Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Reviewing The Nutcracker, Boston Ballet's annual seasonal spectacle, has become an easy gig.  Since the kinks were worked out of its transfer to the Opera House, the show has become an ever-smoother entertainment machine; by now, almost every nook and cranny has been packed with amusing effects.  And while every season the Ballet tinkers a bit with some sequence or other (this year, the opening battle with the Mouse King seemed to have been streamlined), in essence, The Nutcracker doesn't change in its essential nature - or in its steps.

Thus it has become a kind of barometer of the company's technical growth - and judging from last weekend's opening, Boston Ballet has come very far indeed in a very short time.  I think every lead role was exquisitely danced, and while the choreography, by Mikko Nissinen, is neither deep nor daring, it's often quite sophisticated, and there's a mysterious fascination in watching these familiar steps re-enacted with the supreme precision in evidence here.  Indeed, the roll call of superb performances in this version would be a long one.  James Whiteside made a fluidly gallant Cavalier, and Misa Kuranaga was just perfection as the Sugar Plum Fairy.  Meanwhile John Lam was unbelievably flexible (as ever) as the Harlequin, and Dalay Parrondo impressed with a weirdly spirited Columbine.  Pavel Gurevitch brought a romantic elegance to the long leaps (and pillowy landings) of the Snow King, and Isaac Akiba was his usual irrepressible self in the Russian dance, while Kathleen Breen Combes (above) simply stopped the show as the sinuous odalisque of the Arabian dance (I think Combes is by now firmly ensconced as the troupe's new reigning diva).

There were still more pleasures to be had in a show almost dripping with them; the serenely poised Whitney Jensen made a luminous Dew Drop Fairy, for instance, and Paulo Arrais charmed in the Chinese dance.  The Clara of opening night, Fiona Wada-Gill, was both lovely and quite accomplished technically, and as Fritz, the pint-sized Max Pounanov proved an amusingly - and accurately - pouty little brother.  If there were a few bumps here and there, I'm afraid they mostly came from the corps.  The snowflakes seemed to skitter a bit at the end of the first act, and when Jensen wasn't around, the Waltz of the Flowers became a bit of a free-for-all.  And I missed the witty theatricality of Boyko Dossev as Drosselmeier (indeed, I miss Dossev in general - he decamped for Washington Ballet), but I slowly warmed to Sabi Varga's simpler, but more sexually charged, characterization.  Meanwhile, down in the pit, the orchestra played with spirit, and maestro Jonathan McPhee always kept his foot firmly on the gas (indeed, perhaps too much so here and there - in the Chinese dance, the bassoons got a little ahead of the piccolos).

It's true that at times, as I consider the wild success of the Ballet's Nutcracker (it's widely known as the best-loved version in America), I long for something a little less glossy, a little less candified. I wish we could let the Nutcracker be a little spookier, a little more Russian.  But I can't expect the Ballet to tinker with success - certainly not a success like this one.  And I confess there are moments in The Nutcracker that still, after all these years, give me a child-like thrill - I always fall for that moment when the giant Christmas tree begins to grow, its candles glittering, or when the Land of Sweets first appears, its cloud spilling out from the stage and down into the orchestra.  I'm happy to see it every year, particularly when, year after year, the dancing just keeps getting better and better.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The second half of the Spiro Veloudos's grand Dickensian gamble, Nicholas Nickleby (above), has been running for some time at the Lyric Stage, but I only got a chance to catch up with it a little over a week ago (it closes December 19th).  I'd been quite impressed by Part I, and am happy to report that Part II carries on with pretty much the same high spirits and confident brio.

Pretty much, that is.  It does lose steam a bit (or at least it did the night I saw it) - even though adapter David Edgar cleverly ties his many plot strands into nice tidy bundles over the course of the evening. Indeed, the pace of Part II sometimes hastened to quite a clip - poor Smike was all but hustled to his sickbed, and then to the grave (in general the editing-down from the original 8-hour version seemed a bit bumpier in the second half).

And alas, despite its relative narrative cohesion, Part II had a void where its central development should have been, just as Part I did.  There it was Jack Cutmore-Scott's performance as Nicholas which remained unvarying even as his character was tried, tested, and found true.  In the second half, however, Nicholas has found his feet, and operates in a steadier state, so Cutmore-Scott's glossy romantic appeal served the part well enough.  This time around it was veteran Will Lyman who didn't find his arc; just as Part I depends on Nicholas's rise, so Part II revolves around his uncle Ralph's decline and fall - yet Lyman seemed invested only in the role's forbidding surface; oddly, he was quite moving once the elder Nickleby had come to ruin, but how, precisely, he descended from cold-heartedness to vindictive evil remained a mystery; the internal work was just missing.

The villains briefly take the upper hand in Nicholas Nickleby.
There were a few other gaps. The Brothers Cheeryble, who form a happy capitalist counterpoint to the nightmarish Ralph and his minions, were hearty, but not quite eccentric enough (they were upstaged by Neil A. Casey in an amusingly bluff turn as their clerk). And alas, once the hilarious Crummles Theatrical Troupe has been hustled off stage, the novel itself produces only a few new memorable characters. Still, Leigh Barrett got to spread her wings a bit as Peg Sliderskew, and Sasha Castroverde, after chewing the scenery as Fanny Squeers, did a complete 180 to convincingly portray the quietly luminous Madeleine Bray. Several other actors kept up the good work from Part I: Michael Steven Costello was just as creepy here as he'd been earlier, Daniel Berger-Jones carried on with the same confident swagger, and Peter A. Carey remained just as quietly touching as Newman Noggs. And as Mother Nickleby, Maureen Keiller began to find the addled, silly center of her role. But alas, the central sentimental, nearly-romantic bond between Nicholas and his sister (Elizabeth A. Rimar) failed to really materialize - which is a shame, because sisters (or rather sisters-in law) are emotionally central to Dickens, and the vision of romantic domesticity with which Nicholas Nickleby closes is a bit more - well, intriguing than the Lyric version seems to realize.

Still, the production does close with a touching tableau - and one perfect for Christmastime (particularly Christmastime in a recession). If you're tired of that other Dickens yuletide classic, this year the richer, deeper Nicholas Nickleby could prove the perfect Christmas gift to yourself.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Wasserstein mess

Are Wendy Wasserstein's daughters honoring her legacy?

It has been sad, and troubling, watching the imbroglio over the Theatre Development Fund's Wendy Wasserstein Prize (dedicated to emerging female playwrights) slowly unfold. First came the news that the prize would not be awarded this year to any of the nineteen scripts that had been considered for it. That was disappointing, of course, but the blogosphere reacted to the news with a bizarre wave of outraged entitlement that was even more dispiriting. Within days, "open letters" had been written and petitions had been launched, with a kind of nexus forming around playwright Michael Lew, who posted on the blog "The Youngblog" a screed which ran, in part:

"As a member of Youngblood and Ma-Yi and the Old Vic network I see truly outstanding plays by emerging female writers on a pretty much daily basis [emphasis added], so as you can imagine I'm outraged by this decision (not to mention the slap in the face it lands on our many talented peers who were nominated),"

Wow - Michael Lew sees a "truly outstanding" new play almost every day? I think I've only seen one or two "truly outstanding" new plays this year - despite seeing, well, dozens. And speaking generally, just based on, you know, history and stuff, it would be quite unusual for more than two or three outstanding new plays to appear in a season, by either gender or any race. Yet Michael Lew, amazingly enough, sees roughly 250 a year (I'm assuming he takes weekends off from this unending stream of excellence - it must get so tiring, like squinting into the sun!).

Okay, so Lew (at left) tends to hyperventilate (and he's clearly not a critic).  But he also tends to imagine things: "This decision can only be interpreted as a blanket indictment on the quality of female emerging writers and their work," he claims, "and is insulting not only to the finalists but also to the many theatre professionals who nominated these writers and deemed their plays prize worthy. This decision perpetuates the pattern of gender bias outlined in Julia Jordan and Emily Glassberg Sands' study on women in theatre, and the message it sends to the theatre community generally is that there aren't any young female playwrights worth investigating."

Okay, this is pretty weird. The panel reviewed 19 scripts (which were submitted by invitation, from writers under 32 years of age); there may be valid criticisms to be made of this selection process, it's true - but it makes no sense whatsoever to say that rejecting those 19 scripts "can only be interpreted as a blanket indictment on the quality of female emerging writers and their work." (Lew elsewhere went further, claiming those 19 scripts represented "a generation of talented writers.")

But I'm afraid the opposite is actually true - it's patently obvious that deciding against 19 submissions cannot be interpreted as a blanket indictment of emerging female writers and their work.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Vengeance is the bored's

The Horvaths come home for the holidays at the Huntington.
Reviewers have generally been vengeful toward Bob Glaudini's Vengeance is the Lord's, at the Huntington through Dec. 12. Even local sweetheart Joyce Kulhawik piled on, although the Globe's resident nicenik, Don Aucoin, was one of the few hold-outs, insisting that Glaudini's script had proved "utterly absorbing."

If only - although the production's failure really is too bad, because the playwright does take on large themes, and actually has something like his own voice (a cross between Mamet and Miller, with a shot of Shepard on the side). Indeed, Glaudini's got ambition to burn - but alas, not the commitment to craft to go with it (he has even admitted in interviews that he largely wings it). This shortfall actually makes you long at times for Annie Baker, whom Glaudini sort of orbits as antithesis, the way Count Chocula did Frankenberry; Baker, who styles herself a millennial Jane Austen, cuts cameos that make her two inches of thematic ivory glint with hints of surprising depth; meanwhile Glaudini attacks huge swaths of moral psychology with a sloppy brush, and then pretty much gives up on his overall design anyway about halfway through.

Oh, well - as if to compensate, the Huntington rolls out one of its wicked-killah sets - a spinning gothic homestead straight outta Dorchestah by Eugene Lee. Trouble is, something about this turntable keeps reminding you of what's wrong with the play - as the set spins its wheels, so does the script. Even though half the cast (mostly the younger half) does its best to keep things rolling forward, rather than in circles.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Be grateful for these Black-Friday-like theatrical deals

You can still see great theatre this season even if you're not Mr. Moneybags.
Today is the day to blow the diet, be thankful the Lord provided for our white forebears while all but wiping out the people of color in their way, and, of course, watch steroid-pumped men in helmets give each other multiple concussions in what passes for a kind of national metaphor. So enjoy!

But TOMORROW is day America gets down to its true manifest destiny - shopping! And in the spirit of that season, the Hub Review feels duty-bound to remind you of a few Black-Friday-like theatrical deals. Chief among these is ArtsEmerson's spring season blow-out on November 29 (that's Cyber Monday, I know, not Black Friday, but never mind!). There will be tickets for all January-April shows available for only $25 (just one day only). And given that these shows include F. Murray Abraham, Peter Brook, and the Abbey Theatre, you'll want to see them all. Particularly since this year ArtsEmerson has both re-vitalized the downtown theatre scene AND shown a new way to deliver intellectually challenging yet accessible theatre to our benighted city. More info here.  Meanwhile, if you feel you simply must shop for theatre on Black Friday, go to the North Shore Music Theatre website, where they're offering 50% off the Dec. 3 performance of their much-loved Christmas Carol (discount code: CCBF). (Then video yourself jumping up and down, screaming "YES!!!", and post it to YouTube.)

There are also plenty of half-price deals over at the Mayor's Holiday Special and ArtsBoston. Oh, and this year why not skip the Rockettes - at least until they hire some live Boston musicians! - and instead check out such newer traditions as the New Rep's Darling Divas Deck the Holidays, the Urban Nutcracker, or, yes, both parts of Nicholas Nickleby (for the price of one!). I guarantee you none of these shows will be turkeys.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Twin peaks

When does sheer virtuosity become its own reward? That was the question lingering over Sunday's Celebrity Series appearance by violinist Pinchas Zukerman and pianist Yefim Bronfman.  It was a concert marked by no real artistic statement - the two virtuosi, in fact, seemed to orbit each other rather than connect, each quietly locked in his own pursuit of excellence.  And neither was particularly interested in the niceties of historically-sensitive modes of interpretation, either - their Mozart sounded a lot like their Beethoven, which sounded a lot like their Brahms; a century of stylistic development was as nothing to this pair.

And yet the concert was wonderful anyway - a long, enveloping stretch of sensitively-rendered beauty that seemed to caress the listener, melting away the worries and weariness of the world (as well as any attendant intellectual aesthetic quibbles).  It was the kind of concert you found yourself wishing all your friends could hear, too.  This is as fine as musicianship can be, this duo seemed to demonstrate.  What else is there, really, to say?

Well, maybe not much, but I'll try to say something.  The concert at times had almost an off-hand air - pieces began without much ado, and at one point the two left the stage in search of Zukerman's music.  Still, things never felt exactly relaxed, either.  Bronfman is a reserved presence, Zukerman perhaps more self-absorbed - if that subtlety amounts to much.  Bronfman's touch is cushioned but utterly precise, and hints at colors and modes you'd most identify with the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Zukerman, by way of contrast, plays with a lighter attack that floats over burnished depths of feeling- his is not a resolutely "singing" tone; instead one senses in his interpreations a flexible, yet serious, musical intelligence that might be most at home in Beethoven.

So it was no surprise that the great Ludwig van's "Spring" Sonata, (No. 5, Opus 24)  was the high point of the concert - or rather, the highest point of a performance that operated consistently at an elevated plane.  The sonata was not as bubbly as it has sometimes been played - this was an adult reading, in which autumn and winter were not entirely forgotten, and the landscape was lit by occasional flashes of lightning (particularly from Zukerman, who took the lead). Mozart’s B-flat Major Sonata (K. 454) was likewise given a studied, but lovely, reading - it sounded a bit like Beethoven playing Mozart, but ya know - that ain't bad. The concert proper wrapped with Brahms's E-Flat Major Sonata ( Op. 120), originally for piano and clarinet, with Zukerman switching to viola for the woodwind role.   Here Bronfman was more prominent, and the piece came off beautifully - but it seemed, after the Beethoven, like a bit of an anticlimax.  The duo offered only a single encore, Schumann's “Märchenbilder,’’ (Op. 113), which actually burned with a bit more fire than the Brahms - and with that, the concert was over. Even though I'm sure the crowd would have been happy to sit and listen for hours.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Boston Philharmonic in a previous performance at Jordan Hall.

Nazis seemed to be haunting the Hub Review last weekend - after sitting through Good at BU, I then caught Anton Bruckner's Eighth Symphony at Jordan Hall, with Benjamin Zander's Boston Philharmonic. Not that Bruckner was a Nazi, of course (he died in 1896); but the great symphonist now lives in their long shadow - he was, in fact, probably the favorite composer of Adolph Hitler. Yeah, ole Uncle Adolph had an even bigger jones for Bruckner than Wagner; indeed, when German radio stations heard of Hitler's suicide, they spontaneously played the Adagio from Bruckner's Seventh Symphony in mourning.  (Yes - mourning.) So while Wagner may have composed Siegfried's funeral music, Bruckner actually composed Hitler's funeral music.

Der Führer's admiration for the composer may have been sourced in something like identification; it would have been easy for Hitler to imagine Bruckner as his musical twin. Both were Austrians, both were slightly batty Catholics with a disturbing reverence for "purity," and both were determined to create enormous empires - in Bruckner's case, of course, merely of sound. It's important to remember that, and to remember that there's not a trace of anti-Semitism to be found in Bruckner - just a weird sense of Bavarian pastorale gone slightly mad, with attendant pretensions to death, transcendence, damnation, resurrection - the whole neurotically overblown late-nineteenth-century kit and caboodle. But to be honest, what makes Bruckner always sound bonkers to me is a yin-yangish tension in his music between vast, elaborate architectures and a kind of naïve, even crude, simplicity.  It's as if while stylistically his whole symphonic end-game was growing ever more florid, his childish obsessions were at the same time banging through its highly-wrought surface.

Don't get me wrong - I like Bruckner (at left, in a portrait that captures something of that introverted childishness); but I like him with his inner crazy intact; in a word, I don't think Hitler was wrong about him (even if, unlike Wagner, he was probably harmless). But I didn't feel much that was really crazy going on in Benjamin Zander's highly accomplished version of the Eighth Symphony last weekend. The performance got a gushing review in the Globe, and for at least one good reason - the orchestra (particularly the horn section, which had quite the Wagnerian workout) sounded more coherent and polished than they have in the recent past. Indeed, rarely have I heard the Boston Philharmonic sound better - although, as always, they were playing a piece that requires huge forces in a space too small for them (Jordan Hall), which inevitably resulted in some balance and volume problems.  Still, this was a detailed and persuasive rendition of a ginormous challenge.

And you can't deny that Zander (at right, in a typical pose) knows how to calibrate grand gestures - indeed, he all but lives for grand gestures, and their attendant sense of uplift.  But while he's essentially after grandiloquence, he doesn't want it to look vulgar - and so he shaped the Eighth superbly (if a bit sedately - it ran well over its usual 80 minutes), attending with almost too much solicitude to the usual programmatic pitstops - childhood joy, innocence lost, suffering, death, and sudden transcendence (with, of course, a shift from minor to major at the very last minute, like an unexpected goal at the World Cup).

Most of the critics seem to have been thrilled that Zander kept Bruckner under such elevated control - that the famous drive of the finale was here so methodical, that the symphony unfolded, as the Globe approvingly put it, like an algorithm.  But I couldn't help feeling that in Zander's "best-of-what's-been-thought-and-said" version something that Bruckner said had been left out - this was the Eighth as rhetoric rather than rapture.  In other words, there are more things in this composer's musical heaven and earth than "uplift," and maybe vulgarity ain't always a bad thing.

Monday, November 22, 2010

So bad it's Good

Sigh. It's been a great theatrical season so far - although of course not all the theatre I've been seeing has been quite so great. Good, which closed last weekend at the Boston Center for American Performance, has been one such disappointment - but as it was basically a fringe show, I was tempted to ignore it. BUT, John Kuntz says really ethical critics shouldn't play favorites, so . . . for that which you are about to receive, BCAP, may Johnny Hambone make you truly thankful.

And now, without further ado . . .

I went to the BCAP's production quite curious as to why C.P. Taylor's widely-lauded play about one man's slide into Nazism had all but disappeared from the boards after the author's death (I'd never actually seen it before).

But just a few minutes in, I knew why. Good is actually bad - quite bad - but it's bad in that high-minded way that almost guarantees a certain amount of critical respect. BCAP claims the script answers such questions as "How does Nazism happen to a 'good' man? How does it happen to a 'good' people?' But in reality it does nothing of the kind; in fact it actually dodges these questions through a welter of mismatched conceptual gambits.

More's the pity, for these are worthy questions, and worthy of dramatic answers. Answers you imagine might take the form of a detailed, naturalistic portrait of an ambitious German who cuts ethical corners for personal advancement, and then must guiltily rationalize his entanglement with the madness surrounding him even as (perforce) he sinks deeper into it morally just to stay afloat professionally. You can imagine a very compelling drama like that, can't you. I certainly can.

But Good isn't that drama, in part because formally it's a mess, and in part because in terms of content, it has precisely nothing new to say about Nazis, the banality of evil, or really anything at all. C.P. Taylor hasn't written a morally meticulous drama about the downfall of a worthy man - in fact, he's written a play that's meticulous in no way whatsoever (by the finale he has stuffed into it Kristallnacht, book-burnings, Auschwitz, and the kitchen sink). You'd think naturalism would suit his project best, but Taylor instead opts to investigate his fictional protagonist, the novelist "Halder"(whose writings on euthanasia bring him to the attention of the Nazi regime) via stream-of-consciousness - only it's a stream-of-consciousness studded with phantasmagoric effects, a kind of dream-space in which time and space routinely stretch, and then stand still.  Perhaps, we think, this is the consciousness of a man gone mad with guilt (which might, actually, make for a solid one-act).  But Halder is a construct who's sometimes a specific man, and then sometimes, seemingly, an entire nation (he hallucinates most of the German musical tradition, for instance, at high points of Nazi crime) whom Taylor sends wandering back-and-forth through scenes of realism,  surrealism (Hitler shows up as Charlie Chaplin), epic theatre, and (I kid you not) story theatre (when cast members pretended to be a rampaging fire, I had to suppress a giggle).

As you can see, Good is internally contradictory in just about every way you can be internally contradictory. As a portrait of a mind in collapse from denial, it might make sense - at half its current length. But as a portrait of decline, it's just ridiculous - indeed, its protagonist isn't ever very "good" at all; from the start, he never seems to struggle against his tempters.  Halder is happy to jump through every hoop the Nazis ask him to.  It's true that occasionally his rationales are wicked, sick fun (he decides Kristallnacht was actually "humane" because it motivated Germany's remaining Jews to leave the country!). But we never identify with him, and thus never even perceive Taylor's supposed thesis.  And the author's biggest conceptual stroke - the idea that Bach and Beethoven served as a transcendent cultural excuse for German crimes - is actually old hat; it's the shopworn cultural claim that drove much of modernist atonality (and Kubrick used the device to far more devastating effect in A Clockwork Orange, anyway).  It doesn't help things that Taylor can't really sustain a narrative arc - not even through a single scene - and instead gropes obsessively for some effect - any effect - to give us the impression (yet again) that we're slipping down into ever-deeper regions of moral Hell.  Particularly, it seems, if we still like Bach and Beethoven.  Did you get that? WE'RE ALL GOING TO HELL WITH THE NAZIS.

Okay, the play is stupefyingly misguided; the production is arguably worse. There's only one way to make Good hang together - via a towering central performance that through sheer stage magnetism can make all these odds even (and the RSC seems to have had that when it took the play to Broadway with Alan Howard back in the 80's). Alas, lead Michael Kaye delivers a small-scaled turn that usually registers only confusion; he seems as dismayed by the play as we are. And given that central void, director Jim Petosa's production seems to go as mad as the Third Reich - the performances oscillate wildly in style and tone, on a set that's stylish but actually kind of wrong in its fascist grandeur.  Usually in this kind of thing you can find something to praise.  But this time I really couldn't - although a few actors, like Mason Sand and Tim Spears, did escape with their dignity.  I hate to say it, but the Nazis deserve better.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Of musical, and medieval, virtuosity

By any standard, Hildegard of Bingen would have been a Renaissance woman - if she'd lived after the Renaissance, that is. But as she died in 1179, there's no handy term to encapsulate her wide range of achievement - although we do know she was quite the medieval player: a powerful abbess and (literal) visionary, Hildegard was also a diplomat, naturalist, artist (her illustration of one of her visions, at right), author, and composer.

It's that last vocation that excites the most interest in her today - Hildegard left behind one of the largest repertoires of any medieval composer. And central to her achievement is Ordo Virtutum (Play of the Virtues) a morality play which she set to music - more than four centuries before Orfeo was even a gleam in Monteverdi's eye.

Which makes Ordo Virtutum quite the statistical outlier, if you will - and as there people who like to insist that it counts as the "first opera," I was eager to check out a rare performance by Cappella Clausura, which took place last weekend at the First Lutheran Church in Back Bay. I didn't know quite what to expect, but left consistently impressed by the musical artistry and commitment of the group, if not always by the concept they had chosen for this particular production.

Ordo Virtutum is a meditation on a soul's temptation by (and redemption from) Old Scratch himself - and Cappella Clausura's "hook" was a cute, but not particularly convincing, updating of the text from one millennium to the next.  Here the "Soul" - or "Anima" - was a fresh-faced college grad (Laura Betinis) on the verge of devoting herself to filthy lucre, at some satanic corporation run by woman-of-the-world Margaret Raines (both at left), even though her virtuous BFFs (with names like Faith, Hope and . . . "Fear of God"?) were all warning her against it. The press materials worked this concept up into quite the social statement, but in practice it amounted to contemporary clothing on the singers and not a whole lot more - other than a sweet, but slightly-amusing "OMG, Anima - no you didn't!" attitude from the sorority of "virtues" which was slightly at odds with the inhuman purity of the music.

But said music proved the show's (if not Anima's) true savior, for if Cappella Clausura didn't dramatize Hildegard's vision convincingly, they nevertheless sang it compellingly, and with a confidence that comes only from long and deep commitment.  (But you can tell from their name alone this kind of thing is their specialty.)  Ordo Virtutum is a challenge partly because medieval notation (via neumes) leaves out any details of harmony or instrumentation (and only hints at rhythm).  But adapter/conductor Amelia LeClair attacked this gap with knowledgeable insight, and came up with a minimal, but effective, accompaniment of medieval harp, hurdy-gurdy, and veille (a medieval fiddle). Betinis sang with beautifully pure tone, and while the chorus of virtues was a bit uneven in spots, their diction was always impeccable, and there were at least two fine solos, from Kimberly Sizer and Daniela Tosic, as well as a ringing one from Leah Hungerford.

Still, this wasn't enough to sell me on Ordo Virtutum as "the first opera;" it simply lacks enough staged conflict to qualify as a drama - as we never see Anima really struggle with her seducer (she simply changes her mind and returns to the Virtues); it's really a kind of liturgical text set to music.  Although a little more old-fashioned acting from the leads could have nevertheless helped put the show over, as the music is inevitably repetitive - though lovely - over its hour-or-so length.  And while I liked Margaret Raines's what-the-hell attitude, she seemed a rather unmotivated Devil - there were only a few moments when we saw anything like a seductive vibe float between her and her supposed prey.  And when you consider that Hildegard hasn't written Old Scratch even a scrap of melody (symbolically, it's a spoken role), you do feel that somehow, somebody onstage should give the Devil his (or her) due.

Friday, November 19, 2010

It's down the hatch on yet another dreadful Christmas Eve at Trinity Rep.
Alan Ayckbourn has been enjoying a revival of late, although there's still critical debate over where, exactly, he should be placed in the critical pantheon. But Trinity Rep's current production of Absurd Person Singular (perhaps his best play) makes a strong case for a higher rather than lower position. This broad, bright version has been under-sung in the local press, but it's probably the best night out at the theatre the region currently has to offer - it both plays to the crowd in bold, funny strokes, and yet (mostly) honors the piece's melancholic undertow, too.

Ayckbourn made his start in the British sex-comedy tradition, but sex is pretty far from everyone's mind in Absurd Person Singular - status is what these people are after (or what they have to lose). And note that last word in the title - everyone in Absurd is going at it alone, essentially, even though the play takes place over three consecutive years' worth of Christmas parties (in one of Ayckbourn's postmodern extrapolations of what used to pass for dramatic "unity"). In this dyspeptic view of the holiday season, everybody's feigning good cheer so much they don't even notice that every year, somebody's not waving but drowning (usually it's one of the wives stuck in the script's trio of dysfunctional marriages). Indeed, in the play's most notorious scene, one desperate homebody repeatedly attempts to take her own life at her own party, as the celebration carries on cluelessly around her (when she sticks her head in the oven, for instance, everybody assumes she's cleaning it).

That ghoulish congruence of hilarity and heartbreak probably sums up the tone of Absurd - and maybe of all of Ayckbourn - and the Trinity folks pretty much nail it. The production is a little cold (Michael McGarty's slightly surreal set makes that a given), and maybe a little cruel, but never quite heartless, and it holds us through its sense of high-powered ensemble. And director Brian McEleney is quite conscientious about noting Ayckbourn's many clues that large, Chehovian shifts in power are moving behind the scenes of these sad little domestic dust-ups. By the end the play, the bourgeois squirrels (Stephen Berenson and Angela Brazil) have worked their way to the top of the heap, while the bored - and boring - patricians (Timothy Crowe and Anne Scurria) are in utter disarray, and the pretentious bohemians (Phyllis Kay and Fred Sullivan, Jr.) have seen their marriage fall apart, but have somehow pasted it back together again (by, we guess, the wife finally putting her foot down about her husband's "dog").

The performances are all strong, but as is always the case, some are stronger than others.  I felt that if anyone in the cast stepped over the line into caricature, it was Angela Brazil, whose frenzied neatnik screeched in panic a little too often (Brazil would do better to concentrate on the pathos of her attempts to draw some attention from her avidly self-interested husband).  Likewise Phyllis Kay, though generally working in the right dry, world-weary vein as the play's would-be suicide, didn't quite have the devastated, 1000-yard-stare required to send her big scene into orbit.  The men were more consistently on point, though none matched Anne Scurria's turn as the condescending local luminary who is eventually brought low by economic circumstance.  This the best work I've seen from Scurria in some time, and it's certainly award-worthy - she ruled the last act of the play, in fact, as she wandered her kitchen in a housecoat, drunk out of her mind, and desperate to connect some emotional dots - any dots.  Hers was the most singularly absurd person in this sadly hilarious theatrical gallery.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

On a cold winter night . . .

Enjoy this superb time-lapse of the Milky Way over Idaho.
"One" at the North Shore Music Theatre.
It's hard to remember the last time a musical was a cultural watershed; A Chorus Line may, in fact, have been the last one.  Sure, Cats, Les Miz, and Phantom ran longer, I know, but sheer longevity isn't what I'm talking about here.  Impact is.  To watch A Chorus Line today - and this weekend is its last at the North Shore Music Theatre - is to mainline the mid-70's in their purest form, because much of the mid-70's derived from A Chorus Line; Marvin Hamlisch, Michael Bennett, gay confessionals, disillusion and self-absorption, the sense of an endless adolescence,  the vulgar truth-telling, the glitzy but streetwise "attitude," even the wide lapels matched with the glittering, retro top hats - it all seems to coalesce into something like the apotheosis of a decade.  And weirdly, if you're old enough to remember said decade from the first time around, this singular sensation plays as more than just nostalgia - it feels more like a kind of recognition.  "Oh, yeah," I found myself thinking after nearly every number. "That's how we used to think - that's how we used to feel!"

Which is a little scary in a way.  And I wonder - would someone born after that glamorous, crass expanse of excess feel the same way?  Of course not; how could they?  But I think they'd sense the power of A Chorus Line as source material - after all, the politically co-opted, self-centered 70's echo on in the culture far more than the 60's do.  And the North Shore does the show up right - not perfectly, mind you, but with enough power (and schmaltzy smarts) to more than put it over.

Do I have to tell you the "story"?  All right - it's about an audition, okay?  For a - guess what - chorus line.  In which slowly everybody's secrets are revealed.  Now let's get straight to the review.  The "trick" to casting many a show is finding singers who can also dance, but the trick to Chorus is finding dancers who can also sing (and act up a storm as well).  And the North Shore succeeds (mostly) - indeed, given that dance has been their weak spot this season, I was relieved to find they'd brought onboard a bevy of talented hoofers.  Not quite all these folks can belt, but they can all carry a tune, and all of them can act - except, alas, "one."

And unfortunately, that "one" is one of the show's leads.  The production's big disappointment is Derek Hanson's Zach - Hanson's certainly handsome, and a great dancer, too (did we see Zach dance this much in the earlier versions?), but as the casting director of that eponymous chorus (below), he relies on flat, angry barking far too often, and doesn't seem to know how to take advantage of the sense of mystery his physical absence provides (most of the time he's a disembodied, God-like voice). It all feels like one huge missed opportunity.

Zach puts his dancers through their paces.
Luckily, however, just about everyone else provides a fine, punchy performance. Rebecca Riker had the right aura of defeated, uncertain glamour as Cassie (whose return to the chorus after a failed shot at stardom somehow distills the show's sense of disillusionment). And Nancy Renée Braun and Venny Carranza had a sweet, funny chemistry as the husband-and-wife team with one big problem - one of them can't "Sing!" I was also impressed with Aaron Umsted's cockily out-of-the-closet "homosexual," and Katie Cameron's aging survivor, and I pretty much adored Julie Kotarides as the straight-talking Puerto Rican girl who tears the pretensions of theatre class to shreds in the famous "Nothing." But perhaps I was most taken with the hilariously perky Leslie Flesner, who, in "Dance: 10, Looks: 3" assures us with bubbly confidence that "Tits and ass can change your life!"

Still, there were some ways in which A Chorus Line is showing its age - or perhaps, now that its up-front gay and sexual content counts as less "shocking" (today it's almost quaint), the structural problems in the book are clearer - and director Mark Martino hasn't found a way to dodge them (although he has found effective ways to adjust the familiar choreography to the North Shore's arena stage).  The subplot between Cassie and Zach is awfully thin, for instance, and a long monologue about coming out under fire seems so unmotivated that it basically stops the show - only in the wrong way.  And an atmosphere of tragedy does cling to A Chorus Line for gay men of my generation, I have to admit.  Drawn from actual interviews with dancers (or "gypsies," as they called themselves), the script is heavy with a defiantly fabulous gay attitude that would be all but washed away just years after the show's premiere (with the arrival of the AIDS epidemic).  Indeed, I think none of the four gay men who created this show lived to see the end of its triumphant Broadway run.  Thus, seen in retrospect, the sense of threat that hangs over A Chorus Line - the fear deep inside these dancers that someday they'll lose the ability to dance - seems touchingly naïve.  These people had no idea what was about to hit them.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The black magic of Basil Twist.

Puppets, as every child knows, are paradoxes.  Seemingly inert, artificial, even "dead," they can nevertheless appear more intensely alive than flesh and blood could ever hope to be.

Thus the long tradition of folk tales spun from the strings of marionettes - among them the sources of Stravinsky's Petrushka, which pirouettes perfectly on this sense of mystery.  The ballet leaps without warning or apology into a dimension of fantasy in which the puppets of a country carnival - the Pierrot-like Petrushka, his beloved Ballerina (below right), and the apple of her eye, the menacing Moor - come "alive" before our eyes (via real-life dancers), enacting their own variation of a classic love-triangle.  And as we watch the poignant struggles of Petrushka, we realize that emotionally - and perhaps even spiritually - we're puppets, too, buffeted by fate and manipulated constantly by needs and dreams over which we have no control. (Indeed, in Petrushka's calmly cruel folk idiom, death is the only release from slavery.)

Enter New Age puppeteer Basil Twist - who brings to the ballet the intriguing twist, if you will, of turning it back into a puppet show.  That's right: a ballet about "live" puppets - enacted by puppets.  Playing people who are playing puppets - who are, of course, somehow "people," too.

Dizzy yet?  Don't worry if you are; Twist never leans on these conundrums too heavily - his Petrushka floats closer to Punch and Judy than Pascal.  Indeed, if his version has a flaw, it's that all this metaphysical speculation doesn't get him very far in performance.  Huge, manipulative hands may constantly threaten Petrushka, but the ensuing focus on his existential rather than romantic dilemmas seems (oddly enough) to crush our identification with him.   It also somehow undermines the folk tale's (and music's) strange appeal to our faith in animism, which is central to the Russian mystical tradition. All in all, this was the least moving Petrushka I've seen - perhaps in no small part because Twist's design for the eponymous marionette is his least evocative work in the show (compare the puppet, below, to Nijinsky's original conception).  And it doesn't help matters that his Ballerina isn't just haughty but a little too bawdy.  In the end, Twist's version may be touching, but it's not heart-breaking - after all, his Petrushka's just a puppet.

You really have to add, though - what a puppet.  If it doesn't actually limn its thematic potential, this Petrushka still dazzles with its technique.  Twist works in a free-form update of the Japanese tradition of bunraku, in which marionettes are manipulated by puppeteers dressed in black (the better to melt into the background).  In Petrushka, this illusion often works almost perfectly - a glittering proscenium (at top) frames a mysterious "black box," in which perspective and gravity are defied, and all manner of surprising visions magically float.  Here the Ballerina can pirouette forever in mid-air, and a giant Russian bear (perhaps Twist's best effect) can loom out of nowhere, balance on a blood-red globe, and then disappear as quickly as it materialized.  Giant banners ripple through the void like spirits (or souls), and an entire carnival can be conjured by disembodied hands plucking musical instruments (at top) like some vision out of Disney's Fantasia.  Indeed, Twist often succeeds in evoking a kind of cinema made flesh; we first see Petrushka's puppet show in the distance, for instance, before we "zoom in" on it - and when the Moor finds his way home through the night, we "track" him through the dark.

Thus Petrushka succeeds spectacularly as pure fantasy (in a way, it seems to operate in relation to traditional puppet shows the way a movie like The Red Shoes does to ballet).  And for children, it may serve as an ideal introduction to the dance itself.  It does make for a short evening (which may, again, be good for the kids) - even though Twist opens with an abstract piece of whimsy set to Stravinsky's exquisitely contrapuntal "Sonata for Two Pianos."  This piece was diverting, but hardly at the imaginative level of Petrushka; Twist seemed to have something he wanted to say about suprematism (the Russian art movement that coalesced just after the premiere of the ballet) - perhaps something about abstraction conjuring a mystical reality in the same way puppets do?  I wasn't sure; the juxtaposition was rather oblique.  Oh, well - musically, the performance was still a great pleasure.  In what seemed like a nod to the evening's double-puppet dialectic, identical twins Julia and Irina Elkina played double-piano versions of both scores superbly - indeed, this Petrushka proved as delightful to hear as it was to see.  And you still have a chance to do both; it closes this weekend.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Triple play

What has the Annie Baker festival told us about its playwright?
The boys from New York, Charles Isherwood and Ben Brantley, just love playwright Annie Baker. Isherwood called her most recent opus, The Aliens,"a gentle and extraordinarily beautiful new play" when it opened in Manhattan. And colleague Brantley seconded that emotion when he journeyed north (What?? He left the five boroughs???) to see the festival of her work currently filling the Calderwood Pavilion. After viewing Company One's production of the same script last week (it runs through this weekend), Brantley gushed that Baker was "seriously gifted" and thrilled to her "bittersweet sounds of silence."

But when I saw The Aliens, I . . . well . . .

I fell asleep.


So maybe I missed the extraordinarily beautiful part. But you see, a third of The Aliens is performed in silence (as Baker dictates).  Which comes to, oh, almost 50 minutes of stage time. Longer than a lot of plays.

During these periods of being-but-dramatic-nothingness, we listen to the grass grow, or distant birds sing (even they twitter sotto voce, as if they were in a library).  Meanwhile the main character, KJ (Alex Pollock, below, with Nael Nacer) grows steadily more stoned. He smiles a lot, and sometimes hums to himself, lost in some reverie that we imagine has to be more interesting than what we're watching.

And if you're me, well, after about ten or fifteen minutes, you start drifting into your own reverie, just like KJ, and . . . well . . . all I'm hoping is that I didn't snore as loudly as a certain critical éminence grise often does. Because then I would have completely drowned out all those distant little birds!

Not that I can fault the production much in any detail for my slumber; from what I saw, I'd say it's easily the strongest thing I've seen Company One do.  The actors are all excellent, and make every melodramatic turn fresh and truly poignant.  I'm serious.  I gave a Hubbie to Alex Pollock when I first saw him about two years ago, so I wasn't surprised by his tour de force here - and it's nice he got his picture in the Times (below)! I've never seen Nael Nacer before, but he too seemed just right.  As the teenager drawn into their orbit, Jacob Brandt was perhaps slightly mannered, but was still basically fine. Director Shawn LaCount, of whom I'm not always a fan, has done well by all three actors (although I think Baker intends a trace more irony to cling to the show's final rendition of "If I Had a Hammer").  Meanwhile Cristina Todesco - who has designed the entire triumvirate of plays at the Calderwood - pulled off another subtle trick with a set that was just about perfect in every detail.

Alex Pollock and Nael Nacer in The Aliens.
So - why am I complaining?  After all, I got a good nap, didn't I?  Well, I'm sorry to get quite so snarky about Brantley and Isherwood, but there's only so much gentle afflatus of Baker's reputation that I can stand.  So let's turn back the critical clock to pre-millennial standards of awesomeness for a moment.  Why not - play along with me.  And perhaps I'll start the deflation of Baker's critical balloon with something that has been bugging me about her plays, and that's all this "Shirley, Vermont" crapola.  I mean, it's a cute marketing hook, yes - and I know it's all about "butts in seats" - but there is just no way anyone can truly believe Ms. Baker conjures an imaginary town in these three plays.  Not that anyone truly has believed that.  Brantley, for instance, in a classic example of his trademarked doublespeak, writes on the one hand about "assessing more fully the dimensions of a town called Shirley," and even half-compares Baker's hamlet to Wilder's Grover's Corners, but simultaneously backpedals with lines like, "But for all their specificity of locale, these plays are as notable for their sense of displacement as for their sense of place."  Translated from Brantlese, that means: What I just said?  Total bull!

Egg-zactly. Because Grover's Corners is, indeed, a fully-fledged "imaginary place," with a deep sense of  artistic reality - like Bedford Falls, or Maycomb. "Shirley, VT" doesn't rank with any of these - the overlaps between Baker's plays give them roughly the same amount of resonance that Petticoat Junction had with Green Acres. Because Baker isn't writing about a town, she's writing about a class - why can't we admit that? She writes highly attenuated, sentimental comedies of manners about a certain liberal, moneyed demographic. If you want to pretend there's a virtual "Shirley, Vermont" in Williamsburg, and Cambridge, and Berkeley - fine. But Baker hasn't bothered giving her fictional village nearly enough detail (her minimal technique prevents that) for anyone to claim that she has created a mythological place.  So let's all just stop pretending she has. Okay?

Okay.  So what we have with Annie Baker is a smart and highly skillful writer of sentimental material.  Very sentimental material.  In a word, she's kinda sappy, and The Aliens in some ways may be her sappiest work yet.  But she gets away with her Hallmark-card-level pathos by whispering it, or insinuating it through various gambits-at-one-remove, in tiny little blips; sometimes it feels like she's texting her well-wishers a sweet, sad little play. Which gives her themes the appearance of a sophistication they don't really have.

Take The Aliens.  Actually, a better name for it might be The Walking Clichés.  KJ, the gentle pixie at the center of the story, is a harmless stoner, who hangs out all day behind a coffee shop, and is also (maybe!) a mathematical genius.  But he's poignant because he has OCD, and maybe other, you know, psychological stuff wrong with him.  But he's cool to talk to.  (That is, when he talks.)  His buddy is different - he's like mad at the world, and even a little scary!  But you know, his girlfriend left him, so you have to cut him some slack.  And he plays guitar, and is writing this awesome novel, just like his hero, Bukowski - he, too, could be a secret genius!

Oh, Jesus Christ.  I mean seriously.  Two secret geniuses in a single backyard?  Isn't that pushing it?  But wait - there's more; enter Death, stage left!  Yes - one of our lovable friends is mown down in the prime of life. Just like in Arcadia, et in Shirley ego!

Well, that's one way to get around the fact that you haven't devised a plot for your characters. But to be honest, the actors actually make this out-of-left-field development touching, as shamelessly tear-jerking as it may be.  So why do I feel, somewhere deep inside, that I'm being taken for a ride?  Not by Ms. Baker, I should say - even though sometimes when I contemplate her, I imagine her with those big, sad eyes that waifs have in paintings on black velvet (only this time the waif has an iPhone).

No, I agree that Baker's talented, and a genuine craftsman - she has potential; someday, I think, she might begin to grapple with some real themes and write a great play, as Lydia Diamond suddenly did with Stick Fly.  And maybe I should count my blessings; yes, she's much better than the gratingly fatuous and self-indulgent Sarah Ruhl, who has been queen of the white-girl playwright hive for far too long.  Indeed, in some ways Baker is everything that Ruhl's not: she's disciplined, and self-deprecating, and even takes on political correctness, to some degree (in Body Awareness).

I don't think Baker has written a really great play, though - not yet; she has demonstrated her technical ability, and even developed a thoughtful technique that seems to map to her generation's attitudes. And she has written three pretty good plays in a row.  That's saying something.  She should be produced.  But should writing three good plays mean she should already have a career retrospective? I'm not so sure.  Because Baker seems unable to directly engage with the dark sides of her characters (they just don't have dark sides) or really with anything like the moral or political compromises (or other vicissitudes) of actual life.  (Even her big gambit in The Aliens happens off-stage.)  This struck me with all the more force as I was watching Alan Ayckbourn's Absurd Person Singular in Providence this weekend.  Compared to Baker's plays, Singular seemed singularly layered and deep, and calmly savage with its character's flaws and failings.  Yet we're still arguing over whether Ayckbourn has any lasting value!

But then Ayckbourn critiqued his culture, while Baker subtly celebrates her own.  Indeed, sometimes she feels more like a symptom of that culture than an observer of it - I mean, we're going through the Great Recession, we've become a nation that tortures, a nativist-facist movement is on the rise, and in our theatres we're listening to Annie Baker sing a little song to herself about the Starbucks crowd?  Something about that seems - well, just wrong.  What's more, if this festival has done anything, it has shown a clear arc in her work - only it's in the wrong direction, toward smaller canvases and ever more distant delicacies, and perhaps more and more self-involvement.

Although somewhere (and I realize I'm beginning to sound like Ben Brantley here!) I'm aware that yes, these are desperate times artistically, so maybe I should just count my blessings with Baker. In a way, she's more than a poster child for the millennials - she may be the best they've got, and you can feel on the blogs a kind of rising tide of frustration with the fact that us grown-ups aren't as impressed with this generation's artistic achievements as they are themselves. Actually, they kind of know they're under-achievers, but to their minds, that doesn't matter, they should just be produced anyway! The recent dust-up over the Wasserstein Prize gives you some idea of what a pickle we're in - a prize specifically set up to honor young female playwrights literally couldn't find a script good enough to give the money to. That tells you something, doesn't it - only it wasn't what the millennials wanted to hear; their collective tantrum was swift, and damning. And almost immediately, the Wasserstein people backed down - they'll find something they can give that prize to, even if it kills them! Given that kind of environment, yeah, maybe Annie Baker counts as some kind of genius, and fluffing her makes perfect sense.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Swan Lake as you've never seen it

The Great Chinese State Circus mashes ballet and acrobatics in a performance that's almost scary - but keep watching, it only grows more and more unbelievable.
The Plantagenets go to war.
I went back to catch the first part of Henry IV at Actors' Shakespeare Project last weekend.  But I kind of wish I hadn't.  Their production of Part II at least had the difficulty of the play to excuse its gaps.  But despite Part I's relative vigor, the company still mostly went down for the count.  There were sparks here and there over the course of the evening - as there always are at ASP - but together they couldn't light a fire under this loud, but flat, production.

It was obvious why the show wasn't working - almost none of the emotional connections on which it depends were in place.  Hal and Falstaff seemed as distant as Hal and his father, Henry IV, so the whole prince-and-the-pauper contrast between license and responsibility (being in the tavern is fun; being at court, not so much) just wasn't happening; both options seemed like a drag.   It was pretty clear why Hal wasn't enjoying Falstaff's company, btw - this was the first Falstaff I've ever seen who didn't seem to be enjoying himself.  (So that wasn't happening.) And Hal didn't seem to like his other sidekick, Poins, much either  - and Poins returned the favor (and to be honest, so did we).  There was some rueful affection between Hotspur and Lady Percy, it's true - but Allyn Burrows is at least two decades too old for the role of Hotspur, and so the parallels between him and Prince Hal likewise never happened as they should (this Hotspur already seemed well-seasoned, and a better match to the crown than Barclay's Hal could ever be).  So I kept thinking, in scene after scene - "This just isn't happening."

Meanwhile the production seemed stuck in its historiography - adapter Robert Walsh (who also played Sir John) had appended to it scenes from Richard II which, I admit, gave some context to the conflicts embedded in the text - and particularly to the psychology of King Henry.  Still, the past-as-prologue stuff didn't seem to help things dramatically (undermining, perhaps, the conventional wisdom that it's the actual history that stands between modern audiences and these plays). Despite prompting from Richard II, Joel Colodner never convincingly connected the guilty dots regarding Henry's illegitimacy, and the rebel scenes, despite Burrows's solid work, and Steven Barkhimer's even-better turn as Glendower, didn't pull any extra oomph from the apparent legitimacy Walsh's additions seemed to provide them.

So how did this well-intentioned (and elaborate) effort go wrong?  Casting Walsh as Falstaff (and to a lesser extent, Barclay as Hal) probably is the root cause.  This oft-effective actor seemed to want to avoid all the usual clichés of this famous role; thus his was a reductive, not an expansive, Falstaff - a kind of wasted, misanthropic Vietnam vet (who, contrary to the text, still had some surly fight left in him) rather than  a jolly, mischievous glutton.  I suppose this counted as "interesting" in the rehearsal hall - and of course disillusionment (but not world-weariness) is key to the part.  But Walsh's perpetual, squinting hangover rarely got him anywhere on the actual stage, and it completely destroyed both the irony and the poignance of Shakespeare's grand arc: of course Hal would have to dump this loser, we knew from the start - and good riddance!  When Walsh intoned the famous line, "Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world!" all I could think was, "Uh - I don't think so."  Meanwhile director Patrick Swanson - who brought a great concept to bear on ASP's production of The Tempest - rarely shaped his scenes effectively, and the pace consistently dragged (until the war-drums began beating again, as they often did).

Sigh.  As Boston so rarely sees the history plays, it was disappointing to find this ambitious production such a misfire.  There was, as I mentioned, some good work around its edges.  Marya Lowry was a touchingly petulant Richard II, and Obehi Janice made a strong impression (as she usually does) in several smaller roles.  As noted, Barkhimer was wonderful as Glendower (as he had been as Justice Shallow in Part II; I longed to see him as Falstaff - he has the impish smarts).  Still, I think that ASP still refuses to realize that Shakespeare often depends not so much on individual performances as on a sense of ensemble - which, despite sharing, it seems, similar politics and ideas, these folks rarely manage to conjure.  The famous tavern scene threw this gap into sharp relief - despite some genuinely funny bits, it felt diffuse and out of focus (we'd never guess it's a turning point for Hal); looking around as it rambled through its course, you could see the individual actors immersed in their own performances ("What am I doing now?  How do I feel about this?") rather than contributing to group effects or responding to underlying themes.  This is, I admit, a persistent problem in American Shakespeare; assumptions left over from the heyday of the Method essentially short-circuit his symphonic intents.  But isn't it time the Actors' Shakespeare Project began to get beyond that?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Many too small boxes and Maru

Somehow I can totally relate to this cat. Particularly with the "slim box."

Friday, November 12, 2010

The MFA's new wing

Photos by Chuck Choi
I got my first peek into the new MFA American wing (at left) this morning – along with all the bigwigs – so of course I’m dying to tell you all about it.

Ok - first, the bad news: the “architecture” itself, though always elegant, and realized with superb technical élan, is in the end undistinguished. The sun-drenched café courtyard (above), the clean lines, the impeccably tailored finishes – we’ve seen all this glass and granite and travertine marble before. Of course it works; it’s lovely. It just doesn’t surprise.

But this is perhaps tied to what counts as the better news: schematically, the new wing does “make sense.” It grows organically out of the original plan, with a clear intent to honor the vision of Guy Lowell (the original architect), and his sense of proportion and decoration. On the whole, this is a far subtler response to the existing building than I.M. Pei’s boxy arcade of the early 80’s – and architect Foster + Partners makes the connection explicit, by using the exterior façade of the old building as the interior face of the Shapiro Courtyard.

This is only one of many nice, sensitive touches. But the great news is that the galleries themselves are often fantastic, better than you dreamt they could be - in particular the floors devoted to the Revolutionary period and the nineteenth century are sheer heaven. The spaces have been decorated in rich, deep colors, with striking carpets and wallpapers, and Malcolm Rogers’s feel for combining decorative with fine art pays off in spades with several rooms that superbly conjure their periods as a whole, and thus serve as striking “extended” frames for the art on the walls. Several paintings – such as “The Peaceable Kingdom” – benefit enormously from this kind of setting (and yes, those wonderful vases are back on either side of “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit,” above).

And I have to say the lighting is simply incomparable – the Luminist room alone is lit more beautifully than I think any museum space I’ve ever encountered; the glare that afflicts so many paintings in so many settings seems to have been simply eliminated (and the subtlety of the illumination allows the display of a few delicacies, like watercolors by Sargent and Homer, that we’ve rarely seen before). I’ve questioned whether the MFA actually had a collection to fill the galleries it was building, but in at least these two periods the answer is a definite “yes.” Where we before we got a taste of Copley, Stuart and Sully, now we get a smorgasbord – and most of the unfamiliar works are surprisingly tasty, while the ones that aren’t, still have value in their historicity. And while of course the new galleries offer a warm re-introduction to old friends like Mary Cassatt and Childe Hassam, they’re also stuffed with surprises, such as a bust of Thomas Jefferson by (wait for it) Houdon – I didn’t know the museum owned such a gem! Nor did I know that Edward Steichen once painted, or that the Museum owned chairs by Frank Lloyd Wright – these two floors sometimes feel like a treasure hunt.

Alas, on the modern and contemporary floor, one does bump one’s head against the limits of the collection. For more than half a century, the MFA did not collect well, and there’s no easy way to paper over that gap. (This is why I dreamt for a while that the museum might acquire much of the Rose collection – but silly me! We’re all much better with that stuff being in storage at Brandeis while this stuff is on the walls at the MFA!) There are, of course, some worthy works of art here, but some of the best pieces on display turn out to be loans (like a remarkable Rothko I hadn’t seen before). Which makes one wonder – if the works from the big names on tap are comparatively weak, why isn’t the MFA showcasing more regional art instead? Of course back in the Revolutionary day, “regional” and “American” art largely overlapped – but as the modern era dawned, the MFA seems to have dropped regional art from its collection and focused on also-rans from New York and elsewhere. With the opening of this grand new wing, let’s hope that begins to change.

But for now, congratulations to Malcolm Rogers and the entire MFA are in order, for a job spectacularly well done.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Ted Hughes' Tales from Ovid

The current season has been crowded with events - Fräulein Maria, the Annie Baker Festival, Basil Twist - but something on the fringe may just steal the thunder from all these heavy hitters and turn out to be "the" show to have seen in 2010, the one people will still be talking about for years to come.

It's Ted Hughes' Tales from Ovid, from the ever-intrepid Whistler in the Dark.  This tiny troupe has taken over the rough, unvarnished space of the Factory Theatre and transformed it into a kind of flying circus of the most evocative kind.  For just as Mary Zimmerman chose water as the basis of her famous adaptation of Metamorphoses, Whistler director Meg Taintor has turned to air for her version of Ted Hughes' rawly lyrical translation.  And with the simplest of means - two long skeins of shimmering silk suspended from the high rafters of the Factory space - she and her cast wreak a small, yet mysterious, miracle unlike anything I think Boston's fringe has ever seen.

But first, back to Ted Hughes.  And his version of Ovid (which some might argue isn't really Ovid).  The talented, and of course notorious (due to his infidelities leading, to some extent, to the suicide of his wife, Sylvia Plath) British poet has delivered a "translation" of a sample of the Metamorphoses that all but yanks Ovid into his own poetic domain.  While the Roman was known for urbanity and sophistication, Hughes is at his best when conjuring the rough magic of the natural world, as you can see in these lines from an early poem, "Hawk Roosting:"

My feet are locked upon the rough bark.
It took the whole of Creation
To produce my foot, my each feather:
Now I hold Creation in my foot

Or fly up, and revolve it all slowly -
I kill where I please because it is all mine.
There is no sophistry in my body:
My manners are tearing off heads.

These are not the rippling hexameters of Ovid - and what's more, Hughes is not all that interested in the Roman poet's theme of metamorphosis as the metaphysic of love, operating as a kind of cosmic principle.  Instead Hughes is obsessed with passion, both high and low, as a driver of transformation.  What hooks Hughes in Ovid is his repeated trope of ecstasy pushing people over the human/animal edge - or right through death into painful, but eternal, transfiguration.  That's not enough to encapsulate Ovid, but it's enough to provide a compelling evening of theatre, and the metamorphosis of the great Roman's masterwork into Hughes' natural tongue invigorates its verse with a compelling animal magic.  The resulting text, though it's so episodic it never achieves an arc, is always sexily gripping - at times even perversely so.

And what a brilliant stroke it was to take all this to the air!  The Whistlers - Erin Brehm, Danny Bryck, Jen O'Connor, Aimee Rose Ranger and Mac Young - are fearless (there's no net), and though I suppose the aerial tricks they play are basic ones, up close and personal they're tremendously impressive - as well as intensely evocative.  Indeed, director Taintor has been ceaselessly inventive in her imagery - from Narcissus's upside-down reflection, to Ariadne hanging from her own web, to Phaëton's fall from heaven - and from those simple strips of silk she conjures all manner of flowing, metamorphosing scenery (from sunlit forests to moonlit tents, above). And there are also individual performances to savor here, from Brehm's porcelain Atalanta to O'Connor's coldly determined Myrrha, to Bryck's terror-stricken Actaeon and Young's brash Phaëton. Alas, there's at least one gap in the production - its vocals; the Whistlers have adequate voices, but no great ones, and no one does full justice to the Hughes text. And while David McMullen's soundscape was always appropriate, I found myself often wishing for something closer to a through-composed score.

Indeed, what one walks away from Tales from Ovid thinking is, "This production deserves a longer, larger life!" Powerful as it is, one can only imagine what the Whistlers could do with more time and space, a full score, some projections - you name it. How wonderful, in the end, could such a metamorphosis become? I've no idea - but are you listening, Mass. Cultural Council, or ArtsEmerson, or the Boston Foundation, or any group searching for a local production to take to the next level - one that could eventually represent Boston nationally, or even internationally? Well, the search is over. This is it.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The tables turn at the climax of Tosca.
The famous line that everyone quotes about Tosca is Joseph Kerman's snarky quip that it's "a shabby little shocker."  Well, as Boston Lyric Opera proved last weekend, the Puccini potboiler may be a shocker all right, but it's none too shabby.  Stripped down from a lugubrious, if well-crafted, melodrama by Sardou, the libretto plays like a taut thriller studded with lurid episodes and hairpin turns; this is the rare opera with a palpable sense of suspense (indeed, everything in Quentin Tarantino derives from, and is degraded from, Tosca).  And the score may simply be Puccini's finest.  It not only includes one of his loveliest arias ("Vissi d'arte"), but the second act in particular is (nearly) through-composed with startling sophistication and a superb sense of drama.  The composer relies throughout Tosca on a kind of semi-Wagnerian system of motifs - but unlike Wagner, Puccini doesn't spend time developing them in purely musical terms (while the action stiffens into stasis); instead, he weds his musical motifs almost seamlessly to the drama unfolding onstage.

The parapet in Rome from which Tosca meets her doom.
The plot itself is brazenly heartless; Sardou's constant advice to his protégées was "Torture your women!," and the eponymous Tosca, a vain but good-hearted opera singer thrust into  intrigues she can barely understand, endures one torment after another before a final blow that drives her to a plummeting suicide, from the parapet of the famous Castle Saint'Angelo (at left) - just as the curtain falls, too.  The opera was originally set amidst the battles over Rome between Napoleonic and Neapolitan forces - but the BLO production (borrowed from the Scottish Opera) updates the basic conflicts into fascist Italy: the chief villain, once "Baron" Scarpia, is here a jack-booted chief of secret police, while Tosca's lover, a painter who falls into Scarpia's clutches, is vaguely aligned with the Resistenza.

Not that actual politics matter much in the hothouse atmosphere of Tosca - they're just a means to highly dramatic ends; the final suicide only arrives after two murders, a near-rape, and several scenes of torture (below).  And fortunately, the BLO production doesn't push its "updating" to any obvious Peter-Sellars-esque political morals, either; director David Lefkowich often seemed happy to effectively block his action, then bask in the atmosphere provided by the funereal grandeur of Peter Rice's smashing sets, lit with the burnished rays of a perpetual sunset by Paul Hackenmueller (one glance at these designs, and you knew poor Tosca was doomed).

Even though, of course, she's innocent of everything (except a sudden, murderous impulse which you can hardly blame her for).  This nihilistic theme, of helpless innocence pointlessly punished, was a new one in opera - and a new one on the stage in general - and it still packs a punch, particularly in the moving performance of Jill Gardner in the title role.  Ms. Gardner possesses a rich, but not particularly individual, soprano, and her rendition of the famous "Vissi d'arte" was hampered by blocking (she was half-prone, "imprisoned," if you will, on a bed) that provided a striking stage image but must have given her very little room for breath support.  But Gardner is also a truly wonderful stage actress - one of the best stage actresses I've seen cross a Boston operatic stage - and her Tosca was always both amusingly vain and yet poignantly, vibrantly alive.   And her sudden killing of Scarpia - you could see the mad inspiration dawn on her - chilled just as it should, while the famously macabre, guilt-ridden scene that follows she played to the absolute hilt.  (In one of the production's few surprising flourishes, she threw away with a shudder the crucifix that Tosca usually places in penance on Scarpia's corpse.)

Tosca's lover, Cavaradossi, is brutalized by the minions of Scarpia (far right). Photos by Jeffrey Dunn
Her co-stars were no slouches.  With his hawk-like demeanor, Bradley Garvin looked the perfect Scarpia, and brought a cruel alacrity to the character's various predations - although the voice, though fine, was again not at the high level we've come to expect from such recent BLO productions as Ariadne auf Naxos.  The production boasted one true vocal star in tenor Diego Torre, who was a bit too earthy to be believable as the lover of a grande dame like Tosca, but whose singing was glowingly lyrical, if marred by a phlegmatic scratch (we later learned he took a few days off to battle a bronchial infection), and whose acting rose to a moving, if slightly withdrawn, intensity as he faced imminent death.  There was also a nice comic turn from Steven Smith as an easily flustered priest, and a sweet one from young treble Ryan Turner in the final act as the Jailer's Son.

In that last act the production seemed to stumble a bit - the blocking seemed more tentative, and Ms. Gardner didn't seem as shaken by her ordeal as she might be; moreover the music sometimes flowed over insufficient stage business. Nevertheless, the music was gripping all the same; the sound from the pit - under the baton of Conductor Andrew Bisantz - was always darkly robust (Bisantz did a similarly impressive job, in a very different vein, with last season's Turn of the Screw). It seemed that in this remarkably strong and solid production, any momentary weakness was balanced by a different strength; no wonder the crowd, clearly hungry for this kind of shot of pure operatic adrenaline, gave the cast a sustained standing ovation. A year or two ago, when I began writing that Boston Lyric Opera had turned an artistic corner and would (or should) become the dominant force on the operatic scene, I got several ridiculing emails. Now, after a series of productions as strong as Tosca, that seems to be the conventional wisdom.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

As the curtain rose on the third act of Boston Ballet's La Bayadère last weekend, and the corps de ballet began the first of many arabesques cambré - pointed head-downward on a descending ramp - you could sense the entire audience holding its breath. This long, slow entrée probably beats the second act of Swan Lake (by a feather) as the most difficult and exposed sequence for the corps in the entire repertory. Just a few weeks earlier, at the Ballet's "Night of Stars," the hypnotic synchronicity of all those rising legs and drooping arms had wobbled well out of focus, and the spell of this geometrically-perfect dream had been broken.

But on opening night, it seemed some sort of miracle had been wrought in the "Kingdom of Shades" (as the scene is known): the corps bowed and rose in perfect synchronicity, and Marius Petipa's grand vision of death as a dimension of symmetry and peace floated before us with ravishing serenity.

"The Kingdom of the Shades" isn't the only treasure in Bayadère, but it's the grandest, and the key to its success - utter technical control - is really the key to the whole ballet. Choreographed by Petipa (below left) in mid-career flight, and acclaimed as his greatest masterwork to date, La Bayadère could nevertheless never be called original: it may be set, exotically enough, in India, but it's basically Giselle Goes to Bangalore. (Or Coppélia Goes to Bangalore. Or [Insert name of nineteenth-century ballet] Goes to Bangalore.) Boy meets girl, but he's already betrothed to another girl (surprise!), things go badly and . . . well, let's just say no nineteenth-century ballet is ever complete without a heroine returning from beyond the grave, is it. (Petipa's original wrapped with a vengeful cataclysm wrought by the gods, but the Boston Ballet version closes with a romantic clinch in a dreamscape of the dead.) Meanwhile there isn't a trace of Indian influence in the music - by Minkus - which follows a familiar "Dance-of-the-Hours" template, and only a few hints here and there in the choreography. To be honest, this ballet is "exotic" only in its costumes and backdrops.

But what costumes, and what backdrops! At any rate, what made Bayadère a landmark at its premiere wasn't its story or setting but its scope (it even includes a life-size elephant), which Boston Ballet brings off triumphantly. Still, such innovations as the development of character through dance was yet to come - and audiences may miss that tiny detail, at least until the grandeur seriously kicks in after the slow first act. Even as the scenic stakes grow bigger, however, Nikiya and Solor, the ballet's doomed couple, remain pretty much stock figures - tellingly, when we meet them, they're already in love, a narrative fact established immediately by a few ecstatic lifts; their movements declare rather than develop their mental state - and at other key emotional moments, Petipa repeatedly resorts to mime rather than dance.

"Dance" is instead reserved for divertissements (among both the living and the dead), as well as novelty numbers over burning fires, or with balanced jars, fans, scarves, or parrots, or by golden idols, slaves and whatnot. This is where that "utter technical control" kicks in - most of these dances are essentially graceful exercises, at times almost studious explications of particular positions and jumps - and luckily, the Ballet has a lot of technical control these days. Light, mischievously lovely work was done by Rie Ichikawa (with that balanced jar), and Misa Kuranaga, Adiarys Almeida and Whitney Jensen glimmered exquisitely as the reigning sylphs in the Kingdom of Shades; meanwhile, as the Other Woman, a radiant Kathleen Breen Combes brought more sympathetic complexity to her role than perhaps the choreography deserved.

Center stage, however, as the eponymous temple dancer, I found Lia Cirio somehow unconvincing. I adore Cirio in contemporary dance, in which she always has a confident, aquiline attack - she's a huntress by temperament, I think.  Demure suffering is not her bag, and while her dancing as Nikiya was sinuously graceful, for once in Bayadère, technique alone isn't enough (complicating matters was the fact that Breen Combes actually had more chemistry with Solor than she did).

Said Solor, of course, was the big news of the evening - freshly-minted principal Lasha Khozashvili, who had already made a huge impression at the "Night of Stars." That impression only deepened here. Khozashvili has long, lithe legs that don't betray the power he has at his command; leap after leap, tour after tour seemed to be merely tossed off, each more effortlessly than the last. Top that with an easy romantic manner, and by the final scene, the crowd was even more in love with him than Nikiya was. His only rival for the crowd's affection was another new addition to the Ballet, Joseph Gatti (at right), who in the "Golden Idol" dance blew through a series of spinning jumps and pirouettes that left the audience amazed.  He won a roaring ovation for his efforts - one that was only topped by the repeated applause for the ultimate technical achievement of the evening, that grand tableau - as exquisitely mournful and Gatti was exuberant - in the Kingdom of the Shades.