Thursday, December 30, 2010

Natalie Portman goes down in Darren Aronofsky's misogynist fever dream.

I knew Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan was going to be bad. It's about an art form that basically operates over his head (in effect ballet is his antithesis) - and I didn't expect much in the way of insight into the aesthetics of elevation from a director who's the cinematic equivalent of Debbie Downer.  And let's be honest, in technical terms I think we've already seen everything Darren Downer's got to show us several times already.  Plus, Manohla Dargis liked it, which is almost never a good sign.  And then Darren went to - wait for it - Harvard. So I knew the flick would be bad; the only question was, how bad would it be?  And could it possibly be so bad (I half-hoped) that it actually turned out to be good?

Well, how to put this. It's bad, sure enough; REALLY bad.  And yet that magic moment when its clumsy adolescent "tragedy" turns to glorious, fabulous camp never materializes; this grimly turgid turkey never takes flight. And that's because the film's not just bad, but vile in the same way that schlockfests like Sin City are; watching it is like coming upon your kid brother masturbating to some creepy piece of manga he downloaded while the babysitter wasn't looking.  Sure, you can feel Aronofsky aping the approach to some sort of arty apotheosis, like a sumo wrestler lumbering after a butterfly; yet you know no genuine artistic climax can be in the offing, because everything in the film has been so crudely pre-determined.  The movie can neither succeed nor fail, because nothing is ever at stake in it; it's the kind of "wild ride" in which we can see the tracks ahead of us from the very start, leading right into the ground.  (This is why roller coasters, and the movies that imitate them, aren't art: you always know what's going to happen next - another "shock!"). And so despite its prevalent mood of forced hysteria, in artistic terms Black Swan can only lie there, quivering, like poor Natalie Portman does after somehow dancing the final act of Swan Lake with a six-inch shard of glass wedged in her stomach.

I know I'm supposed to critically "support" this kind of ridicule - but do I really have to?  This thing was painful enough sitting through the first time; pondering it again is almost too much to contemplate.  And where to begin, anyway?  Black Swan is sheer idiocy from start to finish, a crudely calculated pastiche of tricks and tics from other, far better movies.  (Indeed, as you watch it, and pick up quotes from movies as disparate as The Red Shoes, The Tenant and Repulsion, you wonder if something still counts as a "quote" if it has been translated into cinematic Klingon.)

The movie is, as I'm sure you've heard, about Natalie Portman falling apart as she prepares to dance both the "white" and "black" swans - Odette and Odile, not that those names are ever mentioned in the movie - in a new, "visceral" version of Swan Lake choreographed by the hilariously sleazy Vincent Cassel.  The emaciated Portman (she went through a punishing regimen to simulate the physique of a prima ballerina in a matter of months) does look ravishing, and it's wonderful, after watching her drone on in Kurosawa drag in all those dreadful Star Wars duds, to see her acting again - she contributes a glowingly febrile kind of performance (indeed, at times she and the slimily intelligent Cassel - not to mention the glamorously ravaged Winona Ryder - almost make the movie worth watching).  But in the end, her performance is all actressy nerves and hot air, because Portman has nothing to play but one pop cliché after another.  "Nina," her character, isn't a character so much as a collection of dated tropes from anime (we half-expect her eyes to be twice normal size).  She dresses in white and pink and still lives with her Carrie-wannabe Mom (a scary Barbara Hershey - that botox has not worn well!) because emotionally she's a control freak who's still a little girl - get it? (If not, I'm sure one of the stuffed animals she sleeps with will explain it to you.) And slowly, Little Miss Perfect begins to crack up under the pressure of her "perfection" in ways that only digital imagery has made possible.  Indeed, when she finally gets in touch with her "black swan" side, Nina begins sprouting black feathers.

Just what the dudes - I mean the doctor - ordered!
Uh-huh.  Yes, the movie really is that stupidly literal.  Or rather that stupidly hallucinogenic.  Because just about every shock cut and blood-drenched special effect in it turns out to be a dream, you see.   Which only makes you wonder - whatever happened to Darren Aronofsky?  He seemed so smart when he made π - how'd he get so dumb?  And so repetitive?  We can quickly tell he's merely going to pound Portman into the dirt, just as he did Mickey Rourke and Ellen Burstyn before her.  Because everyone's doomed in this director's movies - and the bigger they dream, the harder they fall.  Not that said dreams have any interest for him - to Aronofsky, ballet (Black Swan) = wrestling (The Wrestler) = drug abuse (Requiem for a Dream).  There is no meaning to these specific contexts - they're just serviceable frames in which Darren Downer can recycle his fetish for destruction.  Indeed, in one particularly creepy scene, when Portman tells her mom over her cell that she's won her coveted role, you can see Portman all but lit from within by overwhelming emotion - but Darren lights her cruelly, and shoots her in punishing close-up: to him, her vulnerability makes her a gargoyle, a harpy he's happy to slowly pull apart, limb from limb.  Somehow, you get the impression, in his mind she's got it coming.

And if you think I'm kidding about that "fetish" part, think again.  None of the dim bulbs who've raved about this piece of trash ever mentions that Aronofsky concocted this supposed "psychological" thriller with the help of three other guys - together they seem to have operated like a team of fratboys diagnosing the damaged house bunny.  And what do they think poor Nina needs to help her dance that challenging "black swan" role?  Why, she needs to get felt up by an older man, masturbate, and then indulge in a lesbian sex scene (with the overripe Mila Kunis, above) - what else?  At such moments the movie seems so stunningly retro in its sexual politics you're not sure if you want to laugh or cry - but you do know you want to kick Darren Aronofsky in the nuts, and hard.

Sometimes, I admit, I wondered if it wasn't the pseudo-intellectual pretentiousness of the movie that bugged me more than its misogyny.  I mean, when Dario Argento starts torturing the ballerinas to death in his nutty Suspiria (at left), you're not as irritated, because his infantile sadism is so undisguised (and so pathetic somehow) - and, well, also because Dario's powers of stylization are so much stronger than Darren's.  Although I did like the production design of Black Swan (even though there's nothing in it to match half of The Red Shoes, below). Portman looks particularly great as Odile, with crazy batwings taped to her eyes (at top), and a crown of thorns growing right out of her head.  The gulag-chic look of the rehearsal halls and dressing rooms is likewise sick fun - although it's never really spooky.

Because face it, Darren Aronofsky's no Roman Polanski (as some have claimed) - please, the very comparison makes me gag.  Polanski is a highly cultured man; whatever you may think of his sexual misdeeds, his films aren't sourced in Korean horror movies, they're sourced in a poetic, and tormented, vision of the horror of the real world (he spent his childhood literally fleeing from Nazis, not traipsing through Harvard Yard!).  In Repulsion, for instance, the doomed heroine's paranoia seeps out of a thoroughly-imagined, utterly realistic mise-en-scène - and what's more, in the final haunting shot, we realize her traumatized psyche may have been caused by her sexually abusive father.  She doesn't self-destruct - she has been destroyed, a plight that seems simply beyond the artistic reach of Aronofsky's terminal narcissism.

And let's just talk a moment about Swan Lake, and the world of ballet, shall we?  Yes, ballet is a harsh physical mistress - and there's certainly a good movie to be made about that, one that questions whether any artistic achievement could be worth such a steep physical and psychological price.  But Darren Downer couldn't care less about that, frankly - the issue of the satisfaction artistic achievement can bring never enters into his calculus; indeed, to him I'm not sure such satisfaction exists.

As for Odette and Odile - it is, in fact, the black swan who is the psychological mystery in Swan Lake, and the great challenge of the role is not sexual abandon, as Aronofsky would have it, but rather insight into the calculations of Odile's perversity - not to mention her charged relationship with her evil father.  But in the girls-only psychosexual snake pit of Black Swan, none of this material can be allowed onstage or onscreen - things would get so complicated! - and thus the very essence of Swan Lake is hopelessly distorted.  Likewise you'd never guess that the ending of the ballet is famously up for grabs - there are at least four variations that are commonly danced, although I think Black Swan marks the first time it has ended with hara-kiri.

The Red Shoes sums up Black Swan in a single shot.
Sigh - so okay, Black Swan's a bum's rush - but oddly enough, it might still prove a boon to ballet.  Clueless millennials may well be drawn to Swan Lake, hoping to find in its tropes an orgy of feminine self-abuse.  They'll be disappointed, of course; but maybe a few of them will nevertheless leave the theatre hooked by ballet's overwhelming beauty - and soon enough, they'll be back.  No, it's not the state of ballet that I'm worried about when I ponder Black Swan - it's the state of the cinema.  Once, many years ago, I cared passionately for the movies - but now I wonder how.  Or rather I wonder how this great art form could have slowly transformed itself into such a virulent cultural cancer.  Gazing at Black Swan, as memories of ballet movies like The Red Shoes flitted through my head, my heart grew heavier and heavier; it was almost like watching the requiem for a dream.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

2010 was an extraordinary year, probably the best for Boston theatre in my memory, and as I looked back over its most remarkable shows, I realized I couldn't limit myself to a "Top 10" list this time around (sorry, Art!). I tried to, believe me I did; but first I had to go to a dozen ("The Top 12!") then a baker's dozen, and then (speaking of bakers), I realized I just couldn't ignore the superbly-produced Annie Baker festival, even if I had some doubts about its playwright; that brought me to a "Top 15!" and even then I found I was slighting some exemplary shows.

So this year there are twenty, count' em, twenty Best-of-Boston picks from the Hub Review. And as you survey the list, I think a few trends will be apparent. First, this was the year the Huntington re-asserted itself as the greatest theatre in the region (four of my top picks are Huntington shows), and the ART continued its decline into irrelevance. (I know they sell lots of tickets, but so does Blue Man Group.) And in the meantime, ArtsEmerson has snatched away their highbrow artistic mantle and demonstrated that challenging theatre can be popularly engaging, too (a trick that even in its heyday the ART never really pulled off).

2010 was also the year that Boston demonstrated once again, (but this time conclusively), that the scene had matured to such an extent that it's no longer dominated by these two (or perhaps now three) behemoths. There was great work everywhere this year - indeed, I think there were more high-quality productions in 2010 than in any single year of the past quarter century. Yet a surprising number of productions on this list depended on a single playwright and a single performer - the playwright was Alan Ayckbourn (not Annie Baker), with sterling productions of his best plays up at Gloucester and down at Trinity; and the performer was the great Karen MacDonald, who appeared in three of my Top 20, totally dominated one, and was the sole actress in another. I think that's a Boston first.

Well, enough preamble! Without further ado, here are Boston's Theatrical Top 20 for 2010:

1. All My Sons - Huntington Theatre. Probably the most emotionally charged evening of theatre I've seen in years. A powerhouse cast, led by the riveting Karen MacDonald in the performance of a lifetime, brought Arthur Miller's American tragedy to hair-raising life.

2. Stick Fly - Huntington Theatre. Once Lydia Diamond stopped pretending she was a slave girl and began writing what she actually knew, she penned one of the most accomplished plays of the past several years. Big and smart and audience-friendly, Stick Fly turned a magnifying glass on the intersection of race and class in this country, and with the help of a sterling cast led by Nikkole Salter, demonstrated that the "traditional" well-made play is probably still the best way to probe the way we live now.

3. Bus Stop - Huntington Theatre. Nicky Martin back in form, conducting William Inge's brilliant set of variations on loneliness in a snowbound diner. Simply a classic version of a classic play. Plus, of course, Karen MacDonald.

4. Adding Machine - SpeakEasy Stage offered a striking version of this flawed musical - so striking that much of its imagery (and many of its performances) linger in my mind months after the curtain fell. This production marked a significantly darker turn than usual for this company. More, please.

5. The Blonde, the Brunette, and the Vengeful Redhead - Merrimack Rep. This is the third Best-of-Boston production that featured Ms. MacDonald - although this time, under the sensitive direction of Melia Bensussen, she was the whole show - so how could it go wrong?

6. Into the Woods - Reagle Music Theatre. This production marked a leap in sophistication for the former Reagle Players, and showcased an astonishing turn by Broadway vet Rachel York. But bizarrely, amid its triumph, Reagle fired its director, Stacey Stephens! The organization then endured another blow with the sudden death of its longtime PR maven, Frank Roberts. The company has soldiered on, although 2011 may prove a pivotal year for it.

7. 4:48 Psychosis - Gamm Theatre. Casey Seymour (at right) proved a revelation in this haunting, harrowing production of Sarah Kane's last play, a frighteningly honest look at one woman's losing battle with suicidal depression. 

8. Table Manners - Gloucester Stage. Practically perfect in every way. A superb cast, under the nuanced direction of Eric Engel, made an eloquent case for Alan Ayckbourn as a major playwright.

9. Absurd Person Singular - Trinity Rep. More Ayckbourn; this time broader and bordering on caricature - but caricature cut with a scalpel. Featuring the best work in years from Trinity stalwart Anne Scurria.

10. Tales from Ovid - Whistler in the Dark. The Whistlers took to the air - literally dangling from the rafters of the Factory Theater in aerial silks - in what may be the most poetically thrilling production I've ever seen on the fringe. Director Meg Taintor and a fearless cast conjured one memorable image after another. There are rumors this production may have a second life at a larger local venue; let's hope so.

11. Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune - New Rep. Anne Gottlieb and Robert Pemberton found every rueful emotional note in Terrence McNally's famous two-hander. It's been a particularly strong year for Gottlieb, who also delivered eloquent performances in Not Enough Air and In the Next Room.

12. Nicholas Nickleby - Lyric Stage. Spiro Veloudos pulled off his biggest logistical challenge yet in this two-part, six-hour-plus version of David Edgar's translation of the Dickens classic. Perhaps somewhat uneven, it nevertheless caught the spirit of the sprawling novel, and in these days of shorter and shorter new scripts, basically delivered four shows for the price of two.

13. Aftermath - ArtsEmerson. This visiting production was not for those Americans who can't stand a good long look in the mirror. A quietly devastating depiction of the wreckage we have made of Iraq, this script never raised its voice, because it didn't have to. A reminder of what theatre is supposed to do - that is, bring us the news about ourselves, however troubling it may be.

The Annie Baker Festival -

14. Circle Mirror Transformation - Huntington Theatre.

15. Body Awareness - SpeakEasy Stage.

16. The Aliens - Company One (at left). 

Even the New York Times, bless its provincial little heart, was impressed by the high quality of these three productions. Alas, together they kind of disproved their own thesis, I'm afraid - they demonstrated that Annie Baker is a very promising young playwright who has yet to pen a major play. But doesn't that kind of accuracy constitute its own form of success? I think it does, and I look forward to hearing more from Ms. Baker.

17. The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later - Arts Emerson. A thought-provoking and beautifully-acted follow-up to the most important piece of political theatre of the last generation.

18. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels - North Shore Music Theatre. Not one of my favorite musicals, but if you're going to be cleverly crass, you'd better kick some serious ass, and this amazing cast certainly did, in a surprise hit for the reborn North Shore.

19. 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee - Lyric Stage. Did we need another version of this quirky perennial? Probably not. But the Lyric production's top-notch cast and slick direction made you forget all about that.

20. Timon of Athens - Bill Barclay's broad but clever take on Shakespeare's most fragmentary tragedy delivered the best production the Actors' Shakespeare Project has done in some time. Featuring a remarkable turn from Allyn Burrows as the Bard's bitter anti-hero.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Fall Hubbies, Round II

Yes, there's still time for another round of Hubbies, and there's always time for another dirty picture here at the Hub Review (that's Todd Sanfield rockin' his "First Night" button; I think Todd would make an excellent model for the plexiglass Hubbie award, should it ever be fabricated - don't you?).

Of course it's only been a few weeks since the last Hubbies were awarded, so today's list is short, but sweet.  We didn't want to forget any of these fine performances, productions or designs, however, before we rang the year to a close with our definitive "Best of Boston" column for 2010 (coming later this week).

So without further ado -

Best Ensemble

Stephen Berenson, Angela Brazil, Phyllis Kay, Fred Sullivan, Jr., Timothy Crowe and Anne Scurria, directed by Brian McEleney - Absurd Person Singular, Trinity Rep

Tony Ward, Joey Collins, and Crystal Finn, directed by Carl Forsman - Beasley's Christmas Party, Merrimack Rep

Anne Gottlieb and Robert Pemberton, directed by Antonio Ocampo-Guzman - Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, New Rep

Best Individual Performances

Johnny Lee Davenport - Vengeance is the Lord's, Huntington Theatre

Alex Pollock, Nael Nacer - The Aliens, Company One

Leslie Flesner, Julie Kotarides, Rebecca Riker - A Chorus Line, North Shore Music Theatre

Peter A. Carey, Sasha Castroverde, Daniel Berger-Jones, Michael Costello - Nicholas Nickleby, Part II, Lyric Stage

Steven Barkhimer, Allyn Burrows - Henry IV, Part I, Actors' Shakespeare Project

Heather Peterson, Julie Jarvis, Sheryl Johns, Mack Carroll - Durang Durang, Bad Habit Productions

Harry Hobbs, Ken Baltin, Maria Silverman, Najla Said - The Fever Chart, Underground Railway Theater

Zachary Hardy - Striking Twelve, SpeakEasy Stage

Best Design

Cristina Tedesco, set, for the entire Annie Baker Festival - Circle Mirror Transformation, Huntington Theatre, Body Awareness, SpeakEasy Stage, and The Aliens, Company One

Eugene Lee, set - Vengeance is the Lord's, Huntington Theatre

Susan Zeeman Rogers, set - The Fever Chart, Underground Railway Theater

Monday, December 27, 2010

I've read two year-end wrap-ups of the local theatre scene so far today, but neither has mentioned a trend that I suppose for print critics is kind of taboo to even mention:

The biggest "arts story" in Boston this year may have been the further decline of the city's arts criticism. In theatre, in fact, the "decline" is tipping from a slippery slope to a cascade - to a sheer cliff; it's more like a disappearance than a decline. The Phoenix has cut back its theatre coverage to a trickle, and the Globe and Herald seem to have turned their backs on any but established groups with Equity contracts.  All these press organs are maintaining some coverage, yes - and perhaps percentage-wise, that coverage hasn't shrunk all that much; but the papers themselves are shrinking, and thus so is the number of their reviews.

Of course the local arts criticism was never very good in the Athens of America - it always lagged behind the quality of the local scene itself; but at least there was more of it, and a theatre company on the rise could use good reviews to grow its audience. Yes, there were poisonous snakes in the grass (Bill Marx), and bitter old queens on the make (Kevin Kelly), but still something like access to the city's larger public, flawed as it may have been, was available for an ambitious theatrical start-up.

I think that's over now. Even as the scene has continued to expand, print coverage has continued to contract, and so today, it's almost unheard-of for a fringe group to attract any attention from the "major" press. The super-annuated critics of the Globe, Phoenix and Herald (okay, she's not super-annuated, but something tells me her editor is) make the rounds of the equity houses, but that's about it; I think I can count on one hand these papers' combined forays onto the fringe. They have essentially de-coupled from the city at large to only follow a theatre scene "preserved" from about 2005 - with new attention paid only to large-scale ventures like this fall's ArtsEmerson initiative (which has probably pushed more than one smaller company off our local pages).

The result is a surreal disjuncture between the print-media picture of Boston and reality. Looking over those two "Top 10" lists, in fact, was for me like staring at a line-up of the usual suspects of the past few years: the ART; the Huntington; SpeakEasy Stage, the Lyric . . . these could have been top-10 lists from five, or even ten, years ago. Which means that local print criticism is failing at an essential aspect of criticism: discovery.  Yes, the upper-middlebrow connoisseurs of the Globe and Phoenix may accurately chart the tastes of their respective suburbs - but do they really expect to be choosing among precisely the same theatre companies ten years from now?  Perhaps they do.  (If their editors say so, they will be.)  Or perhaps they simply expect said masters, or the town itself, to move talent forward for them, so they can eventually place their laurels on new artists who have, in effect, already been crowned.

You could argue, I suppose, that this abdication of their central responsibility isn't really the critics' fault; in a way, it was always built into the business model of the press, and the current crisis merely reflects the collapse of that model, as well as a failure of imagination on the part of all those editors.  Which leads one to wonder precisely what is keeping the Globe, say, from maintaining a blog on its site with online reviews, paid for with a pittance, by any number of qualified writers living around the city. No, not me - I'm thinking more of former media figures who are still floating around hoping to pick up work. I'm hardly a fan of most of these people, but wouldn't they be happy for the exposure,  and wouldn't fringe theatres be happy with whatever attention the Globe and Herald could give them?

For exposure is the name of the game, as they say, and I think it's worth admitting that the blogosphere - my own blog included - isn't always picking up the slack. I probably see and critique more than any other person in the city - probably two to three to ten times (in some cases) what the major print critics review.  And I like to think my analysis is as strong - oh, hell, actually of course I think it's stronger - than any criticism Boston has seen in years.  But I can't get to everything, and so far no other blogger has emerged with anything like my stamina (several go to as many shows, but none can match my output).  There are, of course, independent blogs and sites worth reading - but I have to point out the feared torrent of mediocre, self-serving opinion that so many observers predicted would "take over" the cultural space hasn't really materialized.  Instead there simply is no expanding cultural space - as the theatre scene continues to grow, it just meets a critical void.

So where do we go from here, as the song said? People seem to think these days that I'm the natural one to initiate what "The Arts Fuse" has failed to become (and what so far the promised TimeOut Boston site has failed to launch); they often suggest I edit a larger site, featuring other writers.  But I'm not really an editor by nature, and at any rate I'm also drawn to the other arts as well, which face much the same lack of attention from the local press - and to be blunt, I only have so much time.  I will keep thinking about it, though, and maybe I'll figure something out.  In the meantime I'm shaking my head at the irony of what the Internet has wrought for the performing arts.  Wasn't there supposed to be some sort of "explosion" of "critical thinking," some sort of cultural tsunami in the offing?  Wasn't the Internet supposed to unlock opportunities instead of making them dry up?  Looking over the "blogrolls" of the many sites I'm familiar with, I'm struck again and again by the fact that there are only a handful dedicated to serious criticism.  Almost all are instead works of self-promotion-in-progress, or attempts at political punditry, or just little bulletin boards where this or that thought or link is whimsically pinned.  And oddly, even the blogosphere seems to be shrinking in ambition and relevance - the Web itself is no longer hip, because everybody's singing to him- or herself, and only rarely does anyone actually go to the theatre.  (Indeed, when this happens, the blogger usually pats him- or herself on the back with touching pride.)  Oh, well; I suppose the theatre can survive the slow death of criticism; the mirror up to nature can live without its own mirror.  But I sometimes wonder - if a show opens in the forest and nobody writes a review, does it really make a noise?

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Lutheran hit parade

Yes, Hub Reviewers, there's yet more Christmas music to review!  Sometimes it seems like musically this season will never end - only frankly, I didn't want "A Bach Christmas," Handel and Haydn's intimate musical offering last weekend, to end.  This seasonal concert, led by chorusmaster John Finney, gives the H&H home team a chance to shine on their own, without any interference or upstaging from jet-set conductors or soloists.

And shine they did, in a lovely concert of familiar and obscure sacred music from the German tradition that reached its culmination in Johann Sebastian Bach (at left, with seasonal greetings). In his on-stage comments, Finney referred to his selections as exemplars of a specifically Lutheran tradition, but his earlier choices still felt quasi-Catholic (one, by Buxtehude, was drawn from medieval sources), and by now even Bach sounds ecumenically Christian anyhow.

Which is fine by me when it comes to Christmas programs. I'm no scholar of this period of German music, but I have to say that Finney's choices this year were remarkably consistent in quality; in fact the concert began to play as a kind of Lutheran hit parade. Buxtehude's In dulci jubilo was hauntingly gorgeous, as were Ein Kind is uns geobren ("Unto Us a Child is Born," after the same text as Handel's famous chorus) by Schütz, and Ehr sei Gott in der Höh allein (Honor be to God on High Alone) by Schein. Finney also included Telemann's sparkling Concerto for Three Oboes and Three Violins to give his period orchestra (led by a spirited Julie Leven) its own moment in the spotlight. The concert concluded with Bach's famous Cantata 140, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, ("Awake, the watchmen's voices"), which includes beneath its bass recitative one of the most memorable melodies the great Johann Sebastian ever penned.

The vocalists, drawn from the ranks of the H&H chorus, were uniformly strong, with lush singing from soprano Susan Consoli and a powerful turn from tenor Ryan Turner in another Bach cantata, the beautiful but rather eccentrically-structured No. 122. Probably the best vocal performances of the program, however, came from local star soprano Teresa Wakim and bass Nikolas Nackley (who deserves a higher local profile). Together they made a delicately moving duet of Bach's "Dialogue between the Soul and Jesus." As with the rest of the concert, the duet was remarkable in both its spiritual depth and touching sense of humility. Humbleness is unusual in Christmas programs - the reason why, I suppose, is a depressing one, so let's not ponder it too deeply right now! Instead let's just savor its gentle power whenever we get the chance, as a few hundred lucky concert-goers did last weekend at "A Bach Christmas."

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas for the Jews

Quick, what do "Winter Wonderland," "White Christmas," "The Christmas Song," "Sleigh Ride," "Let It Snow!" "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," "Silver Bells," "Jingle Bell Rock," and "I'll Be Home for Christmas" all have in common?

Answer: they were all written by Jews. In fact, many of the most popular Christmas songs of the twentieth century had either a Jewish lyricist or composer (or both). Even that hilarious song about that Grinch who stole Christmas was written by a Jew.

This is, of course, partly because much of the "American songbook" was written by Jews. But there's something simultaneously funny and poignant about this particular piece of cultural irony. Indeed, so much show-biz Christmas culture is essentially a Jewish tradition that I've sometimes thought to myself, "You know, I bet there's a hilarious Christmas show kicking around in all of this somewhere!"

And to be honest, at first I thought the New Rep's "Darling Divas Deck the Holidays" might have been inspired by much the same observation, as the show seemed to be straining at times to yoke the Hanukkah and Christmas traditions together. (And why not? The New Rep's audience is largely Jewish.) But at other times, to be frank, this sweet but silly revue just left me scratching my head; underwritten and under-developed, and swinging from Barbra Streisand's Christmas album to Auschwitz and back, it sometimes seemed to have been thrown together quicker than a fruitcake, with results that couldn't be nuttier.

Oh, well! Somehow you don't want to hold the show's slapdash quality against its performers (Aimee Doherty, Kami Rushell Smith, Michele A. DeLuca and Bobbie Steinbach, at left) who are all appealing, if in different ways, and who all get a chance to shine in a number or two that's been tailored for them. Okay, the numbers don't fit together, but they often work individually.  Lighten up, it's Christmas.

Aimee Doherty is probably the standout of the quartet when it comes to straight cabaret - she just gets lovelier and more confident every year, and her voice of course is stunning.  But DeLuca, with her broad, bright laugh and hearty attack, is pretty much hot on her heels - and you get the feeling if there were more dancing in this show, she might actually sprint ahead.  Smith has a smaller, if even sweeter, presence and voice - but if she'd been more amplified you sensed she could have worked wonders with her numbers.  (The performers seemed to be wearing mikes, but they didn't seem to be turned on - which was probably a mistake, for two reasons: most of these songs aren't so subtle that amplification harms them, and the Mosesian Theatre is a barn that acoustically is flatter than a latke.)

Steinbach is more a comedienne than a singer (although she romped saucily through "Santa Baby") but in her Borscht-belt comic routines she seemed freer and happier than I've seen her in a long, looong time, and her pleasure in this timeless schtick was infectious.  Her sing-along to "The Eight Days of Hanukkah," sung to the tune of "The Twelve Days of Christmas," was a show-stopper, as was her bawdy impersonation of "Hurricane Cohen," the grizzled stripper (sorry, "exotic dancer") who'd served as dresser for years to "Miss Steinbach."  I hope I don't have to wait till next Christmas to see more of "Hurricane."

Alas, there were a few moments in this show I'm not so eager to see again.  The readings from Auschwitz, though delivered with appropriate gravity, threw the evening for a loop - I mean, how do you get back from that to "Santa Baby"?  (Suddenly Striking 12 seemed almost coherent!)  And my initial sense of a possible theme to the evening (the Jewish songs from the Christmas specials of the 50's and 60's) was soon scrambled with more readings from "The Gift of the Magi" and "'Twas the Night Before Christmas."  By the end of the show, I really wasn't sure what to make of it at all.  So what can I say?  It's sweet.  It's kind of weird.  Merry Christmas.

A very Charpentier Christmas

I've been meaning for some time (I know, I keep saying that!) to catch up with the Musicians of the Old Post Road (the core instrumental ensemble, at left), but didn't get a chance to until their charming Christmas concert last weekend at Emmanuel Church.

The evening was entirely given over to Marc-Antoine Charpentier (below right), a French Baroque composer perhaps most famous for his Messe de minuit pour noël - which, despite being quite well-known, and obviously written for the Christmas season, was not on this program in any form. Go figure. Luckily, Charpentier wasn't a one-trick pony - in fact his oeuvre includes several operas, ballets, and even some incidental music for Molière - and this versatility was evident in the lesser-known, but still charming, carols and sacred music the Musicians of the Old Post Road had chosen to perform.

During his life, this accomplished composer dwelt in the rather antagonistic shadow of the more august Lully, but in some ways he's more historically important than the designated court composer to Louis XIV (he introduced many features of Italian music to France, for instance, which Lully resisted - even though he himself was Italian!).  And of late, thanks to increasing interest from period ensembles, Charpentier has begun to come into his own again in terms of performance.

The Musicians of the Old Post Road gave a good sense of why.  Charpentier has a way of sneaking up on you, almost on tip-toe, with surprisingly complex musical and emotional experiences.  Everything on last weekend's program was fairly small in scale, and often cut with a gently sweet sense of melancholy  (imagine - melancholic holiday music!), but also gave a sense of a deliberate, gentle unfolding of musical richness.  His In nativitatem Domini canticum (H 416) was in particular a near-marvel of subtle drama; its encounter between the shepherds and the angels hinted at haunting depths of uncertainty before lifting off into a delicate song of joy.  There were other, similarly lyrical surprises throughout the program, always embedded in simple structures that through careful, steady development revealed surprising depths.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier
The instrumentalists of the Old Post Road were always up to these challenges, and played buoyantly, and at times with a dancing lilt that would have done Boston Baroque proud.  Cellist Daniel Ryan and traverso flutist Suzanne Stumpf are the artistic directors of the group, but in performance the ensemble's core seemed to be violinists Sarah Darling and "guest star" Jesse Irons, who played with remarkable sympathy and spirit.  The ensemble played with its best unity, however, whenever cellist Ryan led the way with one of Charpentier's beautiful, deceptively simple, ground basses.

The vocalists were a bit more variable, although everyone sang with sensitivity - and their blended sound was surprisingly good.  The strongest impressions, however, were made by tenor Matthew Anderson and (especially) baritone Aaron Engebreth, who sang with power as well as feeling.  People often bemoan the lack of true Christmas spirit in the entertainment offerings of the holiday season, and of course they're often right to - but can you really expect to find the true meaning of Christmas at the Radio City Christmas Spectacular?  The very idea is bizarre.   Meanwhile our church sanctuaries and halls have been hosting holiday programs from our local choruses and fine small ensembles (like the Musicians of the Old Post Road) that have brimmed with the very spirit we claim we miss.  Of course it's not necessarily a simplistically merry or "feel-good" spirit, because Christmas isn't a simplistic holiday, and human connection, much less human connection to the divine, is a very complicated thing.  In his subtle way, Charpentier reminds us of that.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Another Spider-Man actor injured

The actor fell "about 30 feet," Julie (and this time there's video, above). He broke several ribs. The show has temporarily closed, but is supposed to re-open with additional safety measures in place on Wednesday. OSHA is reportedly investigating. Why not close it down permanently?

Monday, December 20, 2010

The face-off over Facebook and the post-social network

Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg.
I've been meaning to write about The Social Network for some time, as I saw it months ago - but perhaps now's as good a time as any to ponder this strange, eventful movie - and its even stranger critical success.  Awards season is cranking up, and David Fincher's and Aaron Sorkin's poison-pen valentine to Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, has already taken a few early critical prizes, including awards from our own Boston Society of Film Critics for best film, actor, director, screenplay, and even score.

But in a word - why? Or rather why, why, why, why, and why?

Of course, you have to consider the source of this praise. Certainly The Social Network is better than The Departed, which also swept the BSFC a few years ago; perhaps, like politics, all film criticism is local. And perhaps just as the supposed reputation of The Departed quickly, um, departed once its usefulness as a local promotional tool had declined, so the current cachet of The Social Network will probably prove short-lived.

Again, you ask - why? Well, because - uh - to put it bluntly, The Social Network isn't all that good. Or rather what's "good" about it only illuminates, X-ray-like, what's wrong with Hollywood these days and why truly "good" movies have so much trouble being made. And, of course, why critics wind up throwing awards to over-crafted, yet ultimately mediocre, movies year after year. (Other big winners at BSFC this year included the generic The Fighter - set in Lowell, surprise surprise - and the wacky Black Swan, featuring another Harvard grad, the blandly doe-eyed - but this time bonkers! - Natalie Portman.)

But back to the movie at hand. What strikes you first about The Social Network is its dialogue - by the famous Aaron Sorkin, he of the "How-many-SAT-words-can-I-fit-into-10-seconds?" school of screenwriting. Okay, that's not quite fair - Sorkin's dialogue is clever and quick and you have to work to keep up with it. But it's also a known quantity - it's cable (and even network) TV fodder. So what's touching about that BSFC award for the film's screenplay is its tacit admission that, "Yes!! Movies have finally caught up to TV!!  We ROCK!!"

You can't say more than that, though, about Sorkin's writing - much of his work for the stage has failed, in fact, because beneath all his streamlined craft it's hard to hear anything like a real voice. And his hyper-competitive, I'm-always-one-step-ahead-of-you banter blands out after an hour or so (the length of a typical West Wing episode). Indeed, Sorkin's style seems slightly autonomic, and denuded of individualized feature; he's unable to control his logorrhea, to shape it to different characters and their personalities. Yes, he captures something of Mark Zuckerberg's rapid-fire conversational assault - but he doesn't capture it exactly, and at any rate half the people in the movie talk much the same way. And it goes without saying there's no charm to Sorkin's style, no real wit, and nothing like emotional color; indeed, we recognize the dialogue as having the character of Sorkin precisely because it has no character.

You'd think, therefore, the screenwriter would be halfway home to nailing Zuckerberg's well-known affect.  For Zuckerberg is a notoriously unsettling blank in person - so affect-less and unblinking that he seems stuck in what robotics developers call "the uncanny valley" - the weird zone in which robots designed to ape human behavior only get creepier the closer they come to the real thing.

Friday, December 17, 2010

What Not to Wear, Sacred Music Division

Men are lucky in many ways, but one way in which they're especially lucky is that they have few formal sartorial options. Yes, this is a good thing, because it saves us men from our own bad taste. The tuxedo and its variants are the results of a long, slowly-developed historical consensus on what looks good on a guy. As a result, if you wear a tux, you will look good - often just about as good as you're ever going to look.

The ongoing reign of the tux in the concert hall has likewise been a good thing. We don't have to worry about James Levine taking the stage in a sequined cape and toreador pants (much as he might like to) because such things simply are not done.

Women, however, are not so lucky. They have options on the classical stage - lots of them. And many of them are bad - particularly when the singer in question is singing sacred music.

Recent performances of Messiah reminded me of this sad fact - although actually, nobody this season made nearly the ghastly impression as that sizable diva a few years ago who waltzed on in what looked like a see-through muu-muu.

Trust me, that's not how you want to be remembered.

Of course if you're singing Salome, it's okay to dress like Cher. But if you're singing about mangers, angels, shepherds, flocks, etc., it's best to dress accordingly.

Which leads me to the first rule of What Not to Wear, Sacred Music Division: anything see-through, except a stole or a wrap.  With those, the gauzier the better.   But no real lady shows up to meet the Virgin in anything peek-a-boo, okay?  Shiny satin, flowing silk - whatever, as long as it's solid; remember - keep that figure figurative!

Now I know how tempting self-revelation can be; if you've got it, you want to flaunt it. And maybe you've been working out especially hard at the gym, and you want the baby Jesus to know. Only trust me, Baby Jesus already knows. (That's why he's Jesus.) And for the rest of us, the corporeal you, attractive as it may be, is inevitably a distraction, either welcome or unwelcome as the case may be.

So to help guide you back from the edge of distraction, here are several choral corallaries to Rule #1, among them:

2) No fishtails. They're either ridiculously hot or just plain ridiculous, and neither effect is a spiritual one. Ask yourself: would you wear a veil to the prom? Then why are you wearing a prom dress to Messiah?

3) Deep-six the plunging décolletage. I mean, do you really have to ask? Yes, it will strike the straight guys as "uplifting" - but you're dressing for the gay guys (who are the only ones who go to sacred music anyway).  Bare shoulders are always glamorous, but that plunging "v" looks so much like an arrow, know what I'm saying?  And your dress is not a road map to hidden treasure.

4) The peek-a-boo "rise" in the hem up front. Ooo, I wonder what's under there - could it be your legs??? Spare us.  Likewise, in back - no exposure lower than the upper lumbars, please!  Thank you.

5) Costume jewelry is fine, if used sparingly (and don't kid yourself that we think they're real diamonds). Always remember nobody ever looked bad in a single strand of pearls. Also: chokers - no; you're trying to sing, remember? And no earrings that could be mistaken for trapezes, much less gongs. Leave those to Cirque du Soleil. And yes, your shoes should match your dress, not "set it off," and the heels should not push you too close to heaven.

6) Subtle pastels, earth tones, even aubergines - yes, yes, and yes; and strong hues can work if they're deep and rich. But colors you might see on a juice box, a traffic cone or Carmen Miranda - no, no and NO.

7) When in doubt, ask yourself: could I wear this to the Oscars? If so, think again! Another good gauge of taste: could I have worn this in the 70's? If so, fuhgeddaboudit! And if you could have worn it to the Oscars in the 70's, honey, save it for Salome.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Home(less) for the holidays

The talented performers of Striking 12 hardly strike out, but . . .

I'm of two minds about Striking 12, the musical update of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Match Girl" now playing at SpeakEasy Stage.  On the one hand this little show marks an intriguing, yet natural, step for SpeakEasy from the stage to the club (above), and as it glitters with confident polish (like so many of this company's productions), on the surface it seems to be just what it wants to be: a smooth and smart piece of alternative holiday entertainment.
But on the other hand, that's everything it shouldn't be.  For this is a version of "The Little Match Girl," one of the most tragic of Andersen's fables, in which an innocent little girl freezes to death on New Year's Eve, in the snowy gutter of a city street, because she can't sell any matches - and because if she returns home without money in her pocket, she knows her father will beat her mercilessly.  Utterly calm in its attitude toward the self-absorbed partiers who ignore the barefoot child in the snow, the tale even features one of Andersen's most fiendishly heart-rending devices: the girl, delusional from cold, starts to strike her matches because in their light she imagines she sees the soul of her departed grandmother; only as the vision grows warmer and closer, the matches run out one by one, and we know she is step by barefoot step growing closer to her own frozen destruction.

To be honest, you can be horrified by this manipulative little tale in more ways than one; but however you may feel about its intense pathos, it's hard to square its mood with the lightly ironic modes of adult-contemporary rock.  But that's just what authors Brendan Milburn, Valerie Vigoda (of the pop trio GrooveLily) and Rachel Sheinkin (of Putnam County fame) have tried to do; they've actually attempted to build a smooth holiday show of easy listening around the famous story of a little girl who freezes to death.

I know.  It's just too weird for words.  What's weirder still is that the production almost succeeds; for much of its length, you half-buy Striking 12, because the lyrics of the various numbers are so witty and up-to-the-minute, and you keep thinking the authors may just be clever enough to swing an ending that pulls together the quirky humor of their best material with the gonzo horror of Andersen's.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Martin Pearlman conducts Boston Baroque.
I try to hear both major local versions of Messiah every year, and there was one moment from this year's Boston Baroque edition that I will never forget - the duet for bass and natural trumpet in the third part. The piece begins, "The trumpet shall sound," but in the hands of trumpeter Robinson Pyle, the instrument actually sang, in tandem with Kevin Deas, the wonderfully rich bass who was essaying a famous passage from Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians (the one establishing the doctrine of Christian resurrection). It's one of the loveliest melodies in all of Handel (and that's saying something), and Deas and Pyle had clearly worked together so that Pyle could closely follow the bass's ornamentation of the beautiful line, "We shall be changed." It was probably the best playing on natural trumpet I've ever heard in my life, as well as one of the most moving duets between a singer and an instrumentalist I've been lucky enough to witness. When Deas recognized Pyle at the close of the aria, it all but brought down the house.

Well, that was quite the high point - if only the rest of the performance had been so elevated! Not that Boston Baroque's version of this classic wasn't a lovely evening of music; it was. But it's beginning to feel a bit rigid in its eccentricity, and a bit unfocused in its attack. Ironically enough, the ensemble's conductor, Martin Pearlman, was among the first instigators of the revolution in Messiah performance that swept concert halls two decades ago.  Pearlman's idea was to bring the rhythms of dance to the musical drama, and to scale what had become a rigidly grand Victorian epic down to a nimbler, more intimate, and perhaps more human, experience.

In my opinion, this was all to the good - and today the stentorian Messiah that Pearlman was reacting against has pretty much become a thing of the past.  But I'm afraid over the years the conductor has become a bit rigid himself about a few things - he always favored brisk rhythms, for instance, but by now several pieces of his Messiah have gotten so fast that they aren't just dances but jigs (and they seem to shed more and more color and detail the quicker he takes them).  Plus Pearlman organizes his chorus into quartets, rather than in blocks (with all the sopranos together, then all the altos, etc.), which I imagine he thinks gives their sound a kind of blended transparency - which it does, up to a point.  But it also makes it harder for the singers to synch up the vocal melisma that is the backbone of many of Handel's melodies, and thus things sometimes turn blurry (particularly at the clips Pearlman often prefers).  Indeed, sometimes one distinctly felt in Pearlman's Messiah that he was putting the chorus at a disadvantage.  But I began to realize as I listened this year that a key difference between the Pearlman version and the Christophers version (over at  Handel and Haydn) is that Christophers, once a professional singer, views his orchestra as an extension of his chorus, while Pearlman, a keyboardist,  unconsciously sees his chorus as an extension of his orchestra - and why shouldn't they therefore just be able to sing as fast as he wants them to?

Oh, well - it's true not everything was too fast; Pearlman didn't dash through "He was despised and rejected of men," for instance.  Much of the performance was at an appropriately thoughtful pace.  And Boston Baroque had clearly corrected a problem they've had in the past: when Pearlman conducted from the harpsichord, the ensemble didn't begin to fray as it was once wont to do.  Still, the Boston Baroque orchestra isn't playing as cleanly as they might (though they now have that dancing lilt down pat).  And I was disappointed here and there with the soloists, even though I admire them all from previous hearings.  The luminous Amanda Forsythe had her usual pearly tone, but she didn't quite have the power, at least on Saturday night, that she has possessed in the past.  And counter tenor Matthew White, though he has a haunting timbre that's just right for many passages in Messiah, also scrapes a bit at the bottom of the role (which edges into contralto territory), and something about his voice didn't mix well with the tenor's in their duet.  Meanwhile said tenor, Keith Jameson, had some wonderful moments but also some tentative ones; the only member of the quartet, in fact, who sang with consistent authority was bass Deas, who outdid himself in that final duet.  It was a ringing reminder of the magic that Pearlman and company can still wreak with this immortal masterpiece.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Home for the holidays

The Snow Queen and King do their traditional thing in the Urban Nutcracker.  Photo: Peter Metlicka.
A traditional dance critic would feel a little silly trying to criticize the Urban Nutcracker (at Wheelock Family Theatre through December 19), as in a way it's traditional-critic-proof. This Nutcracker (which is celebrating its 10th anniversary) aims to be a loose and funky community riff on the whitebread blockbuster that plays downtown, and that's exactly what it is: part tribute and part parody, and diversified to the max - when break dancing mixes with Bollywood and doo-wop, as it does in the opening scene, you know everyone is welcome in this holiday 'hood.

Although traditional-white-bread-guy that I am, I sometimes wished the show had pushed its conceptual envelope further. Its central idea - to plant the Nutcracker squarely in a vibrant urban milieu - is a great one, and musically the show is at its most convincing when it trades the Tchaikovsky original for Duke Ellington's jazzy re-stylings of its familiar themes (all the music is recorded). Dance-wise, however, creator/choreographer Anthony Williams hasn't fully imagined what jazz-en-pointe might look like; his Sugar Plum Fairy, the statuesque Janelle Gilchrist, gets a few funky shrugs and shakes her tail-feather a little, but we don't sense the kind of wholesale re-invention here that we felt in say, the brilliant hip-hop re-tooling of The Sound of Music into Fräulein Maria.

Of course this is partly because Williams wants to have a little fun with the Nutcracker and at the same time enshrine it as a cultural icon that kids of color can feel belongs to them, too. Which is fine. And Williams' company, BalletRox, can mostly deliver those goods - although frankly Boston Ballet doesn't need to worry about the competition: extensions weren't always what they should be, and a few lifts looked wobbly. Surprisingly, Williams' secret weapons are two of his men - Darwin Black and Gerald Watson, who have charisma and power to spare; but there was also a sparkling turn from Harumi Elders as "Rox Riff," who shepherded a bevy of kids on bouncing beach balls, and a lot of appealing moments from Yo-el Cassel, Cjaiilon “Snap2” Andrade, Katie Pustizzi and Rick Ives.

It was in the inspired, go-for-it numbers with hula hoops, or the street rumble with the rats (here definitely rats, not mice), that Urban Nutcracker came into its own. Set and costume designer Rebecca Cross was behind a lot of these high points: when the ballerinas came out in camouflage, en pointe, brandishing boxing gloves, to do battle with the rambunctious rodents, you felt the whole show somehow come together. There was also a genuine sense of kid-friendly frolic in evidence that the downtown Nutcracker kind of suppresses - during the party scene, for instance, the little girls on its fringe were doing frisky dances of their own, just like normal kids do, which only made the scene feel more like a real party - which pretty young Mikaila Wright (as "Clarice") presided over with confident grace. Librettist David Ira Rottenberg even brought a bit of real-world grit to this big, bright fantasia - in the Urban Nutcracker, Clarice has a brother serving in Iraq (and tellingly, her protective Cavalier looks just like him). How many Claras in Weston and Wellesley could say the same thing? Not many. Needless to say, his joyous holiday homecoming brought this Nutcracker to an unexpectedly moving close.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Christopher Durang Parodies It All for You

Heather Peterson and Mack Carroll in Nina in the Morning.
Bad Habit Productions keeps kind of just missing its big break. It's one of the stalwarts of the fringe (the Cambridge fringe, which centers on the YMCA in Central Square) and regularly delivers smart, snappy productions - just not consistently enough to hang onto the public's attention span.  And when it does have a breakout production, usually with a zippy farce like last year's Ideal Husband, its big idea tends to get "borrowed" by other theatres.  Add to that the fact that press coverage is drying up in this town for everything but full-equity shows, and it's no wonder the company's latest, Durang Durang (which I think closes tomorrow) has garnered little or no press attention.

Which is too bad, because it features several strong performances from folks who toil on the cusp between Boston's community and semi-pro scenes, and who are looking for their "big break," too.  The evening itself - a collection of parodies and one-acts by dark, ditzy farceur Christopher Durang - is a bit hiss-or-miss (the parodies are generally stronger than the farces, but everything has a tendency to go on a bit too long), but at its best it's wicked funny, just as it should be, particularly to theatre types who can appreciate the playwright's precise puncturings of the likes of Tennessee Williams and Sam Shepard.

As a playwright, Durang is a curious case - his influence has actually been huge, even though he has probably never written a great play, and only one or two really good ones (Beyond Therapy, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You).  His central emotional trope - commingled horror of/attraction to the cruel pleasures of nihilistic freedom - has certainly proved durable. But the trouble with Durang is that he suffers from a kind of dramatic attention deficit disorder - he can't sustain a story or even a scene for very long; addicted to the "freedom" that terrifies him, he has to constantly dodge in and out of various meta-theatrical modes that are, admittedly, funny, but also destroy any larger ambition he might have for his work.  Still, his attendant, vaguely-collegiate attitude - that of a smart-aleck, all-knowing auditor of what's happening on stage - has pervaded pop culture; watch any Simpsons episode, and you're bound to feel his influence, and Ryan Landry's whole schtick is merely a variant of his M.O.

And if you're interested in his history, Durang Durang operates as a solid introduction to the playwright, for good and ill, as it showcases both his strengths and weaknesses in about equal measure.   The most famous of the parodies (some of which I vaguely remember seeing years ago at the ART) is the gender-bent Glass Menagerie send-up For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls, but the best is probably A Stye of the Eye, which isn't so much a parody as a satire - actually, a brutal putdown - of the intellectual pretensions of Sam Shepard (particularly his dopey A Lie of the Mind).  Here Shelley Brown, Jenny Gutbezahl, Julie Jarvis, and Mike Budwey all had a field day, and the trenchant one-liners came thick and fast; I think my favorite moment came when wizened old "Ma" opined that her two warring sons "Seem like opposite sides of the same personality . . . ta think I gave birth ta two symbols, and me without a college education!!"  Yup, that's Sam Shepard in a nutshell.

The trouble is that when Durang, the brilliant parodist, tries to spread his own dramatic wings, he can't get off the ground - or he falls victim to the same superficial tendencies he so expertly lampoons in others.  Nina in the Morning, for instance, resembles what a Sam Shepard one-act would look like if Shepard had been born gay in Beverly Hills.  And Wanda's Visit is really just an extended sitcom episode.  Meanwhile Business Lunch at the Russian Tea Room features some viciously accurate satire of the Hollywood scene, but centers around a playwright who can't write a real play (and who ends up folding laundry onstage).

So what happened to Christopher Durang?  How did he start at the Yale Rep, connected to everybody and everyone, with a smart sensibility to boot - yet end up folding laundry and writing TV pilots?  I don't know, and Durang Durang doesn't tell us.  But as we ponder the playwright's disappointing career, at least we can enjoy his waspish critical wit, as well as a few more sharp performances at Bad Habit: Heather Peterson knocked both Nina and Tea Room out of the park, and there were more nice turns from Julie Jarvis, Sheryl Johns, Mack Carroll, and Joseph O'Connor.  With performances like these, it's only a matter of time before Bad Habit finds a larger place in the city's theatrical scene.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Crystal Finn, Tony Ward and Joey Collins peek into Beasley's Christmas Party.

It's not often something genuinely new - or at least genuinely true - gets added to our local Christmas traditions, so Merrimack Rep's dramatization of Beasley's Christmas Party deserves special attention.  I can't say this literate staging of Booth Tarkington's short story is a great show - it's small, even slight, in size and scope (three actors, about 70 minutes).  And its message is an old one - the old Christmas message, in fact, about love and your neighbor, etc., blah blah blah.  Its virtues are that it seems sincere, and that its old tale is tinged with understated romance and whimsy.  It is, in short, the genuine article.  If you don't care for the genuine article, then you won't care for it; if you do, then you won't want to miss it.

Tarkington (at left) made a wildly successful career out of nostalgic ruminations on the passage of time and the loss of American innocence (once a celebrity who landed on the cover of Time, he's best remembered at one remove, for the hauntingly stylized film of his novel The Magnificent Ambersons by Orson Welles). I won't spoil the narrative surprises of Beasley's Christmas Party, a short story from 1909, which reveal both Tarkington's virtues and flaws: shot through with conventional sentiment, the story trades in obvious cliches; it's filled with lovely spinsters, lonely bachelors, and inspiring cripples, but it never cloys because it's so delicately, even reticently, rendered. Indeed, what touches us most about Tarkington - his awareness that our lives are haunted by the spectre of lost opportunity - is always in evidence in Beasley, however much it relies on pseudo-Dickensian pathos.

And the production at Merrimack - which began its life at New York's Keen Theatre - seeems to know just how to translate Tarkington's courtly spirit to the stage.  The sugar never congeals into sap in this production because it's so wry and fleet of foot.  The set is spare (Beowulf Boritt has built impromptu Christmas trees of Victorian bric-a-brac), and the adaptation accurate (indeed, perhaps adapter C.W. Munger hangs on to a few too many of Tarkington's genteel circumlocutions).  Best of all, director Carl Forsman is confident enough to never push any of his effects.  But then he has been lucky in his three able actors - Tony Ward, Joey Collins, and Crystal Finn, who do double and triple duty (sometimes within the same scene) to tell Tarkington's winsome story.  Indeed, I longed to see these three sink their teeth into something more substantial - they're all natural Shavians, which means they can also handle Maugham, Barrie and Wilde - and maybe even Ibsen.  What a rare treat it would be, to see any of those authors done straight up on a local professional stage!  It would almost be like Christmas . . .

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Photo(s) above by Kyle T. Hemingway.

It was Messiah time again at Handel and Haydn last weekend - only in the hands of Harry Christophers (below), it's never quite the same Messiah from one year to the next. Christophers seems to be by nature a tinkerer, and of course he began his career as a professional singer, and Messiah doesn't really have a single definitive text . . . so you do the math. To my mind this variety is all to the good, actually - it keeps the tradition fresh, and at any rate Christophers generally colors within a loose set of lines (his is the Anglican, rhetorical Messiah; Martin Pearlman's, which you can hear this coming weekend, is the Continental, intimate one). I may not always agree with Christophers' tweaks from year to year, but at least they're always interesting. Last time around, I think we got a countertenor rather than an alto; this year we got a real alto, but we didn't get a bass - I know it said "bass" in the program, but singer Sumner Thompson is really more of a baritone (he sang compellingly, he's just a baritone). For the record, I liked the baritone bass more than I liked the countertenor alto, but I still think I like best a good old-fashioned soprano, alto, tenor and bass. That's just how I roll.

At any rate, the reason everyone goes to hear Handel and Haydn is the chorus, not the soloists, and this year they were as terrific as ever. And their integration with the H&H period orchestra continues apace. You can see Christophers singing the entire work to himself as he conducts, and breathing it, too, and that body knowledge inflects everything he does - the orchestra sometimes seems just an extension of the chorus, just another set of voices in far-flung, superhuman timbres. And sometimes in the call-and-response between the two groups there's a curious little lull - a small sonic space - in which I'd swear Christophers is unconsciously allowing the orchestra to breathe, too.

The soloists did hold their own against this virtuosic display, glorious as it was. Thompson sang with intensity, and tenor Allan Clayton intermittently revealed clarion power. Alto Catherine Wyn-Rogers seemed the least interesting of the quartet at first, but slowly warmed up; Christophers took "He was despised and rejected of men" at a very meditative pace indeed, but this brought out her most complex colors. Soprano Sophie Bevan was perhaps the stand-out of the group. Dressed with a décolletage more plunging than the Virgin Mary might have approved, Bevan didn't really have to depend on that to hold our interest; she has a lovely, if somewhat trembling, voice, and her rendition of "I know my Redeemer liveth" was one of the radiant high points of the evening.

But then Messiah is always crammed with high points - which is one reason I never tire of it; it's one of the great human documents, like the Ninth and King Lear or Rembrandt's "Prodigal Son." Every year I thrill to hear the revelation of the angels to the shepherds, and "For unto us a Child is born," and the trumpets calling to each other from the balconies, and even the single, unbelievably moving line, "Behold, I tell you a mystery." All of these seemed as magical as ever last weekend, perhaps because Christophers seemed to be speeding up and slowing down at will, the better to contemplate each moment individually. He saved the best for last: the final, luminous "Amen" was more moving than I've ever heard it, building from a lush, but hushed, hymn to a riveting affirmation. All I can say is, Boston Baroque has their work cut out for them!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

All about the boy

Dance, Balanchine once famously opined, is a woman. But I think the guys of Pilobolus beg to differ. When they burst upon the scene in the early 70's, with their bevy of balances and flips and lifts, it seemed as if they'd turned dance itself on its head; their brand of movement wasn't about romance, much less love - indeed, it wasn't about girls at all. It was about guy stuff, about frat house horsing around, about the frisky body awareness of young athletes - and rather than focusing on elevation and extension, it was all about the body core, about biceps and butts and and "Dude, you're putting your head where?" In a word, it was all about the boy.

Of course you could argue that what Pilobolus did - and does - wasn't dance at all; they rarely keep a beat, and indeed sometimes run through their acrobatic paces in complete silence.  But whatever it was that they did, it was clearly amazing, funny and smart, and in its own quirky way graceful and beautiful. Pilobolus took the world by storm, and is now celebrating its 40th anniversary (yes) with a tour that touched down (thanks to Celebrity Series) at the Cutler Majestic last weekend. The show stretched from the troupe's punchy beginnings - (Walklyndon, from 1971) to its latest techo-noodlings (a preview of Seraph, which features flying robots from MIT). But while the survey was weighted toward later work, it was the earlier pieces on the program, Walklyndon and Gnomen, which left the best and deepest impressions.

Whether that hints at an artistic malaise at work in the troupe is hard to say - although it's worth noting the company is still recovering from the death of one of its founders, Jonathan Wolken, in 2009. But then again, it bears mentioning that Wolken's most recent work - Redline - was by far the weakest thing I've ever seen the company do. Dressed as techno-warriors out of Mortal Kombat, the Piloboli stomped about, arms churning, or threw themselves into ever higher and more dangerous flips, all to a thunderingly loud hip-hop "soundscape," but to no discernible point or effect.  The piece seemed a complete void.  Another recent number, The Transformation, was likewise disappointing.  One of the company's few works for a single man and woman, it was little more than a cruel joke - it consisted of a strange bit of shadowplay in which a godlike man transformed a powerless woman into a dog. Sometimes it seems the Pilobolus frathouse can suddenly turn into Animal House.

Other jokes were more light-hearted. Walklyndon, with its zillions of zooming pedestrians, is still a hoot, and Seraph was sweet, if a little light; the MIT hovercraft performed splendidly, but the "dance" isn't much (so far) beyond a few gags about Close Encounters and alien "looove."

Still, at least one recent work, Rushes, co-created in 2007 by artistic director Robby Barnett and Israeli choreographers Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak, hinted at greater depth.  This long, strange piece of meta-theatre, set amid a dozen pale chairs, never quite came into focus - perhaps in part because it's about dreaming and dream logic (one of the dancers even went to sleep at one point, as squiggly projections played about his head); but its ongoing scenario of a party seemingly gone bad was often eerily compelling. Clowns and drunks and horny party girls attended that central dreamer, but the resulting situations and relationships all seemed to drift and melt into each other at will, and no one seemed able to decisively act or sometimes even move (at one point the dreamer simply flailed around, his limbs enmeshed in all those chairs). The bad dream ends touchingly however, when one girl finally clings to the dreamer for dear life as all those chairs provide an impromptu path - but from, and toward, exactly what it's hard to say.

And then there's Gnomen, the troupe's heartbreaking tribute to Jim Blanc, a Pilobolus dancer who died of AIDS. In this piece you can feel the Piloboli crashing into the limits of their own guy-ness and trying to feel their way out the other side. Choreographed for four men clad in just black briefs (at top), the piece includes the usual Pilobolus rough-housing and cruel jokes, but this time the cruelty is tinged with guilt and regret. The quartet begins by taunting a lonely member of their crew, but by the end they're cradling him on their feet, rocking him to sleep (at top) - or perhaps to death. It's a haunting evocation of how far guy-love can go, and how far it can't go. More, please.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Off the Chart

Naomi Wallace (left) is a poet who doesn't know it. Actually, she knows it all right - she used to be a poet (and maybe a fine one, I haven't read her).

But Wallace decided she'd rather be a playwright, and has become best known for several eloquently wrought pieces of lefty agitprop. Nothing wrong with lefty agitprop, I suppose - and the more eloquently wrought the better! Still, I think Wallace must be a better poet than she is a playwright. I'm only judging from The Fever Chart: Three Visions of the Middle East (at the Central Square Theater through December 19) and her one "hit," One Flea Spare, but since both are poetically complex but dramatically inert, I have a hunch that's her trademark. And then there's the fact that she has won the Susan Blackburn Prize (twice!) and an Obie, and is also a MacArthur Fellow - a trifecta that all but guarantees her work is built for the page, not the stage.

Indeed, as you watch The Fever Chart, you can almost see a page floating in front of you, with all kinds of glyphs and arrows connecting symbols and metaphors and parallels to one another. It's a dense, lovely piece of work; its loveliness is dense, and its density is lovely. And to be honest, it's also deadly dull. Because its structure is so relentlessly pre-determined, and because it lacks any sense of conflict whatsoever. (Watching it is like watching someone stitch a quilt.) You may have heard that The Fever Chart is set in the Middle East. And yet, incredibly, it lacks a sense of conflict. Naomi Wallace may be the first writer in history to pull that one off.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Spider-Man Turns Off the Dark in More Ways than One

Julie Taymor's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark has now injured yet a third actor (actress Natalie Mendoza sustained a concussion during the first preview - others have broken wrists or injured feet in rehearsal) as reports of technical snafus and delays continue to plague the production. The music we've heard so far (by Bono and The Edge) has sounded pretty mediocre - it's deep in the well-worn U2 groove of empty power-pop uplift. The story is merely a tweaked version (it's crossed with Ovid, believe it or not) of a tale we already know all too well (superteen saves the world!) although the show's creators keep blathering that it's conceptually a breakthrough: it's "pop-up pop opera" or "rock-and-roll circus drama," or something like that.

Okay, nobody knows what the hell it is. And yet even as Julie Taymor edges toward John Landis territory, her show keeps selling tickets - reportedly a million dollars' worth were ordered right after that notoriously disastrous first preview. Why? Well, the clips of stunts shown on TV have been spectacular, you can certainly say that - characters fly not just across the stage but also above the audience (and moving set pieces, we imagine, are meant to give the crowd the sense of being suspended, too, high above the streets of Manhattan). True, many of said characters are in truly ridiculous costumes. But you can't have everything in your rock-and-roll circus pop-up opera, can you.

Although can't you have any artistic content?  Nobody seems to be even bothering to claim that there's anything artistic going on in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. It simply represents the (inevitable) importation of long-standing pop cultural tropes onto the Broadway stage. Of course it's technically original to the max - but it's worth noting that it seems to be pulling all the attention away from other, more truly original Broadway musicals and shows. Indeed, the last few weeks saw the announced closings of The Scottsboro Boys and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson - shows that reportedly (I haven't seen either) confronted this country's history of racism with disturbing honesty.  So you could say Spider-Man has been "turning off the dark" in more ways than one.

Shows like Scottsboro represented what a friend of mine sometimes calls "Obamaculture" - productions that expected the millennial milieu to reflect more openness to taboo topics of race and gender.  But so far Obamaculture has been flailing, and failing, at the box office - while shows like Spider-Man, helmed by graying boomers and derived from exhausted pop franchises (and which can only be described as reactionary to the max), suck up all the cultural oxygen. And can we just discuss - for a moment - the racial profile of this kind of pop? It looks like there are some "token blacks" in the cast of Turn Off the Dark, but it's hard to shake off the impression that Spider-Man, like almost all the superhero franchises, is whiter-than-white in its framing and outlook.

It's true that Spider-Man never plays outright with racist stereotypes the way the Star Wars franchise often has, but in general superhero culture still operates in a fever-dream of benevolent white dominion - in these things an anonymous white vigilante is always tracking down underworld criminals whom the democratic forces of law and order can't stop. I know, the Marvel Comix "Other" isn't styled as racially foreign, but as fantastically, conceptually foreign; these Wagnerian super-men battle maniacal geniuses in hollowed-out volcanos, or half-amphibians from other planets, or radio-active mutants, or what have you (the half-animal trope remains durably popular). (Indeed, often these operatically self-styled villains wind up being hooked into some white-criminal superstructure, like the Mafia, or Corrupt City Hall, the better to dodge any direct whiff of the lynch-mob mentality moving behind the scenes.)

Now I know all this serves as sufficient political screen, but I'm not sure how much difference it makes artistically. If you delete the racial component of a paranoid trope, have you actually elevated it in any serious way? I'd argue no, but Julie Taymor and Bono would argue yes (indeed, Bono has made one of the biggest careers in music history by studiously erasing any and all realistic detail from his songs of empowerment). There's something deeply cynical about their shared vision, but it maps well to what I think people are realizing about the boomers - they like to think of the utopian dream of the 60s as their legacy, but actually it's the co-option of that dream that is their legacy.  And needless to say, the millennials lap up that co-option like catnip, whether they voted for Obama or not.  When Julie Taymor ratchets up the stakes, when Bono exhorts yet another generation of customers to "rebel," they do so knowing that everybody knows it's all just bullshit.  But do you think Taymor and Co. are going to let that awareness stop them, when they're already ignoring broken bones and possibly dead extras (and rest assured those are expendable extras taking the biggest risks in those masks, not the stars)?  Of course not.  One way or another, they're going to make everyone forget about The Scottsboro Boys.