Wednesday, January 12, 2011
I finally caught The Blue Flower at the A.R.T. just before it closed, and I was very much struck by one thing about it:
It was clearly a labor of love.
You don't always feel this at the theatre, believe me - and you almost never feel it at the A.R.T. But it was obvious that this weirdly melancholic "musical" (it's really a song cycle with a video, but never mind) had all but been doted on by its creators, Jim and Ruth Bauer (of Beverly, Mass!).
Now I'm never one to snicker at real feeling. But this time I had to at least allow myself a small, sad smile. For while it's obvious the Bauers are deeply in love with their putative subject - the "degenerate" German art of the first half of the century - at the same time it's utterly clear they don't understand that art in the least. They're clueless as to the object of their worship; they're like characters out of one of those books by Oliver Sacks - you know, the men who mistake their wives for hats, or the people who lead full, emotional lives despite deep perceptual deficits.
This gives The Blue Flower more poignance than anything in its supposed "book" (even though said book covers two world wars and the rise of Hitler!). Composer Bauer is certainly not a lyricist, and really not that much of a melodist either; but he conjures sweetly mournful pop textures through a gentle blend of cabaret and country instrumentation. And visual artist Ruth has dreamt up plenty of striking imagery to play out on the movie screen she has placed center stage. Director Will Pomerantz hasn't gotten all that far with the "theatrical" side of the production, however - it often looks, in fact, like a bunch of people wandering around at the movies. And while the cast proved capable and appealing, they couldn't really make much headway against the schematic design of both the staging and the book.
Moreover, I have to say that in intellectual terms, The Blue Flower is appalling - nearly as appalling as The Donkey Show, in fact. It's hopelessly dishonest and deeply silly; it's just not offensive because the Bauers themselves seem so sweet.
You've probably heard the musical revolves around characters 'inspired' by Max Beckmann, Franz Marc, Hannah Höch, Marie Curie. These cultural body-doubles engage in a decades-long ménage à trois (or quatre) that is torn apart, Doctor-Zhivago style, by war, then fascism, and then more war. To borrow another movie metaphor, like Jules and Jim and Catherine, these four all love each other so much, and they make so much great art (or science!) as they fight the madness that surrounds them.
Needless to say, though, Their Love Is Not to Be. Suicide, the Nazis, and finally a heart attack, pick them off, one by one. A tragedy, no? Yes, of course - and also pretty much total bull.
I know, I know, every play or musical from biographical material fudges its facts; and the Bauers admit their doomed quartet were only "inspired" by Beckmann, Marc, Curie and Höch. Still, how far can "inspiration" be made to stretch? Marie Curie never met Beckmann, Marc, or Höch - and actually, I'm not sure Beckmann and Höch ever met Marc, either, before his premature death (which was not a suicide, btw, as posited here). As for the two characters who actually did meet in real life - Beckmann and Höch - they hardly fell in love; in fact, they dissed each other (and Beckmann didn't think much of Marc and his fellow Expressionists, either). And need I add that Höch did not resist the Nazis, as claimed here (instead she laid low, and thus survived)? Or that Marie Curie did not die in a concentration camp? (She passed away - in France - just before the Nazis came to power.) Indeed, even the art in question is misrepresented (it was Höch, not Beckmann, for instance, who worked in collage).
Of course all these inaccuracies are uninteresting in and of themselves - they're only interesting insofar as they reveal a pattern, a pattern of relentlessly saccharine commercialization. Which renders the art that's supposedly at the center of the whole enterprise (at left) flat and uninteresting - we never sense the overwhelming disgust that powered Beckmann, or the passionate lyricism that burned within Marc, or even the alienated, quirky weirdness that animated Höch. And of course the internecine battles between their various scenes - as well as within them (Höch could never make headway with the Dadaists because of their sexism, for instance) - are all but ignored.
So we're left with some pretty musical textures, and yet another example of Diane Paulus's strange determination totally screw the A.R.T.'s founding concept. I admit I find the whole spectacle disturbing, yet fascinating - I can't turn away, in fact. What's almost admirable about Ms. P., in a scary way, is that what she has done has been entirely an inside job. (But then I suppose it had to be.) In much the same way that Mikhail Gorbachev spent decades droning on in party congresses about praxis and the proletariat before bringing down the Berlin Wall, so Ms. Paulus spent years imitating her mentors' delusions (her early productions are indistinguishable from the standard boho/Soho template), only to turn their whole raison d'être inside out once she had the chance. The A.R.T.'s founder, Bob Brustein, was bent on confronting the bourgeoisie - and his heir, with perverse logic, has turned this very idea into a form of bourgeois entertainment!
I suppose that irony is as nothing to the new political alignment at Harvard. But isn't the disinformation peddled by The Blue Flower kind of problematic for an institution with the motto of "Truth"? Because I'm afraid there's very little of that - either artistically, historically, or intellectually - in The Blue Flower.