Saturday, April 30, 2011

The case for creative destruction, criticizing the audience, and other thoughts on Larry's thoughts

Should a critic never draw blood?

Earlier this week I posted thoughts from long-time critic and colleague Larry Stark (of the Theater Mirror) on "negative" reviews versus "destructive" reviews. Larry, of course, needs no introduction to the "insider" theatre crowd, but other readers, who don't get invited to opening nights, may be less familiar with him. He has been a fixture on the local scene for some four decades, and keeps up a theatre-going schedule that would make lesser men (or women) pale. He's one of the few local critics, in fact, who leave me in the dust attendance-wise - Larry regularly sees five or sometimes even six shows a week, week after week, month after month, year after year. Larry tries to catch everything from the newest community troupe's debut to the latest extravaganza downtown; there is no greater treasure trove of local theatrical lore or experience.

And he seems to be enthusiastic about all of it, although he rarely writes about his experiences anymore. Larry keeps an amazing amount of theatrical information current on his website, but his reviews are rare; and when he does write, his thoughts are almost always positive. He even signs his posts "Love, Anonymous," a signature which expresses directly one of his central concerns - to never allow his own ego to blind him to the duty to be generous. To Larry, the worst thing a reviewer can do - and he considers it a constant danger, I think - is damage the art form in question by egotistically mis-assessing a performance's true quality (while at the same time crushing the spirit and will of the artist in the process).

Larry's credo might be summed up, then, as something like the Hippocratic oath: "First, do no harm," and he pretty much typifies the nurturer par excellence - the direct antithesis of the John-Simon-style critical judge and executioner. And let me make clear at the outset that there's much to be said for Larry's point of view - probably a good deal more, in fact, than there is to be said for John Simon's, whose history of critical error and prejudice by now jangles after him like a string of battered cans.

Still, of necessity every credo has its gaps and lacunae, and it's pretty easy, in fact, to construct a consistent argument in opposition to Larry's, one that finds its justification in protection of the audience, rather than the artist. Larry, after all (like most critics), never pays to see a show; but the people who read him do. And doesn't the critic have some obligation to be honest with that audience? It seems clear that any critical theory worth its salt has to address the critic's responsibility to his readers as well as to his art form and its practitioners.

There are subtler questions at work in this debate as well, one of which is something like, "Is an art form truly best served by sparing artists' feelings?" It's hard to answer that question with an unqualified "yes," I'm afraid. For if one hopes for something like "truth" from artistic expression - and I admit that I'm one of those who do - how are we to respond to artists who operate in bad faith if we refuse to risk a little judgment? And why should we expect an artist to improve in technique if there's no critical upside in doing so? It's also worth noting, I think, that advances in art are always achieved in consonance with critical judgment - perhaps not always from print critics, it's true, but certainly other kinds of critics, people like gallery owners and collectors, or artistic directors and literary managers - all of whom (at least in part) are critics (albeit silent ones).

A critic at work.
Of course in the passage that I printed from Larry, he offers a way out of this quandary - a way to distinguish "negative" from "destructive" reviews; to Larry, the salient distinguishing feature is whether negative criticism is "explained" or not.

And again, I'd like to say up front that I agree with this premise completely. Negative criticism - actually all criticism - should be "explained." Indeed, I recall when I spoke to a college class a year or two ago about web criticism, I made something like Larry's point myself - "Your 'criticism' hasn't really begun," I told the students, "until you've begun to explain why you felt the way you did."  But there's an analytical problem buried in Larry's argument - can criticism fully be "explained" purely by reference to the performance in question alone?  (For more on that issue, read my response to Doug's comment on the original Larry post.)  I also note in passing a perhaps unconscious logical slip on Larry's part - shouldn't positive criticism be "explained" just as rigorously as negative criticism? For if we're going to be strict about things, many of the compliments that decorate reviews - claims along the lines of "His playing was superb!" - are meaningless "assertions" too, aren't they, and hence technically destructive to the art form as well. But I'm not going to press that point - reviews are often too long already!

And I have to admit that, contrary to what I think is my local reputation, in practice I'm actually in Larry's camp when it comes to performers.  I looked over my theatre reviews so far in 2011 - I've done 30 so far, fewer than in past years, but still a substantial sample.  I greeted the acting in 18 of these productions with high praise; deemed the performances in 12 more a mixed bag; and panned exactly zero.  This is partly because acting (along with design) is one of the aspects of theatre that has held up remarkably well in recent years (and probably even improved locally).  But it's also partly because, I say with a heavy sigh, deep down inside I'm actually a softie.  I know precisely what Larry means about how hard it is for a performer to have to go on stage after a really stinging review, and I admit I try to avoid putting anyone through that unless it's absolutely necessary.

Of course sometimes it is necessary. There is a case for "creative destruction," as long as it's accurate, with or without explanation.  And one might note that when it comes to criticism of authors and directors, things are very different here at the Hub Review; indeed, I often savage authors, directors, and even other critics on a regular basis,  questioning their brains, talent and ethics.  Shockingly, the more powerful the personage in question, the harsher I can be about obvious lapses.  This certainly sets me apart from the rest of my "peers"!  But what really appalls many people about the Hub Review is that I will even criticize minorities.  People of color, women, even other gay men - I criticize, and sometimes even ridicule, them all.  To these folks, for instance, my denouncing Emily Glassberg Sands' famous study on women in theatre as an intellectual fraud was simply beyond the pale - even though I demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that it was one.  But as the famously progressive climber Isaac Butler put it, stating that truth out loud "just looked ugly."

Which leads me to what I think counts as a statement of principle here at the Hub Review - I don't trim my aesthetics to suit my politics, or the politics of my audience.  I'm actually more to "the left" than most of my readers, I imagine, but that doesn't mean I'm going to practice some kind of affirmative critical action.  To my mind, people from all walks of life, all races, and both genders (as well as those in between) are equally capable of creating great art - as they always have; there's no reason to pretend things are different now, and there's no reason to claim a weak show that's "politically correct" is stronger than it actually is.  At the deepest level, this is because politics derive from aesthetics, rather than vice versa; if we attend to, and critique, our art appropriately, the "correct" politics will flow from it as a matter of course.

All this, of course, often puts me in conflict with my audience - and I think ultimately that conflict is really what's moving behind many of Larry's concerns.  But that's an essay for another day; so stay tuned for more critical navel-gazing at the Hub Review over the coming weeks.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Picasso and politics are a problematic theatrical mix; the great artist's "neutrality" in the face of fascism (followed by his vocal conversion to Communism) isn't the kind of thing that wins an audience's sympathy. Of course there's not much in his biography that could win an audience's sympathy, frankly; I've forgotten who first said that "Like life, Picasso was nasty, brutish and short," but that pretty much sums up the divine Pablo.

Of course by now there's no denying his work was often divine (although personally I'll always prefer Matisse), and if there's one thing you could admire about him, I suppose it would be his devotion to his own gift. Which playwright Jeffrey Hatcher has wisely made the crux of his two-hander A Picasso, now playing at the Merrimack Rep in a thoughtful production directed by artistic director Charles Towers.

Hatcher's conceit is that the great modernist has been dragged off the streets of occupied Paris for an interrogation by the Nazis in some dank subterranean dungeon, complete with Phantom-of-the-Opera arches, echoing footsteps and clanging doors. And his interlocutor has come straight from central casting, too - "Miss Fischer" (Kate Udall), a drily clipped power-fräulein in form-fitting Casablanca chic.

Her aim is to get the nervous artist to authenticate at least one of three sketches the Nazis have recently confiscated - although there's little doubt, actually, that any are anything but genuine Picassos.  So why is Miss Fischer so insistent on the artist's sign-off?  Well, it turns out she's organizing a curious kind of "group show" - one so hot it's going to literally burn, in fact.  (The Nazis did, indeed, execute public immolations of "degenerate" art.)  And once Picasso gives one of these works his blessing, she'll offer it up to the flames.

So far, so good, in what looks to be an elegant cat-and-mouse game over which work, precisely, must meet an untimely end.  And Hatcher's structure does offer a relatively sturdy frame for the playwright to skillfully drape a lot of art history and name-dropping - along with a quick sidebar on the meaning of Guernica; thus to many audiences, the script offers an entertaining tutorial; to the initiated, the recap may be less compelling, but at least it's painless.

The playwright does have one big - and good - twist up his sleeve, which I won't spoil except to hint that sometimes cats can secretly be in cahoots with mice.  Alas, the trouble with Hatcher's play is that its real drama only gets started after this big reveal - and then the playwright doesn't push his new premise nearly far enough before ringing down the curtain.  Indeed, the ironies that ripple out from the re-constituted situation he has conjured might have offered some original insights into the contradictions - and cruelties - that Picasso was famous for, but Hatcher seems happy to keep the artist firmly on the side of the angels, and with a bevy of quips at the ready, to boot.  (When he is told that Hitler is himself something of an artist, for instance, Picasso replies that yes, only he has a problem with borders.)

As it stands, Miss Fischer therefore emerges as the more compelling and complex character - and actress Kate Udall fully rises to the challenge of the role (and then some); after her wildly varied turns in A Moon for the Misbegotten, Four Places, and now A Picasso, in fact, I'd say Miss Udall has long since taken her place among Boston's best actresses (although you only get to see her in Lowell!).  Meanwhile, as the Great Man himself, Mark Zeisler - who bears a passing resemblance to Picasso - colors strictly (if subtly) within the lines of Hatcher's script, so we rarely get any sense of the artist's brilliant but destructive fire, even if the slow burn of the performance never entirely loses its intrigue.  Still, the impression left by both actors - and by their director, Towers - is that they're slightly spinning their wheels; A Picasso is an enjoyable trot through a particular episode of art history, but these thoroughbreds are capable of running a far greater race.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The culmination of the spring season?

A moment from Bella Figura.
Two of Boston's greatest arts organizations will drop highly-anticipated projects over the next two days: Boston Ballet premieres Jiří Kylián's Bella Figura (above) tonight, while Boston Lyric Opera opens Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream tomorrow - together these productions probably make this weekend the culmination of the spring season. Alas, I'm going to have to skip Dawn Upshaw (whom I adore) at Celebrity Series to catch Midsummer (but you could see both). And on Saturday I have to put off Antony and Cleopatra at ASP in order to check out the intriguing Seventh Sense by the Armenian National Centre for Aesthetics SMALL THEATRE at the Charlestown Working Theater (in what felt like a flashback to the Cold War, btw, these artists actually had trouble traveling to America due to visa hassles). Then on Sunday, I'll see and hear Mozart's Requiem at Handel and Haydn, under the direction of Harry Christophers. As you've probably heard, we're wild about Harry here at the Hub Review, so we expect a very pleasurable afternoon - but even if you miss it, you can still catch the performances at a later date; the concert is being recorded for release on the CORO label in September.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

More thoughts from Larry

On Monday, after Larry Stark (at left) forwarded me his open letter to the A.R.T., he asked that I open a discussion on reviewing style on the Hub Review.  Which I agreed to do.  I suppose I wasn't quick enough in doing so, however, for today I received the following message in my inbox, which I agreed to would post.  Comments are welcome.  My thoughts will come in due course.

Hi Tom,

I was quite serious when I suggested you open a discussion of "style" in your blog; but since you haven't I will.

Specifically, I see a difference between "negative" reviews versus "destructive" ones - and I see a difference between real criticism and mere assertion.

It's probably because I was schooled by a very hard editor who always demanded that I Justify any assertion with demonstrable facts from the stage. My mere Opinion that something worked or didn't was never enough.

The older I get the more correct Joe Hanlon's approach seems to be. If you Explain an opinion - good or bad actually - then the readers Learn something. Without it, all they can do is compare their opinions with yours (assuming they see the same show you did) and either praise your insight or damn your stupidity. An Explained opinion in a negative review is, actually, a positive thing.

But negative assertions without explanation are often destructive. They leave the reader no recourse but anger when they disagree. They benefit no one - except perhaps the ego of the critic.

Actors in plays cannot fight back; they haven't the critic's megaphone, and any complaint of injury, however true, is always construed as whining. The creators have to "suck it up like true professionals" at least outwardly. Destructive criticism is simply shooting fish in a barrel.

I remember reading a Globe review - can't remember the show - that asserted that, though the audience loved the show, They Shouldn't! That to me was a classic case of "elephantiasis of the ego' - and a stupid misapprehension of what theater is for.


That should get things started, I think.

Your ideas?

- Larry Stark

Tuesday, April 26, 2011





What do all those cities have in common?

The sad answer is that their orchestras have either declared bankruptcy, are in the process of declaring bankruptcy, or are on the verge of declaring bankruptcy.  And we could probably add Detroit to the list, even though their players recently ended a strike by accepting a pay cut, as well as Indianapolis, which is widely believed to be heading in the same direction.

The situation in Philadelphia stands out from the trend, however, as it's one of the storied "Big Five" of American orchestras - its collapse is to classical music what the collapse of the Intiman Theatre is to American theatre.  (Although actually, it's arguable - given the number of civic orchestras in financial danger - that the nation's orchestras are under more financial pressure than the nation's theatres.)

Of course a flashpoint in this ongoing situation remains the question of wages.  I remember two years ago when I wondered at the fairness of the BSO's union pay (entry level, around $128 K, much like that at the Philadelphia), given that the best local artists in other fields could command less than half that salary, I was ridiculed from all sides.  One hyperventilating classical music fan was so offended he actually began a blog to "oppose" me (I think he long since shut that down - one of two short-lived blogs, by the way, that have been devoted entirely to attacking me; another validation - if Harvard's attacks weren't enough - of the power of the ideas expressed in the Hub Review).  At the same time, local Globe second stringer Matthew Guerrieri lectured me, in several heated exchanges, that BSO salaries were actually a result of free-market competition.

Uh-huh.  I was never quite sure how union salaries were supposed to be the result of free market competition (don't they represent the antidote to free-market competition?) - but whaddya want when it comes to economic argument from Matthew Guerrieri, he's a composer! At any rate, over time what has become the sticking point in most of these bankruptcies, including Philadelphia's, is the fact that salaries and benefits at the orchestras do not, actually, result from free-market competition but rather represent a compromise between union demands and the willingness of the symphonies' Boards (that is, the local business communities) to support them.  That's how orchestra salaries are set, all you libertarian classical fans.  Not through the free market (as ticket revenue rarely covers more than two-thirds of costs), but through Board largesse.  In Philadelphia, for example, ticket sales this year brought in $33 million, but the orchestra's costs were $46 million.  Even after a round of emergency fund-raising, the deficit still amounted to $5 million.  And yes, the Philadelphia has an endowment of $140 million, but given an annual deficit rate of $5 million (and nobody thinks the deficit is going to go down),  if the orchestra began to tap that fund, it would be gone in little more than a generation (and at the actual deficit rate of $13 million a year, it will be gone in little more than a decade).

And you know, Board largesse runs strongest when workers' wages are falling against revenues (and thus the wallets of the rich are fatter than usual), so it's hard not to intuit that every time a player in an orchestra like the BSO gets a raise, that increase parallels a pay cut to the respective city's working class, at least in relative terms.  I'm not saying there's causation there (before you write in), but still - that see-saw is the none-too-pretty economic picture of civic orchestras (and for that matter of any arts organization that can't meet its payroll through ticket sales).  You could try to argue, as Matthew Guerrieri did, that there's still a kind of limited competition at work within, say, the oligopoly of the Boards of the "Big Five" - New York, Chicago, Boston, Cleveland - and oops, I guess not Philadelphia anymore, but maybe L.A. now.  But the point is, even if you want to call that cooperative understanding a "market," it still looks like the bottom just fell out from under it.

Of course there's a strong case to be made that union wages aren't the only thing killing off America's orchestras.  Or even the main thing.  I wouldn't argue that they are.  I'm sure mismanagement, rising real estate costs, etc., have all played a role in the debacle in Philadelphia and elsewhere (and maybe even the leading role).  And it's worth remembering that the Philadelphia isn't really "dead;" it's just in a state of legal limbo in which all its contracts - especially its contracts with its unions - are open for re-negotiation by management.

But here's the rub.  Since the orchestras survive on Board donations, they have to convince America's ruling class that their union wages aren't what is undermining their solvency.  Only America's ruling class doesn't really want to hear that, do they.  And does the working class (for whom unions are now largely a thing of the past) want to hear it either?  Somehow I doubt it.

See this is were things get - how to put it? - culturally sticky.  Because actually, the only people who might be sympathetic to the argument of the orchestra unions are America's artistic classes (people like Matthew Guerrieri!), but for better or worse, they're on the losing side of a libertarian cultural meme that began to build steam with the fall of the Berlin Wall and is now pretty much dominant in our discourse, even among the "educated."  Thus supporters of symphony musicians try to play the game both ways - by simultaneously guilting the Boards into coughing up more cash ("The whole problem is your management incompetence!") while pretending these salaries are the result of the free market.   Although I think many of these types do honestly believe that "value" aligns with remuneration in some vague but deeply true way.  So if you're the very, very best violinist in the whole wide world, in their minds you're bound to make a very good living.

Only it doesn't work that way anymore, largely  because the forces of digitization, the Internet, and globalization are all undoing the foundations of what we used to think of as "value" - which was never really intrinsic to labor or talent, anyhow; it's always only been purely a function of replacement costs.  Somehow the educated retain a touching faith, however, in the idea that value isn't tied to those costs, or to things like geographic location and market barriers.  Seemingly hypnotized by a series of naive economic gurus, they seem to believe that value can still exist in a virtual world in which all boundaries have been erased and everything at last is "free" - in short, an "economy" in which everything is replaceable, and yet somehow everything still retains its value.

Of course what happens instead in such a world is that value aligns more and more with political power (or its factotum, celebrity power).  That's why Arianna Huntington could get so rich off the efforts of people she didn't pay at all; and that's why young people are so desperate to get into the Ivy League - not for the education (please!) but rather for entrée into a class that has the political power to look after its own well-being.  The rest of the nation, of course, isn't so lucky.  Indeed, the great social problem of the millennium is probably not racism, but instead the way that globalization and digitization have undermined the foundations of economic value.  That is what has rendered unions powerless, and what has left the working class in a seemingly permanent economic slide.

But I digress.  The point is that orchestra unions may have thought they were protected from this trend - after all, you can't import a BSO concert from China, can you - but in the end, the trend is catching up with them anyway, if indirectly.  For to a non-unionized populace, especially one equipped with a theory supplied by the chattering class, the perks of a specialty union - whether in the arts or in government - look undeserved and unjustifiable.

This is the atmosphere in which the BSO will be going into its next round of contract negotiations (the current contract expires in August).  Of course the BSO hasn't declared bankruptcy, and I doubt it's in any serious monetary straits.  Still, I also don't get the impression that James Levine's tenure has really done it all that much financial good.  He was very expensive, of course ($1.6 million, last I heard), and he tended to demand extra money for special projects; and while I think audiences stabilized after his controversial first season, he got more lip service than money-love from the Hub.  The ongoing search for his replacement basically represents another question mark hovering over the negotiations - although it's probable that whoever is chosen will be both healthier and cheaper than Levine.  Indeed, it's hard to imagine a more uncertain financial environment for these negotiations.  It's almost enough to make you wish all this was determined by the free market.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Larry Stark's open letter to the A.R.T.

I was surprised to receive an e-mail yesterday from Larry Stark, longtime Boston critic (and IRNE member), as well as editor of the website The Theater Mirror. His note included a link to a post that he said I "might want to glance at." Well, I took a glance - and found the post quite heart-warming. So the first thing I want to do is thank Larry for his support. The second thing I want to do is share his post with you.  It's an open letter to the A.R.T. - the kind of thing they're getting a lot of these days - regarding the recent brouhaha regarding yours truly.  The letter kind of speaks for itself, so I'll just let it do that - but again, thanks, Larry. [The IRNEs ceremony is tonight, btw. Things could get interesting.]

Regrettably, until further notice, I shall not be attending any productions by the American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.). Let me explain:

I have frequently been critical of other critics. In some cases, this has been my "internal editor" quibbling about style; at other times, it has been an attempt to let critics feel the personal pain that damaging criticism can cause in people who must get up before another audience knowing that critics' comments have shaped what at least some in that audience might thus believe.

But, even admitting these opinions, I believe even the harshest of critics, deep down, really love theater --- that creators and critics are really "on the same side". Sometimes it may look as though a critic Loves Theater To Death; still, in an austere era many of my colleagues are continuing to write critiques without being paid to do so, their love is that strong. And they try to apply their personal standards in as impartial a manner as possible, though it may not always look that way from outside. That, I think, is the critic's job.

The job of a Public Relations Coordinator for any particular theater company, though, is necessarily biased. The goal there is to get that same potential audience to view the company's shows in the best possible light, to see and appreciate what is there, and to come back again and again for more. And it may seem that P/R people and critics are at war --- especially when they disagree, with one seeing only negatives while the other must accentuate the positive.

But those on both sides operate in what is called "The Free Marketplace of Ideas" --- and audience-members may decide for themselves which one is right. This, at least, is how I assume the game should be played.

Lately, I have heard rumors that a vicious "kill the messenger" attitude threatens this entire structure. I have often voiced my opinions privately or written them publically, but deliberate attempts to disgrace or disbar or silence someone's free voice I cannot tolerate nor condone. I therefore sent the following letter to the producer at the American Repertory Theatre protesting what I see as disgraceful behavior, stretching back over many years, that has no place in that "Marketplace of Ideas" which I fervently hope will remain Free.


Dear Ms. Borger:

Of late I have heard astonishing stories and rumors of the antics of a person in your employ referred to as "Catty" by those who have had contact with her. I undertstand that Public Relations work necessarily involves some sorts of manipulation; however, if even half of what I've been told
is true, this person has no ethical standards whatever. I am astonished that you continue to employ anyone who so totally misunderstands her profession, and mine.

You must realize that in the climate created by her actions, any positive reviews of your company's work can be construed as written out of fear of this woman's power to ruin the reputation of anyone voicing opposite opinions.

I cannot believe you are ignorant of this situation, but you must be aware that continuing to employ her in such a sensitive position can only be construed as approval of such behavior by the American Repertory Theatre, which I fervently hope cannot be the case.

But if you condone such actions, I cannot.

I cannot in good conscience continue to work with anyone who behaves with such vindictive misunderstanding of her job, and mine. To do so would suggest that I myself condone such behavior, which is decidedly Not the case.

Should there be a change in personnel in future, I would appreciate your notifying me.


===Larry Stark

of Theater Mirror

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Norton anthology (abridged)

The Norton Award nominations for 2011 were announced a few weeks ago, and of course as always the distinction between the Norton Awards and the IRNEs (or the "KRNEs," as I now call them, for "Kati's Reviewers of New England") was immediately clear, as you can see in the graphic at left: the Nortons only hand out about a quarter of the nominations that the KRNEs do (and recognize fewer than half as many local companies).  Many major local theatres - usually those it's a little harder to get to, like Reagle, the Merrimack, and the North Shore - didn't get any recognition at all, in fact.

There are various reasons why the Nortons should ignore so much local theatre.  The first, I'd guess, is that the folks in the "Boston Theater Critics Association" - which hands out the Nortons - just don't seem to see, or at least write about, that much theatre, period.  Two of the Association's twelve members aren't really "critics" at all, I'd argue, they're kind of critics emeritii or something (I'm not sure I've seen Caldwell Titcomb or Louise Kennedy's byline in months).  And Jared Bowen, of WGBH, is a telegenic "arts personality" rather than a reviewer.  His sidekick, Terry Byrne, may be less telegenic, but at least she does hang on tenaciously to the second string that still dangles from the Globe - she seems to log about a review a week, though she usually covers children's shows and the circus.  Joyce Kulhawik is another telegenic "personality," although one sans portfolio (I think she's got a gig doing a talent show on late night TV); at any rate, she only covers two or three shows a month on her blog (almost all of which show up as nominees, though - theatre companies take note; if Joyce actually catches your show, your chance of a Norton nom has just shot up considerably!).  I think Ed Siegel writes a column about once a month on WBUR.  And does Robert Nesti post even that often over at the Edge?  I don't think so.

So "the Boston Critics Association" is really more like "the Boston Critics Clique;" you get to hang around and vote as long as you stay friends with that 70's crowd from the Phoenix, Herald and Globe.  Still, about half the association are regularly (or semi-regularly) functioning reviewers - Don Aucoin files at least one book report a week over at the Globe, Carolyn Clay's still grinding out those puns at the Phoenix,  Sandy MacDonald keeps filing copy at TheatreMania, Jenna Scherer's caustic canards can now be read at TimeOut Boston, and Iris Fanger's byline pops up in the smaller papers pretty regularly.  So almost half the "critics" are, indeed, critics.  I think.  To be honest, I could have the facts wrong about a few of them, I really don't read any of these people, they're all so damn boring.

But even if the functioning critics saw more of the local scene (or were assigned to see it), would they offer more nominations?  I don't think so. For the second reason why the Nortoneers are so paltry in their awards is that their audience target, basically, is people who don't go to the theatre.  Even of the 66 nominations they've squeezed out, for instance, about 22 are going to productions or people from New York (to be fair, the KRNE musical awards go to a lot of out-of-town people, too), via heavily-advertised and promoted productions and tours - the kind of thing the suburbs might come into town for.  And of course there's always an out-of-town star called upon to actually draw a crowd - to a Boston awards show that's about Boston only two-thirds of the time, and that isn't going to take up all that much of your time, period.  But then I suppose the Nortons have a case of New York-itis much like the rest of the Hub; when it comes to culture, Boston is a town of Yankees fans.

Oh, well. 'Twas ever thus.  Months ago, local theatre people had begun to say openly that they hoped the Nortons would die out soon; but with the addition of Bowen and Scherer to the roster, and a new website, the Boston Theater Critics Association seems to have risen from the grave.  And so the zombie march of "critics" continues.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Seasonal menu

The Boston Classical Orchestra at Faneuil Hall.
I'm not sure why I'd never caught a Boston Classical Orchestra concert, but I hadn't.  It was always in the back of my mind to  - but it wasn't until I heard conductor Stephen Lipsitt's sensitive account of The Emperor of Atlantis at Boston Lyric Opera this winter that I decided the time had come at last to pay that long-overdue visit.  The coincidental pairing in the program last weekend of one of my favorite sopranos, Dominique Labelle, and favorite vocal works, Barber's Knoxville: Summer 1915, probably sealed the deal.

Alas, I didn't get to hear Ms. Labelle - swollen vocal chords apparently prevented her from appearing.  Luckily, however, I still got to hear Knoxville, thanks to the efforts of Kendra Colton, who subbed for Labelle at the last minute.  Ms. Colton has an agile, silvery soprano, but perhaps not quite enough power to cut through the orchestra when it surrounds her (as it did here), and little of the summery radiance that should bathe the reminiscences of Knoxville (which boasts in James Agee's subtly-childlike text one of the most moving librettos of the modern era).  Colton's was a gently sombre, intellectual homecoming, while Lipsitt led the orchestra in a far more sensual one; perhaps as a result, the piece didn't quite come together as ravishingly as it should.

Still, I was grateful to hear it again, and was generally impressed with the playing in the rest of the program, as well as the unassuming insightfulness of Mr. Lipsitt's interpretations. The program behind the program was a seasonal one - the BCO opened with an excerpt from Haydn's Prelude to "Spring" from his oratorio The Seasons, then ran ahead in the calendar to Alexander Glazunov's "Spring" and "Summer" from his own The Seasons (this time a ballet rather than an oratorio), before basking in the late-August evenings of Knoxville. After the intermission, the program abandoned this conceit entirely to showcase a warhorse, Beethoven's Symphony No. 8.

Of the "seasonal" pieces, the Glazunov came off best; the Haydn was vigorously played, but slightly generic - and I don't think Lipsitt pulled off what he seemed to intend, that is a sense of impending bloom. Glazunov's "Spring" and "Summer," however, may be of little structural or intellectual interest, but are highly lyrical and just plain lovely, and the soaring "Summer" sparkles with brilliant percussive effects - all of which benefitted greatly from the concert's setting (Faneuil Hall, which is quite "bright" acoustically).  Lipsitt also drew appropriately dancing rhythms from his orchestra, along with a playful sense of rising, heady color; you could all but feel the summer wind by the finish.  You also probably felt both pieces - and maybe Glazunov in general - deserved to be heard more often in the repertory (it seems this constituted the work's local premiere!).

After intermission came Beethoven's Eighth, which in contrast has gotten a number of hearings of late in the Boston area.  Lipsitt offered no edgy new interpretation, but rather a rich and eloquent version - a kind of heightened statement, classicism at its grandest, sandwiched between the explorations and new visions of the Seventh and Ninth.  And the orchestra operated at the same high level here as it had in the Glazunov.  I left the concert with that sense I often feel at performances by capable, dedicated local groups - of touching base with a cultural tradition that can't help but renew the spirit.  And I found my respect for Mr. Lipsitt likewise renewed - perhaps even extended; and I don't think I was alone in that regard.  The orchestra opened the concert with an impromptu rendition of "Happy Birthday" in his honor, and he took to the clarinet himself at one point to toodle along with the winds in a bid to drum up a little financial love for the orchestra.  It's hard not to like somebody so clearly serious who doesn't take himself too seriously.  The BCO has just announced its coming season, a schedule which balances the popular with the occasional rarity (as this program did).  Local classical fans can read all about that seasonal menu here.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

What if logos told the truth?

Viktor Hertz imagines a world in which there was actually truth in advertising.  And it's a very funny place to visit.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The best for last

Dubravka Tomsic at rest.

Dubravka Tomsic isn't merely a pianist anymore; at 70, she's one of the last torchbearers of a certain kind of disciplined romantic musicianship. She was hailed as a child by Claudio Arrau, and achieved renown as Artur Rubinstein's protégée; with a pedigree like that, no wonder she seems to bear the weight of musical history on her shoulders.

That burden - along with, perhaps, recent personal woes (she lost her husband just months ago) - seemed to bear down on the pianist a bit heavily during her Celebrity Series concert last weekend. The program was punishing: two demanding Beethoven sonatas ("The Tempest" and the more familiar "Les adieux"), then all four of Chopin's ballades, which in some passages leave Beethoven in the dust for sheer technical difficulty.

And at first, Tomsic, clad in a dazzling but severe jacket and gown, seemed slightly distant and rigid; her touch was from the start superbly subtle, but "The Tempest" (No. 17) was soon marred by odd hesitancies and wrong notes.  The piece began to open up, however, as the pianist seemingly warmed up; it never rose to the kind of emotional power its sobriquet implies, but it became apparent that Tomsic had something other than the standard interpretation in mind - and she gave the sonata's dancing third movement a convincing core of sadness that was haunting in its restraint.  "Les adieux" sounded even better - elegant, complex, and exquisitely balanced between the romantic and the classic.  The crowd left the hall for intermission in a happy, thoughtful buzz.

After a longish break, however, Tomsic's earlier troubles seemed to return as she began the Chopin ballades.  These are all unstructured, yet somehow cohesive, essays in heroism and melancholy; composed during Chopin's long affair with George Sand, they brim both with a sense of profound romance and an atmosphere of defeat and dismay; they're like grand odes to the failure of the whole bohemian project, both personal and political.  That particular tension is also near ground zero of Tomsic's stylistic locus, and indeed the ballades were concert staples of her mentor, Rubinstein (himself a Pole, like Chopin; Tomsic is Slovenian).

No. 1, in G minor, and No. 4, in F minor, are the greatest of the four; the first is a grand call to arms that fails; the last is a kind of heartbroken reverie of resignation and frustration.  Tomsic's interpretative decisions were sure in both - as well as throughout the cycle, actually - but she seemed to be battling weariness; again missed notes were noticeable, and the most dazzling runs (which in the ballades connect the blocks of thematic material like glittering ribbons) were slightly trimmed.  There were nevertheless moments of deep feeling and glowing beauty throughout; the ballades were there, if in the rough; still, it was hard to feel as Tomsic rose from the keyboard at the end of No. 4 that we'd just heard one of her great performances.

But then something very unusual and deeply poignant happened.  The crowd (which filled Jordan Hall) was wildly appreciative; they didn't seem to care a whit about the missed notes; they were her following, so it didn't matter if they'd seen her on an off night.  Then a young girl dashed to the stage to hesitantly present Tomsic with a huge bouquet; and as this demonstration of affection sank into her, something in the great pianist seemed to melt before our eyes. She returned refreshed to the keyboard and whipped out four encores, three by Liszt and one by Chopin (the famous, if mis-named, "Minute" Waltz). These pieces, all études and waltzes, were as intricate and demanding as the ballades had been, but they were also quicker, lighter - showers of pure buoyant technique, and Tomsic seemed to grow stronger and stronger as she tossed off each one. I'm not sure I've ever seen such a U-turn in mood and technical attack in the course of a single concert. As she finally left the hall, Tomsic was at last beaming, and so was I.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A time-out for a time-lapse

The Mountain from Terje Sorgjerd on Vimeo.

Here at the Hub Review we're all about the time-lapse (among other lapses). And this is a gorgeous one, shot at the Canary Islands' El Teide Mountain, by Terje Sorgjerd. Just a reminder that every day the universe tosses off works of art no mere mortal has ever matched, but some have recorded.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Dan McCabe and Joanna Gleason take to the couch in Sons of the Prophet.
The Huntington's latest premiere, Stephen Karam's Sons of the Prophet  - at the Calderwood Pavilion through May 1 - opens with a car crash. And then, slowly, turns into one. An entertaining one, mind you -  a funny one. But still a car crash.

Or - wait; this Broadway-bound vehicle certainly swerves off-road, but does it really count as a "car crash"? Crashes have points of impact, after all. Central conflicts, if you will. And Sons of the Prophet lacks any such organizing feature. It's more like a traffic circle, come to think of it, with dozens of potential conflicts orbiting a central void.

But let me say right up front - you don't really need me to tell you that.  The issues in the script are so big (and so obvious) that even the print critics have been able to make them out (roughly). We're not talking the fine points of The Merchant of Venice here.  Not that weak reviews - and I think most in Boston will be weak - will kill the show, as it's already scheduled to open at the Roundabout in the fall. We're the try-out town, just like in the good old days (funny how everything comes around again, isn't it).  And author Karam and director Peter DuBois seem to know they have issues -  in fact, they have smartly left a whole summer between the Huntington close and the New York open for Karam to rewrite the show.

Which is a good thing, because Sons of the Prophet is going to need a lot of work - although to be honest, it feels like it's already had a lot of work.  Clearly the script has been crafted to within an inch of its life - there's not a split-second of dead air in it, the jokes and quirks and  "reversals" pop like clockwork, and there are witty refs and self-aware literary gambits nestled within it like so many Russian dolls, to give the whole thing the impression of resonance.  That's what "development" is good at.  Structural issues, though - well, not so much.   Not to mention the basic problem that - how to put this? - Stephen Karam doesn't seem to have anything new to say. Or at least nothing beyond "My characters are in pain, isn't that funny and sad at the same time?" Which, you know, if you've been in a coma for the past twenty years, may strike you as a revelation.  If not, you may notice Karam seems to be checking off as many boxes as he can on the current new-play-development scorecard.
 Joseph in the wilderness.

To be fair, he's a funny and perceptive guy, and perhaps the sense of artistic malaise that afflicts Sons of the Prophet is just a sign of growing pains. Indeed, this is only his second major play, and it's shot through with echoes of his first, the Glee-like hit Speech and Debate - there's a gay high schooler left over from that script, for instance, as well as a climactic showdown in a high school auditorium.  Trouble is, these are interlarded with shards of other recent Broadway successes, by other people - Karam shoplifts a central conflict from Rabbit Hole, for instance, as well as one of the major running gags from The Seafarer.

Admittedly, the playwright gives a new spin to most of his borrowed goods - he partly re-organizes the whitebread Rabbit around race, for instance - but these various spins often spin off in different directions, so the resulting amalgam never gels.  It still might, if Karam came up with some actual "development" for his central character, Joseph Douaihly, who's gay (of course) but straight-acting-and-appearing, and suffering from a variety of ailments, some emotional, some physical, and some probably a little of both. 

Joseph's ills began with the untimely death of his father - of a heart attack brought on by that opening car crash, in which he swerved to avoid what he thought was a deer, but which turned out to be only a deer decoy, in fact the local high school's football mascot, dragged into the road as a prank by the star of the opposing team.  Poor Joseph's coat of many dolors also includes "assisting" his bonkers book-editor boss (a confidently clueless Joanna Gleason) recover from her umpteenth "fall from grace" - although he really puts up with her just as a way to get medical insurance.  Meanwhile, at home, his gay high-school-age brother (who looks 30, but never mind) and loveably crusty uncle are up in arms over the fact that a local judge has given that guilty football star a few weeks off (to win the big game) before facing his sentence - and a photogenic TV reporter has begun sniffing around the family tragedy, sensing a tabloid story that might vault him to the big leagues.  Soon the quarterback has shown up on the doorstep, too, begging for forgiveness - although maybe only because saying he's sorry might buy him some leniency.   Then again, the kid is hot - so is that so wrong?

Somewhere in all this there is a set of linked concerns.  Karam half has it in mind to contrast feel-good, secular-humanist relative values, which celebrate the self and sex (and, of course, Khalil Gibran, the "prophet" to whom Joseph is distantly related), with old-school family values, which may be judgmental in a "That's-racist!" kind of way, but also provide the only semblance of love and commitment the world seems to offer - and thus the only source of genuine grief, too. Karam's satiric instincts, however, whisper to him that Old-Testament love and grief are nevertheless all muddled up with New-Age self-interest and exploitation these days - tellingly, all his characters show up at the Douaihly hearth sooner or later (maybe because it's the only hearth around), but only to get what they can out of it. 

In this way the playwright loosely parallels the cynical arc of the more-successful Becky Shaw, another DuBois production from last year.  But that play actually landed, eventually, on something like a moral conclusion.  Karam, however, refuses to commit to a particular stance, and without organizing his hero's trajectory (and his romantic subplot) around that, the playwright can't really pull all his witty cultural deconstruction into a vision.  Perhaps as a result, Karam's hero simply rejects everyone and everything in the play in one last blow-out, and retreats to the lonely solace of physical therapy; indeed, as the curtain falls he still hasn't embarked on the journey we thought the play was going to be about.

Still, even if Sons of the Prophet goes nowhere, the trip around the traffic circle is an entertaining one, thanks to the crack comic cast DuBois has assembled to put it over.  Gleason is a hoot, as you'd expect from this Broadway vet, but there are equally sharp turns from Dan McCabe, as that all-knowing gay bro, and Yusef Bulos, as Joseph's not-so-funny uncle.  Local light Dee Nelson also scores, with the witty Lizbeth Mackay, in a variety of supporting roles, as does Jonathan Louis Dent as that low-key, but angling, quarterback.  Alas, hotties Kelsey Kurz (above right) and Charles Socarides make less of an impression as Joseph and his possible partner, but you get the impression that's because the roles don't make much of an impression; indeed, Kurz pulls off a sudden breakdown toward the finish that's quite moving in its eloquence, but only leaves you wondering - uh, where did that come from?

A similar question mark hovers over the whole production, despite the talents of everyone involved (including designer Anna Louizos, who imaginatively crams a zillion different locales onto the Calderwood stage). But I suppose there's always the summer to make things right. It might be a long one.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The thoroughly Modern Theatre makes its debut

The renovated Modern Theatre at Suffolk University.
I caught a fun reading of Thomas Middleton's Women Beware Women last weekend, by the Actors' Shakespeare Project, but I left singing the praises of its setting, the Modern Theatre, more than the play or production itself.

Just btw, I'm not one of those critics who like to pretend the other Elizabethans and Jacobeans are nearly in Shakespeare's league - even though Marlowe, Jonson and Webster are always of some interest, and have their respective brilliances, I've never seen a production of any of them that really worked. (And Middleton is probably in the tier below them.)  To be fair, a lot of Shakespeare productions don't work, either! But it always seems what's of most interest about Shakespeare's peers is their shared sense of decay and despair, even disgust; they all revel in humiliation and cruelty; the Bard seems to float above them like some kind of civilizing, timeless dream. (This sense of cynical darkness may be why the Jacobean genre was the only one the A.R.T. ever seemed really suited to, and why theatres like New York's Red Bull have made successes of these period pieces by tricking them up with downtown-dungeon paraphernalia that would have thrilled SNL's Stefon.)

But alas, the Actors' Shakespeare Project isn't really into dungeon culture, so Women Beware Women came off as black comedy (as Jacobean "tragedies," and Middleton in particular, often do).  Indeed, the climactic Saw-style death-off (by molten gold, trap door, poisoned arrow, etc.) was met with gales of happy laughter from the enthusiastic crowd.  But then the ASP cast had played the text mostly for laughs from the top; comedy is this troupe's forte, after all, and there were fun turns to savor here from Bill Barclay and particularly John Greene.  I think there's a deeper, more lushly rotten tone you could achieve with the material, but that would probably require an imaginative physical realization of the text.

John Lee Beatty (with paint) and Modern artistic director Marilyn Plotkins.
I do want to note, however, that the reading was helped immeasurably by its setting, the newly-restored Modern Theatre (at top).  ASP has decided to stage its upcoming Antony and Cleopatra here, as well as a few productions next season, and frankly, I can't imagine a better space for them (with one major proviso).  Intentionally or not, the ironically-titled "Modern" evokes the decadent gallery-atmosphere of past theatrical eras with surprising potency (and far more successfully than efforts like Shakespeare & Co.'s complex out in the Berkshires).  The acoustics of the space are quite good, and it's sizeable (almost 200 seats) while seemingly as intimate as a theatre half that scale.  And the blood-red murals that cover its walls (by stage designer John Lee Beatty, in action above) are ripely lurid yet brazenly spectacular (appropriately enough, they're executed in the crudely impressionistic style of set painting - they're a stage set for a stage set).   Best of all, there's a palpable connection here between stage and stalls - something rare in modern houses.  Indeed, I'd say that it's just as good as the dazzling Paramount next door - maybe even better - but for one unfortunate fact: you can hear the Orange Line rumbling past every now and then.  This is a real problem, and pretty much kills the space as a setting for serious music.  But believe it or not, I was able to tune out the T for much of Women Beware Women.  I'm hoping the more delicate strains of Antony and Cleopatra will survive the occasional shake, rattle and roll as well.  For after all, isn't the restored Globe on a flight path to Heathrow?  And who knows how much tavern (not to mention bear-baiting) noise was ambient in the theatre back in Shakespeare's day.  So when the Orange Line roars by, just pretend it's the royal barge or something.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Russian resolution

The St. Petersburg Philharmonic in its natural habitat.
The St. Petersburg Philharmonic (above, which touched down at Symphony Hall last weekend courtesy of Celebrity Series) is the kind of orchestra that almost operates as a musical riposte to our modern standards of symphonic playing.

In fact I feel slightly embarrassed even mentioning the adjectives that came to mind as conductor Yuri Temirkanov shepherded his vast forces through the sonic landscapes of Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich, and Brahms. Because those words were ones like "forcefully masculine," and "defiantly Russian," terms so sexist and nationalistic - so loadedly retro - as to be almost "inappropriate." To be blunt, classical music isn't supposed to have hair on its chest anymore, and it isn't supposed to have a national character; like the rest of our artistic "discourse," it's supposed to exist on a virtual plane, concocted in some ironic, yet sympathetic, critical cloud.

Somehow, though, Temirkanov (at right) didn't get that memo; so the St. Petersburg's signature stance proved to be almost a kind of Old World cliché: raw power wrapped in a veneer of glorious subtlety. I may have been wrong to ascribe "defiance" to the conductor, however; he didn't seem to have any particular axe to grind, although his manner glimmered here and there with an impish awareness of just how impressive his old-school orchestra really was, and how insouciantly he could command it. Often, in fact, Temirkanov would simply beckon with his fingertips, and some gigantic section of the orchestra or other would rise to its toes and balance en pointe.  Indeed, the contrast between his bemused, offhand precision, and the size of the monster ensemble at his beck and call, was part of what made Temirkanov's performance so mesmerizing.

For make no mistake - when it wanted to (or rather when Temirkanov wanted it to), the St. Petersburg seemed capable of rolling right over our own BSO.  Not with mere volume (although the orchestra got plenty loud), but with a quality that's hard to pin down with a more specific word than "size."  Yes, before you laugh - size matters in an orchestra; you can have five violins playing as loud as possible and the effect comes off as blaring; but if you have twice that many instruments playing at half that volume then the effect is one of mass and power and space, of strength rather than shrillness; and that's what the St. Petersburg's outsized ensemble had in spades.

The effect was immediately clear in the opening Russian Easter Overture of Rimsky-Korsakov, which required forces that could barely squeeze onto the Symphony Hall stage.  The piece famously encompasses the energies of the spring holiday by opening with the sombre (though joyful) chants of the Orthodox Church, which are slowly infiltrated, and then overcome, by dancing pagan spirits.  The orchestration is all color, all atmosphere, as you might expect of Rimsky-Korsakov; it even closes with a triumphal summation that recalls the clanging majesty of "The Great Gate of Kiev" from Pictures at an Exhibition. And from the opening bars it was obvious the St. Petersburg was in its element; a vast musical space was carved in Symphony Hall, within which the air itself seemed to glitter, then come alive before the joyous crashes of the closing cathedral bells; pure magic.

From there things only got more "Russian," if in a much darker key; with the help of the brilliant young cellist Alisa Weilerstein, the St. Petersburg essayed Shostakovich's landmark Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-Flat.  This is one of the greatest, if bleakest, works of the twentieth century, and almost frightening in its evocation of a national spirit gone half-mad - it's music, as I've argued before, that's embedded in history rather than theory.  The St. Petersburg played with authoritative passion, if not quite mania - surprisingly, it was the young American who supplied the needed intensity and focus - at least at first.  Alas, she was slightly undone by the cryptic cadenza, in which you can feel Shostakovich insinuating that music itself must fall away, despairing, before some kinds of atrocities and betrayals; perhaps this is simply too much to expect a twenty-seven-year-old, however talented, to convey.

The second half of the program was given over to Brahms' Symphony No. 4 in E-Minor, the single piece in which Temirkanov seemed to falter slightly in his inspiration. Things began well, with just the right kind of sigh rippling beneath the lilt of the opening theme, and the later movements felt appropriately steeped in Brahmsian oak, with expert playing from the horns and winds (as well as the consistently superb strings). But perhaps something slightly rote had begun to slip into the reading before its last climax.

Any sense of disappointment was erased, however, by the orchestra's encore, which was probably the most moving rendition of Elgar's famous "Nimrod" (from the Enigma Variations) that I've ever had the honor to hear. The opening notes seemed to flow from the strings like an invisible tide, and once again maestro Temirkanov hardly seemed to move as the orchestra heaved about him like some deep, mysterious ocean. Benediction, apotheosis, and penance - "Nimrod" seems in its few minutes to encompass all this and more (and it's worth noting that it, too, has become embedded in history - it's all but Britain's official ode of mourning for the dead of World War I). As the piece's final crash and diminuendo faded, all of Symphony Hall was transfixed, as if a unicorn had suddenly stood upon its stage, then vanished. But then the sound of the St. Petersburg is something nearly as rare.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Photo above and masthead by Gene Schiavone.

It would be difficult to overestimate the pleasure given by Boston Ballet's current revival of A Midsummer Night's Dream (through this weekend at the Opera House). The dance represents, of course, the intersection of two geniuses - Shakespeare, probably the greatest artist of all time, and Balanchine, the choreographer who most certainly deserves a place in the Bard's pantheon of talent.  Not that Balanchine's ballet encompasses the full breadth of Midsummer - in fact, it doesn't even attempt to treat the whole play;  Mr. B (as he has become known) all but races through the plot, and leaves out whole chunks of Shakespearean theme and structure (don't expect, for instance, to see anything danced regarding the lover, the lunatic, and the poet, much less the "tragedy" of Pyramus and Thisbe).

No, as I said, this is a kind of intersection, not an interpretation; but Balanchine understands much of Midsummer, and brings to his ballet, almost without thinking, something of Shakespeare's own depth and nobility.  We don't like that word anymore, of course - "nobility."  Which is our loss, because it expresses something Shakespeare believed in, and which Balanchine simply takes as a matter of course.  Of course ballet elevates human experience, his every move tells us; of course even a flawed character, or society (or dream) has an inherent nobility to be discovered and appreciated.  Of course, of course.

Thus the centerpiece of Balanchine's Midsummer corresponds to one of his central concerns - the expression of romantic harmony through civilized ceremony. Perhaps because he's so devoted to ceremony, Mr. B disdains pantomime - hence the headlong dash through some sequences (like the arrival of the mechanicals in the forest); if he can't conjure a full dance from a scene, Balanchine just sketches it in, with an implied nod along the lines of "You remember this part, right? Right!".

So if for some reason you're not familiar with the play, it may be a good idea to check it out before going, so you're not wondering things like "What's with the donkey head?" Although frankly, even memories from a high school production might be all you need - or maybe even just the précis I overheard in the lobby from one young patron, which ran, "There are these people in the forest who are like in love with the wrong person, okay? And they meet these fairies, and you know stuff happens, and everybody ends up in love with the right person, and then they all get married."

Good enough for me! Although I have to say much of the most individualized dancing and acting came from those four confused young lovers - on opening night essayed by company stars Kathleen Breen Combes and Yury Yanowsky (now a married couple) as the warring Helena and Demetrius, and Erica Cornejo and Pavel Gurevich as the besotted Hermia and Lysander. These were four utterly specific performances in terms of emotion realized as movement, all set off by brilliant comic timing (but then the Ballet is full of terrific comedians).

Photo by Eric Antoniou
The lead fairies were perhaps slightly less compelling - it was great to see Lorna Feijóo return to the spotlight as Titania (with her peerless technique utterly secure), but she lacked a certain vixenish spark in her opening war with Oberon (the sinuously elegant John Lam, both at top), and she was indifferently partnered in her solo by the young Lorin Mathis. Elsewhere, however, fairyland was indeed aglitter with magic - as Balanchine's fluttering butterflies, the kids wrangled by ballet mistress Melanie Atkins were utterly charming (and in perfect synch, at left), and Jeffrey Cirio, though perhaps lacking a genuinely devilish streak - despite sprouting a tiny pair of horns - was nevertheless dazzlingly fleet of foot as Puck (see masthead), and with his happy élan had the audience in the palm of his hand all night.

There are a lot of great performances to mention here, however - that's the downside of being a reviewer when the Ballet's bench has become as deep as it is now! Robert Kretz, who has toiled largely in the background in previous seasons, struck just the right innocently earthy notes as Bottom (particularly while preferring provender to Titania). And Lia Cirio made a buoyantly darting huntress of Hippolyta, partnered with appropriately understated confidence by Bo Busby. But probably the most sublime dancing of the night came from Larissa Ponomarenko and James Whiteside, as the avatars of Balanchine's lengthy second-act divertissement.

This wouldn't be a Balanchine ballet without an enormous work for the corps at the climax, and Midsummer sports a doozy that's geometrically intricate even by Mr. B's heady standards. Here it was brought off with sparkling precision, however, which only set off Ponomarenko and Whiteside's sweetly simple pas de deux (just as it was meant to be). The keynote of their coupling is sympathetic attention - the moves in of themselves are only impressive as subtle call-and-response - a quality which these two dancers by now seem to have in their bones.

Then came that enchanting moment when the court dissolves back into the forest - an effect even more dazzling than usual on the exquisite new set the Ballet had borrowed from La Scala (which was simpler but more sophisticated than the design of previous productions). And when Balanchine's butterflies came back as fireflies, you heard one of those soft, unconscious sighs of pleasure rise from the audience that are almost more magical than anything occurring on the stage.

Oh and did I mention this production actually represents the intersection of three geniuses, not just two? For let's not forget Felix Mendelssohn, whose suite of incidental music (largely written when he was just seventeen) has long since become a classic in its own right; here it was skillfully extended to include excerpts from his Athalia Overture and String Sinfonia No. 9 (written when he was all of fourteen). Down in the pit, the Ballet's orchestra seemed a little uncertain of Mendelssohn's familiar opening notes, but soon, under the baton of Jonathan McPhee, they had settled into a sweetly vigorous interpretation as memorable as the rest of this ravishing production.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

If you want to see a Boston Ballet star for free . . .

. . . tonight's your chance. Boston Ballet prima ballerina Lorna Feijóo will make a guest performance on ABC’s Dancing With The Stars tonight at 9 pm. Feijóo will appear with her sister, San Francisco Ballet principal Lorena Feijóo (bet you didn't know she had a ballerina for a sib), and American Ballet Theatre principal Jose Manuel Carreño (who is also pretty awesome, I'm just sayin'). Together, the trio will perform a specially-choreographed excerpt from Swan Lake. I've already seen Lorna & Lorena play off each other as Odette and Odile in a special perf of Swan Lake at Boston Ballet a few years back. And let's just say Natalie Portman would have had a cow. So don't miss this second chance to catch the upside of sibling rivalry on the dance floor!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Ah, the burden of the ideal.
A different form of drama has recently distracted me from my usual round of citations for dramatic excellence - which is a pity, isn't it.  'Tis also a pity that, thanks to the machinations of Kati Mitchell and Shawn LaCount, I won't be seeing quite a few artists this season who probably deserve my acknowledgment.  So to you, I offer an apology for Kati and Shawn's sins in absentia.

All that aside, however (I'm getting bored with them, too), there are already quite a few shows and performances (particularly ensemble performances) to cite this spring as award-worthy.  Alas, there still is no physical manifestation of the Hubbie (although the model at left, methinks, would serve as award enough for anybody).  So this token of my esteem remains merely virtual.  For that I also apologize.  Still, sometimes a virtual accolade can mean more than a physical one - particularly if it has never been compromised by being bestowed on the likes of Man of La Mancha, if ya know what I mean . . .

But enough on that topic, too!  Here are the Hubbie Awards so far for Spring 2011:

First some general thoughts, though - what's the current trend in excellence in our city's performing arts?  Well, I suppose the big story is Boston Lyric Opera's stunning season - this spring we've already seen two triumphs from them, Agrippina and The Emperor of Atlantis, and hopes are high for their upcoming A Midsummer Night's Dream.  But I don't usually award Hubbies to opera or dance productions, as my coverage there is more sporadic (with the new dispensation, however, that may change).

On the theatrical front, I'd say what has been striking me of late is the amount of high-quality direction coming from women.  There was a fuss a year or two ago over the supposed under-representation of female playwrights on our stages - but that "controversy" has yielded to my mind only one great script, Lydia Diamond's Stick Fly.  Yet at the same time, a whole new generation of talented female directors has kind of snuck up on Boston, pretty much unsung (but isn't that always the way?).  Their achievement has in part been obscured by the negative example of our most notorious female director, the A.R.T.'s Diane Paulus - and to be honest, her greed-driven vulgarian chic might be enough to put you off female directors in general.

But that would be a huge mistake.  A significant number - maybe even the majority - of the best ensembles I've seen in the past year have been directed by women, and I think I can begin to sense a sort of stylistic locus for these artists, all of whom seem committed to quiet, highly sensitive readings of the text in question (except when politically-correct issues arise, at which point a few of them go haywire, as Melia Bensussen did with The Merchant of Venice).

So who exactly is in this new vanguard of women directors - who are already pretty clearly stronger than the boys you regularly see at say, SpeakEasy or the Lyric? Well, any short list of the best direction I've seen in the past year would have to include:

Melia Bensussen - The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead, and Two Jews Walk into a War. . .  (both at Merrimack Rep), along with Circle Mirror Transformation (at the Huntington);

Bridget Kathleen O'Leary - DollHouse, New Rep;

Liesl Tommy - Ruined, Huntington Theatre;

Maria Aitken - Educating Rita, Huntington Theatre  (Neither Tommy or Aitkin are local, btw.);

Meg Taintor, Tales from Ovid, Whistler in the Dark (of which she's artistic director).

I've also been impressed by the work of Stoneham's Caitlin Lowans and the Huntington's M. Bevin O'Gara, whose work I haven't seen lately, but who is helming Bat Boy at Metro Stage this summer.  I know Kate Warner is the big name missing from this survey - largely because while I've enjoyed Warner's direction, her choice of scripts often seems to me wacky; if I could ignore that, she'd be on the list.

Well, that became quite the digression, didn't it - and so on with the Spring Hubbies:

Best New Plays

In the Footprint: The Battle Over Atlantic Yards, (below) by The Civilians at ArtsEmerson;

To Hell with this Village, by S. Travis Taylor, Roxbury Center for the Arts;

The Hotel Nepenthe, by John Kuntz, Actors' Shakespeare Project;

Life "in the footprint" with the Civilians at ArtsEmerson.
 Best Ensembles

Tonye Patano, Carla Duren, Pascale Armand, Zainab Jah, Oberon K.A. Adjepony, and Ensemble,  Ruined, directed by Liesl Tommy, Huntington Theatre;

Jane Pfitsch and Andrew Long, Educating Rita, directed by Maria Aitken, Huntington Theatre;

John Kuntz, Daniel Berger-Jones, Georgia Lyman and Marianna Bassham, The Hotel Nepenthe, directed by David R. Gammons, Actors' Shakespeare Project;

Liam Carney, Nancy E. Carroll, Ingrid Craigie, Dermot Crowley, Clare Dunne, Laurence Kinlan, Dearbhla Molloy, Tadhg Murphy and Paul Vincent O'Connor, The Cripple of Inishmaan, directed by Garry Hynes, Druid and Atlantic Theater Company at ArtsEmerson;

Aimee Doherty, Cheryl McMahon, Kerry A. Dowling, Maureen Keiller, Jennifer Ellis, Shana Dirik, Santina Umbach, Amy Jackson, McCaela Donovan, Eric March, and Timothy John Smith, Nine, directed by Paul Daigneault (at left).

Andrea Maulella, Mark Shanahan, Tryst, directed by Joe Brancato, Merrimack Rep;

Judith Lightfoot Clarke, Carolyn Baeumler, Catherine Eaton, and Joseph Tisa, The Exceptionals, directed by Charles Towers,  Merrimack Rep;

Jeremiah Kissel, Will LeBow, Two Jews Walk Into a War . . ., directed by Melia Bensussen, Merrimack Rep;

Jimi Stanton, Will McGarrahan, Amanda Collins, 9 Circles, directed by Eric C. Engel, Publick Theatre;

Sarah Newhouse, Will Lyman, Jennie Israel, Diego Arciniegas, Cheryl Singleton, Claudia Q. Nolan and Julian Schepis, DollHouse, directed by Bridget Kathleen O'Leary, New Rep;

Best Individual Performances

Jen O'Connor, The Europeans, Whistler in the Dark;

Nathan Darrow, Ajax, American Repertory Theatre;

John Kuntz, Hysteria, Nora Theatre;

Phil Thompson, Glengarry Glen Ross, Independent Drama Society;

Joel Colodner, Anne Gottlieb, My Name is Asher Lev, Lyric Stage;

Jason Ming-Trent, Christen Simone Marabate, and Ted Schneider, The Merchant of Venice, Theatre for a New Audience at ArtsEmerson;

Best Design

James Fuhr, set, and Aaron Sherkow, lighting, The Road to Mecca. Boston Center for American Performance (left);

Eugene Lee, set, The Crucible, Trinity Rep;

John Lee Beatty, set, and Linda Cho, costumes, The Merchant of Venice, Theatre for a New Audience at ArtsEmerson;

Seághan McKay, projections, Educating Rita, Huntington Theatre, and Nine, SpeakEasy Stage;

Kathryn Kawecki, set, The Rimers of Eldritch, Stoneham Theatre;

John Malinowski, lighting, 9 Circles, Publick Theatre;

Cotton Talbot-Minkin, costumes, Mac Young, set, and Michael Underhill and Jenna Stelmok, lighting, The Crazy Locomotive, Imaginary Beasts;

Bill Barclay, sound, The Hotel Nepenthe, Actors' Shakespeare Project.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

On the twentieth century

Modernity runs out of control in The Crazy Locomotive. Photo by Meg Taintor.

Long-time readers of the Hub Review know that one of my ongoing concerns is the difference between the academic and the truly intellectual - a critical concern you'd think would be of paramount importance in a college town like this one. Or so an idealist might think. Realists, on the other hand, would be unsurprised to learn that our major universities are often more concerned with revenue generation than aesthetic advance.

Harvard has been the leader in this area - the A.R.T. is by now literally anti-intellectual, feeding the middlebrow masses a steady diet of pop "revolution" that might have been programmed by the B-school (all of it bearing the Harvard insignia, of course, much like a sweatshirt or a tote bag).  So the top of the academic heap is actually at the bottom of the intellectual heap, theatrically speaking.  This situation is perverse, but has its own Machiavellian logic; after all, in the new free-market consensus, universities must be popular to be good; ergo, the theatre at the greatest university in the world must sell the most tickets.  The fact that this formulation essentially contradicts the raison d'être of nonprofit theatre doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone around Harvard Yard.

Elsewhere the news is better, I admit, but still a somewhat mixed bag.  After a dismaying detour into the junky precincts of Pirates! and its ilk, the Huntington has regained its lost integrity, and is now our go-to house for high-quality, grandly-scaled production; but it's still prone to sugar-coating the content of its shows with sentiment or political correctness.  Thank God for ArtsEmerson, the local theatrical upstart which is currently the stand-out among our college programs - it's not producing shows yet (it's entirely a tour-driven operation), but it's probably our only university theatre that is actually devoted to the life of the mind.

But what do you do when ArtsEmerson is dark - or when the Huntington succumbs to the blandishments of another Pirates!?  Well, you could check out the opera or the ballet!  Or you could turn to our mid-level theatres - but you'd soon discover they're erratic, and that even the most consistent (like SpeakEasy Stage) are politely, but persistently, hostile to intellectual challenge.  Indeed, you'd generally have to drive all the way out of town, to one of Charles Towers's productions at Merrimack Rep, to find a small Equity production with brains.

Or you could turn to Boston's fringe, where a handful of companies faithfully keep the intellectual home fires burning.   Among these few - these happy few! - you'd have to count Mill 6 Collaborative, Whistler in the Dark, Imaginary Beasts and the seemingly dormant Rough and Tumble and Beau Jest.

Of these, Imaginary Beasts, led by Matthew Woods, is probably the most fearlessly eccentric.  Indeed, Woods stands out from the pack as that rare thing - a genuine original pursuing a unique vision; I really can't think of another director in the city making the kind of personal statement I'd ascribe to Woods.  He's half-director and half-designer, although he fuses those two roles into a theatrical style that's simultaneously charming and challenging, and always visually arresting.

On the surface, Woods seems devoted to an almost child-like sense of poetic nonsense (he's already well-known on the North Shore for a series of much-loved British "pantos," which I wish someone would bring to Boston).  Only in his more serious works, it's clear Woods views "nonsense" in the same way Lewis Carroll and Gertrude Stein did: as a way to poke around at the very basics of conceptualization.

That sense of intellectual investigation is probably what drew him to The Crazy Locomotive (which runs through next weekend at the BCA) by the painter-playwright Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (who, in the best Imaginary Beasts fashion, referred to himself by the "nonsensical" name of "Witkacy").  Here the "nonsense" isn't that of a children's book - it's more like that of an eight-year-old's drug-induced fever dream, for Witkacy (at left, in a quintuple self-portrait) combines in his script a crazed expressionism with an unnervingly innocent egoism; imagine Lewis Carroll on speed as well as LSD, or a child Wittgenstein clapping his hands at the destruction of the world, and you've got Witkacy.

Like many of his works, The Crazy Locomotive is an ironic meditation on the forces of modernity running out of control.  The engineer and fireman of his eponymous train (which is really the play's central character) turn out to be two madmen, Travaillac (Mac Young) and Prince Karl Trefaldi (Joey Pelletier), who become bent on simply racing its engine faster and faster; they all but scream in sexual ecstasy as it barrels down the tracks toward its own destruction.  The train's passengers, of course, are screaming for a different reason, but there's no stopping the crazy locomotive, which eventually crashes in a singularly spectacular fashion, even as the play crashes through all semblance of conventional drama into a free-fall of dream-imagery and narrative shards.

That's the whole plot, such as it is - yet it's quite pregnant with symbolic and analytic meaning.  The locomotive itself is clearly a frightening metaphor for the mind-set of the earlier twentieth century - in which revolutionary technology seemed to be offering mankind thrilling new horizons of accomplishment, but was instead ushering in an era of horrific destruction.   Tellingly, Witkacy's engineers don't reach higher and higher levels of awareness as their locomotive goes faster - instead, they regress into deeper and deeper fantasies of power and isolation (eventually they're playing at Robinson Crusoe).  Compare and contrast with today's relentless promotion of digital technology and the Web!

Or don't, but simply enjoy the wild-eyed irony of The Crazy Locomotive; after all, we're all stuck on this technological train, we may as well enjoy the ride until the crack-up. That mood of ironic distance was re-inforced by the fact that Woods set the play in a kind of cinematic, rather than theatrical, space; Mac Young's scenic design recalled not a locomotive but a zoetrope, for instance, and it was operated by none other than Charlie Chaplin himself (Marlee Delia, in a surprisingly convincing disguise).  These whimsical ideas may have undercut the power of some of Witkacy's imagery (the locomotive is supposed to spew actual flame, for instance), but they wittily extended his metaphor.  Alas, there was a similar trade-off at work in the acting; Woods's brilliant costumer, Cotton Talbot-Minkin, clothed the play's victims (and made them up) in silent-movie conventions, and they performed in much the same manner.  This unified everything at the design level, but the sense of air-quotes around the performances kept a lid on the bubbling chaos Witkacy seemed to want to conjure.  And leads Mac Young and Joey Pelletier, two of the most accomplished actors on the fringe, brought plenty of gonzo energy to their performances, but never seemed to connect in that way that evil geniuses always do.

Nevertheless, Woods (and Young, and lighting designers Michael Underhill and Jenna Stelmok) scored a tremendous coup in their staging of Witkacy's bizarre finale, which takes place after the locomotive's apocalyptic crash.  Here a semi-transparent curtain descended over a single corpse (or perhaps merely unconscious body?), upon which fleeting, shadowy images played like memories, or echoes, or ghosts.  Where we in the subconscious - or the afterlife?  Or perhaps some sort of ontological limbo?  We were never sure, but the effect was grippingly poetic, and certainly one of the must-see theatrical moments of the season.