marriage, a play that I can only describe as David Mamet's misbegotten love child with Oscar Wilde, particularly agonizing - sitting through it is like watching three talented actresses slowly crucified before your eyes.  And unlike Jesus, who only had to go the distance once, these ladies are going to have to endure this artistic Golgotha six times a week.

Frankly, it's even painful to review a bomb like this, but . . .  well, I thought about skipping out on my duty last night, but today I figured, "Oh, just hold your breath, Garvey, and write it as fast as you can."  So here goes nothing.

Okay, first things first - who's to blame.  Perp #1 is David Mamet (above left) who in mid-career supposedly decided to pen a riposte to critics who claimed he couldn't write roles for women.  But instead of contradicting their argument, he confirmed it.  For the "characters" (and I use that term loosely) of Boston Marriage are certainly not women.  I'm not sure what they are, to be honest - the closest thing I can come up with is "Henny Youngman's idea of gay men in Edwardian drag."  For not only did Mamet decide to shake up his career crisis by writing for women, he also chose to write in a style he thought of as a facsimile of Edwardian wit, although it comes off as a florid undergraduate spoof of something said undergraduate doesn't really understand (and perhaps has a secret contempt for).  Somehow I get the impression the playwright thought hilarity would ensue from simply mentioning words like "reticule" and "rodomontade" - that is when the audience wasn't rolling in the aisles from jokes like "I was stroking your muff when your parts came."  But what can I say, he was so wrong.  I admit some of these lines do get laughs, but they're of the "OMG, that's the weirdest one yet!" variety.  (Fans of The Room take note - it occurs to me you could really enjoy this production.)

Monday, September 13, 2010

Make a bee-line to this Putnam County

Life is pandemonium at the Lyric Stage with the cast of "Putnam County."
This is, I think, Boston's third annual rendition of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (I guess it's a natural for the Athens of America), but the iterations of the show have so far all been champions, with the latest version (at the Lyric Stage through October 2) quite possibly the strongest yet. There's nothing really new in director Stephen Terrell's staging, but this bee still has more sting than its predecessors - the satire is sharper (and sometimes a bit broader), the sense of frustrated youth a little stronger - the bully is a little meaner, the over-achiever even more of a pressure-cooker. This could be reason enough to see the show, if it weren't for the simple talent of the cast, which is as easily as strong as that of the national tour. Director Terrell is a big mucky-muck at Emerson, and has cherry-picked from its graduating class several age-appropriate rising stars; add to that a few thespians who have played their roles at other regional theatres, and a turn from an actress who did the show on Broadway, and you have one of the best casts I've ever seen at the Lyric - and in vocal terms one of the best casts I've seen locally, period. (All the better showcased because this particular theatre still valiantly refuses to mike its performers - thank you.)

Of course, even in the best of hands, there's only so far the relentless quirk of Putnam County can take you. (We're not talking South Pacific here.) And director Terrell has unwisely decided against an intermission - which makes the stasis of the situation, when added to the relative lack of variation in composer William Finn's clever but repetitive songs, begin to feel almost as long as - well, an actual spelling bee. Still, Rachel Sheinkin's book is always wittily observant of its white, New Age milieu (no Tea Partiers in this crowd, that's for sure). And we always have the reliable Will McGarrahan to distract us as the slightly-weird vice principal with the deadpan definitions and sample sentences, along with the appealing Kerri Jill Garbis as his perky foil. Rounding out the "grown-up" cast, De'Lon Grant likewise made a believably pissed-off parolee doing community service as a juicebox-equipped "grief counselor."

If the adults were admirable, however, the kids were even cooler; each seemed just about perfectly cast and delivered ace characterizations and vocals (although sometimes I wasn't sure I could bear any more adorability from Leaf Coneybear). So here's to Sam Simahk (the unfortunately tumescent Chip), Lexie Fennell Frare (a super-sensitive Logainne), Michael Borges (an aggressively vulnerable Leaf), Daniel Vito Siefring (a surprisingly nasty William Bar-fay), Lisa Yuen (a sad class-superstar Marcy), and Krista Buccellato (a sweetly longing Olive): you guys are as good as Boston musical theatre gets.  I wasn't sure we needed another trip to Putnam County, but you made it more than worthwhile.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The pleasures of alt cliché

That destabilizing man-thang gets a workout in "The Kids Are Alright."

Guess what - I saw another movie! And it was actually enjoyable, even if it was completely predictable. The movie was The Kids Are Alright, the lesbian-couple comedy which people had been recommending to me for weeks, because I'm gay and everything. I'm not sure why I dragged my feet on seeing it, but perhaps I feared it might be "gay" in the same way that Glee is "gay" - i.e., designed to make suburbanites like Joel Brown and Ty Burr proud of themselves for being down with the gay thing. Also, why not cast lesbians as the lesbians? I wondered. BUT, when you're looking for a movie - unlike when you're looking for a show - you often have only one (and sometimes no) choice, particularly when your partner won't sit through anything too grim or too gross, like Lebanon. Which is why we basically only see movies when the latest Pixar is out.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The houndtrap

The Publick Theatre's revival of Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound (at left) is perhaps almost too smart for its own good. And maybe not quite sharp enough for its own good.

Which isn't to say this Hound isn't friendly; it's just never frisky, despite the efforts of a large chunk of Boston's best theatrical talent. The central problem is that director Diego Arciniegas has weighted the script with a rather heavy sense of its own intellectual importance - he heightens the shadow of the Theatre of the Absurd, and draws out (while actually slightly obscuring) the script's inter-textuality, and has even updated the look of Stoppard's play-within-the-play to the inter-sexuality, if you will, of Charles Ludlam. And Arciniegas has made Stoppard's meta-play so very thoroughly meta that he has even thrown in an intermission, at which I found myself peeing next to one of the script's "critics" in the john. (I admit I felt my performance of the role at that moment had an urgency his lacked.)

But clever as he is, Arciniegas seems to have forgotten that the dramatic engine of this one-act (and despite its dilation into two acts here, Hound is most definitely a one-act) is a snarky parody of Agatha Christie - her moth-eaten classic The Mousetrap in particular, which I think is still running in London after 58 years (Stoppard even ridicules, and therefore ruins, the old Dame's big twist). Yes, yes, the script is chock-a-block with then-up-to-the-minute theatrical ideas; but Hound should scamper through them like a puppy, as it's basically a long-form skit, not a seminar.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Lost in the labyrinth with Christopher Nolan (Part I)

Our fandom, like our politics, has become steadily more polarized - but few directors  have been quite as controversial as Christopher Nolan, the blockbuster auteur responsible for Memento, The Dark Knight, and now Inception, the sleeper (in more ways than one) of the summer.

Indeed, as A.O. Scott famously pointed out, Nolan by now is so polarizing that an online flame war broke out over Inception before the movie even opened - this after a tsunami of threats and rants had washed over the Internet when the critics (and the Academy Awards) didn't rate The Dark Knight as highly as the sages of Ain't It Cool News had. Within days a conventional wisdom had coalesced that Nolan could be counted on to pull in the big bucks, but simultaneously divide moviegoers into factions about as affectionate as the Shi'ites and the Sunnis.

Things didn't start out that way. Nobody even saw the director's first feature, Following (except me, it seems), but everybody loved Memento, the "backwards" thriller about a man suffering from a rare memory disorder. And everyone went batty over Batman Begins, Nolan's clever resuscitation of a comic franchise that had turned cartoonish.

But then came The Dark Knight and Inception - Nolan's biggest hits yet - and soon battle lines had been drawn between those who insisted these movies were masterpieces (but were hard pressed to explain exactly why), and those reviewers who found them brilliantly realized, but strangely empty - and dramatically pointless. The fanboys had an answer to these critics, however - they might not be able to "explain" Nolan's work, but someday it would be explained, just as the films of Stanley Kubrick survived initial critical drubbings to slowly reveal themselves as the great works they are.

In all this, however, little illuminating has been said about Inception - so I was surprised to discover, when I finally caught up with the movie a few weeks ago, that the most insightful critic of Inception may in fact be its director. For Christopher Nolan has embedded in his recondite magnum opus (which may be a masterpiece of its type, more on that later) a pretty accurate - and pretty obvious - guide to his own drives, methods, and meaning. This has happened before - Hitchcock, Lean, and Fellini all proffered exegeses of their own oeuvres in films as diverse as The Birds, Doctor Zhivago, and 8 1/2. It just took the critics years to catch up to these director's self-analyses.

Monday, September 6, 2010

War Horse, Spielberg, and the wooden O

War Horse (above, a promotional clip that gives some sense of the power of its puppetry) is scheduled for March 2011 on Broadway - and I anticipate a response like the mobbed performances us old-timers remember from the tour of Nicholas Nickleby some twenty-five years ago. The arrival of the National Theatre blockbuster, followed by the much-anticipated residency of the Royal Shakespeare Company later that summer, will no doubt revive the persistent sense that American theatre lags behind its British cousin - indeed, the fact that the RSC is building a facsimile of its own digs in the Park Avenue Armory (below) only reinforces this impression with an added, subliminal message, "Not only do we have to show you Yanks how it's done, but we have to bring our own theatre to do it."

And let's be honest: there's a great deal of truth behind that impression; I admit I haven't seen anything on the American stage for several years that equals the eloquent power of War Horse. No new musical has come close, and even the considerable firepower of August: Osage County seems to flicker in comparison. War Horse isn't perfect - its second half drags a bit, due to a lengthy extension of its pacifist metaphor; but for all of its first half - and of course for its finale - it's just about peerless.

But precisely what is it peerless at? you may ask - Isn't it really just a children's story, a kind of inflated version of "Lassie Come Home"? And what does it have to tell us - that war is horrible? I think we already know that!

These points are well taken, of course; there's little that's thematically novel or striking in War Horse. What is unforgettable about it is not its message but the means of its artistry, and how those means are linked to the primal basis of theatre. To revive a much-repeated phrase, in War Horse, the medium is the message. Its meaning is embedded in its presentation on the stage.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Shakespeare at Stratford

For the American theatre-lover, the Stratford Festival right now feels like some sort of theatrical Promised Land, just across Lake Erie, where huge casts (with live music!) perform complicated, challenging versions of the canon almost entirely free of the various strains of cant emanating from New York, Chicago, and the academy. None of the three Shakespeare productions I saw - As You Like It, The Tempest(at left), and The Winter's Tale - were among the very best I've seen the Festival do (all the greatest Shakespeare I've ever seen has been either in Britain or Canada). But all three kept me engaged with their ideas, emotion, and, to be honest, old-fashioned staging prowess - and I left seeing at least one of the plays (As You Like It) in a new light. I'm not sure how America lost its way, but after this and my recent trip to London, I'm beginning to wonder why, exactly, Americans have such a problem producing classical theatre.

Part of that problem, of course, is that in the States we think of classical theatre as "a problem." How are we going to save it? is the constant cry, which of course inevitably leads to surgical solutions which flirt with killing the patient.

Compare to Stratford, where over and over again, I was struck by how the actors - speaking lines that are literally four hundred years old - easily connected with the audience as if it were the most natural thing in the world. As if that connection were a simple thing - obvious, even.

I suppose the reasons for this miracle are myriad. In Canada, the connection between acting for the stage and acting for the screen was never severed, as it was here. The Canadian educational culture likewise hangs onto the rudder of tradition - kids still learn Shakespeare in Canada; I'll never forget watching The Taming of the Shrew with 1500 high schoolers in the Festival Theatre and realizing they were catching every joke, following every line.

And somehow Canadians aren't paralyzed the way Americans are in the cross-hairs of puritanism and prurience, and thus are more easy-going about the body (and their own humanity); in the Stratford A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, for example, the Roman statues sported hilariously huge schlongs, and I remember in a Molière production a decade ago, a woman nonchalantly breast-fed her baby in the background; bare bums, bare boobs, and full frontal have crossed Stratford stages, and in an earlier Tempest, Caliban even completed his self-humiliation (on the line "Come, kiss!") by burying his face in Stephano's butt. (The audience just went "Ewwww!" and the show went on.) Even this year, Touchstone groped Audrey (to her bemusement) in As You Like It, and various nookies were tickled in Dangerous Liaisons without anyone batting an eye; the evil Diane Paulus would have no sway over these people.

Of course a deeper factor at work is simple experience; Christopher Plummer, who essayed Prospero this season, tore through several Shakespearean leads at Stratford in the 60's. Ben Carlson, this year's Leontes, has already done Brutus and Hamlet; when Lucy Peacock galumphed onstage as Audrey, I suddenly realized I'd first seen her at Stratford in 1988, as Helena (she's been there most years since). Other veterans abounded, including Tony-winner Brent Carver (one of the few actors ever to triumph as Hamlet, Tevye, and the Pirate King), Martha Henry, the great Seana McKenna, Tom McCamus, John Vickery, and Geraint Wyn Davies, while a "new" (or at least "newish") generation - including Dion Johnstone, Sarah Topham, Yanna McIntosh, and Bruce Dow - began to take pride of place in leading (or larger) roles. That's another joy of attending Stratford, btw - unlike in the tiny, faux "repertory" company at the A.R.T., you can actually see actors arrive, mature, achieve greatness, and move on at Statford.