Thursday, March 31, 2011

Lost boy

What do you do when the actors are willing, but the text is weak?  That's the quandary I'm in about Bill Cain's 9 Circles, now at the BCA in a production by the Publick Theatre (through next weekend).

The script (by the founder of the long-lost Boston Shakespeare Company) wants to be a hard-hitting exposé of our collective shrug regarding the young men (and women) left damaged and destroyed by our grand misadventure in Iraq.  It traces the descent of one broken soldier, Daniel Edward Reeves (Jimi Stanton, at left), who falls from the military, through the court system, and down into the clutches of the death chamber, as he is tried and convicted for the rape and murder of a young woman and her family in Iraq.

Reeves, a natural born killer, indeed seems to be guilty of this terrible crime - and yet you can't say he never cried out for help before he snapped; in Cain's fractured telling of this grim tale, the military recruited (and exploited) Reeves for his instincts, but then washed its hands of him once those instincts began to spin out of control; so all our hands, as it were, have some Iraqi blood on them.

This is a complex and worthy tale to tell, but I'm afraid the playwright pretty much scrambles it; his script lurches from one artificially pumped-up set-up to the next, and we can predict every "big reveal" well before it's revealed (and can't help but notice the script's many puzzle pieces don't really fit together all that compellingly). Indeed, by the finale, when even poor Reeves's lethal injection goes horribly wrong, we've begun to feel that for Cain, his lead character is just a kind of punching bag, on which he's working out all his frustration with the complacency of Bush- (and Obama-) era America.

Not that I don't share those frustrations. Still, I know a real play when I see one, and I'm afraid this isn't the genuine article. But nobody told the actors that, and they each turn in improbably memorable performances - particularly young Stanton, a newcomer who seems to have gotten completely beneath his character's skin.  Under Eric Engel's nuanced direction, the versatile Will McGarrahan and Amanda Collins provide memorable back-up; the atmospheric lighting is by John Malinowski.  See it if you want to catch a rising star, and get an idea of just how far talent can disguise its material.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Our most interesting living composer takes on the world's greatest playwright.
To my mind, Thomas Adès is the most interesting composer alive, the young talent I'm most certain will find a place in the standard repertoire.  Yet perversely enough, we've heard little of him in Boston; instead, we've been listening to the latest from Carter and Birtwistle (two accomplished elder statesmen of modernism whom I don't find particularly compelling), or pretending that Schoenberg is still shocking. Yes, Opera Boston performed Powder Her Face a few years back, and I vaguely recall the BSO playing the great Asyla and the intriguing Living Toys sometime around the millennium.

But in the meantime, the "savior of British music" (as Adès was once known) has all but taken the rest of the world by storm - and found an American home not in Boston or New York, but L.A. (where he has enjoyed a special relationship with the L.A. Philharmonic for several years). Major operas and commissions have flowed from him, he's been showered with awards, all while building a distinguished recorded catalog as a pianist (he also conducts). It's wrong at this point to describe the 40-year-old composer as "the next big thing." He IS the big thing.

So his arrival on the podium of Symphony Hall last weekend was long overdue. Still, he played to plenty of empty seats. Remember what I said the other day about Boston still being a hick town? Well, that goes double for the BSO crowd.

But Adès himself didn't seem to mind - he seemed thrilled to have finally arrived in America’s greatest concert hall; and at any rate, he had bent his intellectual energy on a program that teased out deep cultural issues in a way that BSO programs rarely do these days. Part of the concert was devoted to his violin concerto Concentric Paths, a small wonder in its own right. But the majority of the program was focused on Shakespeare's The Tempest - in particular the musical response to the Bard's last masterpiece by Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, and, yes, Adès himself.

Now Shakespeare posits a strange conundrum for composers, I think. He has always attracted them - and yet have any of them, even the greatest, fully understood him, or been able to express what truly sets him apart from other dramatists? It's a puzzling, and troubling question (and one that, amusingly enough, classical music aficionados rarely seem to be aware exists; they naïvely imagine their art is the most profound one around). But even a masterpiece like Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream (wonderful as it is) only conjures the atmosphere of Shakespeare's play, not the depth or contradictions of its text. The irony is that (as the Hub Review has long contended) part of what makes Shakespeare's dramatic thought so complex is that it's structured musically (my guess is that Monteverdi and the madrigal posited the model for Shakespeare's contrapuntal intellectual structures). And yet oddly enough, the classical musical tradition can't seem to match the achievement of the dramatist it probably inspired.

Verdi, for instance, can give us a chillingly grand Iago, but can't really convey the sense (as Shakespeare does) of the conceptual inexplicability of evil. Likewise Mendelssohn expertly conjures the rich fancy of Midsummer, but when it comes to its last-act parody of its own means - or even the opposed musings of the lunatic, the lover, and the poet - Mendelssohn is helpless. But then music is rarely good at deconstructing its own meaning (it's only good at deconstructing other music) - so how could a composer approach the probing self-critique that's central to plays like Hamlet and Henry V?

It was unsurprising, then, that the first two Shakespearean offerings of the evening were essentially variants on scene-painting (which Adès led competently, but not brilliantly). Tchaikovsky concentrated on a soaring love-theme, as if The Tempest were merely a later variant of Romeo and Juliet. Sibelius, meanwhile, was most inspired by the script’s eponymous sea-storm, and created a heaving, crashing soundscape of startling verisimilitude. This was better than the Tchaikovsky, but it was still essentially movie-music – more thematically intriguing was the surprising vigor and rusticity of Sibelius’s music for Ariel and the clowns.

But only Adès seemed to engage with the actual ideas of the play. The Tempest, of course, is not merely a highly rarefied fairy tale; it is a probing, and utterly sober, meditation on the “problem” of power and freedom – neither of which, in Shakespeare’s mind, is an unalloyed good. And you could feel this moral and emotional tension latent in much of the music from Adès’s celebrated 2004 opera (which has yet to play Boston, but which is now widely regarded as the greatest recent achievement in the form).

Indeed, there was a literal tension between high and low in the songs for Ariel, Prospero, Miranda and Ferdinand that the composer had chosen to showcase, as well as a sense of mournful unresolvability, which captured much of the intellectual mood of late Shakespeare. I should mention that Adès did not work directly from Shakespeare’s text – he commissioned a libretto by Meredith Oakes, which simplifies the play, and emphasizes the roles of Ferdinand and Miranda. That may sound dismaying, but I was surprised to discover that Oakes had preserved Shakespeare’s underlying themes even in her own variations on his text – in her Tempest, Prospero confronts in his child’s romance yet another conundrum of power, love, and freedom.

Much has been made of the vocal writing for Ariel in the opera – almost all the sprite’s songs float up around high E – that’s at the very top of the “Queen of the Night” aria, for ready reference. It’s almost impossible for a soprano to actually vocalize consonants up there, so quite a bit of Ariel’s songs came off as a kind of abstracted sonar, which only Prospero could comprehend. But this, too – although it violates the sense of prettiness we expect of Ariel - is much in line with Shakespeare’s text, which stresses always that this spirit isn’t human, sounds like a kind of sweet buzzing to everyone but Prospero, and is always yearning to escape to the freedom of, in Oakes’s text, “higher spheres.” (You can’t get much higher than high E.)

And luckily the BSO had soprano Hila Plitmann on hand to superbly carry off these high-altitude acrobatics (she even did so with something like the sweet lightness we’d expect of Ariel). Meanwhile Christopher Maltman made a grounded, commanding Prospero, and Kate Royal a gorgeously thoughtful Miranda. I only had doubts about Toby Spence’s Ferdinand, who didn’t seem quite ardent enough to hold his own in this amazing company.

The other major work by in Adès on offer was his 2005 violin concerto Concentric Paths, a hypnotic piece in three movements which paralleled, appropriately enough, his writing for Ariel. Once again, a “vocal” violin line orbited at the top of the instrument’s range (essayed dazzlingly by Anthony Marwood, for whom the piece was written), while, in later movements, the rest of the orchestra sighed heavily below. What’s fascinating about Concentric Paths is the sense that its tonality is unstable in a curiously post-postmodern way, spiraling through key signatures yet seemingly drawn toward some sort of gravitational tonal center – what you might call a “strange attractor” if you were speaking in terms of chaos theory (which I think in a way Adès is). The audience appeared mystified by this eerily attractive gambit – despite the clean authority of the performance (the composer's conducting came alive for his own stuff).  They slowly warmed, however, to the vocal marvels of The Tempest (there were many singers in the audience, as the concert was a freebie for Tanglewood Festival Chorus members). Let’s hope that Boston only grows more and more familiar in future with this amazing talent.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Did you hear the one about the last two Jews in Kabul?

Jeremiah Kissel waits for inspiration in Two Jews Walk into a War . . .
Now I bet you thought stand-up comedy about the strife in Afghanistan was impossible.

Well, you're wrong!

Playwright Seth Rozin actually pulls it off in Two Jews Walk into a War. . ., his amusing two-hander up at the Merrimack Rep through this weekend.  Rozin charts the declining fortunes of the last two Jews in Kabul (it's roughly based on a true story, apparently) in this valiant vaudeville, which features an abundance of jokes spiked not with drum rolls but actual gunshots.  I know, I know - I was skeptical, too.  But the show is, indeed, funny and poignant (if in a slightly formulaic way).  And who better to sell it than local stars Jeremiah Kissel and Will LeBow, two of Boston's best actors, who play off against each other with ace precision under the thoughtful direction of Melia Bensussen, who has helmed a string of successes (The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead, Circle Mirror Transformation) that I'd say have won her the title of best female director in Boston.

I don't want to give away too much of the plot (because there isn't too much to give away, anyhow).  Suffice to say that Kissel and LeBow are the aging Zeblyan and Ishaq, the last two Jews in the hostile environs of Kabul.  Their temple was long ago ransacked by the Taliban (its forlorn ruin, evoked in detail by Richard Chambers, fills the Merrimack stage) and its Torah has been stolen; when the play opens, they're still reeling from the recent death of the third Jew in Kabul.  But Zeblyan and Ishaq refuse to say die themselves!  Trouble is, these last two pillars of the community can't stand each other; the street-savvy Zeblyan and the bookish Ishaq are constantly at each other's throats.  Still, they resolve to work together to rebuild their community - the foundation of which, of course, must be a new Torah.

The rest of the play revolves around their attempt to pen their own Pentateuch (from Ishaq's sometimes-addled memory) - with the punchline being that every time they make a mistake, they must start over again from scratch (because there can't be any mistakes in the Torah).  Now before you write in - the play is open about the fact that Zeblya and Ishaq are cutting some serious theological corners here (a true Torah can only be produced under very carefully proscribed conditions).  In fact, that's the source of much of the script's comedy.  (So if the set-up offends you, you've been warned.)  But the determination of these two to make do with what they've got (even if all they've got is butcher paper, for instance) in pursuit of their devotion is Rozin's main theme, and it is, indeed, a touchingly funny one - and one with a poignant historical resonance (for the Jews, of course, have faced down foes far more powerful - and even more evil - than the Taliban).

As I said, the comedy is often formulaic; it's a bit raunchy, but basically sentimental (which is to say it conforms precisely to the new Hollywood "bromance" template).  For instance, Zeblya and Ishaq puzzle over the fact that Jewish men aren't allowed to masturbate - but women, apparently, are; likewise gay men are an "abomination," yet lesbians - well, HaShem seems to be down with a little girl-on-girl action.  The difference between "clean" and "unclean" animals is likewise an enigma - and why didn't Noah save the elephants?

All this makes for several rounds of great punchlines, but Rozin tiptoes around the deeper implications of the Torah's many curious commandments.  It's rather obvious, for instance, that the Pentateuch never bothers proscribing lesbianism because it considers women second-class citizens whose sex lives only rate moral consideration in relation to men.  Needless to say, the sweet Zeblya and Ishaq never ponder things that far - that way Reform Judaism lies!  And Rozin's only really interested in a valentine to the core of his faith, not a critique of it.

But when you've got pros like Kissel (at top) and LeBow (at left) at the wheels of a vehicle like this one, it's hard not to enjoy the ride even when it's calculated and gentle, and even though you know every turn before it comes.  With these two, the jokes all land just where they should, and the "unexpected" ending does still draw a tear.  I left Two Jews Walk into a War . . . bemused if not bewitched, and somehow I think you will, too.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The tenor's tenor

Matthew Polenzani
Gazing around at a half-filled Jordan Hall before Matthew Polenzani's Celebrity Series concert last week, I had the same thought that I had at the similar turnout for Christine Brewer:

In so many ways, this is still such a hick town!

Oh, well, be that as it may; at least the assembled crowd was a passionate one.  They knew that Polenzani was dropping by early in what promises to be a high-flying career, and we were lucky to hear him in such intimate circumstances.  Already he's a staple at the Met, and the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and LA Opera, and has made his debut at many of the major European houses, too.

It was surprising, then, that his program proved so serious and unassuming - Schubert's great song cycle, Die schöne Müllerin (or "The Lovely Miller's Daughter"). It's unusual to hear the whole of the cycle in a major recital, which is unfortunate, as the songs are transporting, and of immense historical significance (they're the first cycle to become part of the standard repertoire) - even if, inevitably, they're conceived at the scale of chamber, rather than symphonic, music. Polenzani (at left) hewed closely and carefully to that intimate profile, however; there was no showboating or barnstorming in his emotionally transparent performance. If Dmitri Hvorostovky gave us the baritone as rock star just a few weeks ago, then Matthew Polenzani gave us the lyric tenor as - well, as lyric tenor.  Remember them?

And needless to say, Polenzani proved a very fine lyric tenor indeed.  To be honest, his lower notes are fine, but unremarkable - it's at about a third of the way up his register that his voice suddenly opens up  into a warm glory with a kind of floating, flexible glow; and it stays that way - light yet rich, effortlessly saturated and supple - to nearly the top of his range.  Polenzani rarely seemed to push anything in technical terms; you never felt an ounce of strain in the performance (in fact he didn't even have any water with him onstage, as recitalists often do).  He simply has this kind of vocal radiance he can unleash at will.

His pianist, Julius Drake, proved likewise an exquisitely talented find.  It would be wrong to call him an "accompanist," at least in the case of Die schöne Müllerin, for in Schubert's conception the piano really serves as partner an ongoing duet; it's a character, indeed for all intents and purposes another voice. And you could feel between Drake and Polenzani the kind of subtle, supportive attentiveness you only get between two artists for whom familiarity has bred respect rather than contempt.

Still, for all the musical glory that was evident in this double performance, the emotional depths of Die schöne Müllerin were never fully plumbed. Schubert's songs follow a (seemingly) happy-go-lucky wanderer whose best friend is a babbling brook - eloquently voiced in the piano part - which leads him to that eponymous mill, and that lovely miller's daughter. The cycle, of course, then becomes an extended love-song - at first dappled with romantic sun, a mode in which Polenzani excels; eventually, however, it devolves into a song of love won, then lost. And once lost, that love draws the singer into an obsessive, melancholic undertow, which Polenzani was able to express, but not embody; we never felt any sense of real neurosis (much less death-wish) in his performance.  In short, he's a better singer than he is an actor.  Not that Die schöne Müllerin is quite the twin of Schubert's tormented Winterreise (even though the same poet, Wilhelm Müller, is the source of both) - still, it concludes with a tragic transfiguration: the singer ends up at the bottom of that babbling brook, finally at peace, dreaming along to the eternal lullaby he loved so well.  Charmingly modest as he was, Polenzani never gave us the completion of that terrible arc; although it's clear that once he has found the emotional path to that dark place, he has the voice to carry him there.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Not quite a meeting of the minds.
Like a lot of people, I'd always thought of Peter Brook and Samuel Beckett as kindred spirits. Both always seemed committed to a monkish spareness, and a determination to burn away distractions, to burrow down to the essentials of things.   Brook spurned more and more of the trappings of theatre as he aged, and Beckett's plays dwindled into "dramaticules" so concentrated that sometimes he seemed to be poised at the very edge of being, scraping at the basis of consciousness. But surprisingly enough, Fragments, Brook's whimsical treatment of various Beckett "shorts" and "roughs" at ArtsEmerson through April 3, somehow leaves you pondering the differences between these two giants rather than their similarities. For note that adjective "whimsical" - yes, I meant it, and it's not a word that's usually attached to Beckett. Not that the great Irish playwright isn't funny - in fact, he's hilarious. But is he whimsical?

Well, sometimes Brook, and co-director Marie-Hélène Estienne, almost convince you he is; and the lightness the director brings to opaque scraps of script like Neither isn't entirely unwelcome.  There's nothing worse than Beckett when it congeals into doom-ridden pretentiousness, that's for sure.  And Brook's spritzes of zen bemusement keep the production far from the dark, very still waters where so many productions drown.

Still, as you watch Fragments, you keep feeling that Brook doesn't really "get" Beckett, or rather that he keeps trying to tease the great playwright into his own modes of Grotowski-in-Asia stylization.  But Beckett's simply got more grit in his soul than Brook seems to realize; and what's more, Beckett is deeply religious, even though apparently an atheist - as one wag put it, Beckett's universe may be a godless one, but the god it's missing is Christian.  Meanwhile Brook kind of floats in the penumbrae cast by Buddhism and Hinduism (or something like that; did I mention Sufism? Zoroastrianism?).

So the tone is a bit odd, and then there's the problem of the changes Brook makes in Beckett's stage directions, even the very explicit, don't-change-this-under-any-circumstances stage directions.  Now I'm not one to cling to Beckett's prescriptions as holy writ - still, whenever a director asks me about this question, I always reply with the following: "Now remember Beckett was a genius - so ask yourself, am I a genius?"  I say this because time after time, when I see a Beckett production that hews closely to his instructions, I find it superior to one that was "experimental."  Now sure, maybe Brook is a genius, too - maybe - but still, Samuel Beckett had a phenomenally acute understanding of how his work would best be realized onstage.  You tinker with his instructions at your peril.

In Fragments, the greatest damage is done to Rockaby, the haunting late-career solo piece in which a lonely woman retreats completely from a seemingly-empty world into the rocking arms of death itself (in French, the original language of most of Beckett's work, the title of the play is Berceuse).  In their production, Brook and Estienne abandon almost all of Beckett's suggestions about props and costume; the weirdly glamorous funeral gown, the pre-recorded vocals (the actress onstage should only chime in occasionally), the chair that rocks itself - all this is gone, as are even the subtle divisions of the woman's descent from consciousness into, well, "apparent" death, as the playwright puts it.  (Does anyone ever really and truly die in Beckett?)

The results were, inevitably, thinner than they should have been - indeed, whole swaths of theme were just missing, and while actress Hayley Carmichael did her best with the text, she simply couldn't conjure its full, echoing dimensions.  Which is too bad, because as Rockaby is the greatest of the scripts on offer in Fragments, its failure counted for a lot. And there were other odd deviations from Beckett's directions that undermined the other, slighter pieces: in Act Without Words II, for instance, I believe Beckett even spells out that the seemingly divine prod that pokes his Didi- and Gogo-like protagonists must come from the wings (on ever more sets of wheels), rather than down from the flies - yet Brook brings it down from the flies anyway, which partly spoils the piece's central joke (that God is just as rickety, and just as determined, as we are).

Still, there were many moments in which Beckett's voice came through, in "fragments," as it were - and it's a voice that's always worth hearing (I personally place Beckett right after Chekhov in the pantheon). Actors Bruce Myers and Yoshi Oïda brought a withered comedy and calm pathos to Rough for Theatre I, which is a kind of variant on the themes (and characters) of Godot and Endgame (although neither actor had quite the level of desperate decline needed to conjure Didi on his way to Hamm, or Gogo on his way to Clov). Brook's methods seemed best suited to the wry vaudeville Act Without Words II, which played (as it should) as a Beckett's idea of a silent Buster Keaton movie. Best of all was Come and Go, which Brook staged explicitly as a light drag burlesque. I have to say that even here, the more exquisite qualities of Beckett's conception (its geometric perfection and eerie sense of timelessness) went missing; but at least the piece worked as comedy, and as a charming introduction to the playwright, as intended. I just thought that Peter Brook would intend more.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Hal Cazalet as the cute young cyborg in Death and the Powers.

In the future, robots will perform boring operas that they can't understand.

That roughly seems to be the message of Death and the Powers: The Robots' Opera, a brilliantly lit, but slightly tedious, new opera by composer Tod Machover and librettist Robert Pinsky (after a story by Pinsky and Randy Weiner), which closes tonight at the Cutler Majestic.  Machover is a major mucky-muck at the famed Media Lab (basically a kind of lab + marketing agency at my alma mater, MIT); meanwhile Pinsky, ensconced at BU, is a three-time Poet Laureate.  You're not sure, from all this star-power, whether the problem with Death and the Powers is that these stars just weren't alignment - or whether perhaps they shouldn't, actually, be stars.

Tod Machover
But one thing you're sure about is that light show.  Damn!  Designers Alex McDowell (production), Donald Holder (lighting), Peter Torpey (visuals and software) and Matt Checkowski (media) - I list them all because the lighting is integrated into the set - had a collective field day with Death and the Powers, and the show they deliver is worth the price of admission all by itself.  As for Machover and Pinsky - well, not so much; although Pinsky does provide a convincing oratorical gloss on the libretto (so maybe it's the "story," such as it is, that's the problem).  Machover likewise offers a solid semblance of a score - but note that word "semblance;" the music feels somehow like a gloss, too.  Many of the vocal lines are singable, and the composer paces things well, and knows how to build to a climax; but nothing's memorable - and nothing's all that original, either.  The score pretty much sounds like a smart student's simplified remix of his mentors (Machover's were Carter and Boulez), and never really attains anything like an individual signature; it's almost too easy, in fact, to believe the opera was written by robots.

The automatons in question, by the way, get most of the libretto's best lines.  The conceit is that we're watching a mechanical ritual set far in the future; in a scene like something out of A.I., a group of surprisingly low-tech androids (they look like vacuum cleaners with glowing, pizza-wedge heads) gather to re-enact an ancient scripture - which turns out, of course, to be Death and the Powers.  They puzzle over the text as we might ponder Genesis (in a way it is their Genesis) - particularly its central theme: death.  The robots have no idea what "death" might be.  (I guess there are no on/off switches in the future, much less power failures.)

Yet to honor their age-hold tradition (and, wittily enough, to earn "human status credits"), the robots once again re-enact the tale of Simon Powers (James Maddalena), an ailing genius-billionaire who, rather like Steve Jobs, suddenly comes face-to-face with his mortality.  Instead of venturing into that undiscovered country, however, he uploads his consciousness into a computer (just like in Tron!) instead. Or rather a computer network, or at any rate something called "The System," which at first seems to merely control his thermostat and microwave, but eventually seems to be running much of the outside world as well.

And that's about it for the action of the opera.  Powers gets uploaded - and Maddalena vanishes into the orchestra pit, from which his voice is projected - and everybody talks about it quite a bit and wonders what it all means, and whether they should follow him.  Powers' wife and daughter (from a previous marriage, for some reason) are on the fence about his decision, although his cyborg sidekick is all for it - but the various arguments of this trio never get very deep, or seem very passionate.  And of course the actual process by which Powers is "uploaded" remains a mystery (as does the disposal of his physical remains) - because this moment, although often evoked in science fiction, is kind of like the geek version of the Virgin Birth: if you think about its transubstantive aspects at all seriously, it suddenly looks ridiculous.

It's better in HAL's memory bank - James Maddalena tries to lure Sara Heaton into "The System."

Not that the question of a computer becoming conscious isn't fascinating - it is; and unsurprisingly, it's already been "covered," as it were (and to far greater effect) in all manner of books, movies, TV shows and plays - from which Death and the Powers borrows copiously, without adding much. Indeed, the opera simply dodges its most intriguing question - if, indeed, something patterned after consciousness could be made operative in a computer, could we ever know if it was really "alive"? Yes, we would,  Tod Machover and Robert Pinsky inform us. Just because, okay?? End of story!

A similar article of faith undercuts the libretto in a deeper way. Scanning Pinsky and Weiner's script, you might take Death and the Powers as a cautionary tale. After all, Powers clearly doesn't achieve immortality - we know from the prologue that somebody eventually pulled the plug on "the System." And as Simon gets more comfortable in his new virtual abode, he gets more distant, and pissily mystical (think the Great and Powerful Oz crossed with Ming the Merciless) - without, I'm afraid, actually offering us any new visions or insights.

The claw!  The claw! I have been chosen!
Yet the opera feels weirdly triumphalist. We get the impression we're supposed to think - in a clichéd "The future is NOW!" kind of way - that its techno-bionic vision is fabulous and inevitable. But somehow this renders Pinsky's T.S.-Eliot-in-the-Twilight-Zone ironies inoperative; the text is in essence opposed to its marketing (and in a way the whole thing is more a branding strategy than an opera).  And so we can't help but notice the opera is floating in a thematic limbo - at least until the light grid fires up again (as above).

Some passing interest was generated, I admit, by one central question - which was not "Can a computer  be truly conscious?", but instead "Can a computer have an orgasm??" As Death and the Powers was directed by Diane Paulus, the answer of course is a resounding "Yes I said YES!" - the computer does come, in quite a light show, thanks to a shiny chandelier that looks like a giant vagina designed by Santiago Calatrava (above left). Every home should have one.  Another bid at dramatic development was more puzzling - Weiner's story suddenly abandons Kubrick for Ayn Rand about two thirds of the way through, with a John-Galt-esque subplot about the rioting masses, etc.  But a better strategy to hold our interest might have been to further develop the opera's characters - simply giving daughter Miranda her own brush with mortality, for instance, would have given her struggle over entering "The System" a weight and meaning that right now it doesn't have.

I should say that most of the singing in the production was quite strong (with Sara Heaton's Miranda a standout), although the complicated amplification tended to artificialize and distance things (as it almost always does); perhaps that's why the singing gave me little pleasure.  And Diane Paulus's direction was, as usual, competent but uninspired.  The Paulus "phenomenon" has kind of metastasized of late - her shows keep popping up all over town, like tumors - but I've yet to see one that struck me as revelatory of any deep talent.  Instead, Paulus fascinates me as an avatar of our cultural decline.  She's quite smart, of course, and appreciates precisely how to keep a career afloat by "breaking boundaries" without actually generating any new content. Which makes her the perfect "artist" for our age - an era devoted to formal experimentation as a way of disguising its stasis (or nostalgic drift). Add the ART's seeming abandonment of the ethical profile of a traditional non-profit to the mix, and you realize Paulus's rise was almost over-determined. But I do wonder - now that she's got, what, three shows running simultaneously in town, is husband Randy still pocketing the bar tab over at Oberon?  I wonder!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Richard Egarr and you-know-who.

Right now the Handel and Haydn Society is on something of a roll. Just a few weeks ago came the stunning Israel in Egypt, in which the chorus took command; but last weekend, it was the period orchestra's turn to amaze. Under the inspired direction of the brilliant Richard Egarr (above), they tore through a slate of masterpieces: the overture to Don Giovanni, Haydn's Symphony No. 101 ("The Clock") and Keyboard Concerto No. 11, and what may count as the most familiar piece of music in the Western canon: Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

First, the Fifth (even though it came last in the program).  You may think there's nothing new to be said about it - and actually, I couldn't claim Egarr delivered a profoundly new interpretation; as always, fate threw down its gauntlet at the opening, and it was taken up in triumph at the symphony's end (through its several ends, in fact). Still, the performance bore an intense personal stamp, and that makes all the difference, doesn't it. Egarr is known for both thoughtfulness and passion - he's fond of lightning shifts in dynamics, as well as calm, pondering reveries; and both were evident in his Beethoven. It was clear he'd thought a lot about the Fifth, and was eager to show us everything he'd learned. Thus though superbly sculpted, his interpretation still felt questioning, almost probing; everything felt deeply considered, and yet everything felt spontaneous.

And as Egarr seems to relate to his musicians as a musician himself (he's a superb keyboardist), he engenders a startling degree of camaraderie with them. (He also, perhaps not incidentally, has a curiously self-deprecating stage charisma.) Perhaps partly as a result of these factors, I don't think I've ever heard the orchestra sound as committed and unified as it did last weekend. New concertmaster Aisslin Nosky seemed to throw everything she had into every entrance, but this was only one facet of the players' palpable collective drive. I personally don't think the Fifth is Beethoven's greatest; it's harmonically simplistic (to be honest) and its great, animating idea - its incredible extrapolation of that fateful opening statement - I'm afraid has grown old for me. Still, when the Fifth builds as it did here, it's impossible not to be taken with it all over again.

Just as it was impossible not to be seduced by the rest of the program (indeed, I preferred the earlier pieces to the finale). Although I’m afraid that Egarr seemed to investigate the Overture to Don Giovanni without coming to any conclusions about it; his somewhat-light reading of it was never dull, certainly - there were eerie or mysterious touches here and there that you don’t often hear. Still, at times his fondness for abrupt swings in dynamic felt more like mannerism than manner.

But then came “The Clock,” perhaps Haydn’s most popular symphony (i.e., his answer to the Fifth), which features a famous second movement of almost hilarious domesticity, marked by a metronomic beat that gives the symphony its sobriquet. Here, unbelievably, Egarr insinuated beneath the tick-tock of that andante a kind of essay on the inexorable nature of time itself; as the movement rose to a climax, it was hard not to feel that a menacing gulf had opened up beneath the superficial gentility of Haydn's themes. But Egarr’s interpretation of the Concerto in D Major was even more startling. It’s the conductor’s belief that the concerto is a response to the meteoric rise of Mozart, and there’s certainly a Mozartean feel to its lyrical flights. But in the second movement, Un poco Adagio, Egarr seemed to push past Mozart to the Romantics (and even beyond). Considering that he was also playing the fortepiano part, the performance was all the more extraordinary – and daring.  For while in the Fifth, Egarr seemed determined to prove that period instruments could be as resoundingly affirmative as modern ones, here he seemed to be meeting head-on a related criticism: that they’re too soft for venues the size of Symphony Hall (I’ve muttered that sometimes myself). In his fortepiano playing, however, Egarr held the audience in the palm of his hand even as his playing slipped toward the gossamer – and then into a whisper, as the faintest mists of accompaniment rose from the strings. For most of the movement, it seemed that everyone in Symphony Hall was holding his or her breath. Rarely has a hush been quite so transporting.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Un-sentimental education

Jane Pfitsch and Andrew Long attempt to educate each other.
Education is Boston's big business.  Or at least one of the biggest businesses we've got left - and our newer industries, like high- and bio-tech, are tightly linked to our powerhouse universities.

Yet education is something we almost never treat on our stages.  Then again - perhaps that's inevitable in these parts.  Somebody famous once said theatre holds the mirror up to nature; but Boston theatre most often holds the mirror up to someone else's nature.  Our stages prefer to produce plays about racism in Alabama or South Africa, for example, rather than in Southie or Charlestown.  And when we do hold the mirror up to ourselves, we only gaze through rose-colored glasses: at the ART, for instance, production after production celebrates youthful rebellion, because that's what Harvard's customers - the professors and the students - want to hear about themselves.

So it's slightly shocking that the Huntington would dare to stage Educating Rita - a kind of Pygmalion update about a crusty professor and his sweet, swinging student - which turns out to be not very sweet at all; indeed, Educating Rita slowly reveals a shockingly bitter dissection of the academy.  Or at least the not-so-distant academy - humanities professors have moved on a bit from the style of pedagogy portrayed in Rita ("critical thinking" and "new perspectives" are now the rage).  But the essential contradiction at the heart of liberal education remains the same: its goal is meant to be intellectual freedom; yet inevitably it results in the codification of a class.  In short, one kind of class breeds another (maybe that's why we use the same word for both).  "Liberal" education leads not to true liberty but to new totems and taboos.  Perhaps that's why, when the professor in Rita surveys his confident new creation, he muses not on Pygmalion but on Frankenstein.  And perhaps that's what makes Educating Rita in some ways the most radical play I've seen on a major stage this season.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Egarr is electric at H&H

This is just a quick note to say that if you've been on the fence about checking out Richard Egarr's version of Beethoven's Fifth at Handel and Haydn tomorrow - go.  Just trust me - go.  The brilliant Egarr made a brilliant case for Beethoven's Eighth a year or two ago, and so I wasn't surprised that his version of the Fifth was indeed superb; but actually, his renditions of Haydn's "The Clock" and Piano Concerto No. 11 (with himself as soloist) were even more original and arresting.  I'll be writing more about this concert later this week, but the upshot is that this is one of the most electrifying classical performances of the season.
An imaginary frontispiece, with the artist in furs.
I was struck when I read the Globe preview for "The Elegant Enigmas of Edward Gorey" (at the Boston Athenæum through June 4) that somehow the author got through the piece without ever mentioning his subject's sexuality (even though its subtitle at one point was "Figuring Out Why Edward Gorey Liked What He Liked" - you can still see this in the link). Other previews and articles I came upon followed the same M.O. - as if the press had agreed upon a certain story and was sticking to it. It seemed Gorey wasn't necessarily gay, even though he was a life-long bachelor who dressed in necklaces and furs; he was just asexual, a lovable eunuch who spent his spare time petting his cats down on the Cape when he wasn't drawing his funny little books.

So I wasn't too surprised when at the exhibit itself, I found little mention of the artist's sexuality. The biography on hand from the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust doesn't mention it at all, even though its four pages included references to Harvard, Chicago's Art Institute, the Poet's Theatre (where Gorey hung out with Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery . . . hmmmm), the New York City Ballet, and just about everything else prestigious that Gorey ever had a connection to.  So on the one hand - his pedigree, his connections, his place in the establishment firmament - the exhibit offers copious information about Mr. Gorey; but on the other hand, about his personal life it offers absolutely nothing.

Now I never knew the talented Mr. Gorey (who passed away in 2000).  So I don't "know" if he was gay or not. But I do know his artwork was obviously coded as queer.  In fact, it's gayer than a lavender three-dollar bill.  Just check out the cover he designed for Melville's Redburn in 1957,  at left; the novel is subtitled "His First Voyage" (!), and Gorey's design is hilariously deadpan; all it lacks is a word balloon with "Yoo hoo, Sailor!" to make its subtext clear: the buttoned-up Redburn's hands frame his pubes as he gazes at the open crotch of a swarthy sailor (while his twin offers up his bum).  At the same time, though, there's a real sense of alienation and melancholy at work in the image - and appropriately enough, as Redburn is the story of a virginal young man thrown into a brutal male milieu.

Many take Redburn as veiled autobiography; and of course these days, Melville is more and more generally believed to have been gay (I'm one of those believers, I admit).  So the Gorey cover is perhaps doubly, or even triply, poignant.  And at least it's in the Athenæum show.  To be fair, there are a few other images where the gay coding is so explicit  you'd only miss it if you were blind; in one from The West Wing, for instance, a Victorian gentleman warmed by his fur (like Gorey himself) stares furtively at the tush of a male statue just before meeting his doom - and in it, we sense the darkly comic chuckle that Gorey became famous for.  But a similar image from Wing that's not in the show is far more moving, if less marketable; in it (below right), we see Gorey's bearded factotum stripped of his fur (and facing a void) on that cold, lonely parapet.  And tellingly, this time he has his hands covering his own bum.

Alone in the deadly West Wing.
Such an image, it goes without saying, could be troubling to gays and straights alike. To straights, it means pondering the artist's identity not as some emasculated entertainer but as an actual sexual outsider, expertly manipulating their responses; to gays, it means facing the author's estrangement from that identity, and his horror of it. And isn't being gay supposed to be wonderful now? Well, when you look over the oeuvre of Edward Gorey, you get the distinct impression that he didn't think so. Which makes him a tricky subject for gay critics. For can you have a gay cultural hero who was alienated from gay sex?

Thus, perhaps, the vogue for pushing Gorey into what I call "the glass closet," that strange cultural zone - rather like one of Gorey's own limbos - where cultural figures simultaneously operate as both gay and straight.  In the high end of the closet, Peter Sellars jostles James Levine; in the low end, Michael Jackson elbows Calvin Klein and Danny Kaye. Indeed, sometimes even when an artist explicitly states that he or she is gay - this used to happen fairly often with pop stars - they're patted back into the closet anyway, because it allows opposed aspects of the culture to exploit their output at will, without any thought as to its true nature.

Of course Gorey kept perfectly mum about his true nature to the press; he only spoke about it in his art. And in a way, to be honest, the glass closet was appropriate to his artistic persona, which was itself neither here nor there, but locked in a kind of alienated stasis. And as his  books and designs became more popular with the mass audience, Gorey probably found the glass closet a commercially convenient place to reside as well.

But should critics honor its crystalline walls? Somehow I don't think so. It would be strange, for instance, to never mention that El Greco was Catholic - and thus, to my mind, it's also equally strange to not wonder whether or not he might have been gay.  We'd look down at a Jewish performer who concealed his or her religion, and we'd never tolerate a black performer who worked in whiteface. Why is the glass closet so different? I suppose because many people still live with the burden of internalized homophobia. But Edward Gorey has long passed on, and even if you wanted to honor the wishes of a closeted performer by never discussing his or her true identity, surely that wish becomes a bit absurd once they're dead.

Of course there are also commercial considerations in play - which, yes, still operate at non-profits like the Boston Athenæum, which has leaned heavily on Gorey's commercial work (albeit in its original form) for this exhibit. That work is now largely perceived as a postmodern variant on Victorian "nonsense" (and accurately enough, I think), and you sense that the press coverage of the "Enigmas" show (was there a single enigma in it?) was designed to make the exhibit "safe" for children.  (Indeed, the Globe later featured an article in which a staff member took her kids to it; meanwhile the paper's critic, Sebastian Smee, recommended that we "laugh and laugh" at Gorey's silly, "asexual" images.)

But this only begs a larger question - why do we keep Victorian nonsense in its own kind of closet? For it, too, was populated by sexual outsiders.  Lewis Carroll was obsessed with girls, and J. M. Barrie was obsessed with boys, but that doesn't really change the artistic status of the sublime Alice's Adventures in Wonderland or Peter Pan.  Indeed, it's hard not to miss a certain parallel between the Victorians and Gorey's supposed sexlessness: it's pretty clear that Carroll and Barrie never acted on whatever impulses or drives they may have harbored - and neither, it seems, did Gorey.  He's their gay soul-mate, who poignantly enough never acted on his true nature.  Actually, perhaps Gorey's celibacy, his sexual stasis, is more poignant than theirs (if less heroic); for they refrained from actual crimes, while Gorey . . .

Well, this is where things get really interesting. Like Carroll and Barrie, Gorey is obsessed with children - but hardly as idealized sex objects. No, Edward Gorey doesn't want to molest children, he wants to kill them - in drawings that fill the "Enigmas" show - although his sketches evince a strange near-sympathy that renders these many murders free of any sense of personal sadism.  No, it's the cruelty of the world that Gorey invokes so repetitively, as an emotional rather than sexual fetish; and as he's obsessed with the demise of both boys and girls, it slowly becomes clear that his true theme is the death of innocence in general (and it's hard not to equate this "death" with a similar childish "death" - the onset of sexual experience).

What perhaps made his name - and fortune - is that Gorey renders the end of childhood with an owlish bemusement that provides a reliable comic distance from the deadly events in question (comedy depends on some sort of distance, and "distance" is essentially what Gorey is all about). In The Gashlycrumb Tinies (at right, perhaps his signature work), Neville may be lucky enough to die of ennui, but the rest of the "tinies" meet more, well, ghastly fates, in alphabetical order: Kate is struck with an axe, for instance, while Xerxes is devoured by mice.  But Gorey's pristine imagery is always frozen just before or after these horrors, and that po-faced gap renders the unseen atrocity absurd (as it has in the violent comedy of so many popular cartoons and movies).

This is what turns Gorey's illustrations into a form of high camp - that slight step back from the brink also operates as a mode of ironic control. And that control never falters - all of Gorey's illustrations are relentlessly rigid, as paralyzed as he was; even when a figure is caught mid-leap, it seems to be hanging in mid-air, unable to move - which synchs up nicely with the palindromic, illogical nature of his clever limericks, and of "nonsense" in general.  That ironic grip is also what allows his art to be re-purposed by heterosexuals into a tonic for the pressures of wholesomeness; like Sebastian Smee, they can "laugh and laugh" at the images of kids headed toward disaster as a form of self-aware, but innocent, venting.

Still, I think for Gorey the death of children meant something quite different, just as I think it's wrong to try to emasculate his gayness, or deny his alienation from it.  Both aspects of his personality enrich his art - which of course makes it less marketable but more moving.  It's harder to "laugh and laugh" at some of his lesser-known but more personal works, for instance, like the drawing below (which is not in the Athenæum show).  There's still a certain black comedy at work here, but the image isn't camp, because there's also a greater sense of personal horror.  It's difficult to chuckle knowingly at this strange creature (with human eyes) gasping helplessly for air, and unable to escape its comfortable sofa, just as it's hard not to laugh at the grim ends of Kate and Neville. The Athenæum is supposed to be a place of scholarship - or so I thought. Yet it's happy to present only one side of this artist's emotional coin: an Edward Gorey largely reduced to the genesis of his calendars and bestsellers. This, of course, nicely transforms the atmospheric corridors of the Athenæum into a kind of Addams-Family artistic theme park. But I think real scholarship would have unearthed a portrait of the artist a bit more like the image below.

Not so funny: an Edward Gorey self-portrait?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

And here's to the other side of the coin: the great PR people in our midst

Now seems a good time to say that not everybody in the Boston theatre scene is conspiring to destroy critical integrity. Some people, in fact, do just the opposite. I know it isn't easy to take a bad review and then smile at the critic responsible at the next opening night and say "So good to see you!" But some folks still understand that's part of the job, and they somehow carry it off with style. So even if these people hate me behind my back, I have to say I admire them, and they make my life infinitely easier than it otherwise would be.

The list of great publicists in the Boston theatre world is a long one, but I'd still like to take a moment to recognize a few of them. (All these people should have won IRNEs by now, in my opinion, if a PR category existed!)  At SpeakEasy Stage, Jim Torres is practically a star himself after years of dedicated service, and deservedly so; there simply isn't a nicer or more conscientious guy around.  Meanwhile, at the Huntington, Rebecca Curtiss always makes me feel welcome (even when I'm sure a sane person would want to kick me to the curb).  And at the New Rep, Gia Podobinski is unfailingly professional and unbelievably sweet.  I'm also always impressed with Dan Berube at the Merrimack, and I just get a kick out of Joyce Linehan's friendly, but no-nonsense, attitude at ArtsEmerson.  So here's to you, guys. Press contacts just don't get any better.

Monday, March 14, 2011

David Trudgen faces down Julius Caesar as Nero. Photos by Jeffrey Dunn.

You leave Boston Lyric Opera's Agrippina a bit winded, I think: it's so good in so many ways you can't quite believe it.  Or perhaps you're just winded from laughter; for this Agrippina is not only exquisitely sung, and brilliantly acted and designed, it's also screamingly funny, in a go-for-broke pop style that many local productions have attempted but few have brought off (the only competition I can think of was Opera Boston's La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, but that's a far lesser opera).  Perhaps the shortest, punchiest review for Agrippina would be: Big voices, big laughs = grand opera, or something like that.  BLO has always specialized in opera as popular entertainment (just as Handel did); with Agrippina, they've practically perfected it.

Although I can already guess what some will say: "It's too funny."  Right.  Too funny.  I know you won't believe me, but I was doubled over with laughter at some of Agrippina (and I thought my partner might have a seizure).  I guess you're not supposed to do that at Handel.  But I'm not sure why - at least when not only the singing and music are first-rate, but the concept and direction are, too.  And incredibly, somehow Agrippina hangs onto its sense of grandeur despite its many pratfalls - and when the libretto spins on a dime in the second act and turns tragic, believe it or not, the production does as well.  In short, you'll laugh and you'll cry.  You could argue whether the BLO cast finds a synthesis of these opposed styles for the opera's final act; I mean, you could if you wanted to.  I'd had so much fun by then that I really didn't care.

I admit, though, that I wasn't sure the BLO could pull off a satire quite this brazen in the opening scene (when a bored Nero almost set his mother on fire).  But I soon realized just about everyone on stage had not only operatic pipes but crack comic timing, too; and at any rate, it became impossible to ignore the tone of Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani's blackly comic libretto (widely viewed at the time as a parody of Vatican politics).  You probably know the basic plot from I, Claudius or L'incoronazione di Poppea: the ruthless Agrippina schemes, well, ruthlessly to place her son Nero (here Nerone) on the throne in the waning years of the reign of Claudius (here Claudio).  Incredibly, Handel and Grimani transform these Roman power plays into a kind of quasi-romantic roundelay, with only the occasional hint of the disaster that Nerone's impending reign would become.

Venice meets Rome meets modernity: Kathleen Kim's entrance as Poppea.
Director Lillian Groag leans heavily, then, on screwball antics, and lets just about everybody chew the scenery.  The amazing thing is that the cast is so strong - and Groag's clever stage business so artfully  intertwined with the music - that it all works, even when it gets a little hammy.  Soprano Caroline Worra makes a kind of mad stage mother of Agrippina - she seems to be devouring the role as we watch; but she's also in glorious voice, and when the empress is suddenly struck by guilty doubts (see masthead photo), suddenly Worra is dramatically riveting, too.  She's matched, however, by Kathleen Kim's piping pepperpot of a Poppea (above), who not only soars dazzlingly through several demanding arias, but has major bedroom-farce chops, too.  But then I can't forget baritone Christian Van Horn's horny Claudius - another amazing match between a voice to die for and bedroom moves that leave you in stitches.  Perhaps not quite as compelling vocally was countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo's Ottone.  Costanzo seemed to have breath control trouble in his big Act II aria, but dramatically it was heart-breaking anyway, and somehow Costanzo's characterization wound up being very endearing.  The other big counter-tenor role was handled more consistently, by David Trudgen (at top), who brought a nicely spoiled spin to the proceedings, but from whom I hoped for a bit more dark twistedness here and there.  There was also very nice work around the edges of the production by bass David M. Cushing, a local boy who has never sounded better.

Caroline Worra and Christian Van Horn.
Meanwhile, down in the pit, Gary Thor Wedow conducted with both sensitivity and muscular feeling - although he wasn't working with period instruments, but rather something like a hybrid modern orchestra with a continuo section.  This bolder sound matched the bold stage business, however, and that sense of a "hybrid" modern/baroque aesthetic played out elsewhere, too  - the houselights were half-dimmed (in Handel's day, they wouldn't have been dimmed at all), and the orchestra pit was lifted to almost audience-level (again, there would have been no break between audience and players in the 18th century).  Even the stage design hinted at an overlay of eras - the cast was clad in a range of modern duds, from Mussolini to Swinging London, but they plotted and schemed among moving chunks of ancient Rome (bisected occasionally by abstract stairs and thrones - often the color of Agrippina's gown, at left).  The great John Conklin was responsible for this layered, ever-shifting vision - constantly re-configured by Venetian courtiers from Handel's day - and it was lit with startling imagination by Robert Wierzel (who I'm beginning to think, after seeing this and Idomeneo, may be the most talented lighting designer alive).  Alas, opening night featured its own bit of stage drama, when two moving columns crashed into each other.  But something tells me they've taken care of that by now - because frankly I'm beginning to wonder if there's anything BLO can't do.  Agrippina marks their third hit, out of three productions, this year.  With their upcoming Midsummer by Britten, they may just go four-for-four.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Bolcom, BMOP and the graceful ghost of Ligeti

Olivier Cazal plays William Bolcom's "The Poltergeist" rag.

I'm late with my thoughts on the Boston Modern Orchestra Project's "Bolcom with BMOP" evening last Sunday.  Which may have something to do with the fact that I was slightly, but not entirely, disappointed by the program.  I was drawn to the concert because I'm a fan of its eponymous star, the distinguished American composer William Bolcom - or at least I'm a huge fan (like many people) of his piano and vocal music (a favorite selection, "The Poltergeist," above).  So I was curious about the less-often-heard orchestral selections conductor Gil Rose had chosen for the concert - Bolcom's early Commedia (1971) and his Symphony No. 3 (1979).

Both, however, proved perhaps more interesting for what they said about the state of modern music - or perhaps Bolcom's relationship to that music - than what they revealed as individual musical statements. Bolcom has always been a man torn between "serious" and "popular" modes - he has probably made his largest mark on the culture with his brilliant investigations of ragtime (above).  And listening to his work here, it was hard not to consider him a man fundamentally divided. In Commedia, for instance, he juxtaposed the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries - quoting from everything from Papageno to Petrushka, in fact - without ever really seeming to settle anywhere; the upshot of the piece seemed to be that every musical style was in effect a kind of harlequin, and the whole of musical history therefore, yes, merely a commedia.

Meanwhile, in Symphony No. 3, Bolcom seemed to devise a kind of conceptual stand-off between György Ligeti and (believe it or not) Guy Lombardo. The piece is embroidered with a lot of conceptual mumbo-jumbo about the "alpha" and "omega" of existence, and has the high-modern finish to go with that kind of guff; but a hilariously suave fox-trot takes over from the Ligeti-like washes of prettified dissonance in the second movement, and never really lets go. The effect was funny and poignant - but largely because you could feel the composer's own eccentric energies were most at home in the plush, horn-y rhythms of that fox-trot rather than out there in the nebulous space of some gaseous "future."

Of course many BMOP concerts are a bit like listening to the academy hum to itself (the performances are often funded by the composers themselves, most of whom teach in leading music schools).  And at this program, much of the humming did seem to be coming from the office of the late Professor Ligeti.  Many of the movements on offer derived from the hazy sonic clouds of Atmospheres, for instance - only glinting with more blank optimism than exotic paranoia (and cut with intriguing mixes of vaguely Asian percussion).  It's a formula I've heard a lot before at BMOP, and though Rose always brings off its technical challenges impressively, I can't say I want to hear much more of it.  Still,  Sojourner Hodges's "Full Fathom Five" wasn't a bad sample of the form (and featured some lovely singing from soprano Bethany Worrell).  And Michael Gandolfi's by-now-familiar "Garden of the Senses" Suite from The Garden of Cosmic Speculation was enjoyable enough, even if its sweetly intricate complexities remain somehow unchallenging.

I was most intrigued by local composer Kati Agócs, however, and her gorgeous . . like treasure hidden in a field, even if I felt her music sometimes sounded as if it had been designed to please an unseen faculty committee (she teaches at the New England Conservatory).  Much of . . . like treasure was a bit generically "spiritual" and uplifting - but somehow, as the piece progressed, the composer's passion came through anyway. You wondered whether her essential problem was that she's got no genuine native tradition to embed her passion in - all she's got is the new-age, new-music consensus, which always feels slightly pre-fab. That synthetic quality was only re-inforced in my mind by her web page, in which (coiled sexily on a grand piano), she declares her music is "original, daring and from the heart;" I also noted with dismay her dizzying number of new commissions, all with Hallmark Card titles like "Supernatural Love," "Immutable Dreams," and "Perpetual Summer." Of course being sexy, self-promoting and "spiritual" doesn't mean Agócs doesn't have musical talent; indeed, I think I might already rate . . . like treasure hidden in a field as a bit better than The Garden of Cosmic Speculation.  Like Andy Vores, she may be a local composer to watch.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Boys and girls together in Reasons to Be Pretty.

Fans of gender parity should be thrilled about Neil LaBute's Reasons to Be Pretty (at SpeakEasy Stage through April 2). The famously misanthropic playwright has written female monsters before, I suppose, but none that matches up with popular modes of femininity in quite the same way his long gallery of male assholes has mapped the culture's idea of masculinity.  Indeed,  here LaBute pulls off something like the hat trick he managed in Fat Pig - where he dared the audience to honestly disagree with the cruel standards of beauty his handsome hero's world espoused. In Reasons, his female lead - named "Steph" - throws tantrums so severe, and so comically cruel, that when a character describes her with the c-word, my guess is every guy in the audience silently agreed; and yet you could sense the women in the crowd - well, they didn't think she was so bad.  Not even when she hollered like a five-year-old and broke things; not even when she struck the supposed love of her life in the face.  And yet ten to one, the boyfriends who watched it all in horror went home and told their girlfriends that yeah, they could kind of sympathize with her. You have to hand it to him - when it comes to audience-baiting, with Reasons to Be Pretty, LaBute has penned another beaut.

Meanwhile, as a gay friend of mine put it, why not call this play Reasons to Be Gay?  (Or as another quipped, "Or how about a Ryan Landry version called Reasons to Be Pussy?") To those of us with little interest in women as sex objects, the play certainly operates as a kind of SOS from the edge of a gender war we've only observed from the sidelines (if with mounting horror).  Not that there's any way we could help; and not that the emergence of this kind of harridan has gone unremarked in pop culture; late-night comedy, slapstick frat movies, and, yes, the Gold Dust Orphan shows are filled to bursting with similar gorgons.  Yet these characters are almost inevitably caricatures - cartoons undercut with irony, a form of cultural venting with no real weight behind it.  LaBute is different; he serves his female trouble up straight, no chaser.

Gisele Bündchen: the problem
Of course you could argue that "Steph" (who's a hairdresser) has been driven to violence, emotional and otherwise, by our culture's obsession with body image - like so many LaBute characters before her.  Indeed, what sets off her first tirade is a phone call from BFF "Carly," who has overhead Steph's boyfriend Greg describe her face to his buds as "regular" - although in the following context: "Okay, Steph's face may just be regular, but I love her more than anything," or something like that.  In short, Greg's a nice guy who cares for his girl, but who also knows he hasn't bedded Gisele Bündchen (at right).  And he's okay with that.  (After all, Gisele is taken.)

Not for Steph the mature comforts of romantic realism, however. Indeed, no bull ever reacted to a red flag as she does to the word "regular." Soon poor Greg is out in the cold, clutching copies of Nathaniel Hawthorne to his chest (though a college drop-out, he's still a reader) as he shuffles back and forth to his dead-end job, which seems to consist of stacking big crates in even bigger cages.

Prowling those cages with him, however, is more female trouble - "Carly" is Greg's co-worker (she holds court in the lunchroom in a guard's uniform, just so we know which gender has policing authority these days). And with the arrival of lovely Carly and her horndog husband, "Kent" on the scene - both of them quite pretty, btw - Reasons to Be Pretty begins to move beyond the horizons of Fat Pig and The Shape of Things, and get a little deeper and more ambitious than the average LaBute play.

One reason to be pretty. Photos by Craig Bailey.
For this time around, the playwright has in mind the construction of a set of interlocking variations on his usual themes. In the past, LaBute has been content to reveal how our culture of beauty victimizes those who lack it - a woman is spurned, or a man is humiliated; then he rings down the curtain. But Carly and Greg struggle just as Greg and Steph did with the "problem" of beauty - even though both of them are, indeed, beautiful (and know it). But beauty, it turns out, isn't pretty - and what's more, it's a double-edged sword. For Kent has been cheating relentlessly on Carly, with a woman even more attractive - in fact, he has finagled a move to a different work shift to give him more time to pursue his extra-curricular activities.

So even as Steph has thrown aside a worthy man who can see through the blandishments of beauty, so Carly is clinging to a cad precisely because she, too, is in its thrall. The question for Greg is: as his buddy-buddy intimacy with Kent has given him the inside scoop on his affair, should he violate the norms of gender loyalty, and give Carly the same wake-up call she gave Steph - only this time with a dose of truth far more crushing?

It's actually a rather interesting moral quandary - and a common one, too; who among us hasn't struggled with some minor variation of it? And LaBute skillfully teases it out to a satisfying climax (complete with fist-fight, here staged, ironically enough, by Angie Jepson, who plays Steph, and is also a fight choreographer). At the same time, the playwright seems unsure what to do with Steph once she's served her purpose as catalyst; he keeps bringing her back on, in scenes that linger but basically go nowhere, because for some reason he's unwilling to allow the scales to fall from her eyes (even when she hears the truth about Carly).

As Steph, Angie Jepson can't quite triumph over this lack of arc - nor does she suggest the depths of insecurity (and thwarted love for Greg) that might inspire a twinge of sympathy even among the boyfriends in the audience.  But Jepson has always given great spitfire, and she certainly crackles on here.  Meanwhile, as Greg, Andy Macdonald looks and sounds just right, but likewise doesn't really suggest the torch for Steph that he claims to be carrying; once caught up in conflict with Kent, however, Macdonald grows quite compelling.  Danielle Muehlen's Carly likewise grows in stature as the play progresses, even though its slightly schematic natures forces her into some hairpin emotional turns.  Meanwhile, as Kent, Burt Grinstead struts and preens with show-stopping confidence - but even he, I think, could tend a bit more to subtext; the cocky Kent is at heart a rather cowardly weasel, and I think he'd rather die than let anyone know that.

Paul Melone's direction was (as usual) strong and slick - although as noted, there are deeper notes to be sounded here and there than the cast seems to realize.  Meanwhile Eric Levenson's set design cleverly blended together work, home and play (just as they're all blended together for the characters), and Jeff Adelberg's lighting was appropriately industrial; the entire physical production, in fact, held to SpeakEasy's usual high standard.  That and the solid acting on offer are more than enough reasons to see Pretty.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Athol Fugard problem

Elaine Vaan Hogue in The Road to Mecca.

I spent last Friday at nearly the last performance of Athol Fugard's The Road to Mecca, as staged by BU's Boston Center for American Performance (BCAP). I went with some trepidation, after having suffered through the same company's very bad production of Good - and left confirmed in my feeling that BCAP had once again chosen to showcase, for reasons unknown, a piece of high-minded claptrap.

This time, at least, the production itself was pretty strong - buoyed immensely by brilliant work from set designer James Fluhr and lighting designer Aaron Sherkow (both MFA students at BU). Together, these two conjured beautifully the play's magical setting - the famous "Owl House" in Nieu Bethesda, South Africa, which, as tended by its eccentric occupant/artist Helen Elizabeth Martins (known as "Miss Helen"), became a kind of zoo of naively (but powerfully) rendered sculptures - all of them facing east, toward Mecca.

But if the design was terrific, the play itself was still pretty terrible - indeed, it only becomes at all complex, and thus bearable, in its second half (nearly two hours into its 2 3/4 -hour running time).  Until then it's a kind of ham-fisted harangue in which the audience is exhorted (again and again) to live bravely, fight injustice, and love one another forever (in that order, I guess).  It's so amateurish, in fact - both morally and artistically - that it begs the question: just how good a playwright was Athol Fugard, anyway?  And behind that question looms the larger one of "Just how far are we willing to forgive poor artistic quality in the name of political enlightenment?"

A great man - but a great playwright?
For make no mistake, while some of Fugard's work (Master Harold . . . and the boys, The Blood Knot) may indeed be great, much of it . . . well, looks second-rate, especially now that the evil regime the heroic dramatist (at left) was fighting has long since fallen.  But how are we to begin to approach that problem?  I hope not with the impassioned piety that director Judy Braha and her talented cast brought to The Road to Mecca.  That way, I think, madness lies.  (Or at least serious tedium.)

But it's a madness I'm becoming more and more familiar with.  Judging from my e-mail, and the comments I hear at the theatre, for many artists and audience members, it seems the distinction I'm talking about between art and politics no longer exists.  If a play "fights" racism, say, or "celebrates the human spirit," then for many, it is inherently of artistic quality - its political intents and its artistry are as one, or at any rate the one trumps the other.  This argument is made over and over in the blogosphere, of course, but it also seems to  have become the lingua franca of the actual theatre audience as well.  And anyone who resists this blurring together of two very distinct forms of human endeavor (as I do) becomes victim to knee-jerk political smears.  I can't tell you, for instance, how many times I've been called a racist simply because I pointed out the artistic flaws of a play that declared its opposition to something that, well, just about every enlightened individual in the world opposes.

But then I'm so benighted that I actually imagine criticism is a legitimate endeavor - a contention that it seems many believe is merely a blinded form of "elitism."  For as the blog Parabasis has put it more than once, "Every critical opinion is just as valid as every other."  Of course the problem with this kind of diversity-babble is that it implies every political opinion must also be just as valid as every other - i.e., the Nazis were just as right, in their own way, as Athol Fugard was in his.  Most theatregoers would no doubt be horrified by this equation.  But why, precisely, political opinions can be deemed "correct," while artistic opinions are inherently invalid, is a conundrum today's audience members never seem to ponder (perhaps because to do so would be their undoing).

Ah, well; I'm not really sure how to fight this Orwellian delusion.  But I am sure of two things: Athol Fugard was (and is) a heroic man.  And he is sometimes a mediocre playwright - perhaps even a bad one.  If we are to accurately assess his legacy, we can deny neither of those two facts.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Our local music scene is chock-a-block with worthy programs sporting titles like"Jewels and Discoveries" - and alas, usually a few of the gems in question turn out to be rhinestones.

So imagine my surprise when Boston Baroque's "Jewels and Discoveries" - which only saw two performances, last weekend - turned out to be solid Cartier from start to finish.  Conductor Martin Pearlman pulled together a program of brilliant obscurities, and his orchestra, chorus and soloists polished them to a dazzling sheen.  Tenor Keith Jameson was sidelined due to illness, but he was ably replaced (in Monteverdi's Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda) by the talented Aaron Sheehan, and everyone else seemed energized and more precisely on point than they've been in the recent past; or perhaps the difference was that conductor Pearlman, though he kept the pace sprightly (as always), only occasionally broke the usual baroque speed limits.  Whatever the reason, this was Boston Baroque at its finest - which is very, very good indeed.

Or perhaps the difference was simply that the program sparkled so consistently, and the singers and players themselves responded to that quality.  The concert opened with Dietrich Buxtehude's Heut’ triumphieret Gottes Sohn (Today God’s Son triumphs), an Easter cantata of surpassing grace and richness. An introductory sinfonia and fanfare led to a remarkably melodic chorale in which a series of soloists took pride of place - with particularly fine work coming from alto Martin Near and bass-baritone Ulysses Thomas. This was followed by two striking works of Monteverdi, Beatus Vir, a sublime setting of Psalm 112 which Pearlman gave his usual dancing buoyancy, and then what amounted to the centerpiece of the evening, Il combattimento Tancredi e Clorinda, a stunningly dramatic piece based on Torquato Tasso’s epic poem of the Crusades. In this Christianist potboiler, the hero Tancredi challenges a Saracen knight to battle at the gates of Jerusalem, not guessing that "he" is really a "she" (Clorinda, in fact, the woman he loves, surprise surprise!). Can you guess the rest? Probably - although I'm afraid these days we have to wince a bit at the final twist, in which the dying Clorinda, a Muslim, begs her beloved (and unwitting killer) to baptize her. Yuck.

Still, even this questionable bit of Christian triumphalism (Monteverdi was a priest, remember) is rendered with sublime delicacy (indeed, poor Clorinda's death is almost overwhelmingly poignant) and the rest of Tancredi e Clorinda is simply terrific. Monteverdi literally invented the tremolo for the piece (that's right, before Tancredi e Clorinda nobody had ever heard a tremolo), explicitly demanded very precise pizzicatos to convey the thwacks of the lovers' swords, and in general called for a wild dynamic that in its day was thought crazy. And to be honest, battle music really hasn't gotten that much better over the past four centuries - Tancredi e Clorinda still thrills, and the narration is a hoot, with the lovers' vows framed by "he said" and "she said" from the narrator, as if we were simultaneously listening to an opera and watching a silent movie. Both Tancredi and Clorinda were ably embodied by bass Bradford Gleim and soprano Mary Wilson, and Aaron Sheehan, though stepping in at the last moment, made quite the dashing narrator.  (He had to dash, as this was the one time in the program Pearlman's tempo approached a gallop.)

The second half of the concert, though still remarkable, never reached quite the same musical and dramatic peaks.  It opened with sacred music by Heinrich Biber, mixed with two of the same composer's Mystery Sonatas, violin pieces devised to convey the 15 mysteries of the rosary.  The psalm settings and the Agnus Dei Pearlman had selected were lovely (and gave soprano Teresa Wakim,  alto Thea Lobo and tenor Murray Kidd a chance to shine), but it was the sonatas that threw off a strangely  memorable fire.  Each of the 15 is tuned - or "distuned" - in a particular way (which is too complicated to go into here), which gives the instrument an eccentric timbre, and gives the violinist a headache, probably (because of the unusual tuning of the instrument, each piece has its own bizarre key signature, too).  Add to that the fact that both of the sonatas on the program ("The Crucifixion" and "Assumption of the Virgin") seemed fiendishly difficult, and you can imagine the challenge facing concertmaster Christina Day Martinson.  She seemed unfazed by all this, however (but then she never seems fazed), and, working with two separate violins, carried off the sonatas with spirited verve (indeed, the final gigue from the "Assumption" was almost dizzying).

The crowning glory of the program was literally a discovery - an early Gloria by Handel that was only authenticated a few years ago.  To be honest, though very beautiful, the piece almost felt like a bit of an anti-climax after the impressively knotty Mystery Sonatas  - luckily, however, Mary Wilson returned to carry it off. Ms. Wilson's voice is just about perfect for Handel - her tone is ripe with sun, and her phrasings so flexible they seem to almost ripple. By the end of her beguiling performance, any and all sense of anticlimax had been banished.