Monday, January 31, 2011


Timothy John Smith and the women of Nine.
I've only seen Nine once before, in a mediocre community production many years ago; I didn't care for it much back then.  But after seeing SpeakEasy Stage's sleek new version (at the BCA through Feb. 20), I have to admit I've changed my mind. Now I hate it.

Perhaps it takes a great production to confirm one's suspicions that a particular play or musical is mediocre (in talented hands there's no place for the material to hide).  But I really should have been sure of the truth about Nine long ago - and anyone who admires its inspiration, Frederico Fellini's psychological fantasy , should be warned to keep a safe distance.  For the musical is transparently designed for people who either haven't seen, or haven't understood, that iconic Italian director's seminal 1963 masterpiece.

If that's the case for you, then you may enjoy the show, for it's a standard-issue set of late-Broadway gay-Jewish conventions: serviceable songs and predictable "adult" jokes arrayed in something like a revue.  That's right - it's a gay, Jewish revue about a straight Italian Catholic.  Go figure. But at least it showcases a bevy of Boston's loveliest and most talented female performers, each of whom gets one of those serviceable songs (or two), and knows how to sell it.

Therefore it's easy on the eyes, and the ears - unless, of course, you can feel the shadow of its source looming over it.  Because then the whole thing seems like a travesty.  I'll admit Nine does hold some interest for me, but only in a single way - as was the case with The Blue Flower before it, you can tell its creators (Arthur Kopit, Maury Yeston, and director Tommy Tune) labored under the delusion they were creating an homage.  Yes - they "loved" , too - and that's what's a little scary, frankly; for how could they "love" something they seem to want to destroy?  (Although the old saw that love is blind may apply doubly to the world of art, I suppose.)

Aimee Doherty in Nine.
To those behind the pointlessly-retitled Nine, it seems  may have been a grand meta-cinematic experiment (it's a film about its own making, or rather un-making), an investigation of one director's creative block, and a stunning visual fantasy (see clip below if you doubt me).  And it may have even featured a ravishing score by the great Nino Rota. But somehow it still demanded improvement.  Its creator, Fellini - or his alter ego, "Guido" - may, at the end of his psychological carnival, have told the many women in his life (and beyond them, the vast, needy audience they represented) that they must "take me as I am, if you want me."  But Kopit and Weston have other ideas - in their eyes, what Guido needs is to grow up.

It doesn't seem to have occurred to them that if Fellini grew up, then there'd be no more Fellini.  And therefore no more movies like Nights of Cabiria or La Dolce Vita.  Perhaps that's why their advice is precisely the prescription the director didn't take in the original film.  But then Kopit and Weston don't really have that much interest in the original film. They drop almost everything they can't approximate with an all-female cast (their concept is basically a replay of the notorious "Guido's Harem" scene, below); thus the death of Guido's father, his relationship to the Church, and even the wild climax at the set of the movie he's "supposed" to make (tellingly, it's a launching pad for a spaceship that hasn't been built) never make an appearance in Nine.  And more's the pity, because without them, the musical has no depth or texture.

It doesn't even have any really good songs.  From Nino Rota to Maury Weston - ah, what a falling off was there!  I still remember Rota's melodies, from years ago - but while Weston quotes a few of them here and there, strangely, it does him little good; I can' remember his score even though I only heard it about a week ago.

The director who wouldn't grow up takes a whip to the women who want him to in 8½.

Oh, well, the good news is that at least Nine means a lot of Boston's best actresses have work, and it was great to see local stars Aimee Doherty (above left), Cheryl McMahon, and Kerry A. Dowling carry on at their usual high level, even with lesser material.  Meanwhile comedienne Maureen Keiller got to shine in the kind of number we haven't seen her in for ages ("Folies Bergere," seemingly borrowed from La Cage, which I think premiered the same year).  It was also great to welcome back the gorgeous Jennifer Ellis - where has she been? - as well as watch newcomer Shana Dirik dazzle the  SpeakEasy crowd the way she's been dazzling the Metro Stage crowd for years.  There was also a very poised turn by Erik March as the younger Guido, and nice moments around the edges by Santina Umbach, Amy Jackson, and McCaela Donovan.

Alas, Donovan sort of typified what was wrong with the production's vision of Fellini's women, though - she was far too svelte, and not nearly zaftig enough (and zaftigity is important to Fellini). And for once, I was a bit disappointed in the reliable Timothy John Smith's Guido - he channeled little of the suave urbanity the part should have. But then the role had been shorn of its real reason for being - Guido's writer's block (in Nine you can barely tell he's desperately trying to find inspiration for a film).  And while the production's design was sumptuous, its visual cues seemed slightly wrong - the dark set suggested not at all the glamorously arid modernity of the film, and Seághan McKay's projections - amazing as they were - likewise only rarely quoted the director's visual language. Meanwhile Charles Schoonmaker's striking costumes didn't really conjure the fashion atmosphere of the early 60's (which Fellini's movies helped define). But maybe all these talented designers had simply picked up earlier than I did on the fact that Nine ain't . Not by half.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Last Saturday I attended a performance down at the Roxbury Center for the Arts called "Screaming Bloody Murder." An attempt by local theatre folks (chief among them directors Kaili Y. Turner and Vincent Ernest Siders) to engage with the violence that has been scarring their community, the evening included four plays by African-American writers along with dance performances and a talkback.

In this kind of case - a non-Equity production by a community, for a community - I don't think my usual modes of critical writing really apply. Indeed, I admit even my attendance at this kind of event was unusual - it had been sparked by an earlier post here at the Hub Review, in which I bemoaned the fact that, though our theatres are supposedly utterly committed to diversity programming, we never hear much on their stages about the struggles of people of color right here in Boston. "Screaming Bloody Murder" both complicated this critique and, I'm afraid, validated it to a large degree - for there were at least two playwrights on tap here who deserve more attention (and probably a commission) from our larger theatres, and one dance artist who belongs on stages across the city, and maybe even across the country.

But first, back to the type of evening that "Screaming Bloody Murder" hoped to be. In the talkback that followed the performance, it was obvious that pretty much only the white folks in attendance (such as myself and erstwhile blogger Art Hennessey, who's even whiter than I am) did not have a friend or family member who had been injured or killed in street violence. All the people of color in the crowd were survivors, at least at one remove, of such attacks - even one of the performers, Vincent Siders, had developed his monologue from the experience of being shot and left to die on the streets of Washington D.C.

This kind of open wound in an audience puts a special onus on a performance - one that I'm happy to say "Screaming Bloody Murder" mostly met, but not entirely. Oddly enough, the talkback may be the toughest part of this kind of assignment, and here I'm afraid the conversation spun out of control a bit, probably because it takes a very experienced leader (experienced with both the community and the program in question) to guide and shape a discussion in which emotions inevitably run very high.

Of the one-act plays on offer, clearly the strongest was the punchy "To Hell with this Village," by S. Travis Taylor - which also boasted the most polished cast (among them local stars Akiba Abaka and Siders, who also directed). The script masterfully balanced bracing comedy with shocking violence in its exploration of a young gay man's rejection by his family - and local development programs take note, it almost cries out for expansion into a larger work. Meanwhile Frank A. Shefton's "Wounds," though less dazzlingly crafted, still gripped with its Tarantino-esque tale of young thugs hoping to extract a bullet from a fallen comrade in a dentist's chair - and featured a confidently affecting turn from young actor Joan Mejia.

The only one-act I had concerns about was "Hollering Murder," by the playwright Mwalim, which, like "To Hell with this Village," dealt with domestic violence within the community. Here, however, the script followed a female partner in a troubled couple perpetrating violence against her man - which of course is a valid choice artistically, but doesn't map well to the statistics we have on the problem. What's more, the dramatic action hinted the woman in question might have been egging on her partner to an assault - an excuse heard more than once by perpetrators of violence against women! If the play is to remain in the "Screaming Bloody Murder" program - and there's an argument that it should - it will require, I think, clear framing by the talkback coordinator.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Gen Y goes to the circus

I suppose the circus will spring eternal - or at least that's what I thought after watching Psy (pronounced "See" because it's Franch, dontchaknow) the millennial circus at ArtsEmerson that spurns the usual accoutrements of the form.  There aren't any spangles, sequins or peekaboo leotards here, and certainly little sense of eurotrashy va-va-voom. Indeed, you get the feeling the show's creators, the Montreal troupe The Seven Fingers of the Hand, almost spurn that kind of sexy showmanship; they probably think the garishly fantastic Cirque du Soleil (also spawned in Montreal, btw) would be better termed Cirque du So Lame.

No, the Fingers prefer to affect the shrugging mope of the millennium; sometimes they take stuff off, sure, but they prefer to chill out in slacks, with their shirt-tails out.  And their set is self-consciously utilitarian - indeed, it's almost anti-fantastic; it looks like the shelf you'd store your computer peripherals on.  The twist they bring to the circus is that they're casual about it, and everything about them all but screams "Whatever, dude."

But trust me,  it's still the circus, just the same, even if at first things seem a little grim as we're introduced to an encounter group full of depressed and damaged souls - an insomniac, an agoraphobic, an amnesiac - you name it.  But it turns out, of course, that these mental patients are also the familiar types from the big top, like the knife-thrower, the juggler, and the girl on the flying trapeze; and their circus skills allow them to either express or escape their "real-world" depression with the greatest of ease.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Brandenburgs 3, 4 & more

Days and days have passed without my noting the lovely evening of music I heard last weekend at Jordan Hall, courtesy of the Handel and Haydn Society.  This was one of their "just us folks" evenings - all the soloists were from the Society's ranks, save conductor Ian Watson, who did double duty much of the time on harpsichord.  The program was centered on two of the Brandenburgs (3 and 4), although around these "greatest hits" of the baroque era were grouped a few pieces as obscure as the Brandenburgs are famous.  (I've never heard of Charles Avison, for instance, much less his Concerto Grosso No. 5.)  These obscurities all proved worthy -  and some, more than worthy - although the overall effect of the evening was bit like a very enjoyable lecture built around the theme, "There were many great composers in the eighteenth century, but here's why Bach was best."

The one outlier to this thesis - Henry Purcell - was actually a seventeenth-century composer of course, although his one piece on the program, "Pavane and Chacony," sounded like it could have been written by some young turk only yesterday, particularly the strangely moving pavane, which stretched dissonant suspensions almost past their breaking points (while conductor Watson allowed his players to slowly edge toward a kind of keening anarchy).  A highly unusual - and memorable - performance of a highly unusual piece.

Elsewhere, Watson (at right) cut a conducting profile that, as usual, was muscular, intelligent, and above all, heartily rhythmic; while this program didn't include any jigs or rondos, you still could have cut a rug to most of it - and it's somehow wonderful to watch a period band sway with the tunes they're playing as lustily as the Handel-and-Haydneers have learned to do.

There were, however, a few slight disappointments here and there; the Telemann Viola Concerto in G Major, for instance, was certainly lovely, but violist David Miller, though technically fastidious, didn't quite bring enough emotional expansiveness to his solos to make them transporting.  And even though much of the baroque repertoire is sourced in dance, as period music aficionados love to point out, still, dance is not the end-all (much less the be-all) of baroque music.  And so while Watson's approach often paid huge dividends, especially in the lesser works by Boyce and Avison (which proved perfectly smashing), I didn't feel it brought any new dimension to the Brandenburgs.  They danced alright, but not in any enlightening or original way; perhaps there's a subtle sense of musical space to these concerti that you can't capture through lilting rhythms alone.  I must at the same time note, however, that No. 4 was brightened by sparkling playing from Christopher Krueger and Stephen Hammer on recorder, and an almost frenzied turn by the great Christina Day Martinson on violin, and that No. 3 featured perhaps the most focused ensemble work of the program.  Still, I think it will be that grief-stricken Pavane from Purcell that I'll remember most vividly from this enjoyable evening.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Afterthoughts: A Post Story

Thomas Piper encounters a giant avian postman in Afterlife.  (Don't ask.)
It's rare, my friends, that I find myself on the horns of an ethical dilemma, but I've got one poking me in the ass big time right now. You see, I unthinkingly left my gym bag under my seat at the premiere of Afterlife: A Ghost Story at the New Rep last week, and the very nice people who work there retrieved it, and even kept it for me, for several days (as my partner was in New York with our car).  When I finally collected it, everything was right where it should have been - even my checkbook!

So I owe the New Rep big time.

And now, ummm . . . it's time to review Afterlife . . .  and ummmm . . . oh, dear. I really don't know what to say. But I do want to say something nice.  (I never have this kind of problem with the carnies who run the A.R.T.  I'm happy to tell the truth about them!)

But okay, here's what I can say about Afterlife that is absolutely, one-hundred-per-cent true: the New Rep is really much better than this.

Because sorry, I can't recommend Steve Yockey's play; it's basically the first half of Rabbit Hole slammed into the second half of Euridyce, and it feels very padded and kind of pointless, and it's really only ready (at best) for a staged reading. But instead, for reasons unknown, it's getting a rolling premiere across the country; this is perhaps what is most mysterious about this supernatural mystery (or whatever the hell it is). To be absolutely fair, Yockey does, finally, get to some intriguing material about three-quarters of the way through his script - but then he seems to think his work is done, and he rings down the curtain even as the stunned audience all but whispers aloud "It's - over? But it was just getting going!"

Okay - I've clearly no love for Steve Yockey; but it's also absolutely true the New Rep has mounted a very strong production of this very weak material. There is fine work from the entire cast, but particularly from Marianna Bassham, Georgia Lyman, and Dale Place (above, with Thomas Piper). The design is at a strikingly high standard, and the evening even features the literal destruction of a full-scale house by a tidal wave (I'm not kidding). Mr. Yockey's tsunami may leave an immense amount of talent high and dry, but you have to recognize that talent just the same.

And I'll also note, I think, that this playwright is associated with Dad's Garage - the former Atlanta haunt of New Rep artistic director Kate Warner. It seems to me this is not the first time a rather curious play in the New Rep's season has had some connection with that theatre. And so I've begun to wonder whether it's time for the New Rep to wave dear old Dad good-bye, pull out of his Garage for good, and take to the open road. For there are better, more challenging plays out there than are dreamt of in that theatrical body shop - indeed, we'll see a few of them, like Passing Strange, later this year - and the New Rep clearly has the brains and talent to do them justice.

And thanks again guys, for saving my gym bag.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Lynn Nottage's civil war of the sexes

The damaged women of Ruined.
I've been dragging my feet over reviewing Ruined (now at the Huntington Theatre) because . . . well, because the horror of the situation it accurately presents made me feel a little guilty about not liking it more. Plus even I'm getting a little tired of my pointing out the artistic flaws in shows that everybody else has decided are awesome.  And what's the use of analyzing Ruined at this point, anyhow?  It's already won just about every prize there is to win (although how it nabbed a Pulitzer, which is supposedly reserved for plays 'about American life,' I've no idea). [Correction! It turns out the Pulitzer rules state it is meant for plays "preferably about American life."]  And I have to admit that the play is big, and complicated - and undeniably powerful, at least in a sensational way.  To most critics, that makes it a slam-dunk.

I'll even admit that Ruined marks a big step up in terms of craft for its playwright, Lynn Nottage - at least when compared to Intimate Apparel (the only other script of hers I can recall playing in Boston) which was blunt and simplistic by comparison.  In Ruined, Nottage juggles far more characters (if not all that deftly), but more importantly, introduces far more complexity into her victimhood politics. There's some credible back and forth about situational ethics, and her central character, Mama Nadi, a madam who services both sides of the ongoing strife in the Congo, is treated with some irony - or at least, not unmixed sympathy.  She's nothing compared to Brecht's Mother Courage (her supposed model), but by millennial playwriting standards, she's of some interest.  This is more than enough to convince most theatrical observers that Nottage has graduated from P.C. agitprop to genuine art.

But alas, a little voice somewhere in my head tells me that Ruined is still P.C. agitprop; Nottage's simulation of actual art is often so artful, however, that the difference may be meaningless - and probably only a handful of people in Boston would appreciate such a distinction anyhow (there certainly aren't enough of us to fill a house the size of the Huntington; hence, the theatre's dilemma).  What troubles me most about the play, though - even as agitprop - is that Nottage doesn't really bring to life the specific hell that is the Congo, because she seems unable to draw convincing male characters (she's kind of like the black, female David Mamet; the opposite sex is a threatening mystery to her).  Thus the opposing forces sweeping through Mama Nadi's bordello are largely undifferentiated (although we see lots of sparring and jockeying for power between them).  And when and if the playwright allows a male character to break from the pack (as she does once or twice), and actively resist the horrible things that Men do, she seems unable to give him any convincing lines to explain himself.

Now certainly Men do horrible things.  But what has been going on in the Congo is SO horrible - even by masculine standards - that it cries out for some kind of explanation, or at least investigation.  When a playwright conjures scenes (which I trust are accurate) of men chaining women to trees and gang-raping them, or "ruining" their genitals with sabers, I expect some sort of treatment of this behavior beyond the victim wailing "WHY ARE MEN THIS WAY?" (which is all that Nottage seems to have to say on the subject).

For is the kind of blood bath the Congo has endured really an expression of the essential truth about men?  Put another way - is rape in time of war a revelation of man's true nature, or a revelation of an aberration from it? Before you decide, imagine  for a moment a play about Nazi Germany that ended with the cry, "WHY ARE ALL EUROPEANS THIS WAY?" and you'll begin to appreciate the problem I have with Ruined; we don't think of the history of the concentration camps (or, say, the genocide in Rwanda), as telling us the basic truth about mankind - so why should we feel differently about the Congo?   In a word, the horrors there are embedded in some kind of context that Nottage never makes clear - the men there may not "be" this way, but got this way, somehow; yet neither her women nor her men ever explicitly ponder their political or moral circumstances (again, this ain't Brecht).

But to be honest, I'm not sure Nottage is really all that interested in the Congo per se, or the ethics of war, either - and at any rate, she seems pretty disinterested in the atrocities that have been endured by the men of the region. Indeed, we get the distinct impression that for Nottage, the suffering of women counts more than that of men - and that the savagery reigning in the Congo simply offered her a chance to pound home her thesis that rape is the masculine norm with a more intense palette than usual.

And Nottage certainly knows from intense.  She's the kind of playwright who tops herself in a scene in which a scimitar is about to be thrust into a struggling woman's vagina by having another woman, pouring blood, stumble onto the scene after a botched self-abortion.  (You're glad she stopped there, just short of Bret Easton Ellis, in the vaginal-torture sweepstakes.)  But oddly, Nottage also seems to want to show the audience a good time (Hey, we want to sell some tickets here!, you can almost hear her thinking) - so the mayhem is often interrupted by dances and songs, and she wraps the show with an improbable shot of uplift.  I have to admit, however, the audience seemed to like this curious format; they seemed to appreciate the fact that although the point of the show was that sexual violence was the norm for men, at least that wasn't like a total downer.

If you haven't guessed by now that I found the whole extravaganza rather strange - well, I found the whole extravaganza rather strange.  BUT, if even one person who sees it becomes sensitized to the ongoing trauma in Africa, then Lynn Nottage has done some good.  And you can't argue with the quality of the Huntington's production (mounted in cooperation with the La Jolla Playhouse and Berkeley Rep). Liesl Tommy's direction was taught yet detailed, and Tonye Patano delivered an award-worthy performance as the hearty, hard-bargaining, Mama Nadi.  She was matched, however, by the trio of women playing her demoralized (or mutilated) charges: the sweet-voiced Carla Duren, the heartbroken Pascale Armand, and particularly the live-wire Zainab Jah (who I believe has the makings of Cleopatra in her) were all just about note-perfect.  The men, as noted, had far less to work with, but at least Oberon K.A. Adjepong (at right, with Patano), skillfully managed, as one of the rare sympathetic Y-chromosome bearers on stage, to make his part more believable than perhaps the playwright deserved.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Don't tread on them

Life under the heel of Bruce Rattner and Frank Gehry in In the Footprint.
I really don't know how ArtsEmerson does it, but in their inaugural season (the second half of which kicked off Wednesday with In the Footprint: The Battle over Atlantic Yards, above) they continue to bat close to a thousand - their season has been more consistent in its high quality than that of any Boston theatre I can think of for the last thirty years. To be brutally honest, so far nothing on the Paramount stages has knocked the dramatic ball all the way out of the park (although some productions have come close) - but at the same time everything I've seen there has been worthwhile. And frankly, that's unprecedented in my experience.  When I ponder what Robert Orchard has wrought this year, I can only think back to the decades he spent working under Robert Brustein at the A.R.T. - can you imagine what that theatre might have been like if Orchard had been in charge?  Boston theatrical history would have been completely different (and oh, so much better).

Ah, well - that way madness lies, ya know?  So let's get back to In the Footprint, a kicky little show with music (no, I don't think it's quite "a musical") by New York's The Civilians about the attempts of various players to ram a new sports arena, with attendant malls and skyscrapers stuffed with high-end condos, down the collective throat of downtown Brooklyn.

You may shrug at the topic - what do the travails of Brooklyn have to do with Boston?  But rest assured, the Civilians limn through this particular prism a devastating vision of millennial politics and, you know, how things get done.  For what soon came clear about the Atlantic Yards project was that - as one disgruntled homeowner points out - no elected body or official had ever voted on it ever.  And yet it was presented to the public as essentially a done deal, with a posse of media stars (Frank Gehry, Jay-Z) lining up in support of Rattner's bulldozing much of Prospect Heights.  Indeed, as residents began to fight back against a veritable octopus of appointed agencies and authorities (each, of course, with its own acronym), they slowly realized that essentially, the city's bureaucracy had ceded Bruce Rattner the power to buy up much of their neighborhood on no authority other than his own.  (And what's more, a lawsuit pointing out this sad state of affairs even lost out in court after a battle that lasted years.)

This portrait of civic sleaze is depressing enough, but where In the Footprint breaks from the pack is in its merciless dissection of the liberal political cover Rattner deployed to get his way.  Dangling the usual goodie-basket of minimum-wage jobs and some token low-income housing, the Rattnerettes deftly deployed a strategy of divide-and-conquer that left local activists sputtering.  With Jay-Z, basketball, and new jobs on his side, it was easy for Rattner to depict residents unhappy with the scheme as merely racist gentrifiers - which he promptly did.  The resulting fireworks are sometimes ugly, but always pointedly funny - in fact, I can't think of a more accurate portrayal of the Way We Live Now that I've seen on any local stage in several years.  And somehow the Civilians manage to keep sympathy with the community's many opposing viewpoints even as they lightly satirize them - except, of course, when it comes to the repulsive Rattner (who's portrayed by a Tonka truck) or the vapid Gehry (played by his latest titanium doodle).

The six-member cast proves versatile and appealing, and Steve Cosson's script (as you might guess from the visual gambits above) skips lightly between satirical revue and editorial cartoon.  Alas, the one gap in the show is its music, which plays like watered-down William Finn (with the requisite over-articulate lyrics); but even the score rights itself at the last minute, in a moving paean to the type of neighborhood that can never survive the steamroller of a sports arena.  But at least, thanks to groups like The Civilians, the deaths of such places will be remembered.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Death of the salesman

Craig Houk grills Michael Pevzner in Glengarry Glen Ross.
The Independent Drama Society first popped up on our theatrical radar screen with an able production of Proof last summer; now the intrepid troupe has decided to tackle a more ambitious text, David Mamet's biggest Broadway success, Glengarry Glen Ross, at the BCA's Black Box through this weekend.

And the good news is that, like Proof, the production is surprisingly strong - although Mamet's famous savaging of a corrupt real estate office is here never quite as savage as I think its author intended. Director Brett Marks has inculcated in his cast the rhythms of Mametspeak, and the spoken performances flow along admirably. This, of course, is all a production can aspire to, according to this particular author's own claims. But other observers might note the character work behind the well-rendered speeches is a bit more variable, I'm afraid - although never so variable as to pull us out of the spell of one of Mamet's tightest dramatic constructions.

The best performance probably belongs to Phil Thompson, as Shelly "The Machine" Levene, a down-on-his-luck salesman who stumbles into what seems to be a big score. Levene may have not seemed quite pathetic enough in his opening scene, but Thompson spread his wings beautifully once back on top of the sleazy office heap, and his gulling of a particularly clueless mark was as ruthlessly hilarious as it should be. Perhaps only a small step behind was Michael Fisher as Roma, the role that won Joe Mantegna his Tony; oddly, Fisher is perhaps the more magnetic actor, and he certainly had Roma's smooth-talking surface down pat. But Fisher has only partly mined the wealth of emotional material in this character's soliloquies, which in their nihilist bravado - and sad groping after some sort of honor among thieves - rank among Mamet's best. Elsewhere there was nicely detailed work from Bob Mussett as that gullible mark, and thoughtful touches, if not full arcs, from Craig Houk and Michael Pevzner. Only Jeremy Browne disappointed, I'm afraid, as the seemingly spineless corporate suit in the corner office - largely because he has yet to tap into his character's surprisingly cold core.

As with Proof, the physical production was stylish and assured.  Designer Sean A. Cote pulled off convincing evocations of both a Chinese restaurant and the wrecked real estate office within the tiny confines of the BCA's Black Box; and the lighting and costumes were never less than apt. Glengarry Glen Ross counts as another feather in this young company's cap; and you've only got this weekend to catch it, if you want to be able to say you knew them before they hit it big.

The small town girl with the big city voice

Surprisingly, Jordan Hall was only two-thirds full last weekend for a rare Celebrity Series appearance by soprano Christine Brewer (at left).  But on closer inspection, it was apparent the entire crowd was made up of critics, musicians, and singers - so if Ms. Brewer doesn't have that much of a Boston following, at least what she has, as they say, is choice.

Still, there was a small murmur of dismay when it was announced that Ms. Brewer would be working without her announced accompanist - and that due to a cold, the concert would be somewhat abbreviated. So by the time the diva strode onstage in her shimmering concert-stage gown, with pianist Craig Terry by her side, expectations had been lowered to wind-chill-factor levels.

Yet all I can say is, if this is how she sounds when she's fighting a cold, I can't imagine what miracles this gal can accomplish when she's hale and hearty.  For Ms. Brewer revealed within seconds one of the most ravishing voices I've ever heard anywhere - so large, in fact, it all but amazed in an intimate space like Jordan Hall.  But her voice isn't just big, it's also deeply lustrous, and flexible yet forceful, without ever turning strident or shrill (except perhaps at the very top, where the cold was probably causing her some strain).  And again amazingly, there seems to be no "break" in her sound; it's glorious practically from top to bottom, and so spacious that listening to her is like moving into a huge, golden room - one you never really want to leave; plus she boasts a sense of pitch so secure that when Brewer gives a note all she's got you can feel a slight vibration sing through the structure of the hall.

The concert was, as a result, so delightful that I really don't have that much to say about it; for much of it I was just lost in pleasure; I think I actually may have been purring.  But for the record, Brewer warmed up with an aria from Gluck's Alceste (which pianist Terry wasn't quite ready to play, I don't think) before settling in with the composers she's a perfect match for: Wagner and Strauss.  From Wagner she sang the well-known song cycle "Wesendonck-Lieder" with a responsive authority that floated expertly from rapture to heartbreak and back (as pianist Terry likewise hit his stride).  And to tell true, the three songs from Strauss were even better; they seemed to represent some kind of peak of experience, artistry, and sheer talent; in fact I'm not sure I can really describe how good they were.

In the second half of the program, Brewer experimented with a variety of styles, and put her stamp on each one.  I could argue, if I felt like it, that with Britten's brilliant "Cabaret Songs" she may have put her foot slightly wrong; her voice is simply too big to slide easily in and out of the nearly-pop idiom of these witty numbers (the lyrics are by W.H. Auden).  But you know what?  I don't really feel like making that argument - Brewer caught the wit of the songs, and the feeling too, so who cares about the rest?  She shone even brighter in John Carter's "Cantata," which pushes the spiritual into grand opera territory (often to thrilling effect), and then demonstrated just how self-aware and funny she really is by tearing through a set of encores penned for other dames with big voices, people like Eileen Farrell and Kirsten Flagstad.  These proved to be the kind of songs that exhort us to love one another forever as we climb ev'ry mountain and fight on to the glorious dawn; they may be a hoot, but they're wonderful all the same (partly for being hoots), and Brewer sang the hell out of them.

For her own encore, the soprano charmed still further, with a sweet, all-but-forgotten song, "Mira," from the musical Carnival, about a homesick girl from a country town that's "very small - but still, it's there."  Brewer herself is from a little town outside St. Louis - which is a long way from the Met and Covent Garden; and I've heard that when she's not gracing stages like those (or ours), she still lives there.  And somehow, beneath the glories of Wagner and the wit of Britten, she communicated that, too.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Ralph Vaughan Williams and the setting of "Riders to the Sea."

It's hard to think of a better match between composer and subject than Ralph Vaughan Williams and John Millington Synge's Riders to the Sea.  And I'm quite sure the composer himself would agree, as in his libretto he hardly changed a word of Synge's text.  Indeed, the tragic one-act, set on the shores of Inishmore (above), one of the windswept islands of Aran on Ireland's western coast, distills Williams's life-long musical obsessions into drama with almost eerie simplicity.  Like the famed arranger of so many English folk tunes, Synge aimed to conjure the elemental mystery of the landscape through the harsh existence of those who lived upon it.  And things don't get much harsher than they do in Riders, in which a mother must suffer the sea's taking of her last living son (although even in the spoken version, the crushing blows land somehow musically, thanks to the lyricism of Synge's keening dialogue).

So the piece stands as one of the most direct translations from drama to opera in existence; and it has also become accepted as Vaughan Williams's greatest achievement in the form - yet it has become a rarity in performance. Its brevity works against it, perhaps - along with its intensity.  It's easy to pair two light operas to create a full evening, after all, but book-ending Riders to the Sea with a comedy would seem bizarre - and two tragedies of its power in a single night might lead some in the audience to slit their throats!

The Cantata Singers' solution to this problem was to offer a set of songs by Vaughan Williams (and others) as a prelude to their ambitious semi-staged production, which played in Jordan Hall for a single night last weekend.  The chorus, one of Boston's finest, is actually well-known for its ambition; under the direction of David Hoose, the Cantata Singers generally offer year-long explorations of a single composer or musical movement. Thus Riders was only a highlight of a season devoted to Vaughan Williams and his fellow travelers (except for the chorus's next concert, in which they're taking a vacation by mounting Bach's Mass in B Minor!).

The songs served well enough as an opener, I suppose; although lovely - and lonely - as they were, they still didn't hint at the real darkness to come.  Along with Vaughan Williams, we heard from Holst, Elgar, and Gerald Finzi (an undersung composer, so to speak, in my opinion).  The chorus was in solid, if not superb, form throughout - at their strongest in the numbers with the sturdiest melodic lines, like Vaughan William's famous arrangement of the poignant "Loch Lomond" (led here by a touching solo from Richard Simpson) and Finzi's wonderful "My Spirit Sang All Day" (the one beam of sun, perhaps, in the whole program).  Things were a bit more tentative in the slower and more complex textures of Holst's "The Evening-watch" and Vaughan Williams' settings from Shakespeare - although Hoose's direction, consistently subtle yet firm, still made everything worthwhile.

Then came Riders, which was staged (by Alexandra Borrie) with the orchestra surrounding the singers, just as the sea surrounds the opera's characters.  As stage metaphor, this was quite striking - and as musical metaphor it was striking, too, as most of Riders to the Sea is a kind of flowing recitative sourced in the motifs of the wind and waves.  Still, this theatrical coup came with a downside, for it must be noted that at times the singers had trouble cutting through the instrumental textures - even star mezzo Lynn Torgove, who took the central role of the mourning Maurya, sacrificed some of her complex timbre to the rise and fall of the winds (as well as an off-stage wind machine).  In the end, however, Torgove proved memorable in the role - dramatically she was just right, and vocally proved quite gripping in her final scene, when the score edges closest to pure aria.  There was also fine singing on offer from Lisa Lynch and Claire Filer as Maurya's despairing daughters, and under Hoose's direction, the instrumental ensemble sounded as strong, or stronger, than many a better-known local band.

All in all, I was quite taken with the thoughtfulness and care of the whole evening - and was sorry to hear it would only see one performance!  Lovers of choral music would do well to keep an eye out for the rest of the Cantata Singers' season - in particular the May concert, which features Bernstein's hauntingly gorgeous Chichester Psalms; if you've never heard them, just take my word for it - you want to.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Of Freud, fraud, and farce

Terry Johnson's Hysteria (now at the Central Square in a bright, cleverly-designed production from the Nora Theatre) is, I suppose, a car crash of different theatrical modes - but it's also something we never see anymore: a play of ideas.  Many ideas, in fact - perhaps more ideas than the playwright knew what to do with (or reconcile).  Jumping off from a single brief encounter between Sigmund Freud and Salvador Dalí in 1938, Johnson attempts a pastiche of boulevard farce, surreal imagery, and a debate over the intellectual integrity of the founder of psychoanalysis - all  mashed up within one of the good doctor's morphine-induced dreams (perhaps his final one - Freud died from a morphine injection), in which guilt and self-doubt keep popping in and out of various psychological and metaphorical doors.

It's a bit like Stoppard in baggy pants, brandishing a banana peel, and if it sounds like too much - well, at times it is; still, despite a few strained moments in which the playwright awkwardly grinds opposing artistic gears, Hysteria mostly works - at times, in fact, it's even hysterical.  More importantly, it resonates, which plays almost never do anymore.

Why should this be?  Well, because Johnson understood the ingredients of his mash-up were all the stuff, shall we say, that dreams are made on: the chaos of farce is driven by repressed desires, as is Dalí's melting, death-and-sex imagery, as is the dream-state itself, as is analysis, too: combine the four and you have a multi-foliate structure that's expressing the same set of ideas in quadruplicate.  And this internal correspondence gives Johnson's script a heft, a kind of thickness, that even Stoppard, who's wittier and generally more sophisticated, doesn't seem able to conjure anymore.

The play opens on a dark and stormy night in Freud's London study - and the playwright has nudged the doctor's date with Dalí  to 1939, so air-raid sirens are rising through the rain, and Freud himself is in the last throes of terminal jaw cancer (all those cigars!), and receiving a shot of morphine from his distinguished neighbor, the scholar Abraham Yehuda (here, in another fudge, his personal physician).  Then he returns to a session of analysis - only where is the analysand?  The famous couch (below) is empty - could the good doctor, we wonder, have been attempting a last phase of his notorious self-analysis, before losing his train of thought?  Suddenly, however, there's a beautiful woman banging at the French doors, begging to be let in from the rain.  "I am your anima," she announces.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Martin Luther King Prize - how about it?

Monday is the day we honor one of the greatest leaders of our civil rights movement, so it seems only appropriate to pause for a moment to note in sadness (as it seems no one else has done) the apparent passing of Boston's African-American Theatre Festival, which ran from 2001-2009, the last year or two in the glittering Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA. Another loss to the local African-American theatre community was the recent death of Jim Spruill, Boston University professor and founder of the New African Company, who with his wife Lynda Patton (who also passed not so long ago) inspired a generation of theatre artists of color. (There will be a memorial for Spruill at the Black Box Theatre on February 12.)

Of course there are always new faces and voices of color to be seen and heard in Boston (I just became aware of such a new performance group, the New Urban Theatre Lab, or, appealingly enough, the "NUTLab").  But it's troubling that the African-American Theatre Festival, probably the highest-profile showcase for local performers - and especially local writers - of color, should have vanished so quickly, and without apparently any local protest or comment.  It seems that instead of committing to our own community, our "diversity" programming has turned more and more of late to pre-sold hits from New York, like Ruined, or Neighbors (which its producers, Company One, would very much like to prevent me from seeing; see tweet at right). And as I've written before, we hear a lot about the ravages of racism in places like South Africa, or the antebellum South, or the Congo - but never right here in Boston, even though we have quite the fraught racial history. Yet to us, it seems, racism always happens somewhere else.  Plus I'm increasingly disturbed by imported writers like Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Young Jean Lee, who seem dedicated to caricatures of race as a focus of their work; the careers of these writers, you get the impression, depend more on sustaining racism as a cultural trope than actually fighting it on the ground.

At any rate, it's clear to me that one way for theatre artists of any color to make a difference is to connect with their own community - to tell its story. Yet I can't remember the last time I saw a play about our own racial issues on a major local stage. So I'd like to make a modest proposal to our colleges, theatres, and foundations - how about a prize, or a grant, or a commission to an artist of color for a play about Boston? With a production guaranteed? There are so many theatrical episodes in our past - from the slow creation of the "color lines" that still criss-cross the city to the shocking riots over busing in Charlestown - that there's almost a surfeit of material available. And we certainly do not suffer from a dearth of talented writers. So how about it? Maybe we could call it the Jim Spruill and Lynda Patton Prize. Or maybe the Martin Luther King Prize.

Friday, January 14, 2011

If you've ever wondered just how deeply a new script depends on its actors, you would do well to see Tryst, now at the Merrimack Rep, which offers a kind of object lesson in how far two skilled performers can drive a vehicle that, if not exactly ramshackle, is nevertheless hardly a Rolls.

This is actually a retooled model of Tryst - after attending its unsuccessful British premiere, director Joe Brancato collaborated with author Karoline Leach on a new, more focused version, which has enjoyed considerable regional success before its current run at Merrimack.  And indeed, there's no doubt the chassis of the show is in good shape - the play turns on several dimes, in fact; the question is, where precisely is this particular vehicle supposed to be going?  That's what we can never really figure out.

Leach (along with the Merrimack's marketing department) clearly had it in mind to conjure a grim little entry in the familiar genre of the goth-romantic thriller - and in her first scenes, she seems at home in the idiom, and appears to know the lay of the land.  "George Love" (Mark Shanahan) is a manipulative cad who makes his living off the romantic fantasies of vulnerable Plain Janes in Edwardian England. He spots his prey by keeping an eye out for "“the sort of face that belongs to a woman who teaches piano or serves tea or issues library books." Only he scans for something else, too: "You’re looking for the little inconsistency," he explains. "The little something too expensive, too new, too nice for that face. The something that tells you it’s got a nice little nest egg. A few quid stashed away.’’ (Note that "it;" yes, Mr. Love has objectified women that far.)

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.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Rebeck reboots Kafka - kind of

One morning Gregor Samsa awoke from restless dreams to find himself transformed into a successful playwright and screenwriter. He lay on his brittle back and, raising his head a little, gazed out at his Park Slope condo and thought to himself, "What has happened to me?? How unfair that I'm not more successful! This is, you know, an existential dilemma - just like I read about in college!!!"

No, this is not how the famous Franz Kafka story "The Metamorphosis" actually begins - but you get the impression, from her irritating play The Understudy (now at the Lyric Stage), that this is how Theresa Rebeck would handle the rewrite.

But wait, let's back up a bit.  As you may recall, Rebeck is one of the most successful whiners - oh, sorry, I meant writers - of the New York stage. She has been produced all over, been published many times, written several movies, and landed gigs on TV shows like Law and Order. She lives a comfortable - very comfortable - life for a playwright. Still, she's not happy. She should have done better!, she lets everyone know. Why hasn't she been on Broadway?  Why hasn't she won a Pulitzer? (Hell, why hasn't she won the Nobel?)

At first her widely-reported rationale was: "Because I'm a woman, that's why!" Only eventually she got to Broadway (her show closed quickly), and then was short-listed for the Pulitzer (but didn't win). Meanwhile other, more talented female writers (Lydia Diamond, Annie Baker) began to appear on the scene, and Rebeck sensed it was time to upgrade the foundation of her whining from sexism to something - well, bigger, more pervasive; something that could withstand a rebuke like "Oh, but we did give the Pulitzer to a woman - only it was Lynn Nottage!"

Hence, you get the impression, The Understudy, in which a sad-sack stage actor understudies a "talent-free" action star in - get this - a newly-discovered drama by Franz Kafka (that's the big guy himself on the poster at top, behind actor Christopher James Webb). Now it seems life on the fringes of Broadway isn't just embarrassing, status-wise, for a relentless social climber like Rebeck, it's actually - no, literally - Kafkaesque.  Rehearsing for a hit show, she seems to think, is somehow like being transformed into a giant cockroach, or being executed for an unknown crime.

Hmmm.  Somehow I find this whole premise just ridiculous.  We should all be so lucky as to be understudies on Broadway shows, it seems to me, but as for Gregor Samsa's gig - well . . .

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Is there life on Mars? Maybe!

And now for something completely different: NASA scientists are saying that over thirty years ago, the Viking lander did, indeed, find evidence of organic materials in soil samples on Mars. Above, sunset on Mars, stitched together from images taken last November by the NASA rover "Opportunity."

Friday, January 7, 2011

More reasons to be happy

Earlier I reported on a "new" New Year's Eve tradition - the Nutcracker at First Night; I was lucky enough the next day to join another local tradition - Boston Baroque's New Year's concert, which every year features an entertaining mix of vocal music, a few period obscurities, and one or two crowd-pleasers.

I'm obviously not the only person in Boston in on this particular secret (and last year's version was a particular hoot) - so it was no surprise that Sanders Theatre was sold out this January 1, which means that people were packed together literally cheek-by-jowl in that glorious gothic pile's rigid pews (I guess back in the day Harvard undergraduates were really undernourished).  To be honest, things were so tight that sometimes it was hard to concentrate on the music; I guess you can't expect a musical organization to sell fewer tickets than it has "seats," but maybe it's time for a third showing of this particular favorite, to accommodate the crowds.

The star of the show this time was the great bass Kevin Deas (at left), who had just lit up Boston Baroque's Messiah a few weeks ago.  Mr. Deas only sang three numbers - from three different periods, in three different styles - but each was wonderful in its own way.  First was the famous Polyphemus aria from Acis and Galatea ("O ruddier than the cherry"), then the rollicking spiritual "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel?" (with the baroque orchestra clapping along), and then Kern and Hammerstein's mysteriously moving "Ol' Man River" from Showboat. Deas was in fine form throughout, his deeper-than-deep voice always gracefully evocative, although perhaps "Ol' Man River" proved the most powerful of the set - but then how could it not, as its timeless melody showcases one of Oscar Hammerstein's simplest, and yet greatest, lyrics; this is one of those pieces in which "art song" and "the American songbook" completely overlap.

The rest of the concert was always diverting, but somewhat more variable.  Conductor Martin Pearlman (below right) opened with Corelli's "Christmas Concerto," (Op. 6, No. 8), which he took, as is his wont these days, at a wide variety of tempi.  And as usual, the orchestra's sense of ensemble began to fray a bit at the slowest speeds, but everything came together wonderfully when Pearlman sped up  - first violinist Christina Day Martinson in particular had a field day fiddling in the glorious last movement.

Martinson was likewise on fire in Bach's Concerto for Oboe and Violin (BMV 1060) with period oboist Marc Schachman only a small step behind.  The string playing remained tightly focused in Germiniani's Variations on La follia (Concerto Grosso No. 12, derived from Corelli again) - and the winds, led by Schachman, if anything sounded even better.

Alas, somehow the ensemble seemed to grow a bit winded itself in the lengthy "Water Music" Suite in F Major, which concluded the concert - perhaps this Handel perennial (presented here with the famous "Alla hornpipe" seemingly borrowed from the D Major Suite), was, in its full glory, just too much of a good thing.  And the brass section, which had sparkled on natural trumpet in Messiah, here sounded garbled and out-of-control on the even-more-challenging natural horn. Not that it's ever a chore listening to the "Water Music;" and all in all, the concert glittered with enough high points to convince me I'll have to lose some serious weight if I hope to squeeze into whatever space is left at this party next year!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Wednesday Evening 10 PM

This is a foolish post to write, but I'm going to write it anyway. I saw the commercial above, for the latest model Honda, on TV the other night, and was stunned to recognize as its soundtrack the bridge from "The Only Living Boy in New York," one of Paul Simon's haunting farewells to Art Garfunkel on their final album together, Bridge Over Troubled Water. At first I was startled and pleased just to hear those lovely chord changes one more time (that seeming chorus is actually just Paul and Art, re- and re- and re-recorded).  But minutes after the commercial was over I began to feel my heart sinking for reasons I couldn't quite describe.

I left the TV, went to the computer, and called up "The Only Living Boy in New York."  Listening to the silvery harmonies of the full song, I felt a little better, but somehow that nagging sense of despair just wouldn't go away.  I began downloading other Simon and Garfunkel hits from the same album - "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright," "Cecilia," "The Boxer," "Keep the Customer Satisfied" (the album is basically one long hit) -and then more songs began to come back to me in droves, as I thought about the LPs in their battered sleeves that I slowly wore down in the late 60's as I played them again and again, night after night, on our family stereo.  "Homeward Bound" and "Kathy's Song" and "Old Friends" and "To Emily, Whenever I May Find Her" and "America" and "Scarborough Fair" and "I Am a Rock" - and then I began thinking about other albums I wore down, playing them night after night on the family stereo too, albums like Blue and Court and Spark and "The White Album" and Pet Sounds.

I know, the music is still out there.  In a way, it's more accessible than ever.  But there just doesn't seem to be any more of it, now does there.  And I know that while Simon and Garfunkel once sang about being "Old Friends" sharing a park bench, they were eventually at each others' throats.  (And eventually they let their music be turned into a jingle.) But somehow that only means that, like their whole generation, they couldn't live up to what was best about themselves.  And it certainly doesn't dispel the feeling that the beauty and tenderness and intelligence that groups like Simon and Garfunkel brought to pop music is gone from the public sphere for good.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The New Year's Eve Nutcracker

I was feeling a little Nutcracker'ed out this Christmas (I'd seen it twice so far), but I nevertheless settled into my seat at Boston Ballet on New Year's Eve for a third go round with this seasonal favorite (largely for the sake of the partner unit, who somehow had missed the other trips).

And believe it or not, I was glad I went.  The Ballet had advertised their New Year's Eve version - the first ever - would have a few twists, and these all proved good fun.  The basic idea was to goof around a little with the holiday chestnut (Luciana Voltolini as a snowflake, at left), to make it more of a party; Santa Claus (Robert Kretz) and Drosselmeier's dancing bear (Paul Craig), for instance, kept intruding on various scenes for a quick, scenery-chewing pirouette (which actually proved quite a bit funnier than it sounds).  And in general the company members - many of whom are superb physical comedians - were quick with little pratfalls and bits of comic business; the whole thing felt delightfully fizzy (without tipping too far into parody).

Plus Clara and Fritz were played by adults - Joseph Gatti got to ham it up as the bratty Fritz, while Misa Kuranaga took over as Clara.  Kuranaga's presence allowed the Ballet to experiment with an idea I've suggested before - that The Nutcracker should climax with Clara "growing up" a bit, and participating in the famous "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" (other ballet companies have toyed with this idea for some time).  Here, Kuranaga simply took over the solo, and danced it as beautifully as she has done before.  To my mind, this is an opportunity for a more original pas de deux between Clara and her Cavalier (or perhaps even a threesome with Ms. Plum!), but it was still intriguing to see the Ballet at least dip its toe in these more sophisticated emotional waters.

The company made other, fitting gestures toward the New Year - the whole evening ended with blasts of glitter into the audience, for instance, while the orchestra played "Auld Lang Syne" (and the crowd basically went wild).  These First Nighters weren't the usual ballet audience, btw - which led to loud gasps and various sounds of awe at the level of the Ballet's dancing.  Clearly many of these folks hadn't expected the show to be quite this good. In the lobby at intermission, in fact, the operative word seemed to be "amazing" - I must have heard it half a dozen times.  Which kind of made the Ballet's achievement fresh for me, too.  I had the feeling I was witnessing the start of a new Boston tradition - which was a great way to kick off the New Year.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Elevator Repair Service rips off Andy Kaufman!

If you doubt me, watch this. (Sorry, embedding disabled!) Gosh, I wonder if Andy also did The Sun Also Rises?

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Duke and the Dude duke it out in their respective Grits.

I remember quite clearly seeing the original True Grit as a boy; one rainy day my mother took the whole family to Radio City Music Hall to take it in as a treat. This was back at the fading end of that movie palace's heyday - although the Rockettes still danced after every picture, and the organ came up from the floor like something out of Close Encounters; to me, the movie was almost a sideshow to the theatre itself. (I remember demanding we take a seat at the top of the third balcony, just because we could, but as this was some seven flights up, everyone else insisted on at most the second balcony.)

I recall the movie pretty well, too; I wasn't really that into Bonanza or any of the TV westerns, and I didn't have much connection to John Wayne, because I'd never seen any of his early, enjoyable films. Nor, as I was only about ten, did I key into the movie's streak of reactionary nostalgia. Instead it struck me that, like most Westerns, True Grit had a good, violent beginning and a dull middle and then a really good, violent end that featured a great scene in which Justin Bieber look-alike Kim Darby was trapped in a rattlesnake pit. Indeed, I still recall the startling shot in which Justin (I mean Kim!) tumbled back from the recoil of her pistol and disappeared into the yawning hole behind her - which I immediately remembered was a literal snake pit.

I also think that somewhere, the thematic import of this event - that achieving vengeance had thrown Darby into a kind of moral stinkhole from which she would have to be rescued - registered with me, too. So I was surprised when I didn't feel the same shock of thematic recognition in the Coen Brothers' highly praised remake of this hoary old potboiler.

I was doubly shocked, in fact, because after years of ironic, nihilistic wittiness, the Coens got religion a few years back (at left), and have developed a specialty in dark Old Testament dramas set in dying landscapes. Thus, with its themes of judgment and retribution, I expected True Grit to be a true sib to No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man (a movie that literally imported the Book of Job into the American suburbs). Together these films resuscitated the brothers' artistic bona-fides, and gave one hope that real ideas could still prove commercially viable on the American movie screen.

But I'm afraid True Grit can't really stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those fascinating flicks. In the end, it's just a remake, with a few comically-grotesque Coen touches and a lot of mannered dialogue (lifted straight from the source book, by Charles Portis, where I think it's meant more ironically than it's rendered here), but little of the thematic spine that held together No Country and Serious Man. I'm afraid instead we'll have to store Grit on the same shelf as Coen misfires like The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty. It's at the top of that shelf, I'd say, but it's still on the same shelf.

And just as an side, the existence of those obvious tiers in the Coens' output has always suggested to me a fascinating critical question. I know the Brothers C insist they operate as an artistic unit, but let's talk turkey for a moment, and finally ask the question - who has been responsible for what over the course of their joint career? I mean their output has been so variable, the question all but asks itself. It's hard for me to believe that even between brothers (especially between brothers!) every decision can be 50/50, so - who came up with O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men, and A Serious Man? And on the other hand, who suggested The Man Who Wasn't There, Intolerable Cruelty, and The Ladykillers?

In general, I think a rough division suggests itself between the Coens' more original works and their homages.  The "originals" are generally better - it's when they're doodling on an existing template that the Coens sometimes get into trouble.  In True Grit, you can almost feel their interest in the material rising and falling with their own contributions - but the overall design of the picture isn't re-fashioned accordingly; indeed, while the Coens claim they never consulted the first movie, the large action sequences - never a Coen specialty - sometimes ape, or even imitate shot-by-shot (at top), the look and feel of the original.

I suppose the Coens thought they could have their postmodern cake and eat it, too - they felt they could insinuate a critique into the structure of the original Grit without disturbing its audience-pleasing aspects. They'd just replace the Duke with the Dude, and coast on a new generation's hammy self-awareness.  This would have been a neat commercial trick, but for subtle reasons it doesn't quite come off.  Not that the cast is really to blame.  To his credit, Jeff Bridges contributes a genuine performance as Rooster Cogburn - the role that got John Wayne his long-delayed Oscar.   It's not really a surprising or original take on the character - it's low-key, in a manner that slightly, but not insistently, suggests the Dude gone to seed.  Beyond that it's pretty much what Wayne served up, too, if at a smaller scale; but Bridges commits to the role completely, and his querulous timing is as sharp as ever; he holds the picture together, just as Wayne did.  As his slightly-clownish, slightly-sexy sidekick/rival, Matt Damon does what he does best - that is, disguise his deficits in personality and presence with crafty cinematic smarts; this guy plays cinematic dodgeball better than any Hollywood star I can think of (with the possible exception of Brad Pitt).

Filming Grit on the streets of Austin, Texas.
Still, you could argue that without really outsized central performances, the book's implied parody of the Wild West can't really take hold.  And while Damon is serviceable, he doesn't really get much of a rhythm going with his pint-sized co-star, fourteen-year-old Hailee Steinfeld.  But then Bridges doesn't get much further with her either.  In the central role of Mattie Ross, who hires Cogburn to track the killer of her father, young Steinfeld has been widely praised - probably because nobody wants to hurt the feelings of a teen-aged girl thrust into such a spotlight. But I'm afraid she's the central gap in the picture; Steinfeld is poised and appealing, and handles the dialogue's circumlocutions quite well - I'm sure she has a career in Hollywood ahead of her.   But she's both too young to connect romantically with Damon (as the older Darby sometimes did with Glen Campbell in the original), and yet she also projects little of the grim sense of childish determination the Coens seem to think they're conjuring; indeed, her performance makes you long for bitter little Tatum O'Neal to be teleported in from Paper Moon (and once Elizabeth Marvel takes over as the grown-up Mattie, in a deadpan epilogue, we suddenly sense everything we've been missing till now).

Oh, well. Steinfeld was probably just a shade too young to really carry off the demands of this difficult part. But the gap in her performance means that the theme of the movie goes slightly haywire. The Coens clearly meant to align True Grit with their recent thematic concerns - they want their new Grit to demonstrate that vengeance is the Lord's, not Mattie's. In their version, as in the book, the rattlesnakes take the heroine's arm with their venom; she doesn't actually have a right to her vengeance - she has to pay for it. And only Cogburn's intervention, and the death of her beloved horse, prevent the price from being even higher - the old one, in fact, of an eye for an eye. And yet somehow as we ponder these buried themes, we sense we're doing all the work the Coens should have done for us up on screen. Yes, they lay on with a trowel the moral squalor of the West - men come and go dressed in animal skins, trading corpses; but without closer connections between the protagonists, and a clearer ironic snap to the finale, the point of the picture is all but lost.  We've now had two Grits; but I don't think we've seen the true one yet.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

I still owe the general cultural scene at least one more glance in the rearview mirror - but that will have to wait a day or two, I'm afraid.

For today is New Year's Day, a day for resolutions.  And so I'd like to propose one for the whole city:

2011 will be the year Boston resolves to build itself a new opera house.

Why?  Well, there have been rumblings around this particular ambition for some time, but we're closing in on the cultural conditions that make it a requirement. Boston Lyric Opera has positioned itself to become the city's next big cultural success story; its productions have skyrocketed in quality over the past few seasons, and it has a smart, ambitious artistic director in Esther Nelson - someone who I think can keep the company's quality high while wooing Boston's big donors toward their next "philanthropic opportunity," as they say.  And unlike most cities our size, we can boast another ambitious opera company, Opera Boston, which has successfully carved out a secure niche for itself in the more adventurous and obscure repertoire.  Meanwhile a sense of ferment, and foment, has begun to bubble around these two major players; we now have smaller opera companies putting up productions in the summer, and there's even an opera fringe these days.  James Levine consistently programs opera at the BSO, and of course many weekends the local malls fill up with opera lovers watching the latest from the Met and elsewhere.  And at the same time, Boston Ballet is finally getting the love from its hometown it has long deserved (the company is about to pay off its long-term debt and renovate its South End digs thanks to a remarkably fast fund-raising drive) - and the current "Opera House," gorgeous as it is, cramps their style slightly when it comes to extravaganzas like The Nutcracker.

All this was unheard-of ten or fifteen years ago.  But then let's just ponder the remarkable journey Boston has taken in the past few years - or rather, let's give credit where credit is due.  This provincial capital has all but transformed itself culturally in the past decade; I really wish the town could begin to understand how far it has come, thanks to the vision of several determined leaders and the deep pockets of the philanthropic community.  We're not the dead-end locale of some trashy Ben Affleck thriller anymore.  Indeed, almost year by year, we've seen major cultural projects come to fruition: first the Calderwood Pavilion in the South End; then the renovation of the Opera House and Cutler Majestic; then the new ICA on the waterfront.  And this year brought a double whammy - the renovations of the Paramount (and Modern) theatre complex downtown, and the stunning new American Wing at the MFA.  Not so long ago the Globe was worrying that Boston couldn't support the Calderwood Pavilion, and now we're awash in gleaming new cultural spaces!  It's not an overstatement to say that in the past decade, in cultural terms Boston has become a different city.

Except when it comes to perhaps the grandest of the arts - opera.  And yet, as I said before, the opera scene has never been stronger - there's just no space for it to grow into.  The Schubert and the Opera House can't handle Wagner, or Verdi, or actually half the operatic repertoire, so Boston Lyric and Opera Boston can't really bring our city the full range of their art form.  Likewise Boston Ballet can't bring us the full sweep of the greatest ballets without a stage bigger than their current one.  But don't think the list of tenants for the New Boston Opera House would end there.  The Boston Early Music Festival and Boston Baroque are now producing opera productions that garner global attention, and not so long ago Handel and Haydn was doing the same thing.  And local orchestras like the Boston Philharmonic are constantly programming huge modern works that are crammed, both physically and sonically, in spaces like Jordan Hall and Sanders Theatre.  I'm quite sure that in short order, a new opera house would be over-, rather than under-, booked.

Especially since even if we got off the dime right now, it probably wouldn't be built till 2015, or maybe 2020 - particularly given all the open questions about it (beginning with "Where should it go?").  The road ahead looks like a long and hard one, I know - and there will always be other worthy questions to distract us (like "What to do about the Greenway?").  But every journey begins with a single step.  Let's make the next decade the one in which Boston makes good on its claim to being a world-class city with an opera house worthy of one.