Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Hub Review Reprise for Hallowe'en

Holiday greetings from the Hub Review!
Back by popular demand (sorry it's at the last minute) - are the Hub Review's recommendations for Highbrow Hallowe'en film viewing:

Yes, it's that time of year again - the time when "Scariest Movies of All Time" lists proliferate in all manner of media (the Globe just posted a particularly lame one - scariest thing about it was the idea that Globe readers have actually sat through schlock like Pet Sematary).

So far, however, I've never seen a "Scariest Élitist Movies of All Time" list, so a year or two ago I decided to leap into the gap, with a list of movies that not only make you jump but make you think, too. Because the thing is, horror movies have often been about intellectual challenge and fearless experimentation. So don't worry, you won't find any multiplex cheese on this list - no Amityville Horror or The Blob - and of course you won't find any bad American remakes of foreign classics. (When in doubt with horror, always see the foreign original!)

So without further ado, here's that original list, with a few added attractions at the end:

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Todd triumphant

This is just a quick note regarding Boston Conservatory's current production of Sweeney Todd, which completes its one-weekend run this Sunday in the Conservatory's brand-new, as-yet-unnamed theatre.

Okay - first, the bad news: the new theatre is a wonderful improvement over the tatty, claustrophobic space in which Conservatory students long performed; the seats are comfy, the sight lines good, everything is gleaming and brand-new.  But alas, the space is still somewhat disappointing acoustically.  It seems the rough dimensions of the old theatre remain in place, although now there's a genuine orchestra pit (hurrah!) and the hall has been swathed in dark, high-tech surfaces that we suppose were meant to work some kind of acoustical magic on it.

But wonderful sound has yet to pop out of the acoustician's hat.  The trouble is that even with the new pit, the theatre is afflicted with balance problems - the orchestra's too loud (and the singers are still amplified over it, though not as much as they used to be).  What's more troubling is that loud as it is, the sound feels slightly flat; the place booms, but doesn't resonate.  So I'm not sure simply installing more sound absorption or whatever in the pit is the answer.  It is a puzzlement.  Boston Conservatory reportedly engaged acoustical engineer Larry Kirkegaard, who did the Shalin Liu Hall up in Rockport, to work on the space; somehow I don't think his job is over.  In the meantime, my advice to the orchestra is: play softer.

But the good news is that this production of Sweeney Todd is quite memorable, and I would advise Sondheim fans to run out and grab tickets, only there aren't any - the show sold out weeks ago.  There were a few odd artistic decisions here and there in the acting (neither the Judge nor his Beadle seemed at all formidable), but leads Robert Lance Mooney and Julie Thomas (above left) sang and acted superbly in notoriously challenging roles - although intriguingly, they traced different arcs over the course of the show.  As Mrs. Lovett, Thomas was all comic bustle, to hilariously detailed effect - but she didn't seem in touch with the darker aspects of the role (particularly during "Not While I'm Around," sung quite affectingly by Dan Rosales, when she should be contemplating murder).  Meanwhile Mooney, who seemed a bit withdrawn at first, blossomed in the second half to truly operatic heights of intensity.  There were other strong turns from Mike Heslin as Anthony, Marissa Miller as Johanna, and Daniel George as Pirelli.  And it was wonderful, after years of stripped-down chamber versions, to hear the great Jonathan Tunick's original orchestrations (even if at too high a volume).

The artistic idea that seemed to be in director Neil Donohoe's sights was the ongoing question of whether Sweeney Todd counts as musical or grand opera.  It is, of course, about 75% sung-through, I think - but on the other hand, its musical style isn't always operatic; Sondheim switches from opera to operetta to music hall and back again at a moment's notice.  And the work is probably best sung by singers with Broadway training - which essentially covers technical resources with a casual, I'm-just-tossing-this-off-like-a-regular-guy kind of articulation.  Still, what Donohoe and this cast demonstrated is that in its climaxes, Sweeney Todd reaches the musical and emotional intensity we expect of grand opera - in fact, it eclipses quite a few works in the repertory.  And much of the show was a dark hoot, to boot.  It was the kind of Conservatory production one wishes could find a longer life in some other space around town.  The only thing it really needed - like grand opera - was super-titles.  Sondheim's lyrics are just too delicious to miss, and some of them always are, even in halls with clearer acoustics than this one.  Can we all decide on that in the future?  Sweeney (and maybe all Sondheim) needs super-titles to be super.

Friday, October 29, 2010


They say history is written by the victors, so of course pop culture is, too. And our pop culture has been telling us some strange things of late; since the Iraq War, we've not only seen a hit TV show about a torture-lovin', terrorist-bustin' secret agent (24), but another hit "comedy" about a serial killer, Dexter (who of course only kills other serial killers), as well as a mammoth movie franchise, Saw, in which a brilliant mastermind viciously torments people - at one remove - for their own good.

Sense a pattern? Well, if you don't, I do; pop has shown us precisely what we've been up to the last few years - and even why, precisely, we tell ourselves we're doing it.  Only it processes this self-awareness into a perverse, congratulatory triumphalism that always lets us off the moral hook.  After all, we're the victors - right?

But Aftermath (above), at ArtsEmerson through this weekend only, is not a piece of pop culture.  So this time, there's just the news about ourselves, plain and simple, with no ironic, winking spin from Fox.  Instead there are only the words (drawn from direct interviews in Jordan) of a handful of Iraqis - from among millions - "displaced" by the war.  They speak to us, as they did to their interviewers, Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank, as hosts - albeit hosts who are heart-breakingly eager to tell their stories, to have someone, anyone, pay some attention to their plight.  And thus they  don't really accuse us; indeed, they rarely raise their voices - they even manage some sad jokes about their situation.  But then, they don't have to raise their voices: what they have to say would be devastating even at a whisper.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Spiro's Dickens of a show

You can't fault Spiro Veloudos (at left, embedded in Dickens) for lacking ambition. In previous seasons, he has squeezed Sondheim's Follies into his intimate theatre, the Lyric Stage - with mixed results.  Now he has attempted an even bigger project - David Edgar's six-hour adaptation (slimmed down from eight and a half!) of Dickens' mammoth novel Nicholas Nickleby.  The "long" version, of course, took America by storm in the mid-eighties, in a triumphant RSC production helmed by Trevor Nunn.  Since then, though, the show has been rarely seen, due to its cost and logistics (even in the slimmer version, there are something like 150 roles!).

So I'll just cut to the chase - does Spiro bag his big game this time around, or is Nicholas Nickleby the second of his follies?  Happily, judging from Part I, the answer is "Yes (mostly)!" - even though Veloudos has a problem right at the center of his production.  His lead, the up-and-coming Jack Cutmore-Scott, proves a confidently bland (if handsome) hero, while as his smarter sister, Elizabeth A. Rimar tries her best to look tormented but if anything is slightly less interesting.  Meanwhile the great comedienne Maureen Keiller does better as their mother, but for some reason misses the wry comic edge to her character (she's sweet, but a bit silly).  The point is that the Nicklebys are nervous, delicate people, unsure of their way in the world but basically good, who aren't quick to demonstrate courage or pluck (although they have plenty of both). Their adventures represent, as Dickens's heroes' often do, the clash between our inner, nobler sensibilities and the machinations of the cold, cruel world.   Right now that's not happening, because none of the leads are suggesting much affectionate inner life, and so in a way, the play's arc isn't happening either.   But luckily, around this unhappy family Veloudos has cast most of Boston's best character actors, and they pretty much play the dickens out of a cascade of unforgettable personalities, and so carry the show.

Did I say cascade?  I meant torrent.  A torrent that's also a tonic, by the way.  For now seems like just the right time to get re-acquainted with a promethean talent like Dickens, when we're getting awfully used to carefully crafted little plays about a handful of characters in which we slowly, and indirectly, get around to pondering questions like "Did Mother ever love me?" or "What do I really think about my breasts?"

Next to this kind of thing, Dickens looks like a font of invention.  Perhaps because he was a font of invention - indeed, in Nicholas Nickleby, the characters (and sometimes the caricatures) keep coming, and coming, and coming, each more sharply drawn than the last.  The names alone tell you as much: Wackford Squeers, Madame Mantolini, Miss Snevellicci, Mulberry Hawk - who could forget these sardonic sobriquets, much less the wickedly sketched personages attached to them?  Even the hero's name is a rippling, rhythmic mnemonic.  And the plot - it keeps coming and coming, too.  Innocence betrayed!  Death cheated! Dickens is always a page-turner, in a highly theatrical way, and that drumbeat of narrative suspense makes Nicholas Nickleby inherently gripping.

Indeed, let me repeat myself.  Absorbed by the misadventures of the innocent Nicholas, I was struck again and again by just how thin our dramatic concerns, and even aspirations, have become.  Dickens wrote for maximum emotional impact - so he's never afraid of melodrama, although in his hands it achieves a nearly tragic pitch.  And while he may tiptoe around sex (he makes up for it with plenty of lusty comedy), he's quite blunt about much that make us blush today - things like money, and class, and who's got how much of either, and why this should be so.  Writers like Wharton and Fitzgerald used to be able to write about these things in America, but now, frankly, money has become to us what the down-and-dirty was to the Victorians; we just can't talk about it!  What's even more striking is that Dickens is so unafraid of villainy - in fact he revels in it; he's quite comfortable with characters who are utterly irredeemable (just like in real life), and so Nicholas Nickleby teems with rogues and charlatans and cowards and sadists who wander the wide world without explanation or apology (just like in real life!).  And the hypocrisy - was there ever a greater poet of Christian hypocrisy than Dickens?  Indeed, his brilliant skewering of pious self-interest may be what makes him most relevant today.

Although frankly, it's the political dimension of Nickleby that right now Veloudos may be artfully dodging.  But before I go any further - it's time for full disclosure.  I actually saw the original version of Nickleby, and not in America, either, but in London - back when Ben Kingsley, Graham Crowden, and Timothy Spall were still working with the great Roger Rees, David Threlfall, and the rest of the brilliant cast that later toured the States.  I have to admit, I have rarely been as electrified by any performance as I was by that show, and as I watched the Lyric version whole scenes from the original seemed to leap up again before my eyes, fresh with the same fire that flickered within them thirty years ago.  Even the set (below, with Will Lyman, Maureen Keiller, Jack Cutmore-Scott, and Elizabeth A. Rimar) inevitably recalled the original to life.

Photo: Mark S. Howard
So I'm in the odd position of judging the Lyric against a production that even now seems to me close to the most perfect theatrical experience I've ever had. And is that really fair? After all, Trevor Nunn, et. al., are generally considered a pretty exceptional crowd. But even compared against their legend, I have to say the Lyric has done well.  There are one or two missteps (the Mantolinis work hard, but are miscast, and is doubling Wackford Squeers and Mulberry Hawk a bit confusing?), but generally Spiro serves up a tasty smorgasboard of Dickensiana.  Will Lyman etched a chillingly low-key Ralph Nickleby (Nicholas's cruelly calculating uncle), and Nigel Gore almost made me forget about Ben Kingsley as the brutal Wackford Squeers, in no small part because he got great back-up from Kerry Dowling as his formidable wife and Sasha Castroverde (who I'm glad to see break into the "professional" sphere after lighting up the fringe for a few years) as his delusional daughter.  Under their cruel usage, Jason Powers put a more comic spin on Smike than David Threlfall did in the original, but was still very moving.  Meanwhile, at the edges of the show, Leigh Barrett painted a beautiful miniature of the miniature portraitist Miss La Creevy, while the versatile Michael Steven Costello and Daniel Berger-Jones made the most of a dozen different roles apiece.  Likewise Larry Coen sliced the ham deliciously thick as Vincent Crummles (he of the famous Theatrical Troupe), and as his untalented daughter, the aging "Infant Phenomenon," Alycia Sacco was actually funnier than I remember the role being in Trevor Nunn's version.  Perhaps best of all was the reliable Peter A. Carey as the poignant Newman Noggs, who again I thought was as good as the original (the redoubtable Edward Petherbridge, who won a Tony for it).  When I first saw Part I back in London, I was skeptical going in (Four hours?? I thought), but then went straight to the box office at intermission to get a ticket to Part II.  I'm betting most of the Lyric's patrons will do the same thing.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

More fun with Orion

Thanks for the emails about the other nebulae in Orion; I'm aware of them, and here's a cool photo of a few! The bright stars to the left form Orion's belt - at the top corner is Zeta Orionis, or "Alnitak" (its original Arabic name, meaning "girdle"), which happens to be a triple star, followed by  Epsilon Orionis, or "Alnilam," ("string of pearls") and Delta Orionis, or "Mintaka," (or "belt") a double star.  Just to the right of Mintaka you can see the tiny, rearing head of the "Horsehead Nebula." To the upper right is "the Great Nebula in Orion," which is visible to the naked eye, and at roughly 1,344 light years away, is the closest region of star formation to the Earth.  Yes, as you can see, heaven is a busy place.  Tomorrow: the Lyric's Nicholas Nickleby.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Life with Mother

Three for the road: Carole Monferdini, John Wojda and Kate Udall in Four Places.  Photos by Meghan Moore.
Joel Drake Johnson's Four Places (at the Merrimack Rep through November 7) has one of those deceptively simple titles that seem all too easily explained. At one level, the play's moniker bluntly refers to the fact that it occurs across four settings (a car interior, then a restaurant's waiting area, dining room, and ladies' room). But when one considers the script also features just four characters, one senses in its sobriquet a deeper, colder statement: the dysfunctional players of this desolate drama are always apart - always in four separate places - even when they're together.

And it's this sense of mutual isolation that Charles Towers' fine production honors, in its delicately grim way - under his direction, the characters, though seemingly all too familiar with each other's every flaw and failing, nevertheless float in a moral twilight zone in which nothing about any of them can ever be precisely pinned down.  The story spine of the script is so simple that it can be encapsulated in a sentence: the unhappy children of an unhappy marriage stage an intervention to prevent their mother from hurting - or possibly even killing - their father.  But the precise circumstances that brought them to this pass remain always slightly vague; the witness to Mom's actions may be unreliable (tellingly, she's called "schizophrenic"), said actions, even as described (half-smothering with a pillow), were aborted anyway, and perhaps the victim has been begging to die.  What Mom did, and what she knew, and when she did it and when she knew it, are all hard to parse precisely.  Not that Brother and Sis are any different - both of them have curiously unstable back stories, and it seems even the waitress who attends them may actually be a half-sibling, although then again, maybe she's not; we never know for sure.

I do want to say at this point, however, that most of the reviewers of Four Places have seemed quite confident about exactly what transpires in this streamlined, yet mysterious, little drama; indeed, Four Places may be the most widely - and blithely - misinterpreted local production I've come across in some time.  Jenna Scherer in the Herald, for instance, declared that its conflicts were "instantly recognizable in that all-American family way." Really? I'm not even exactly sure what said conflicts are.  But in the Globe, Sandy MacDonald likewise confidently intoned that Johnson's Mom "is a monster, of the garden-variety sort." Indeed, even at its Chicago premiere, Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones announced that Johnson had forged a world that was "thoroughly credible and recognizable and raw." Yeah, and that's thoroughly wrong.  (For the record, the print critics hardly had a corner on misperception in this case. The "Wicked Local" blog, for instance, insisted that "one chilling truth after another reveals itself in brittle pronouncements." Uh-huh.)

Sigh. Sometimes people ask why I write this blog.  Well, this is one reason why: I have the rare ability to accurately interpret plays! Although at least all these critics liked the show, even if they didn't understand it. (What that means, I think I'll leave intentionally vague, in the spirit of this particular script.)

But back to Four Places, the despairing theme of which, I think, is the impossibility of real connection - given our limited knowledge of each other - and yet the endless need for it, particularly within the (four) emotional walls of the family. It's more than possible that something serious did indeed go down between Mom and Dad; and so something serious must be done. And yet that action - or intervention - implies issues of judgment that not only play hacky-sack with parent-child dynamics, but require a kind of moral authority that no one in the play can legitimately claim.

All in the (extended) family - Kate Udall, Laura Latreille, Carole Monferdini, and John Wojda.
And at the same time, what seems clear from the text is that no, Mom is not a monster, of any variety; if anyone's a monster here, in fact, it's probably Dad; her description of his behavior, and his begging for his own death, are heart-rending, and we also believe her when she says she could never go through with assisted suicide (although she adds, with a hiss, "If this is any of your business!").  Indeed, in what counts as probably the play's core thematic statement, Mother goes further with her children: "Your dad and I actually have a life outside yours. We have a relationship that is not part, any part of who you are. We have our own little universe into which NO one else is invited - a secret life . . ." Yet tellingly, a moment later she's begging her daughter to reveal her own "secret life" and excoriating her son for his "little white lies;" Four Places is not so much a glimpse into American Gothic as Chicago's take on No Exit.

Although in the end, Johnson's play may be more poignant than despairing; for despite the many recriminations exchanged between this mother and her children, something like love still binds them, and something like reconciliation still seems possible between them. "I don't love you anymore!" Mom tells her judges as she retreats into her lonely home, but as she gazes back through the window, her offspring know different. "Jesus, those faces!" her daughter marvels. "Look - she still loves us."

It's a credit to Towers's uniformly excellent cast - John Wojda, Kate Udall, Carole Monferdini, and Laura Latreille - that such internally-contradictory moments are so precisely limned. This is another superb ensemble in a season crowded with them. And Johnson's play is certainly a worthy one - although at times it does seem to be marking time in its action as it works out its carefully balanced themes; it felt to me like a kind of stepping-stone play for a writer who may be testing wider, deeper waters. Or perhaps it's that director Towers has staged the script in almost too considered a manner; I felt that a few of the bombs dropped in the show should have detonated more loudly - or at least loudly enough to make it immediately clear why Mom must retreat to the ladies' room. And Towers seems unsure of precisely how to deploy Barb, the too-attentive waitress who may be Dad's illegitimate daughter; somehow the siren call of her sweetness, its "false" familial aspect, never came clear thematically. Still, this production counts as another feather in Merrimack's cap - a subtly-shaded gray feather, perhaps, but a beauty nonetheless.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Big news at the Ballet

"The Kingdom of Shades" sequence from "Night of Stars." Boston Ballet photos by Gene Schiavone.
This weekend brought Boston Ballet's annual "Night of Stars" gala, which is always a pleasure - this time around, though, there were some real surprises in store; the company has grown its ranks (including Boston Ballet II) by 19 dancers, and "Night" marked our first peek at a few of them.

The good news (and actually the big news of the evening) is that the Ballet seems to have chosen well - and all but closed the last gap (among its men) in its "world class" status.  New danseurs Lasha Khozashvili and Joseph Gatti both made stunning debuts, Khozashvili in a brilliant new work by Helen Pickett, and Gatti in a virtuosic spin through the leaps of Le Corsaire that all but drove the crowd wild.  These talented guys will clearly refresh (and perhaps bring a competitive edge to) a bench that has sometimes been a bit uneven.  Of the new women, only Adiarys Almeida was featured prominently (below left with Gatti, in a jump that gives you some idea of the spring in his step), and while she didn't throw off many sparks of personality, she nevertheless sparkled technically.

Alas, the bad news was that the corps de ballet, which has improved markedly over the past few seasons, wobbled noticeably in its big number, "The Kingdom of Shades" from the upcoming La Bayadère. The dance - much of which takes place on a long, sloping ramp (at top) - is a killer series of slow (very slow) arabesques and rotations; it's one of the most difficult, and utterly exposed, sequences for the corps in the repertory - hardcore corps, if you will. And the girls just weren't ready - they didn't like that ramp, not one bit, but even once they were on solid ground things never quite cohered. Not that this is easy! But "The Kingdom of Shades" may have been one gamble the Ballet shouldn't have made.

Yet as if to compensate, the Ballet's established stars shone brightly.  Larissa Ponomarenko returned to the stage after a hiatus last year, opposite Khozashvili in the intense "Layli O Majnun" (at right) from Pickett, and demonstrated yet again that she's not only one of the Ballet's greatest dancers but its greatest actress, too.  The shock was that Khozashvili demonstrated a similar psychological depth; these two Russians are naturals together, and the Pickett should be stunning when it "officially" premieres next spring.

Elsewhere, the oft-imperious Kathleen Breen Combes seemed to open up a whole new wing of her stage presence as a glowing Terpsichore in an excerpt from Balanchine's Apollo (against Pavel Gurevich), and Whitney Jensen was eloquently light and free in Mr. B's "Tarantella."  The great Balanchine kept on coming, too - James Whiteside and Misa Kuranaga were exquisite in his "Theme and Variations" from Jewels, and the company danced elegantly in its dazzling finale (as they had earlier in Jorma Elo's "Plan to B," a crazy quilt of swiveling moves that basically sets Attention Deficit Disorder to dancing).   There was even a striking premiere, choreographed by dancer Yury Yanowsky, to a new piece of music by Berklee grad Lucas Vidal.  The up-and-coming Mr. Vidal came up with an appealing score that sounded a bit like Philip Glass with romantic film music threaded through it; it was derivative, but hinted at the development of its own original musical niche.  Mr. Yanowsky doesn't quite have his own choreographic voice, yet, either, but his dance had an aggressive, off-hand athleticism that was exciting and highly watchable, and drew committed, fearless performances from Rie Ichikawa, John Lam, and Jaime Diaz.

The evening's guest stars were Wendy Whelan, a long-time light at NYCB, and Damian Smith, of San Francisco Ballet, performing Whelan's signature piece, Christopher Wheeldon's heartbreaking ode to dysfunctional romance, "After the Rain."  I've seen Whelan do this before, and as always, she was peerless, and Smith provided perfect support.  Small-scaled rather than grand in its melancholy, it offered a haunting note of contrast to what was generally a night of high-stepping triumph.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Baker's Plays


I think it occurred to me the second time I found myself listening to the air conditioner run (above) in Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation (produced by the Huntington at the Caldwell Pavilion through November 14):

At what point does mumblecore become inaudible?

Now by that I don't mean to suggest this up-and-coming young playwright has nothing to say; far from it, in fact. She's a very intelligent and thoughtful - although perhaps not all that original - dramatist. My friend Art Hennessey has already admonished me, "Now don't go all Sarah Ruhl on Annie Baker's ass, Tom, she's a real playwright!" And she is a real playwright - whether she warrants a three-play retrospective here in Beantown I'm not yet sure, but I'll keep an open mind.

Certainly she has been given a superb production by the Huntington. Director Melia Bensussen is almost too attuned to Baker's don't-say-anything-aloud-that-would-like-not-be-cool aesthetic, and has capably drawn from Circle's circle of actors a suite of performances that are just about perfect in their nuanced indirection. I'm actually in awe of how much was suggested, vs. how little was stated, in this show; only a mime troupe could have said less. And, as with mime, we're suddenly impressed when we perceive - or rather piece together - the shape of dramatic incident moving behind the play's utterly nondescript surface.

This, of course, is an old trick. It's basically the same ploy as Chekhov's gambit of having someone's life smashed up casually, over breakfast; although to be honest, Baker more often reminded me (wait for it) of William Inge - indeed, Circle Mirror Transformation is essentially Bus Stop redux, set in a rehearsal room instead of a snowbound diner: a group of ordinary characters are thrust together (here, in a community drama class) and over time we learn everything about their emotional and sexual lives. Baker's gimmick is that we discover almost all of this "inadvertently," through theatre games the class repetitively plays.

Again, this is hardly a new idea. But Baker has a very precise ear, so we often enjoy hearing old tropes updated into the precise hesitations of millennial newspeak. When one of Baker's characters says a line like "Oh, yeah - no. Yeah. No," the context has been so carefully set up (and the performances here are so specific) that we know exactly what she means. And when the characters "play" each other, or trade "secrets" in class, we get to read two sets of tea leaves (at least) - both what the characters understand at this point about each other, and what they don't: in short, whether they're ahead of or behind us as their own audience.

Of course it helps in appreciating all this (as it did with The Method Gun) if you're a theatre geek; otherwise you may wonder sometimes what's going on - when the class launched into the "counting" exercise for the umpteenth time, for instance, my partner whispered to me, "What the HELL are these people doing???" Even he, however, began to get into the mumblecore groove, as Baker's poignant hidden drama made itself steadily clearer. Lives are, indeed, smashed up casually in Circle Mirror Transformation, and this is inevitably moving.

Still, it's worth pointing out, I think, that in the end this is elevated melodrama - indeed, Baker's script is at least as melodramatic as Bus Stop, it's just at infinite pains to disguise that fact. Not that there's anything wrong with that.  And if I like Inge, I should therefore like Baker too, right?

Well, maybe.  I was certainly touched by Circle Mirror Transformation, but doubts still gnawed at me about its author. She's certainly better than Sarah Ruhl, but she's also being "launched" in much the same way, and by some of the same people.  And Baker's smart, but she's hardly Chekhov, and sometimes I felt the reverent subtlety of this production was designed to fool me into thinking she is. And I found myself working hard to feel any sense of real discovery about the fictional New-Age Grover's Corners (dubbed "Shirley, VT," although it's no secret it's actually "Amherst, MA") in which her shy young slips of plays occur. I felt shocks of emotion whenever one of the sad arcs Baker's characters trace came clear; but then I quickly realized, "Oh, yeah - I already like, um, knew that, Annie. Yeah; no.  Yeah."

And there's a certain lack of self-awareness in the play's seeming confidence that the drama-school techniques it depends on "make you a better actor;" certainly as the theatre games grow more and more personal, it strikes us that Baker's crunchy class leader should know better than to play with the kind of emotional fire that's only appropriate to committed actors (don't try these tricks at home!).  In a way, the problem with the play is summed up unwittingly by the authorial factotum Baker places within it - the smart but withdrawn "Lauren" constantly, if self-consciously, questions the madness of the class's method ("Are we going to like do any real acting?" she finally asks).   It slowly dawns on us, though, that Lauren kind of serves as an inadvertent metaphor for the play she's in; like it, she draws attention to herself by struggling to disappear into the woodwork.  Yet  she comes around in the end; in a sweet, flash-forward coda (expertly limned by Marie Polizzano, in a performance that steals scene after scene from this polished ensemble) Lauren admits she now sees the light about the awesomeness of the class and how, like, everything changed but in the end everything turned out for the best, you know?  Hmmm. I'm not sure a great playwright would be so sure; in the end, Circle Mirror Transformation seems to validate rather than challenge its audience's quirky world view.  But I'll soon get two more chances to adjust that opinion.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Songs of a summer night

Metro Stage's production of Sweeney Todd last year is by now a local legend (its leads stole IRNEs from far-more established groups), so the question surrounding their current production of A Little Night Music (which closes Saturday) was: could Sondheim lightning strike twice for this up-and-coming little theatre troupe?

And the answer is: yes - and no. Vocally, this production is actually stronger than Todd - in fact it's as strong, or stronger, than any musical production I've heard this year. Director Maryann Zschau - who starred in the last local outing of Night Music, at the Lyric - clearly understood from that experience the challenge of this score: poised on the cusp of operetta (or even opera) it relies heavily on ensembles, perhaps more than any other Sondheim musical, and so she has scoured the local landscape for singing talent to fill out its many demanding roles. Luckily for us, the cast she assembled is a vocal knockout, with dazzling turns from Robert Case, Jim Fitzpatrick, Tracy Nygard, Shana Dirik, Joelle Cross and particularly John Coons, who sounds like a baritone yet has an astoundingly high and powerful tenor top.

But alas, Zschau has generally directed these wonderful singers in a rather broad community-theatre style, and her blocking is sometimes apt, but sometimes flat. She has also made a few choices I didn't really understand (was Madame Armfeldt out of her wheelchair because the stage was so small?). And her leading man, Jim Fitzpatrick, though a likable presence, simply isn't invested in his character's conflicts, either broadly or subtly. Meanwhile production values are about what you'd expect from a young theatre company - although the instrumental ensemble, tucked away up in the balcony, was generally pretty polished.

There is some appealing acting around the edges of the production - Lenni Kmiec had hilarious attitude as the sexy Petra, for instance. And like Todd, Night Music is blessed with two great - perhaps even towering - central performances. Shana Dirik, who I felt was as good as Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett last year, proves that performance was no fluke in a really stunning turn as Charlotte, the bitter wife of Sondheim's romantic roundelay (which is derived, and slightly coarsened, from Bergman's wonderful Smiles of a Summer Night). Ms. Dirik is hardly a conventional leading lady, but she has that mysterious something extra that all great performers have, and her solo in "Every Day a Little Death" I have to say was mesmerizing; she's simply one of the best singing actresses in the city. The surprise this time around was her co-star, Tracy Nygard, who did wonderfully delicate work as the world-weary Desiree Armfeldt. Ms. Nygard's moving rendition of "Send in the Clowns" was a kind of small miracle - beautifully sung, yet emotionally precise - great singing, great acting, great Sondheim.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Canadian History X

Hate is perhaps the most dramatic emotion.  Which may be why Cherry Docs, David Gow's meditation on the redemption of a Canadian skinhead (now at the New Rep), lights up when its villain lets rip with one of his scary Aryan Nation tirades.  What's most unsettling about these outbursts, however, is that this Nazi bad boy - who could be facing multiple life sentences for the vicious (if accidental) killing of a man he calls a "Paki" - is anguished over letting his cause down.  "I want to keep the Movement OUT of this!" he even wails in torment to his lawyer.

It's at moments like this - when we realize that hatred is, in its way, a form of twisted idealism - that Cherry Docs seems to stir with a disturbing sense of intellectual freedom.  Elsewhere, however, it's somewhat thin liberal soup, although I feel very bad about saying so.  I hammered the New Rep for their last production, but they're a class act, and invited me back to see this one - and so I very much wanted to like this well-intentioned drama, which has been produced and acted with earnest, committed intensity.

But alas, it often seemed to me like a kind of lesson plan - although it's certainly a worthy lesson.  Indeed, what's most appealing about Cherry Docs is the educational value of its grounding of the message of redemption in the Jewish faith.  Yes, before you roll your eyes, Gows has dusted off one of the oldest tricks in the the melodramatic playbook, and made his two-hander a clash of polar opposites, rather like one of those anti-racist movies where Sidney Poitier is chained to Richard Widmark or some other psycho cracker.  In Cherry Docs, it's up to a Jewish lawyer (Benjamin Evett) to save the skin of this Nazi punk (Tim Eliot, both above left), but Gow is smart enough to tease out the irony of the situation ("In a perfect world, I'd have you eliminated!" the defendant snarls to his lone ally).  And it's a welcome surprise to see a play which simply tosses the old Judeo-Christian dichotomy of Old-Testament-judgment vs. New-Testament-forgiveness in the cultural dumpster where it belongs (I admit, The Merchant of Venice has something to do with this long-lived misconception).  Jesus himself, of course, was a Jew, and the Christian message of atonement and redemption is so intrinsic to Judaism that it's actually embedded in the religious calendar (which Gow references repeatedly).  Everybody who loves Judaism (as I do) knows this, but I'm often struck by how many Christians imagine that the duty to forgive  counts as their own special spiritual merit badge (however little they may deserve it).

But if all this makes Gow's play socially worthwhile, it makes it artistically a bit schematic - we can feel the playwright dashing about "tagging" this or that moral concept; and the same diagrammatic sensibility extends to the characters, too.  We can predict just about every emotional transition in Cherry Docs just before it happens, and yet neither protagonist seems to add up to a living, breathing human being. Gow's Jewish lawyer tells us bluntly, for instance, that he sees some hope of redemption in his creepy client - but we don't really see how; the author hasn't really written that in; but we appreciate that this is a necessary plot point.  And sure enough, the kid is indeed redeemed, right on cue.

It doesn't help that this capable cast has been directed by David R. Gammons, whose vogue among local critics continues to mystify me.  Gammons can be counted on to give his productions a harshly striking look; this time around we get his signature whiter-than-white lighting and a remarkable set that's been pulled back to a sharp vanishing point by designer Jenna McFarland Lord. (This is serious, dangerous stuff, a Gammons design always seems to say.) But like the playwright, this director often leaves his actors adrift - fortunately for him, he's usually working with very good ones, who can cover for him. Here Ben Evett and newcomer Tim Eliot throw just about everything they've got into their respective roles, and make them work, minute-to-minute, by being aggressive and vulnerable by turns, and relying on the occasional bout of histrionics (they break chairs, they throw things, etc.). These two convince us this is a high-stakes smackdown; but any sense of organic personality is somehow missing from their performances - and that, I'm afraid, is the job of the director and the writer. And without it, Cherry Docs can't really get beyond its worthy message.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Beethoven goes baroque

Ludwig van with a manuscript sketch of the Seventh Symphony.
Boston is a funny little town in which the music press is absolutely determined to not tell the public the news. For years, the city has been bustling with early music activity, and by now it boasts three or four of the best period music organizations in America (H&H, the Boston Early Music Festival, Emmanuel Music and Boston Baroque). These days, it's widely recognized as probably the center of period performance in the country.

Yet most Bostonians are utterly innocent of this fact. They don't know anything about what probably counts as their hometown's major musical achievement of the last few decades. Because they're never told about it. Oh, the local press dutifully notes, and even reviews, the zillions of period music concerts that now dot the city's calendar. But they cover the scene the way they covered the build-up to the Iraq War - they dutifully record the detail, but resolutely refuse to connect the dots. By now, there should have been cover stories in the Globe, and of course a special on WGBH - which I know is a laughable proposition right there; WGBH doesn't give a damn about its home city's arts scene, we all know that. Its idea of "arts programming" is Jared trying to talk Emily into spending her beer money on the ballet!

Swaddled thus in blissful ignorance, Bostonians are happy to imagine their music scene is precisely what the local deep pockets tell them it is. In this la-la land, the BSO is the big, and indeed only, artistic game in town, and there an end. Now don't get me wrong; James Levine is a fantastic craftsman, and when he's around, the BSO sounds fabulous. It's very pretty - and oh my god the passion, etc.! We all know the drill - which doesn't change the fact that the BSO is a sideshow of the Met and essentially a showcase for the very best suburban music that educated money can buy.

Meanwhile the smart money goes elsewhere - and one place it goes is Boston Baroque, which last weekend essayed a program with the Big Kahuna of period music squarely in its sights - the program ended with Ludwig van's famous Seventh Symphony. Beethoven, to those unfamiliar, is both boundary and watershed for the early music movement. He stands at the cusp of the explosion in musical technology which essentially created the "modern" orchestra, just as he stood on the hinge between the classical and romantic periods. So does he belong in the modern or period musical camp?  Mainstream symphonies are loathe to give him up, as they've had to cede Handel, and Haydn, and even much of Mozart, to early music specialists. And yet I find over and over that the most exciting and revelatory Beethoven I hear is done on period rather than modern instruments.

So I was hoping for big things from Boston Baroque - and they mostly didn't disappoint, although conductor Martin Pearlman did get carried away with the whole "apotheosis of dance" thang that everybody likes to cite about the Seventh these days, and let the last two movements get repetitively loud and bangy. (This is probably in the notation, I know - but remember Beethoven was practically deaf by the time he wrote this symphony!) There was more exciting work early on - particularly in the first movement, in which Pearlman pulled off the strange trick of showing us how Beethoven slowly assembles his trademark sound from the different sections of the orchestra (in contrast, modern instruments, with their smooth, glossy surfaces, always blend too much into one another). And for once the rough edge of the natural horns sounded absolutely wonderful - indeed the lusty, raucous volleys from the brass resounded in Jordan Hall like the calls of post horns across the 19th-century countryside.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Bowles doesn't bowl you over

If you haven't guessed by now, this is the week the Hub Review beats up on the competition.  This post features my old bête noire, Bill Marx, who let it be known that those of us who were taken with Nicky Martin's Bus Stop had it all wrong - the far better revival in town was In the Summer House, the single play by Jane Bowles (wife of the more-famous Paul), which the BU Fringe Festival is mounting with a student cast through October 23.  To Bill, In the Summer House was "a marvelous script" that is "far greater than anything Inge wrote for the theatre" because it "purposely uses estrangement to examine the ambiguities of social and psychological constriction as well as the smothering attachments of parent and child." He also raved over its "attempt to dramatize a ferocious will-to-control born of spiritual emptiness" which proved "magically unsettling."

Yowza! I'm always up for ferocious, you know, whatever he said; I had to check it out.

So is In the Summer House really better than anything William Inge ever wrote?  Of course not. It's an intriguing piece of juvenilia, but not much more, by a woman (at left) who might have developed into an interesting playwright if ill health hadn't cut her career tragically short.  It's hardly at the level of Inge, and it's pretentious babble to pretend it is. Mind you, it's perfectly suitable for revival by an academic festival, because it's of some academic interest - it clumsily prefigures certain surreal effects of the Theatre of the Absurd.  And of course those with an interest in Bowles are urged to go.

Certainly the script exhibits unusual formal quirks - there's an indeterminacy to its style and action that's original.  But this doesn't really add up to an intellectual armature or anything; we're not talking Beckett here.  Someday, of course, Bowles's drifting, unstable mise-en-scène might have amounted to more; artists often don't truly understand their own material when they begin writing, and watching Summer House, I felt a bit like I was watching something like one of Tennessee Williams's early drafts of Orpheus Descending.  There's a streak of listless unhappiness to Bowles, too, that feels somehow individual.  But there's much here that's awkward and superficial - as well as self-indulgently weird - and at any rate, the conflicts between mother and daughter that Bowles investigates are hardly news.

Still, the production, like the play, had its moments; the cast of BU students was confident and polished, and there was a buzz of talented energy in the air.  But you could tell the kids thought the show was kind of weird, too; there was a suppressed giggle behind everything that didn't allow the alienated twistedness you felt Bowles might be getting at to really take hold.   And director Ellie Heyman's work was inventive but uneven; she likes to "deploy" her "space," which meant actors were often clambering over obstacles or writhing on the floor - but she made up for everything with a truly marvelous final image, in which Bowles's beleaguered heroine leapt into a beautifully abstract sea.  For some, this alone might tip the balance in favor of the show - but if not, don't say I didn't warn you.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Isaac I vs. Henry V

Good morning, class! 
So Isaac Butler has made another idiotic pronouncement. What else is new?  We already know the blog host and trust-funded bon vivant (having a bad hair day, above) feels that Shakespeare's overrated - so what's the big deal if he has decided that Henry V is proof positive of the Bard's mediocrity?

Well, it's not that big a deal, actually - and yes, yes, I promised to never read his silly blog!  But the post was staring me in the face on Art's blogroll, and besides, as Isaac himself might say (as he gamely suggests in a backpedaling later post), his position is interesting to study.  It's "a fruitful thing to discuss."

And why?  Because Butler's not just an Internet busybody these days - he's also actually teaching Shakespeare, to college students, at the University of Minnesota.

I know, I know - this is a bit like Lamarck explaining evolution, or Pope Urban offering a seminar on Galileo! (I could go on and on.)

But is Butler's current post (and position) just a bizarrely ironic quirk of fate - or a kind of cultural harbinger?  I'm hoping for the former, of course, but I fear the latter.  Because Isaac's such an exquisitely-detailed millennial type; it's like he was designed by computers and sent back from the future to warn us or something.

Hold on, though - back to his points against Henry V; they're so cliched they're somehow delicious. According to Isaac, Henry V sucks because:

1) There's no suspense - we know how it's going to turn out.  It's actually history!

2) The characterizations are bad.  So what if we're still talking about them 400 years after the fact?  They're still  uninteresting, you know what I mean? Like in that way David Byrne talked about.

3)  It's not that funny, and sometimes the jokes are mean.

4) What's with the plot?  Yeah, even though it's history, it should still have a plot, just like it should still have suspense!  Duh.  That's obvious.

5)  The Battle of Agincourt is not sufficiently awesome.  There's really nothing more to say.

6) The French aren't badass villains, either.  Seriously, they're not.  Just try hissing them, you'll feel silly.

And yes, that's the professor's lecture on Henry V!  I hope the sophomores are feeling edified by now, because I'm not.

To die for

Everybody loves Stile Antico (at left) the new early music vocal ensemble from Britain; rave has followed rave for their album releases (I think the Globe described their last one as "perfect"), and everyone seems to adore them even more since they were tapped by Sting for The Journey and the Labyrinth, his exploration of the music of John Dowland. If early music ever makes the pop charts, the thinking goes, Stile Antico might just be the group to do it.

The ensemble made its American debut last year at the Boston Early Music Festival, to great applause, and returned for a nearly sold-out performance this past weekend at St. Paul's Church in Harvard Square, one of those reactionary Catholic fantasias in which almost every kind of sacred architecture is piled togetherr, willy-nilly; St. Paul's design is roughly Italo-Gothic-Romanesque, with medieval friezes rubbing shoulders with baroque and even Tudor flourishes. It may not make aesthetic sense, but damn it puts the fear of God into you.

Still, if St. Paul's is an architectural hoot, it's also big and resonant, and an effective, if slightly crude, setting for the sepulchral sacred music that Stile Antico favors.  For their program on Saturday, the group had chosen music that was literally to die for - and a lot of it, too.  We got songs from the funeral of Philip II of Spain, as well as the entombment of Saxon nobleman Heinrich Reuss Posthumus (fitting name, no?), and the commemorative mass for René d'Anjou, King of Sicily (the Pope shaved off a thousand years in Purgatory for those who recited this text, which may give you some idea of how much fun it is).  We even got a song from Dufay that was composed to be sung around the composer's own deathbed, at the moment he expired.  I don't think I've ever heard quite so much Catholic lachrymosity in a single sitting; needless to say, when my partner and I got home, we watched Singin' in the Rain three times in a row.

Still, all the necrophilic dolor was heartfelt and lovely - it was just too relentless. And while Stile Antico sang beautifully, would you think me a bad person if I whispered that they're not quite as good as Sting thinks they are? The women, particularly the sopranos, are absolutely fabulous, it's true, with an effortless pure tone and a breathtaking sense of balance. Meanwhile the men are very good - but not quite as good as, say, Chanticleer or the Tallis Scholars; the tenors don't always have as much power as you'd like, and there's an odd buzz in the basses. The ensemble formed as a college group, and to be frank, sometimes it still sounds like one, albeit a very good one; plus it dispenses with a conductor - because you know, conductors are so yesterday (unlike early music) - but it's my impression that the men could use one. For interpretive questions always seem to be left open by the lack of a conductor; like A Far Cry, a local conductor-free string ensemble, Stile Antico seems to have an earnest stance but not much of a profile - because when a collective is making the artistic decisions, said decisions tend to regress to the mean; thus, just about every composer in this program sounded much like every other composer.

Of course sometimes the mean is pretty darn good - and to be honest, even Stile Antico's death-wish sometimes sounded like a tonic; for how often is death, and the question of the soul's rest, pondered by contemporary music? Almost never. True, to the academic, agnostic, gay-Jewish milieu of the early music scene, this concert's spiritual content was pretty alien (it might as well have come from a Tibetan monastery) - but it was still refreshing, if a little depressing, to hear so much calm contemplation of mortality. And Stile Antico brought true intensity to several pieces, particularly John Sheppard's epic Media vita, which dominated the first half of the program. Likewise there were heartbreakingly beautiful moments in the Dufay, as well as in William Byrd's "Retire my soul." A piece from the German requiem of Heinrich Schütz (one of the few Protestants - sort of - in the program) brought a livelier attack to the proceedings without any diminution in emotion. Still, when Schütz is as lively as your program gets, frankly it may be time for a variety check.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The HD paradox - or should I say parallax?

Can you really hear Wagner at the mall?
I've been meaning to write something about the HD experience again for some time, and my recent exposure to Das Rheingold, which has coincided with local discussion of the-Met-at-the-mall phenomenon,  has given me more food for thought about this increasingly-dominant mode of viewing the performing arts.

Think I'm kidding when I say "increasingly dominant"?  Think again.  The first theatre I looked to for Das Rheingold tickets was already completely sold out - two weeks in advance.  I wound up seeing the opera in Revere, of all places - in a venue of maybe 1,000 seats, which was also almost completely sold out.  In fact, every HD performance I've attended in the past year has been either a sell-out or a near sell-out - which matches the Met's own publicity, which trumpets that its HD broadcasts play to 91% capacity (translating to over 920,000 viewers over the course of a season).  And the Met is hardly alone; there are other opera HD series available locally, as well as a dramatic series from Britain's National Theatre.

So HD has become a very popular way to view high culture.  But what precisely is it?  To many, of course, it feels just like "live" performance (because there's no delay in its transmission to the cinema) - only heightened somehow.  That's the way I felt too, after my first exposure (to Racine's Phaedra, with the great Helen Mirren); HD seemed much like a live performance, only with larger-than-life actors. Since then, though, I've begun to have some doubts about whether I can really consider an HD transmission "live" or not.

Friday, October 15, 2010

"Interview" leaves open questions

Controversy has an interesting way of melting into thin air sometimes. It's hard for contemporary audiences to imagine, for instance, why The Playboy of the Western World once provoked riots in Dublin. And something of the same aura of vanished cultural edge now surrounds Jean-Claude van Itallie's "Interview" (at left), which, as part of his trilogy of one-acts, American Hurrah, appeared to be storming some sort of barricade upon its premiere back in the 60's. Or maybe it just seemed that way because so many provocateurs were involved with the production: Joseph Chaikin, Robert Wilson, Alvin Epstein, and even James Coco and Al Pacino crossed paths with American Hurrah at one point or other.

But stripped of that incendiary mix of artists, and pulled from its roiling original milieu, "Interview" tends to look a bit thin; these days it plays more like a caustic theatre game than any kind of call to arms. Or at least that's how it feels in its new production by Heart and Dagger Productions, which closes this weekend at the BCA.

Full disclosure: I'm a friend of Joey Pelletier, a founding force of Heart and Dagger, director of "Interview," and a kind of floating player in the local fringe for some time now; I even cast him in my ill-starred production of Blowing Whistles for Zeitgeist Stage a few years back. Joey was a pleasure to work with then, and we've kept up with each other over the years - hey, he took his clothes off for my show, I owe him! And it's been easy duty, frankly, since he's a smart, talented, and sardonic free spirit (the hilarious title of his last effort alone, "Into the Fens," tells you as much).

But I don't think he has quite triumphed over the datedness of "Interview," which has been largely forgotten because - well, because it's just not as dramatically arresting as similar works of the period by Albee, Pinter or Ionesco. These days, it feels rather like an intriguing sketch of ideas that were in the air at the time, but were better developed by greater talents.

Which doesn't mean it's a drag, particularly not in Joey's lively, somewhat noisy version, which has been well-choreographed by Elise Weinter Wulff, and cast with a number of rising fringe talents. The script opens with a series of job interviews set in some Theatre-of-the-Absurd office where masked interviewers interrogate hapless applicants with intrusive questions, in which issues of dignity and identity seem to be increasingly at stake. It then morphs into a larger form of cultural interlocution: a woman desperately asks for directions on a chaotic city street; a man seeks solace from his psychiatrist; one lonely soul even begs for forgiveness for being alive. Beneath the relentless questioning, we begin to feel a menacing kind of void begin to open (when a woman explains that she's late to a party because she saw someone killed, there's a hint that she might be the dead girl in question). By the end of the piece, a kind of low-grade paranoia has taken hold of "society," and the actors march off in fascistic lockstep - as one low voice cries for help.

But it's this deeper sense of destabilization that the Heart and Dagger production pretty much misses; this version is marked by a smart, cynical energy that's a little too knowing and not nearly frightened enough.  Still, there are solid turns from many in the cast; Kiki Samko telegraphs a bit, but is always a lively presence, and there are subtly inflected performances from Amy Meyer, Tommy O'Malley, and Erin Rae Zalaski.  Fringe regular Mikey DiLoreto likewise entertains with his familiar sweet-but-strange enthusiasm.  Together these talents have devised a diverting introduction to van Itallie's text, but hardly a full exploration of it.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Was Shakespeare queer? (I don't think so.)

At left is the poster art for "Shakespearean Character on Trial," a symposium this weekend at Wellesley College. A lot of intellectual heavy hitters are featured - Harvard's Marjorie Garber, the Public Theatre's Oskar Eustis, Bard College's JoAnne Akalaitis - and the program even features a performance of Tina Packer's solo show, "Women of Will." There's also a day-long symposium on "Theater Criticism and Practice." You'd think I should be there with bells on.

But I'm not going. For one thing, I'm busy actually seeing theatre, music and dance this weekend.

And for another, I think a lot of these people are a pain in the ass. And not in a good way. Marjorie Garber seems to have lost her mind of late, I hate JoAnne Akalaitis, and I'm even beginning to wonder about Oskar Eustis.

Plus, I have this problem with the academy and their pierced, gay Shakespeare, as you may have guessed from reading The Hub Review.

A problem which could be (partially) summed up as:

I'm queer. And Shakespeare wasn't.

Now I'm not saying he never, ever, nibbled the Earl of Southampton. Maybe he did. And maybe Richard Burbage gave him tongue, and trippingly. Who knows? Frankly, a lot of straight guys experiment a bit, as I know from unfortunately checkered personal experience (I was head over heels for my straight best friend back in the day). Tragically, this doesn't make them gay, though, any more than the girls I diddled back in college made me straight. Besides, any straight guy who gets involved in theatre inevitably winds up mixing with (and playing along with) a gay milieu, and usually ends up thinking it's pretty much normal, or at least just another inexplicable aspect of sexual experience - which it is.

Thus, though Shakespeare wrote some intriguingly randy (if recondite) sonnets to an effeminate dude, and plays with, yes, "gender and performance" quite a bit in his scripts (he had to, women weren't allowed onstage), I always draw the line at daydreaming that he was actually light in the loafers. Partly because he got his wife pregnant before wedlock, partly because they had a few kids, partly because of the Dark Lady, partly because he settled back down at home after his theatrical career, but mostly because - well, because he just doesn't seem gay to me. Now Christopher Marlowe - he was queer as Michel Foucault. But Shakespeare? No. Open-minded? Yes. Open-legged? No. I know he wrote Troilus and Cressida, but he also wrote The Taming of the Shrew. He penned Rosalind, but he also essayed Benedick. (And don't even get me started on how almost all rebellion and subversion in Shakespeare is patted or put down by the final curtain.)

This, of course, makes me controversial. Although thirty years ago, the idea that Shakespeare was gay was controversial. Now, however, it's a neat way for the college crowd to give the humanities a little pop electricity. So it goes. And certainly Shakespeare does offer deep insight into almost every form of sexual identity and experience - and perhaps that poster art isn't even indicative of this forum's true reach. Perhaps some deeper exploration of phenomenology is in the offing. So if hanging at a forum at Wellesley College in your leather jacket and tongue stud makes you feel like a rebel, then by all means go.

But always remember that whatever the professors may tell you, Shakespeare's "construction" of sexual identity cannot be like ours. Indeed, Elizabethan homosexuality must have co-existed, and probably drew sustenance from, an entrenched sexism that would horrify Marjorie Garber and Tina Packer. It's a general cultural rule, I think, that the dis-enfranchisement of women corresponds with the acceptance of homosexual expression among "hetero" men - that's what we're most likely looking at in Shakespeare: the "down-low" sexual model we now see most clearly in the African-American and Latino communities. But would that sell tickets at Wellesley College? Not bloody likely.

The actor's nightmare

You want to be an actor. And you know you have to get beyond your self-consciousness.

So your acting teacher instructs you to dance around naked, in front of a full house, with a big bouquet of helium balloons tied to your penis.

Think that's just some actor's nightmare? Well, think again - it happens in The Method Gun, by the Rude Mechanicals (this weekend only at the Paramount Theatre), a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the greatest acting guru who never lived, "Stella Burden."

And yes, the guys really do it (at left). Which gives you a sense that the "Rude Mechs" - a smart, laid-back gang from Austin, Texas, who seem a bit like the Elevator Repair Service on roller blades - are pretty much up for anything.

As for their mythical guru, "Stella Burden" - a kind of gonzo Stella Adler crossed with Jerzy Grotowski - she was up for more than anything; this hardly even counts as the most outrageous example of her brand of theatrical tough love. In fact her method - called "The Approach" - is a crazy quilt of exercises like "The Crying Game" and such Chekhovian demands as "there should ALWAYS be a loaded gun on stage!," which she inflicted on her acolytes over a rehearsal period of (wait for it) nine years. When her pupils requested explanations for her bizarre precepts, Burden would lock her answers in a box, then explain that they could be read if and only if they were also burnt at the same time. High-mindedly elusive and poetically contradictory, the guru's only commandment that really made sense was her insistence that "real beer should be drunk onstage all the time, no matter how early, no matter which brand."

And then she disappeared. To South America, people said - leaving her company stranded halfway through their nine-year rehearsal of her unique version of A Streetcar Named Desire - you know, the one that avoids completely the characters of Blanche, Stella, Stanley and Mitch. In other words, the version with only the bit players - a fact that perhaps weighed unconsciously on her intense little troupe.  But they decided to soldier on, and their struggle to realize the vision of a charismatic leader they never really understood - and who maybe made no sense at all - is the poignant subject of The Method Gun.

Clearly, whoever dreamt up "Stella Burden" - and I suppose it's author Kirk Lynn - knew something about theatre gurus; every form of method madness I can think of finds a funhouse mirror in his witty script. And just in case you lose sight of how "dangerous" all this navel-gazing is supposed to make the resulting theatre feel, a live tiger wanders through the audience every now and then (at right), musing that he might just kill one of the actors. Or maybe you.

Of course if you're not a theatre geek, much of this low-key but killer parody will either fly right over your head or under your radar. And even if you are, you may notice that The Method Gun is pretty loosely structured - I got the feeling different "exercises" might take the stage on any given night - and sometimes, unfortunately, a little under-energized. The Rude Mechs are long on conceptual wit, but short on the actual damaged intensity of the inbred, 70's-era theatre commune.

But all is forgiven during the show's lovely, haunting coda, in which we finally see (I think) Burden's vision of Streetcar. Or is what we see more of a metaphor for her vision of Streetcar? I wasn't quite sure - it certainly hardly grows out of her bizarre program of training. But that's okay - the performance is so precise, and yes, so beautifully risky, that this quibble not only doesn't matter, but rather may be central to the meaning of the evening. And in a sweet final flourish, the Rude Mechs enlist the crowd in a bit of audience participation (don't worry, there aren't any balloons!) that provides a touching tribute to every teacher who was both an inspiration and yes, a burden.

And so ArtsEmerson pretty much rocks on.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Shakespeare's sequel

Shakespeare only wrote one real sequel - Henry IV, Part II, which may be the most difficult play in the canon to pull off. This is partly because the history of this history play is obscure to modern audiences (it follows the death throes of the rebellion that reached its climax in Henry IV, Part I).  But the drama is doubly problematic because it's so very much a sequel to a greater, more vigorous work. Part II follows the schema of Part I quite closely - sometimes scene by scene - yet offers a kind of dark variation on it.  Everything in Part II has declined from its state in Part I - Mistress Quickly's tavern is now a brothel, the king is almost bed-ridden, Hal's sour practical jokes barely come off, and even the rebellion is undone by trickery rather than bravery.  The tone of all this is brilliant - sometimes cynical in the mode of Jonson, but at other times elegiac in a manner that is uniquely Shakespeare's.   But when you ponder that Part I is also a thicket of complexity - it's a chronicle play and a coming-of-age tale, and yet also features a titanic character, Falstaff, who looms over everything in terms of theme but is only a bit player in the story - you realize that a melancholy variation on that plot can easily turn into a muddle.

Which explains why the play is almost never done as a stand-alone evening; it's generally presented in edited form, and interpolated with Part I, as Trinity did in a fairly-successful production a few years back.  (In fact, this is the first time I've seen Henry IV, Part II in its entirety in thirty years.)  Thus the Actors' Shakespeare Project has to be congratulated for its bravery in doing the whole darn thing, in repertory with Part I - indeed, more than the whole darn thing, as adapter Robert Walsh (who also plays Falstaff) has book-ended the production with a prologue from Part I and various bits of Henry V to give its arc more context.

Alas, I don't think he succeeded in doing that - nor was I impressed with his somewhat-flat Falstaff.  I was likewise a bit under-whelmed by Bill Barclay as his foil, Prince Hal; the two had little chemistry - and this is a huge failing in any production of Henry IV because it undermines the power of the play's conclusion (Hal's rejection of his former companion).  Still, Barclay had his moments on his own, and struck a few sparks with Joel Colodner, who probably did the production's best dramatic work as the failing Henry IV. Even he, however, missed the poetic dimension of his best speeches, and another key role - the Lord Chief Justice - was given to an actor, Jonathan Louis Dent, who has promise but nothing like the gravitas the part requires.  Perhaps the production still could have succeeded, given these gaps, if director Patrick Swanson had some strong conceptual gambit up his sleeve (as he had with this troupe's version of The Tempest), but apparently he just didn't (although there were a few moments, such as a slow trudge of wounded soldiers through one scene, that had the right kind of mood). And the  ASP's usual grab-bag of costumes and props only made the historical pageant aspect of the show seem even more scattered than it otherwise would.

Still, I was unable to catch Part I prior to Part II, and perhaps the performances of Walsh and Barclay, along with other decisions, will make more sense once I've seen the whole thing.  As it stands, this production does catch fire in its smaller performances (which generally align with Shakespeare's sharpest sketches).  There was strong work from Bobbie Steinbach as Mistress Quickly, and Allyn Burrows (the company's artistic director) made a hilariously gonzo Pistol, while Steve Barkhimer came up with a nicely addled Justice Shallow.  There were other good moments, in even smaller roles, from the reliable Obehi Janice and Michael Forden Walker.  The production could still come together, I think, and after I've seen the whole thing, I may offer some second thoughts.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Bali high

The gamelan ensemble of A House in Bali. Photos by Christine Southworth.
Local composer Evan Ziporyn is a man in love - with the gamelan, the percussive musical ensemble indigenous to Bali. And through much of his new opera, A House in Bali, he makes you fall in love with it, too. Indeed, whenever his opera hews closely to the silvery rhythms of pure gamelan (there's a large ensemble on stage pretty much throughout), it's magical, and seductively hypnotic.

But alas, whenever A House in Bali looks westward to the tale of Colin McPhee, a Canadian composer who in the thirties became drunk on gamelan in a Paul-Gauguin-esque way, the magic begins to evaporate. Part of the problem is that the opera's librettist, Paul Schick, doesn't have much new to say about this standard-issue West-meets-East encounter. And what might count as a new edge on the material - its sex-tourism undertow - he acknowledges, but simultaneously struggles to elide.

As is well known, Colin McPhee was gay, and moved in a circle of gay "ultra-modernist" composers that included Henry Cowell; it's likewise well known that in Bali he had many affairs with local men, and even teen-aged boys. But he was also married - to a disciple of Margaret Mead, who was married at the time too, but  (can we say this out loud now?) was also gay. So there was a whole lot going down in Bali, something tells me!  At any rate, after leaving the island, McPhee divorced his wife, and began to live his life as an openly gay man - even settling for a time in a brownstone with Leonard Bernstein and Benjamin Britten (whom he would turn on to gamelan - which would influence Death in Venice - and who of course was also famously obsessed with young boys).

Got all that?  Clearly McPhee's time in Bali was one of personal transformation - although his memoir, A House in Bali, deletes much of this personal information (including the wife, who's also missing from the opera). Yet oddly, Schick and Ziporyn make clear the gay subtext of the book - the central action revolves around McPhee's fixation with a beautiful dancing boy.  The trouble is that the creative team doesn't seem to know what to do with this material; the dramatic (and sexual) action wants to go one way, but Schick and Ziporyn want to impose an East-and-West-can-never-meet musical template onto it, and this stymies the personal story, and thus the opera's actual development.  It's like a coming-out story in which nobody ever really comes out.

Needless to say, there are social and political reasons to explain this obliqueness.  There's debate about whether McPhee was technically a "pedophile" or not, and whether Balinese attitudes toward sexuality and gender are "fluid" enough to give his behavior a kind of moral pass. Maybe so; I don't know.  But we're in America, not Bali, and there are actual teen-age boys onstage in A House in Bali (none of them exploited, btw), and so the opera has to treat its subtext as a political hot potato. And thus, to my mind, it can't really get beyond what amounts to bare-bones conceptual statement.

But director Jay Scheib seems to want to compensate for the script's thinness by burying it in a welter of performance-art trappings (at left). Indeed, everything but the virtual kitchen sink is in this show: there's a modernist set, and several video screens, along with onstage videographers, and two musical ensembles, and subtitles in two languages, and even Margaret Mead taking notes in a corner. It's a bit like watching every gimmick boho performance art ever used to avoid directly stating the sexual issue at hand crammed onto a single stage.  Meanwhile, as McPhee, Peter Tantsits (who sounds as good as he looks) generally just wanders around looking confused.  The able Anne Harley likewise struggles to make an impression as Mead, and I was barely aware of Timur Bekbosunov's turn as McPhee's sidekick, painter Walter Spies.

The Balinese performers do better.  As Sampih, the object of McPhee's affection, young Nyoman Triyana Usadhi was charismatically poised and troublingly alluring, and dancer/actresses Kadek Dewi Aryani and Desak Madé Suarti Laksmi both cut striking profiles.  Likewise the gamelan musicians played not just their instruments but also various "villager" roles with graceful good humor.

But I longed for them to play more. Ziporyn relies too much on one musical trick - the overlay of the gamelan's mysterious chime with his Western ensemble's modernist anxiety; at times the resulting mélange became an assaultive drone. But in a pure form, the gamelan is indeed addictive, and yes, dreamily sexualized.  And to be fair, there are some wonderful passages in Ziporyn's writing; the muted, indirect love-song between McPhee and Sampih is particularly haunting.  You feel at such moments that Ziporyn might have a real opera about Bali in him, if he's ever allowed to write it.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Wagnermachine

Wotan and Loge descend to the Nibelheim in one of the most "cinematic" moments in Das Rheingold.
You could almost hear a collective sigh of relief at the unveiling of the Met's new production of Das Rheingold (I caught up with it via HD over the weekend): it was pretty good, and at times its imagery was pretty great, even if on opening night the most dazzling effect in the whole show (the rainbow bridge to Valhalla) failed to operate.  The retirement of Otto Schenk's traditional, handsomely pictorial Ring (which had been inspired by an 1897 Bayreuth production), and the installment of high-tech theatre guru Robert Lepage in the driver's seat of a new cycle, led many to fear they'd be forced to watch Wotan in a jockstrap zap Brünnhilde with a laser pointer for the next twenty years. And the controversial premiere of the wildly-expensive L.A. Ring, with its giant puppets and light sabres, only raised anxieties to a fever pitch.

No wonder, then, that at one level Lepage decided to play it so safe.  His gods prowl the stage in something close to Schenkian costume, and the acting (such as it is, more on that later) hews to a standard, grand template.  There aren't any dramatic surprises in this Das Rheingold (although there's one vocal disappointment).

Rather than court conceptual controversy, Lepage has devoted himself to the technology of the production.  He has created, with designer Carl Fillon, a 45-ton set the Met's stagehands have taken to calling "the Machine."  The Machine is essentially a set of 24 steel planks that rotate like see-saws on a central spine.  Together, in various configurations, the planks serve as screen and surface for Lepage's trademark projections and vertiginous wire-walking effects.  It sounds simple enough, but the Machine proves capable of astounding imagery, from a stairway across the sky (at top) to the rising tide of the Rhine (below).  What's more, the Machine is designed to provide the core of the rest of the Met's Ring Cycle (Die Walküre, with Deborah Voigt, will premiere in May). So it's not just a set, it's a virtual "Wagnermachine."

And I have to say I think Wagner himself would approve of this idea, even if not all the critics have.  Of course many are simply tired of the way the Ring has become conceptual catnip for auteur directors - and even Lepage's dramatic circumspection didn't appease their irritation with his technical bravado (plus, as several pointed out, the Machine isn't exactly silent, at least not yet).  Of course how you feel about that issue probably depends on how you feel about the whole Wagner "question" - the entanglement of his legacy with his notorious anti-Semitism, and particularly the exalted status of the Ring within the Nazi regime.  Not for nothing did the Berlin Philharmonic play Wagner just before the Soviet tanks rolled in.

Thus, when the Bayreuth Festival finally resumed operations in 1951, its productions of the Ring were carefully scrubbed of any old High-Aryan schtick.  Gone were the winged helmets, and in came blasted heaths and doomed existentialism (at left, the 1951 Siegfried, conducted by former Nazi Herbert von Karajan).  And a consensus of approval formed around this new compromise.

Of course some new formulation around Wagner had to be reached; I know they don't like to play him in Israel, and of course I understand why, but he's just too important to ignore.  Indeed, I sometimes think many people are in denial about just how artistically influential this nasty anti-Semite actually was; probably only a handful of people - Shakespeare, Beethoven? - have had a larger impact on the performing arts. Wagner's influence even stretches into our physical theatres - he was the first to demand that house lights be dimmed during performance, and he designed Bayreuth, his playhouse, as what we'd now perceive as a proto-movie theatre.  These were of course only the outward manifestations of a profound shift in attitude toward what was happening on the stage: Wagner aimed to create a kind of collective dream, a  "Gesamtkunstwerk," or "total art-work," in which every facet would interact to produce a particular effect on the audience - usually a mystical combination of sensation and subconscious response.

The impact of these ideas was tremendous.  Wagner completely dismantled opera's tradition of recitative and aria, replacing it with a complex of musical motifs - a mode that would echo for years through musical impressionism (and really on into modernism).  Likewise his insistence on the proscenium as a mystical dividing line - a "fourth wall" between art and audience - provided the basis for Chekhov, Stanislavski. the Method, and eventually Marlon Brando.  And the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk found its apotheosis in the cinema - where such composers as Max Steiner and Bernard Herrmann recycled Wagner's motifs as "soundtracks," synched up to imagistic editing which in itself was rhythmically indebted to his music.  Wagner's inflation of heroic legend into pop myth likewise resonates throughout the commercial culture, from Superman to Star Wars.  In fact, every time a Jewish kid cracks a comic book - much less a "graphic novel" - he essentially is reading a Wagner libretto.

I could go on and on; what this all means, of course, is that it's perfectly appropriate for artists to continually connect with, and re-interpret, this great composer and problematic personality - just as we constantly re-connect with Shakespeare (by comparison, a charmer, btw).  The trouble is that re-interpreting Wagner means spending a bucket full of money, as spectacle is really a sine qua non of his work.  And with money, inevitably, comes controversy.  Thus the high stakes surrounding the Met's $17-million Ring.

The Rhine maidens literally swim up into the playing space.
So what has Robert Lepage given us for our $17 million? Well, to my mind, he has ignored the loaded political questions inherent in Wagner - he simply has not interpreted Das Rheingold.  He has instead created an interesting meta-meditation on the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk - his production is literally a stage machine for producing psychological imagery; its "theme" is its own ability to extend the technical end of Wagner's vision.  And intriguingly, if the composer's apotheosis came with the advent of cinema, then Lepage has returned the favor, and turned the Met's considerable resources to producing cinematic effects on stage.  (Since I was watching the production on another screen, the ironic ramifications of this concept loomed large.)

Thus it's no surprise that Lepage's "Machine" often serves as a screen, too (for projections of water, fire and sky).  When it's on the move, however, it really comes into its own, and the effects it can conjure are startling, and more powerful than anything the cinema can offer.  During the opening Rhine music, for instance, its planks rippled like waves, then began to rise before us like a tide; the effect of sinking into the water, as Wagner's famous arpeggios rippled in ever-more-complex configurations, was thrillingly palpable.

But even more memorable are the amazing shifts in "perspective" Lepage achieves.  Thanks to stunt doubles and hidden wires, Wotan and Loge cross the sky on a twisting stair (at top), that's sometimes fully perpendicular to the audience; we seem to be floating above the actors, like a movie camera, as they descend. Lepage pulls off a similar, but even more dazzling, riff at his finale (at bottom), as the gods ascend a literal rainbow up the ramparts of Valhalla; this counts as one of the most beautiful stage effects I've ever seen.  It's really too bad it didn't work on opening night; all by itself it might have turned several skeptics into believers.

Not that there's nothing to be skeptical about in this production.  As has been widely reported, several of Lepage's gambits (such as the entry of the gods via slalom) don't really work, and over longer scenes, the planks of the Machine begin to look bland in a retro-70's-modernist kind of way (at such moments I began to ponder how indebted Lepage is to the work of Josef Svoboda, but that's another essay).  The costumes likewise had their misses (the giants Fasolt and Fafner looked a bit cartoonish) - and props like the magic helmet and the net in which Freia is weighed against her ransom left one scratching one's head.

And the cast, though promoted as a Wagnerian dream team, proved a bit uneven in performance.  The strongest acting came from Stephanie Blythe as Fricka and Richard Croft as Loge, with the best singing courtesy of Blythe and Eric Owens as Alberich.  In his highly-anticipated debut as Wotan, however, I'm afraid Bryn Terfel was dramatically bland and at times even vocally slightly strained toward the finish.  Perhaps most troubling was the fact that Lepage didn't really block his singers effectively.  They were often constrained to the flat, forward part of the set (as "the Machine" moved behind them), and yet within this constricted space they sometimes seemed to be wandering, or indulging in what opera wags call "park and bark."  Down in the pit, though, maestro Levine was having a grand time, serving both as attentive accompanist and happy orchestrator of grand climaxes; nothing new here either, really, but it was great hearing Levine doing what he does best.

Of course the Ring is a work-in-progress, and productions with intense technical (and safety!) requirements often take time to really gel.  As it stands, the Lepage Ring is a dazzler at times, and always conceptually intriguing; but whether it will eventually find its dramatic and musical feet, along with its technical and conceptual foundation, is still an open question.

In LePage's most stunning image, the gods ascend a rainbow to Valhalla.