Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Word made gay flesh: Stephen Spinella and Michael Esper in iHo.

In the beginning was the Word, St. John tells us. Only Tony Kushner might add, "And in the middle was the Word. Plus in the end there were a whole lot more Words, too."  (He might even whisper, "And they were all made flesh.")

Or so you might guess after seeing (or more importantly, hearingThe Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures (at New York's Public Theater through June 12). That is if that 14-word title, with its implied dialectic of reference, hadn't itself suggested the erudite logorrhea of Kushner's latest play, which runs only about 3 hours and 40 minutes, but which "actually" runs at least twice (or maybe even three times) that length, because many scenes are densely-packed sexta- and septa-logues in which every major character is chattering at once.

But let me say up front: that title is perfect.  Even its length is perfect.  As for the play - well, I suppose it is imperfect, but only imperfect in the way that Long Day's Journey into Night and Hamlet, Prince of Denmark are; it's over-stuffed and hard to classify and somewhat at odds with its own means.  In other words, iHo (as Kushner now refers to it) may not be perfect, but it is certainly great.  Probably the greatest play of the millennium, in fact, and perhaps the greatest play since Kushner's own Angels in America (my guess is that it will eventually rank second in his oeuvre after that epoch-defining epic).

Now I know what you're thinking, all you little Rob Kapilows out there: "What makes it so great, Garvey?" Well, to start with, it has a grand theme: the death of the left in America. Actually make that the suicide of the left - the play traces the path toward self-deliverance of one Gus Marcantonio, aging labor organizer and patriarch of a leftish clan from whom he actually asks permission to die.  Gus, of course, is merely the latest in a long line of Kushnerian archetype-stereotypes (like Roy Cohn and the Homebody) whom the playwright has used to illumine the internal contradictions of his gi-normous themes; Kushner has always been a kind of dramaturgical moth drawn to the fires of crisis, and with Gus and his offspring he clearly means to shine a light on a social issue we've been trained to never discuss as a "crisis," but which is as far-reaching in its implications and effects as the AIDS crisis, or the civil rights movement, or terrorism in Afghanistan (all of which Kushner has treated in earlier plays). Watching iHo, in fact, you often feel that finally one of our playwrights has dared to point out the invisible political elephant that has been standing in the American living room for something like two decades.

Kushner in his ad for Gap.
And then there is the sheer size of the intellectual experience Kushner conjures; his theme is big, therefore his play is big.  So get ready for the fat pipe of playwriting, all you millennials used to the whimsical trickles of Sarah Ruhl and her ilk.  Watching iHo, you almost pity the many poseurs who have gamed their way onto our stages of late.  (How can they hold up their heads in the face of this?  And how have we put up with so little for so long?) Indeed, Kushner himself ridicules the paucity of New Age discourse.  "Ooo, you can type on glass!" one old-school intellectual sneers at a hapless millenial tapping  an emoticon into his iPhone. "What did you just say?  LOL or ROFLMAO?"

Of course Kushner would never abbreviate anything - that way, to his mind, lies the disappearance of the Word (and thus the world).  Instead he all but revels in his own happily reactionary intellectual capacities: the symbols here are simultaneously bald and yet almost too complex to parse (at least at first reading), and the ramifications of the conflicts seem to explode in our heads even as we attempt to track them.  We sense puns layered on puns, both explicit and implicit, and the very structure of the play constitutes a kind of argument with itself.  But then Kushner explains at the top of the evening that he hopes to engender the dizzy sense of intellectual vertiginousness that George Bernard Shaw conjured in his most contrarian plays (or in his enormous Intelligent Woman's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism) - that sensation, rather like being on "poppers or speed or E" (as the playwright puts it), that puts you once again right where Kushner wants you - on the threshold of revelation.

Only Kushner's trying to do this without any angelic interventions, or talking home appliances, or even the strangely incantatory direct address of Homebody/Kabul. Because this time he is decidedly not writing a fantasia; there's no more "magic" in his "realism"; instead he is doing his own variation on that warhorse of the twentieth-century stage, the American Family Drama.  And he plays strictly by its rules: nothing crashes through the (low) ceiling of the set, and long-lost ancestors stay firmly in their photos on the mantle; the action - which even observes most of the classical unities - is contained utterly, and believably, within the walls of a Brooklyn brownstone. The only thing that strains credulity in iHo is everybody's vocabulary.

This has inevitably caused consternation among several critics, who can feel, subconsciously or consciously, the disconnect between Kushner's cosmic aims and his kitchen-sink means.  Ben Brantley of the Times, for instance, huffed that "There's a sense of Mr. Kushner pushing [his characters] into position for their moments of one-on-one confrontation."  And I suppose there's some superficial truth in this, but only if you willfully ignore Kushner's signals that he's well aware of the contradictions between fantasia and family drama - as well as the heavy hints he drops as to his own method and goals.

For to be blunt, there's a hidden metaphysical argument going on in iHo that more than matches any of its explicit dialectical sparrings - and that is far beyond the ambitions of generational soapers like August: Osage County (with which iHo has been widely compared).  To perceive its dimensions, you have to go back to that elephantine title again - particularly its latter half, that "Key to the Scriptures."  A ref to Mary Baker Eddy's notorious thesis that Christianity could become a concrete "science," the phrase also prepares us for the fact that iHo features not one but two theologians (one of them an atheist), as well as a former nun - strange indeed for a supposed Marxist playwright, don't you think?  But then there has always been a Hegelian side to Kushner that bleeds into even deeper mysteries; when one of those theologians laughs that she is "Apophatic with pronounced cataphatic inclinations," you know, even as you snicker at her hyper-articulate pretentions, that she has just described her creator as well as herself.

Michael Cristofer and Linda Emond in iHo.
Okay, I know what you're thinking - what the hell is "apophatic," Garvey, much less "cataphatic"?  Well, as you might guess, the two are opposed intellectual styles: to put it crudely, apophasis refers to a form of logical argument by denial - or the technique of describing something solely by what it is not, as players do in "Twenty Questions." An apophatic theologian is one, therefore, who believes God cannot be described directly; He can only be implied via his antithesis. A cataphatic theologian, by way of contrast, believes the nature of God can be expressed straightforwardly, indeed that He can be openly and "positively" described.  So if you think of Kushner as a kind of dramatist with both apophatic and cataphatic inclinations, then the rationale behind iHo is suddenly clear; he is attempting to express his mysterious theme via strict naturalist "negation;" yet at the same time,  he's constantly tempted to express it "positively."  And if you find that artistic contradiction inherently frustrating, bear in mind that Kushner is only imitating far larger cultural fish than himself; Hegel, Christ, hell, even Jehovah/Yahweh/et.al. are all essentially "apophatic, with cataphatic inclinations;" the yin-yang of the "immanent" and the "ineffable" undergirds the very ontology of "revelation," and thus every extant metaphysical tradition (including Marx's).

And on that heady note, let's take a breather; I'll write more on iHo, and explain further why I think it's the best play of the past decade, in the conclusion of this two-part review.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Richard III meets Saw VII.
Earlier this week I applauded the comedy, but dissected the errors, of the Propeller Theatre Company's Comedy of Errors, now in rep at the Huntington with Richard III. Today I'll look longer at Richard, the less successful of the two productions.

Many print critics have expressed happy surprise at the unity of style that the Propellants have (supposedly) brought successfully to these Shakespearean scripts, as both are explicitly structured around extreme violence (Comedy plays like outtakes from Tom and Jerry, while Richard's mayhem is straight out of Saw, rusty hacks and all).  But alas, they couldn't be more wrong about that success.  Although I'll give Propeller's director, Edward-son-of-Peter Hall, at least these props: he savvily realized there were enough structural parallels between Comedy and Richard - both are essentially serial plots (one about a serial killer!), and both are organized around cruelty (onstage in one, offstage in the other) - that Propeller's propulsive fratboy physicality could, with opposing twists, serve approximately for both.  So I'll give him points for strategy.

But the violence is offstage in Richard III for a reason - it pulls focus relentlessly from Shakespeare's main concern: the creation of his first great dramatic character. Indeed, his Richard has cast such a cultural shadow that he has all but replaced the historical record (the Bard drew his distorted story from sources sympathetic to the Tudors, who offed Dick to take over from the Plantagenets).

But in the silver-tongued Richard Clothier (above), we have what amounts to an anti-Richard; he's far too attractive for the character's explicitly envious psychology to make sense, and while he speaks Shakespeare's language superbly (the diction problems of Comedy were largely banished here), his eloquence seems utterly unpossessed by any burning drive for power. Clothier comes off as a distinguished under-minister of finance who may be hiding a decidedly nasty streak (he may like to attack helpless women in hotel rooms, for instance) but who could never organize a take-over of the IMF.

Admittedly, director Hall is clearly aware of this gap in the performance; thus he has deployed a chorus of killers (similar to the "Mexican" chorines of Comedy, but dressed in costumes lifted from Patrick Stewart's Macbeth) to drive the murderous action (which includes blinding by acid, dismemberment by chainsaw, a double beheading, the chewing off of fingers, and a ritual disembowelment). Indeed, at one point, when Richard attempts to off one of his own assassins, he finds it impossible to do so; the killer just rises again, apparently indestructible, leaving Richard looking more like the puppet than the puppetmaster. This was actually the most intriguing moment in the production - but it cried out for greater explication (as we suddenly realized Hall's theme was just different from the Bard's). And while I admit that all the torture was diverting, in its way, it just didn't have that much to do with Shakespeare's play; indeed, it was kind of a replacement for the play, because Hall could never figure out how to actually hook up the hip, sadistic energies of Hostel to the chassis of Richard III.

So let's talk, just for a second, about Richard III. I've already described it as a landmark in the canon because of the titanic profile of Richard; wedged between the intermittent brilliance of Henry VI and Titus Andronicus and the stunning structural breakthrough of Midsummer, its unforgettable central characterization constitutes one of the clear steps in "Shakespeare becoming Shakespeare." Behind the sheer forcefulness of Richard as character, however, there are subtler ontological themes at work: the scheming killer exists as something of a Shakespearean factotum, a kind of meta-playwright who all but announces the scene he is about to conjure; his own persona encapsulates, and even stage-manages, the history he's relating. Indeed, he "can add colors to the chameleon, and change shape with Proteus for advantages" (to quote Henry VI, in which he makes his first appearance); Richard is here, there and everywhere (the opposite, really, of Hall's approach). Thus, tellingly, when he is left alone on Bosworth field prior to his defeat, his multitudes of personalities all collapse into a single, guilty one. "I am I," he at last states (compare with Iago's "I am not what I am") - and he admits that "I" is a murderer; so we know immediately his own death cannot be far off.

It's the Duke of Clarence against not just Richard III, but the entire cast.
But Hall's vision has little to do with Shakespeare's progression for the character - indeed, its only progression is a steady escalation in its gross-out effects.  Thus it's no surprise his whole resistance-is-futile-before-my-killer-chorus approach undermines most of the action. The famous assassination of Clarence in the Tower, for instance, though spiked with clever sadism (above), nevertheless falls flat because it's clear Clarence (an unfortunately weak John Dougall, who was also a weak link in Comedy) has no hope of ever appealing to the consciences of his killers (at least as conceptualized here); his death feels pre-determined, and thus dramatically inert. Scene after scene plays out much the same way, because all of Richard's antagonists (particularly Lady Anne) likewise seem trapped in the amber of Hall's concept.  Even Elizabeth, whose escape from Crookback's clutches constitutes the structural climax of the script, seems to have little (if any) will of her own (though the talented Dominic Tighe makes one of the company's few stabs at a genuinely feminine character; most of the other "women" are just guys in dresses).  Even the triumph of Richmond (a.k.a. Henry Tudor) on Bosworth Field hardly registers as an event.  All it means is that we won't be seeing any more intestines onstage.

Of course if you're persuaded that there should be no difference between what you see at the Huntington and what you see at the multiplex (and there are many like you if you are), then this Richard III is definitely for you.  Certainly to many folks - even to many critics - the hoary old idea that art should be about something more than the jolt of a horror movie is - well, precisely that: a hoary old idea.  And so I breathlessly await Henry-IV-meets-Saw-VII!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Warner leaves New Rep

The New Rep's Artistic Director, Kate Warner, has suddenly resigned, according to the Globe's blog "Culture Desk." The New Rep has "declined to discuss" the departure, and Warner has not replied to requests for an interview. I have to say I'm not entirely surprised by this development (rumors had swirled around the New Rep for months), but it's sad to contemplate such an abrupt and strange ending to a directorship that began with such high hopes.  It sounds from the article as if the New Rep intends to carry on with the season that Warner had planned for next year; a Board member is quoted as saying a search for her replacement will probably take "a number of months."  Stay tuned . . .

Darth wins big

Yes, yes, you can stop e-mailing - I know you-know-who won big at the Nortons, for her various productions of Hair (not just Galt MacDermot's Hair, of course, but also Aeschylus's Hair and Shakespeare's Hair and a lot of other folks' Hair). As for her co-hort in crime's award - well, nothing scares liberal sheep like the spectre of racism, does it. I admit the whole spectacle of watching Kati Mitchell say "Jump!" and the Nortons responding "How high?" is a bit depressing - but on the other hand, catching a realistic glimpse of the power plays behind the theatre scene is always bracing in its way, isn't it. Anyway, enjoy the clip above of the A.R.T. accepting its awards at the ceremony (with an appropriate fanfare before "getting down," as the young people say).

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Welcome to the frathouse: Propeller's Comedy of Errors.
First the good news: the Propeller Theatre Company's touring productions of Comedy of Errors and Richard III (currently playing in rep at the Huntington) are the most brazenly inventive productions of the Bard I've seen in some time (and maybe ever).  Propeller, under the direction of Edward (son of Peter) Hall, boasts a huge ensemble with talent and energy to burn; and if the actors don't always have the most precise diction around, they compensate with musical chops and a refreshingly gonzo attitude.  With the Propellants (sorry) you never feel - as you do far too often today in productions of the Bard - that you're watching a stretched acting corps, or that political correctness, or any other stripe of high-mindedness, has crimped or curtailed the action; indeed, the Propellants openly revel in aiming their Shakespeare at the kind of Gen-Y groundlings who might otherwise be hanging at The Hangover II.

But before you pop those champagne corks over a post-modern masterpiece, ponder that neither of these pop editions of Comedy and Richard actually do their sources justice. (Comedy is by far the stronger of the two, although Richard has its fascinations.) No doubt the print reviewers will sing the praises of both  - and not without some cause; they're probably the strongest "big" Shakespeare we've seen in these parts in months, if not years (overall they're more impressive than the recent F. Murray Abraham Merchant of Venice).  Still, the success of Propeller's clever "updates" of the Bard via multiplex tropes and attitudes only deepens the critical paradox these productions present, and represent.

But let's back up a bit.  A major twentieth-century critical project - from the first "modern dress" Shakespeare productions through Peter Brook's "theatre of cruelty" to the early conceptual seasons of the A.R.T. - was rescuing the Bard from the distortions of earlier ages.  In previous centuries, sentimentalism had bent Shakespeare to its will, and adaptations and interventions were often the order of the day (even King Lear was re-written with a happy ending, by the notorious Nahum Tate).  But modern reformists hoped to scrape the saccharine detritus of some three centuries away from the Shakespearean tradition, and start fresh with a more authentic version of the Bard, one we could recognize, as Jan Kott famously put it, as "our contemporary."

But making Shakespeare our contemporary often has the downside of down-sizing him; because, face it, he's bigger than we are (although that's not what millennial narcissists like to hear).  Indeed, the greatest Shakespearean interpretations, I'd argue, should surprise our own society with fresh insights about itself.  But few of our critics or academics are interested in holding up an unflattering mirror to their customers; instead, our cultural consensus is happy to pound a contemporary template onto the Bard.  Which is exactly what Nahum Tate used to do.

Dugal Bryce-Lockhart locks lips with Robert Hands.
Thus while Propeller seems to spin a brilliant web of transgression in its knockabout aesthetic, you also get the feeling that all the edgy shenanigans are very comfortably mainstream - and somehow reductive.  The company leans on violence as almost the be-all (if not the end-all) of its aesthetic - the brutality is relentless in Comedy of Errors, which at least is sourced in physical farce; but even when Shakespeare leaves the rough stuff off-stage (as he does throughout Richard III), the Propellants drag it on anyway, with escalating scenes of torture-porn that might have been lifted from Saw or Hostel (the first act closes with a dismemberment by chainsaw - and we're only halfway through).  Of course you could make the critical pitch that in Comedy (at least), the Propellants are simply shining a harsh light on Shakespeare's own theatre of cruelty; but by the time old Crookback literally chews off Lady Anne's finger in Richard III, we realize that all the mayhem is really due to Propeller's monomania rather than any predilection of the Bard's.

And then there's the question of the troupe's famous same-sex casting - which I hoped might throw some welcome light on the Elizabethan practice of casting boys in women's roles. But no such luck, really - the Propellants color within the comfortable lines of drag queenery for the most part, at least in Comedy (above); the issue of verisimilitude - which we sense must have figured in Elizabethan practice (otherwise why cast boys?) - never raises its head (be-wigged or otherwise). Thus the question of how, exactly, a boy ever played Rosalind (or Cleopatra!) remains as mysterious after a double dose of  Propeller as it did before.  (Indeed, after watching Comedy, I realized just how shocking a cast of men and boys in a Shakespeare play would be today - talk about shaking up modern sensibilities!)  And as the "straighter" playing of the women in Richard III yielded fewer dramatic dividends than the drag schtick in Comedy, I'm wondering how far the Propeller aesthetic can really go when it comes to the canon; without some serious twists in their approach, I'd say they're limited to the histories and the early comedies.

But what's oddest about their same-sex casting, at least in Comedy of Errors, is how it re-inforces, rather than subverts, issues of gender and identity.  In fact I don't think I've ever seen quite as butch a production of Comedy as the Propellants offer here. Not only is violence the lingua franca of the piece (even the nuns brandish riding crops!), but all the "women" are costumed in uniform mini-skirts and hooker heels (see abbess at top) that hint at porn-derived gender roles. By the time someone has run across the stage naked with a sparkler up his bum (at right), and the local cop has been anally violated with his night stick, you realize we're deep in the frathouse (the whole thing even takes place in some frat-style south-of-the-border luau) where everyone is bound to the rigid codes of masculine dominance, desire and disgust that you often find there, but which have little to do with Shakespeare.

Of course all this only makes the Propellants seem up-to-the-minute, doesn't it. We live in an age of feminists who are suspicious of the feminine, so it's no surprise they're suspicious of Shakespeare, too, who is always suggesting that men should act more like women, but rarely that women should act more like men. Thus, weirdly enough, Hall manages to sell the Propellants' sexism as a critique of Shakespeare rather than a reflection of contemporary attitudes.

Still, you have to admit - fratboys are funny in short bursts, and there's no denying much of Comedy is cruelly hilarious. And there was some great drag acting on hand from Robert Hands (above left) as the piece's put-upon wife, Adriana (Quick grad-student thesis topic: Adriana as Shakespeare's only portrait of Anne Hathaway, with himself as an internally-doubled model for Antipholus: discuss!). I also got a kick out of the wittily self-conscious turn from David Newman (before he started with the num-chucks) as Adriana's more conventional sister. Whenever these two were onstage, Comedy played as a smarter version of the Gold Dust Orphans. Alas, as the identical twins in their lives, Dugald Bruce-Lockhart and Sam Swainsbury seemed more superficial (if no less theatrically savvy), and their slick, disco-dud sleaziness grew old before the show was over. Meanwhile director Hall never really differentiated their personalities, or their differing relationships with their twin servants (features which are quite clear in the text).

Indeed, not much that intrigues us today about The Comedy of Errors seems to have been top-of-mind for Hall. For if, as I argued recently, Cymbeline recapitulates the canon, then Comedy all but predicts it. Twins, shipwrecks, double identities, threatened executions, fears of adultery, flights of love poetry, even a last-minute family re-union - they're all there in embryo in The Comedy of Errors, which is studded with hard little thematic buds that would later flower in plays as disparate as The Taming of the Shrew and Pericles.

It would be difficult to suggest those later dramatic riches, I admit, in a production that also aimed for the funnybone - but still, that litany of plays (and modes) suggests there's far more tonal modulation to be found in Comedy than Edward Hall seems to have sought. So even as I laughed (and I often did), I sensed that something essential was always missing from the mix - much as I did in Richard III; but those are thoughts I'll explore more fully in the second part of this double review.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

It's hard to imagine a world in which every Sunday the greatest composer of the age (or, if you agree with the Times, the greatest composer of all time) showed up at the door of a provincial church in Germany with a brand-new work of genius. But that's what happened at the Church of St. Thomas in Liepzig during the early years of Johann Sebastian Bach's tenure as music director. Through much of the 1720's and beyond (Bach held the post from 1723 till his death in 1750), the congregation enjoyed a fresh masterpiece at each week's service; it's estimated Bach wrote over 300 of these cantatas (or six years' worth of Sundays), of which about two-thirds survive.

The cantatas thus serve as a vast field of discovery for a Bach naïf like me.  Only a handful have achieved what you might call "fame," but let's just say I've yet to hear a bad one!  Which means there's always a "new" cantata out there that's going to be wonderful. And last weekend (I'm so late with this review the performers probably thought I'd forgotten about them), I got to hear three in a row with which I'm unfamiliar, (Nos. 37, 92, and 97) in "The Bach Experience,"a set of gorgeous renditions by the Handel and Haydn Society chorus and period orchestra, led by Bach specialist Mary Greer. What made the performances particularly special, however, were the soloists (particularly the male soloists); like Boston Baroque, this season Handel and Haydn seems to have been saving its best soloists for last.

These included the forceful bass Sumner Thompson, who had just triumphed as a baritone in  Les Indes Galantes, as well as lyric tenor William Ferguson, who I think may be the strongest tenor I've yet heard sing with the Society (and he's got the wide-ranging international career to back up that assessment). The women were no slouches either: mezzo Brenda Patterson had an exquisitely rich and complex tone (but not quite as much power as I would have liked), while Deborah Selig's more sizeable soprano was radiant in its bloom,despite a slight edge at its very top.

The cantatas were performed in order both numerically and chronologically, (even though the numbering system has nothing to do with the dates of their composition); 37 and 92 are nestled closely together, in 1724 and 1725, while 97 follows nearly a decade after. It's no surprise then that 37 is the simplest in its effect - written for the Feast of the Ascension, it's essentially a glowing meditation on the blessedness of the faithful.  No. 92, on the other hand, is full of sturm und drang - a literal sea-storm seems to surge in the middle of it, in fact. And 97, by way of contrast, is the most developed instrumentally; unlike the earlier cantatas, which are pretty free in form (although each revolves around the liturgical readings of the service in question) 97 is structured enough to operate as a kind of orchestral suite with voices.  Which is intriguing when one considers that its liturgical message - a quiet trust in God's grace through the vicissitudes of life - is perhaps the simplest of any of the cantatas.

Conductor Greer shaped the performances with consummate skill and thoughtfulness - although not, perhaps, with any overarching profile; these renditions were scholarly in their affect, and more attentive than interpretive.  Still, Greer drew real power from her string section during the stormy onslaught of No. 92, and a beautifully serene line from the famous violin obliggato part in No. 97 (which tenor Ferguson accompanied with sweet, simple skill).  Soprano Selig likewise excelled in her soaring aria from the same work; but the most gripping performance of the concert clearly belonged to Sumner Thompson, who seemed to ride the surges of No. 92 with desperate commitment and a burnished, resonant tone.  Faith has rarely sounded so dramatic.

Let's do the time lapse again . . .

El Cielo de Canarias / Canary sky - Tenerife from Daniel López on Vimeo.

Another great one from the Canary Islands (maybe the best yet, in fact). Why isn't anyone doing these around Boston?

Monday, May 23, 2011

RISE and fall

It's rare that I don't enjoy an evening of dance, but I left the Complexions Contemporary Ballet (presented by Celebrity Series last weekend) holding my ears (from the over-amplification) and all but fuming at the waste of physical talent I'd just witnessed. For make no mistake - not that anyone would - the dancers of Complexions are truly awe-inspiring in their strength and beauty (see above), with many of the stunning women looking just as powerful as the ripped, towering men. The company all but steams with funky sex appeal in fact, and has the technique to leap back and forth from modern to ballet to street without missing a beat.

Yet for the most part, choreographer Dwight Rhoden (who co-founded the troupe with fellow Alvin Ailey dancer Desmond Richardson) takes the wheel of this rhythmic Rolls Royce and revs the motor but drives it precisely nowhere. The bombastic pseudo-religiosity of the opening Mercy soon became tedious (despite the amazingly committed dancing of Gary W. Jeter II), but was as nothing next to the titanic void that constituted RISE, set to a medley of fatuous fist-pumpers by U2. (I don't think I ever quite realized how much I hated Bono till I sat through this particular number.) Both pieces often looked more like cheerleading than dance, with Rhoden sending his dancers through relentlessly pounding "variations" - all landing precisely on the beat - in the kind of phalanxes you might remember from the glory days of MTV. The stamina of the dancers was stunning, but I'm afraid so was the silliness of much of this material.

Between these two disasters, however, there were glimpses of just how great Complexions could really be. Co-founder Richardson essayed a sweet little solo devoted to romantic loss in Moonlight, and On Holiday pondered domestic violence with shockingly calm directness. It's rare in the world of dance that you see a duet swing unapologetically from sex to violence and then back - in fact I'm not sure I've ever seen a male dancer coldly knock a female dancer to the floor (from which she can only wearily rise). But such things happen, of course, and so should be part of dance; and it's brave of these dancers (particularly the final pair of unhappy lovers, Edgar Anido and Christina Dooling) to go where so few others have. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Bono's vapid philosophy, and let's hope Complexions continues to find them out.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Thoughts on the end of the world

. . .  oh well, that didn't happen, did it!  We'll just have to keep calm and carry on . . .

Friday, May 20, 2011

Photos by Gene Schiavone.
Balanchine/Robbins comes at the end of a long and rewarding season for Boston Ballet (it seems we've only just seen dazzling productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream and Bella Figura); yet it's surprisingly big and bold and beautiful; in its ambition and scope it might have been the centerpiece of an earlier season.  Now it's simply another week's work for this astounding company; frankly, Boston balletomanes have never had it so good.

It also makes amends for a gap in the company's programming: we've seen a lot of Balanchine, but not much of Jerome Robbins in recent years, even though he (born Rabinowitz) and  Mr. B (born Balanchivadze) worked together on a show or two, and were orbiting stars at New York City Ballet in the 70's. Arguably this pair had a greater impact on American dance than any other two men in the twentieth century.

But if you're hoping for some sort of thesis about their artistic relationship from Balanchine/Robbins, you'll be disappointed.  Indeed, the program chooses opposing modes of each artist's oeuvre, so we feel their contrast far more than any correspondence between them; from Balanchine, we get two sprawling works named simply for their sources, Divertimento No. 15 (Mozart) and Symphony in Three Movements (Stravinsky); from Robbins, we get the intimately slim Afternoon of a Faun, and the larger, but still somehow hushed Antique Epigraphs (both based on Debussy).

What was surprising was that the slightest of these, Faun, should have proved the high point of the evening.  In this haunting little cameo Robbins manages to compress both a critique and a hymn to the allure of ballet - while simultaneously offering a sly comment on its legendary source, Nijinsky's 1912 original. Nijinsky shocked audiences back then with a sensual dream both exotic and animal - which he froze into a kind of slowly-unfolding frieze. Balanchine's most brilliant gambit is to translate that frieze into the flat plane of a mirror, and allow the dreamy sex to play out on (and "through") its surface. In his version of that languid afternoon, the Faun is a male dancer (Sabi Varga) prone in a rehearsal studio; waking from (or falling into?) a daydream, he is joined by a blonde sylph (Whitney Jensen) seemingly there to warm up, but really there to contemplate herself in the unseen mirror that forms the "fourth wall" of the stage (at left). They share an exquisite series of lifts, which generate a heady romantic atmosphere, yet their eyes are almost always on that mirror (that is, on us) rather than each other; indeed, an impulsive kiss from Varga shatters the reverie, and ends the piece. That scenario may sound paper-thin, but the work feels surprisingly deep in its calm depiction of the narcissim that not only fuels ballet, but maybe love itself. And Varga and Jensen played Robbins' subtle, concentrated moves to literal perfection. Jensen in particular gave a surprisingly moving dramatic performance - she has always been a coolly superb technician; here she showed signs of the acting talent that truly great dancers have as well.

Next to this, Robbins' Antique Epigraphs looks a little under-powered, although it was danced lucidly by the women of the Ballet.  Like Faun, Epigraphs is a slow-motion daydream in classical Greek (this time sans update; the women wear sered, ancient drapes in earth tones); it was inspired by Debussy's piano settings for a group of phony translations of Sappho that were a small sensation in the nineteenth century.  But alas, not much Sapphic energy survives in Robbins' version; statuary seems to have instead been his inspiration (but then he was always one to half-suggest, then suppress, evidence of homosexuality, wasn't he). Thus the piece is lovely, but somehow obscure in its intents. Which is almost too bad, because it's rare in the ballet tradition to see a large work devoted entirely to women, in which they dance for, and with, each other, rather than waiting for some guy to show up (as almost always happens in Balanchine). Instead Ancient Epigraphs plays like a funerary rite, with the women rarely touching, and certainly never having any fun. Of course perhaps that atmosphere of stricken silence is Robbins' point - the women do link arms in solidarity at the end (at top), as if guarding the ancient mystery of their oppression.  If only said mystery were a little more dramatic! Still, the eight women of the Ballet danced with transparent serenity, and there were luminous moments from Lia Cirio, Luciana Voltolini, Kathleen Breen Combes, and particularly Erica Cornejo.

I've saved the Balanchine for last, largely because Robbins was the rarity on the program - but his smaller-scaled dances were actually almost overwhelmed by the titanic works by Mr. B. that framed them.  First came Divertimento No. 15, set to Mozart's Divertimento in B-flat, K.287. The title tells you this is pure music visualization, and it is - there seems to be no "plot" - although as is often the case with Mozart, there's a whiff of innocent promiscuity in the air as variation follows variation after variation, all in gold and robin's-egg blue. But even if nothing "develops," everything is pitched at such a high level, and the duets and trios and quartets are extrapolated so effortlessly, that somehow you sense Mr. B has matched Mozart at his own game - the dance is almost carelessly simple and free, yet at the same time gorgeously constructed and brilliantly executed.

Down in the pit I'm afraid the playing was a little rough here and there, but up on stage the dancers were in superb control. Lorna Feijóo was the stand-out, and it was good to see her really own something again, as she did in solos where her footwork was so quick and crisp it seemed to be almost flickering. And James Whiteside once again displayed the elegant attack which has made him the company's lead choice for Balanchine - and he seems to be able to sensitively adjust his partnering to just about any lady he's dancing with - although he was often given a run for his money by the more sensual Jaime Diaz, and the always-wired John Lam. Meanwhile younger company members Dalay Parrondo and Tiffany Hedman likewise made their own sparkling impressions.

By the time we got to Symphony in Three Movements, we half-expected some of the dancers to just poop out; a few of them seemed to have been dancing all night. The bouncing, booming work nevertheless came off, even though it's a bit cramped on the Opera House stage.  Still, it's a curiosity - Stravinsky's pounding score, from 1946, echoes with the ruthless song of war, but Balanchine has choreographed to it a kind of paean to all-American energy.  Thus it opens with a bevy of bathing beauties straight out of the Miss America pageant (at top), and it's full of prancing mobs of teen-agers, their ponytails bobbing, who march about in "armies" that crash into, and through, each other as if in some mad Busby Berkeley version of the Nuremberg rallies.  (That is when they're not burning off excess energy with bursts of calisthenics - see video above).  There are a few sweet moments, but mostly the tone is ironic - and sometimes downright chilly (as in a strangely alienated pas de deux between Lia Cirio and James Whiteside). 

The work ultimately feels like a kind of flipside to John Cage's triumphalist Credo in US, in which American pop cacophony happily drowns out European decadence.  Perhaps for a transplanted Russian like Balanchine, there was a certain rue to be found even in that triumph. Or perhaps he could see beneath the blank cheer of American confidence a different kind of menace.  You can decide yourself this weekend; this amazingly variegated program plays through Sunday at the Opera House.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Elizabeth Rimar and Becca A. Lewis in Monster Tales.

Pity poor Mimi, the lonely librarian, who only has her teddy bear to snuggle with at night. Well, at least said teddy (dubbed "Pookie") does double duty as lover and sentinel: before dropping off to sleep, Mimi has him peek under the bed, just to make sure there aren't any Monsters down there!

But guess what - there are! Aren't you surprised?

Well, I wasn't, but I still largely enjoyed Mary Jett Parsley’s The Monster Tales, which plays through the weekend at the Factory Theatre in a quietly intelligent production from Mill 6 Collaborative. This young playwright's tale hardly breaks any new artistic ground - it basically revisits, for Generation Y, familiar tropes regarding the psychological resonance of fairy tales. It turns out that Mimi's Monster (Becca A. Lewis) only wants to regale her host (Elizabeth Rimar, both above) with the stories Mimi has been whispering in her sleep. And guess what - those stories tend to reflect Mimi's own psychological conflicts. (Who would have thunk!?)

Ok, enough of the Snark Monster. Parsley does spin some intriguing millennial variations on her folk-tale template, most of which announce their themes none too subtly, but also not too loudly - pretty much as genuine folk tales do.  There's a blind man who orders his wife from a catalogue; a girl who finds a real live boy growing in her garden; a mother whose death proves mortal to her daughter; and a man who must hide his mysterious talents - the themes of these vignettes don't exactly mystify, but they do resonate appropriately.  Alas, Parsley's tales never quite tap into the springs of cruelty and fear that feed real fairy tales, so we do wonder what, precisely, Mimi has been so very afraid of; she doesn't seem to so much overcome anything as just wait it out.

Still, we're distracted from that lack of arc by nicely detailed acting in most of the roles.  In an innovative arrangement, Mill 6's Monster Tales is "sharing" the Factory Theatre with Whistler in the Dark's Aunt Dan and Lemon, and between the two productions you could probably account for most of the better actors on Boston's fringe.  Elizabeth Rimar carries on the strong work she did in The Europeans with a completely believable turn as Mimi, and Becca A. Lewis  proved whimsically feral as her designated Monster.  Meanwhile, in the tales themselves, the reliable Sasha Castroverde and Irene Daly were the clear stand-outs, although Nathaniel Gundy and Lonnie McAdoo both had their moments.  The most pleasing surprise of the evening, however, was its original score - a set of sweetly melancholic pop baubles by Sarah Rabdau and the Self Employed Assassins and Peter Moore of Count Zero.  (Yes, those are really their names.)  The thoughtful direction was a joint effort by Barlow Adamson and John Edward O’Brien.  You only have till Saturday to catch the remaining performances.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

I arrived at the Revere cinema last Saturday morning at 11:30 am.

And I left a little after 6 pm.

During those six-and-a-half hours I watched the Met broadcast of Wagner's Die Walküre ("The Valkyrie"), in Robert Lepage's controversial new staging. The opera itself only took up a little over four hours. The remaining two and a half were filled with fluff pieces, set malfunctions, and scheduled intermissions, during which, oddly, the movie audience often stared at the actual audience at the Met staring back at us. (There really should be some kind of two-way exchange going on there, methinks; can't they figure that out?)

I confess I'm forging through the whole cycle (and dragging my friend Geoff with me) to some degree because I've never done it before, and because I'm intrigued by Lepage's concept.  I also admit I've long stored Wagner on the same mental shelf where I've kept most of Goethe, as well as Finnegans Wake and Infinite Jest; I appreciate their significance, but minute-to-minute, they're just too long and boring. Vita brevis, and some ars is very longa, as they say. At the same time, I feel tinges of guilt about not knuckling down and getting through these monuments, because often there's a huge pay-off in making it all the way through an enormous masterpiece (Remembrance of Things Past, Don Quixote, Moby-Dick). Then again, sometimes there's only a minor pay-off (The Divine Comedy).  Sometimes there's no pay-off (Thomas Mann, I'm lookin' at you).  It's kind of a crap shoot.

So far, I have my doubts about the Ring cycle, although of course not about Wagner's impact in general.  It's hard to think, in fact, of any genius who has been more artistically influential. In harmonic terms, his music jump-started modernism - and Wagner also fomented revolutions in conducting style and even theatrical design. But beyond these significant innovations his determination to make of opera a "total work of art," or Gesamtkunstwerk, had a profound impact on Western civilization as a whole. It's hard to over-estimate the importance of this central, animating idea; versions of it had long bubbled through Western culture, of course, but Wagner's insistence on opera as a synthesis of all artistic expression, under the guidance and control of a single mind, that the spectator would perceive and "enter" as a kind of living dream (and which would through that experience shape culture, politics, and civilization itself), steadily infiltrated, and eventually dominated, the worlds of art, literature, dance, architecture, and eventually cinema - which probably served as the composer's apotheosis.

So I kept trying to remember all that as I endured the turgid dramaturgy of Die Walküre. Amusingly, Wagner claimed in the first half of the Ring (Rheingold and Walküre) to be tossing aside the long dominion of music over drama in opera for a new synthesis based on leitmotifs. But alas, Wagner was a much weaker dramatist than he was a composer, so the drama lost out anyway; it's true that the old system of recitative and aria often hobbled dramatic action, but it turned out Wagner's matrix of leitmotifs only made things even more static. (Tellingly, the composer largely returned to recitative and aria when he wrapped up the Ring with Siegfried and Götterdämmerung).

What most interested me about Lepage's new production, however, was the way it seemed to re-formulate that underlying concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, particularly as it related to the dividing line between theatre and film. For Lepage's gargantuan, abstract set - famously nicknamed "The Machine" - is clearly designed to produce cinematic effects on the stage. In Das Rheingold, for instance, the famous arpeggios of the "Rhine Music" rippled away as the planks of "The Machine" rose and fell like waves; and as Wagner's harmonies deepened, they towered like an incoming tide toward the top of the proscenium, and we sank deeper and deeper into the dark. Likewise, during the "Magic Fire Music" at the climax of Walküre, the Machine rotated  as if the entire stage was a kind of camera lens, so that we finally viewed the sleeping Brünnhilde from "above" (at bottom).  Clearly what Lepage is aiming for in these sequences is a fascinating new synthesis of modernism and "physical" cinema.

The trouble is that while the Machine impresses during these musical high points, during much - and perhaps most - of the Ring it feels like a gigantic fifth horse, trotting along pointlessly beside what's really an inflated fairy tale.  And alas, after several minutes, the images projected on its flat planks begin to feel a little flat, too, and that sense of actual presence that distinguishes theatre from film begins, perhaps predictably, to leak out of the proceedings. Thus the nostalgia one often hears voiced for the story-book magic of Otto Schenk's durable, pictorial production (Hunding's cottage from Walküre at left), which served the Met well for something like twenty years. For to be honest, despite all of Wagner's high-falutin' manifestos, he often seems to be reaching not for high concept but rather for traditional forms of scenic magic (only king-sized).  Because deep down the old showman knew that high concept spread over four hours gets boring.

There has been considerable criticism of Lepage's direction as well as his set - and it's pretty clear that many of the long exchanges in Die Walküre have been under-directed.  The more talented actors - Stephanie Blythe, Deborah Voigt - managed well, and both were in great voice on Saturday (there has been a rash of hating on Voigt's vocals, for reasons I can't understand); but Bryn Terfel is clearly still wandering as Wotan - although he was in better voice here than he was in Rheingold.  Meanwhile, as Sigmund, the heart-throb Jonas Kauffman sang powerfully but seemed to be acting in some sort of fog (all the more distracting in the close-ups of the HD simulcast).  His Sieglinde, Eva-Maria Westbroek, also sang beautifully, if with less force, but acted with more conviction - although it must be noted that both were compromised by the staging of their scenes behind the front skirt of the Machine, which gave their incestuous passion an unfortunate sense of forced distance (it was only once Sigmund leapt up onto the skirt itself that things began to catch fire).

These problems indicate a deeper problem with the Machine: the actors - and maybe even Lepage - don't know how to relate to it; indeed, even the props and costumes don't really relate to it (they're basically traditional). So far the Machine's concept has operated at the technical level only - and sometimes not even at that level; the delays in Saturday's simulcast were clearly related to its recalcitrance, and there have been noted mishaps in performance (Voigt took a small tumble on opening night, for instance), although as yet no actual injuries à la Spider-Man. So far you'd have to rate the Machine as at best a mixed blessing, I think - and something tells me that a lot of people are hoping the Met didn't actually throw out those old Otto Schenk sets!

Opera as "physical" cinema - the "Magic Fire Music" from Die Walküre.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

You may have already seen this . . .

But I still think it's cool.
Nathaniel Watson, Amanda Forsythe, Daniel Auchincloss and Nathalie Paulin in Les Indes Galantes. (Photo: Julian Bullitt)
In a way it's hard to critique Rameau's Les Indes Galantes, because there's so little like it being performed today. What can you compare it to? It's classified as an "opera-ballet," but it's neither a cohesive 'opera' nor a 'ballet' (instead it's a set of thematically related romantic fables, alternating with dances that seem to float on the edge of audience participation). And the whole piece stops every now and then for a major special effect (like the volcano that erupts at the end of the second act - or pardon me, entrée). I think in the end Les Indes is best described as a kind of baroque variety show.

I don't mean that as a crack, btw. Much of the charm of the recent Boston Baroque production (and it was quite charming, trust me) was that you were never sure what might be coming next.  You did know that each scene was going to have a whimsical point to make about l'amour, but the settings of these musical valentines ranged from Persia to Peru, and were crammed with sultans, sun-gods, savages, and even transvestites; one minute, lovers were kissing before the lava reached the village; the next, they were trading suspiciously intoxicating "peace pipes."  Basically, there was something for everyone.

Luckily, every scene was likewise crammed with gorgeous music, too. Conductor Martin Pearlman has a special jones for the French baroque, and his case for a stripped-down version of Les Indes (the original was something of a spectacle) was that the music was spectacular all on its own, and he was proved quite right; particularly the first half of Rameau's score is wonderful - and so varied in its scene-painting that it shocked contemporary audiences. Plus it closes on a thrilling high note with that volcanic eruption (you don't normally link "French baroque" with "Krakatoa," but believe me, Rameau pulls it off). It's true that the work's second half is more variable in its inspiration, but still boasts ravishing moments, like the lovely quartet that pulls together the third entrée, and the elegant closing chaconne. One left the concert feeling that we really don't hear enough Rameau in this town.

The French genius was well-served by the period orchestra, whose playing was exquisite, and the chorus was in good voice, too - but the performance's chief jewel proved to be its soloists, who were all of outstanding quality. Local favorite Amanda Forsythe was most in period - the early eighteenth century - with her pearly, pure tone (her radiant comic acting was timeless, but that's another issue), while soprano Nathalie Paulin seemed to be replying to her from several decades later, but with a dusky richness so transporting that you didn't care. The men were just as strong, and likewise roughly in period - the powerful Sumner Thompson was probably the stand-out (in a passionate turn as a suicidal Incan that's probably the vocal highlight of the opera) but baritone Nathaniel Watson impressed with his eloquent lyricism too, and tenors Aaron Sheehan and Daniel Auchincloss more than held their own in their respective entrées. All in all, this was the most consistent set of soloists I've yet heard with Boston Baroque.

I wish I could give the same high marks to the accompanying dances, but these proved the production's sole weak point. Choreographed by the talented Marjorie Folkman - late of the Mark Morris Dance Group - they were much in her mentor's style, but exhibited little of his sense of musical structure and meaning, and so were lightly charming, but that's about it. Folkman was certainly constrained in terms of space, but you also felt an unnecessary constraint in her choreographic ambition; things got a bit more complex (and more genuinely lyrical) in the later entrées, but one still felt the dances weren't quite worthy of their accompaniment.

Meanwhile the clever direction by Sam Helfrich made witty use of what few (contemporary) props the staging could allow - and he even cheekily pulled the chorus into the action, too (they waved tiny national flags to introduce each change of locale, and even boogied a bit). In some ways Helfrich's ironic flair answered a question that's clearly on Pearlman's mind, i.e. how do you stage baroque works without turning them into museum pieces? Still, by the end of the evening some of the director's gambits had begun to seem superficial, and a few of his knowing jokes (like the predictable one about those "peace pipes") went on a bit too long; we began to perceive that something central to Rameau's vision - its truly wonder-struck exoticism - had somehow gone missing from the staging. This only argues, of course, for a fuller production from Pearlman at a later date. In the meantime we should be grateful for his tireless work in bringing this luminous score back into the repertoire.

Monday, May 16, 2011

I think the news is out about the Actors' Shakespeare Project's Antony and Cleopatra, so I don't really feel the need to pile on the production - but there are some important critical points to be made about it, so here goes nothing.  In a way, it stands as simply another attempt by ASP (I know, an acronym so appropriate to this particular script!) to tackle a play it doesn't really have the cast for with smarts, some nifty lighting effects, and a lot of scrappy attitude.  This time the casting question was particularly acute, however, given the complexity of the two leads (widely assessed as among the most complicated characters in all of Shakespeare).  The word around town was that A&C was chosen in part to give company stalwart Paula Plum a role she'd long coveted.  And I don't blame her; I'd like to play Cleopatra, too.  But not everyone is right for every role - not even local stars as talented as Ms. Plum.

The problem is hardly that Plum's "too old" for the role (as one outraged commenter on this blog claimed); nor is it that she can't muster the mature sexiness to launch (or rather sink) a thousand ships; the lady is still hot, thank you very much.  It's simply that Plum is too trustworthy a presence, too solid an emotional citizen, to conjure Cleopatra, who "makes hungry where she most satisfies" precisely because her "infinite variety" conceals an inner void that she's hungry to fill herself.  In short, Cleopatra is not so much a personality as a performance, and Shakespeare's play not so much a celebration of her allure as a devastating critique.

All this seems to have been lost, however, on director Adrianne Krstansky, who has slashed the text by more than a quarter (it seems half the first half is missing), to focus, it would seem, on Cleo and Tony's notoriously naughty love affair at the expense of those boring political machinations back in Rome.  The trouble is that without those boring political machinations, the context for this power couple's self-indulgence is missing, and the play becomes a simplistic tirade against the "masculine" political state - rather than an exquisite balancing act between two equally flawed modes of gender.

Paula Plum and James Andreassi as Antony and Cleopatra.
I do want to point out, however, that while Ms. Plum may have been miscast as Cleopatra, she was still the best thing in this production.  She has Cleo's quicksilver intelligence and bemused self-awareness, and she threw herself into the tragedy (at left), we didn't believe for a minute her own emotional make-up had largely brought about.  Alas, her Antony was indeed often AWOL from both her and Rome, as James Andreassi all but phoned in his performance, and the usually-reliable Richard Snee (Plum's hubby "in real life") likewise transformed Enobarbus, one of the most fascinating roles in the canon, into a cleanly dicted blank. Doug Lockwood struck a few calculating sparks as Octavius, but he was hit-or-miss - like pretty much everybody else in the cast. As usual in ASP productions, the comic bits worked best - the long scene between Cleopatra and Antony's messenger was a hoot, in fact.  The set and lighting (by Jeff Adelberg) were actually effective, in their way, but other gambits - spankings and various vampings - seemed a bit silly, as did the Saved-by-the-Bell style rock riffs between scenes.

Thus in the end, what's special, and deeply intriguing, about Antony and Cleopatra - its status as one of the "problem" tragedies - went missing. Many people are aware that Shakespeare's comic output, after the glory years of Much Ado, As You Like It and Twelfth Night, turned darker, and intellectually knotty, with works like Measure for Measure and All's Well that Ends Well. What fewer realize is that the same pattern held for the tragedies: after the "Big Four," you can feel Shakespeare pushing and pulling at the tragic form: he freights the heroes of Antony and Cleopatra with perhaps more equivocal feeling than the mode can bear, while Troilus and Cressida plays as half-satire; then for the first time the Bard gives the hero of Coriolanus no inner voice whatsoever - and finally, perhaps inevitably, Timon of Athens is just an abandoned first draft.

Of this motley group, A&C is certainly the most suggestive and successful. Nevertheless, to call its tone "tricky" is an understatement: for throughout the play, Shakespeare seems to be almost willfully tearing at the tragic status of his heroes; in moral terms they deflate, and then re-inflate, from scene to scene - and while the Bard had previously risked making a tragic "hero" evil (in Macbeth), he'd never built a play around people who are in some ways contemptible. Indeed, Antony and Cleopatra finally die, after a brilliantly managed political and emotional decline, in a manner which flirts constantly with the ridiculous (tellingly, Cleopatra is brought the fatal asp by a "clown"), yet fails utterly if it is played for laughs. I'm not pretending this mysterious, ambivalent atmosphere (similar to that of late Chekhov, in a strange way) is an easy thing to pull off; in fact I've never seen a really successful production of Antony and Cleopatra; still, that's the gauntlet the play throws down to any company that attempts it.

It's a gauntlet, however, that our current political moment perhaps prevents a company from ever picking up. You could feel throughout this production a desire to flatter and forgive Cleopatra as some sort of pre-figuration of the modern female executive. She loomed over Antony, and indeed over Rome; you would never have guessed from Plum's performance, or Krstansky's general direction, that Cleopatra's petty bids for power didn't always deserve our sympathy, or that the feminine blandishments of "Egypt" were inherently problematic morally and politically - much less that Cleopatra may have deserved what she got in the end. In this distortion of Shakespeare's intents, I admit I sensed ASP was simply at one with the attitudes of its politically-correct audience. Too bad Shakespeare's vision is wider, grander, and far more equivocal than that enlightened brand of tunnel vision.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Various trips and an outage at Blogger have prevented me from posting anything about The Seventh Sense, an intriguing theatre piece by an Armenian troupe, the National Centre for Aesthetics SMALL THEATRE, that crossed the water to play our own Charlestown Working Theater a few weeks ago.

Which may have been just as well, because I wasn't entirely sure what to make of this particular show, at least in formal terms.  Its content was clear enough - if somewhat shocking.  I'm not kidding; conceived as a "sensual meditation" on The Book of Lamentations, a book of heartfelt prayer by Armenian patron saint Gregory of Narek, the piece was that rarity in our secular age: a work grounded in straightforward, even naïve, religious feeling.  Stranger still, it was staged with every trick in the postmodern handbook, sophisticated video and projections to the fore; indeed, the production often played like a Mabou Mines version of the Book of Revelation.  Minus any of the irony or alienation, however, that are thought to be the sine qua non of those downtown-drama techniques.

Instead, The Seventh Sense was suffused with a mood lost from the modern lexicon: guilt.  And not specific guilt, but generalized, original-sin guilt - the kind downtown artists don't have; indeed, the piece was unapologetically stylized as a Pilgrim's-Progress-style quest for salvation.  Thus hellfire literally filled the stage (at left), and a video clip peered closely at the skulls in a cathedral's crypt.  In case we somehow missed the point, Death himself soon rose from a billowing maelstrom on the darkened stage floor.  You're guilty, and you're going to die - when was the last time any of our local theatres pondered that question?

I'm afraid the answers supplied by The Seventh Sense were hardly original, however, and the piece was sometimes suffused with a kind of sexual hysteria regarding the flesh while simultaneously trading in sensual tableaux to make its "spiritual" points. Occasionally Seventh even played like some breathless cable documentary about the predictions of Nostradamus. But frankly, it was still refreshing just to feel the icy wind of judgment blowing from the direction of the stage.  And while visual artist Vahan Badalyan's design concept leaned too heavily on borrowings from art history (some of them ham-handed, as in the pseudo-Pietà at top), every now and then the production seemed highly self-aware, as when performer Arsen Khachatryan attempted to literally climb into da Vinci's The Last Supper. Other gambits, like the struggling "souls" projected onto the performers, were striking and evocative, and even the looming figure of Death was surprisingly spooky and visceral. The Charlestown Working Theater is gaining a reputation as the fringe theater that somehow crams poetic wonders into its gritty space; next up for this intrepidly globe-trotting little company is a visit from Poland's Grotowski-inspired Teatr ZAR, with a performance based on a "centuries-old polyphonic funeral songs." Fans of grim religious feeling should take note.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Steely Dan

Meg Taintor tempts Jen O'Connor to the dark side in Aunt Dan and Lemon.
Fascism - even Nazism - is seductive; or so playwright Wallace Shawn would have us believe in his best-known work, Aunt Dan and Lemon, which he has styled into a kind of seduction, too: its charismatic central character - the eccentrically glamorous Aunt Dan - is meant to ravish us with her embrace of the allure of the dictator, just as she does her sickly "niece," the eponymous "Lemon." Indeed, we get the idea we're supposed to leave the show half-convinced - as the dazzled Lemon has been - that the Nazis were simply more honest about what they were doing than the rest of us are.

As you may be able to tell from that opening paragraph, however, I haven't been seduced by either Shawn's argument or his play. The overt political passages in Aunt Dan - particularly its famous debate over the ethics of Henry Kissinger (whom Dan adores) - have an undeniable dramatic snap (as most intelligent political arguments do). But to keep his conceit going, the playwright simply withholds from the characters opposing Aunt Dan the rhetorical resourcefulness required to demolish her claims (which is an easier task than the play pretends). And to be blunt, you can hate Henry Kissinger while realizing that he wasn't quite a Nazi, and that such unhappy distinctions are actually quite important in a fallen world like this one.

In short, in intellectual terms Aunt Dan is rigged; it's designed to shake up the kind of person who reads the Phoenix (or, yes, even the New Yorker) without ever really burrowing beneath the surface of its own assumptions. I admit that as an emotional (rather than intellectual) seduction, however, the play can still work - after all, plenty of people (like Lemon) have given in to the dark side because of the charisma of figures like Aunt Dan rather than their arguments.

But I'm afraid to seal that emotional deal, a production must triumph over playwright Shawn's rambling, naive dramaturgy, and while this is clearly possible - several productions of Aunt Dan have won raves - I'm afraid in the current Whistler in the Dark production (at the Factory Theater through May 21st), the able cast doesn't quite make it over that bar.

This despite the fact that many of them - like Jen O'Connor and Scott Sweatt - are now the leading lights of Boston's fringe.  And they're joined, in the pivotal role of Aunt Dan, by Whistler's own artistic director, Meg Taintor (at top, with O'Connor); the directorial reins this time around have been given over to the New Rep's capable Bridget Kathleen O'Leary.  Supporting roles have been filled by fringe stalwarts as well - folks like Melissa Baroni, Melissa Barker, Mac Young, and Alejandro Simoes - the smart, resourceful kids who, if you're interested in edgy theatre in this town, you find yourself constantly bumping into.  You know when these folks are involved that a production at the very least is going to be articulate, clever, and insightful.

Which is definitely the case with Aunt Dan and Lemon, at least at first; and as long as Shawn keeps questions of politics to the fore, the production convinces, if in a gently ironic mode.  Certainly Taintor puts over Dan's arguments forcefully - which are, roughly, that we have no business criticising the ethical lapses of someone like Henry Kissinger, as he has taken on the burden of moral choice for all our sakes (it's a less-sophisticated, but more passionate, version of the line we heard recently from the Grand Inquisitor, too).

Of course there's some truth to this idea, and in deference to it we routinely give our leaders great moral latitude, and even wipe the bloodstains from profiles of men like Roosevelt and Churchill because history has demonstrated the value of their general goals. But there's always an unspoken calculus at work in this kind of thing, and whether sympathy with Kissinger's far-smaller moral burden can be stretched to cover such atrocities as the carpet-bombing of innocent civilians - well, that's a far more doubtful question, isn't it.  And I'm afraid history has all but mocked Aunt Dan's moral logic; it turned out that Vietnam was not any kind of strategic lynchpin in the fight against communism - and that the divine Henry wasn't engaged in a titanic struggle of any kind.  Indeed, we now trade happily with the very governments whose expansion Kissinger murdered thousands of innocents to stop; to be blunt, he killed all those people for nothing.

So there aren't actually any arguments to be made anymore about that aging, crass, would-be playboy.  Still, my moral contempt for Kissinger doesn't make me fall into the trap of imagining that he was the same as Hitler; yet that's the next step that Shawn seems to want us to make, in an odd series of scenes that reveal Aunt Dan's checkered sexual and moral past.  And this is where the Whistlers lose their way (as, I have a hunch, most productions do).  To be fair, it's not entirely their fault; Shawn's "second act" (in quotes because there's no intermission) is pitted with odd lacunae: we learn in flashback, for instance, that Aunt Dan's free-living set was more than just louche, but actually murderous, but this only evokes an odd kind of radio silence from Lemon that doesn't really synch up with her closing "Hooray for Hitler" rant. A seeming last-minute reversal in character for the aging Aunt Dan likewise cries out for explanation, or at least integration into Lemon's ongoing narrative of self.

Alas, Shawn is of little help on these points, so it's up to the actors to connect these disparate narrative dots; but in the Whistler production, I'm afraid O'Connor and Taintor, who both make initially strong impressions, haven't been guided by O'Leary through arcs that adequately interpret their characters' clumsily-rendered trajectories. O'Connor remains far too sturdy as Lemon - we don't really feel her falling further into Aunt Dan's thrall - and Taintor isn't able to tap into the demonic something-or-other that Shawn seems to be hinting at. Other cast members fare a bit better - Melissa Baroni plays Lemon's mother with a subtly sympathetic exasperation, and Melissa Barker is amusingly cool in her murderous dispatch.

But if the evening never quite gels, one can't help but applaud the Whistlers for once again wrestling with a politically and formally challenging text - and pinning it to the mat at least half the time. If only our larger theatres had half their guts and smarts! Just think how exciting the local scene would be.

Monday, May 9, 2011

One intelligent homosexual's New York weekend

The Hub Review headed south this past weekend, to that provincial little town (above) you may have heard tell of.  I only managed to catch two plays - Jacobi's Lear (which we'd caught previously via simulcast), and Tony Kushner's The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Marxism with a Key to the Scriptures. Both were powerful, and I'll write about both. I was surprised to discover that I may have actually enjoyed the Jacobi Lear more in HD than I did in person (for reasons I'll explain). But what has most been occupying my mind since my return is The Intelligent Homosexual, etc. Reviews in New York have been mixed, and the play is (very) far from flawless. Still, I have one of my hunches that it's a truly great play, and perhaps the greatest of the post-millennium era. Certainly in its ambition and scope it completely eclipses anything we've seen in years, and this cast - studded with long-time Kushner collaborators - is unlikely to ever be bettered (and due to the complexity and, yes, political obscurity of much of the material, the production is unlikely to tour). And while I hate to say it, I'm having trouble imagining a Boston cast that would be up to the demands of this particular play. Which I think means that if you care about Kushner, or even the (fading) dream of a rigorously challenging intellectual theatre, then you have to get yourself to the Public before June 12.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Christophers, soloists, orchestra and chorus take a well-deserved bow.
Hub Review readers are no doubt getting a little bored with my continual praise of the Handel and Haydn Society. But if you were hoping that at last Harry Christophers and Co. had slipped up last weekend in their performances of Mozart's Requiem and Handel's Dixit Dominus, and that the critical monotony around here might finally be broken by a snarky little pan, I'm afraid I have to disappoint you: Harry & Co. were just as terrific as ever. Sorry!

Indeed, H&H (and the chorus in particular) has gotten so consistent of late that the only thing I wonder going into their concerts is: will the soloists measure up this time? Not quite all of them do, I'm afraid, although most of the line-up last weekend was splendid. Met power-bass Eric Owens, who recently triumphed as Alberich in the Met's new Das Rheingold, was on hand, as was rising lyric soprano Elizabeth Watts, who usually busies herself at Covent Garden or the Welsh National Opera, and who also boasted plenty of power, as well as a ravishing blush of radiant color. She was flanked by another rising British star, tenor Andrew Kennedy, who sang with passionate attack; the only slight gap in this luminous line-up was mezzo Phyllis Pancella, who had sumptuous tone but a lot of vibrato, and not quite enough volume to keep up with her cohorts.

But frankly, the chorus was the real star anyhow, particularly in Handel's Dixit Dominus, which I think many in the hall left feeling was the highlight of the program - and perhaps even a greater piece than the famous Requiem (sacrilege, I know, but I feel the Requiem is only truly brilliant in those passages we have complete from Mozart's own hand - the work was completed after his death by his student Franz Sussmäyr).  Dixit Dominus, by way of contrast, is thrilling throughout - indeed, its stern authority is pregnant with a sense of trembling foreboding only hinted at in the pronouncements of its text. And technically, it's almost stunningly complex - yet the H&H Chorus was always on point, both technically and emotionally (all the more remarkable given the urgent tempi favored by Christophers). Indeed, the solos from within the chorus - particularly those by Margot Rood, Teresa Wakim, and Woodrow Bynum - seemed as strong as anything we heard from the headliners. 

Judgment seems to have been on Mozart's mind, too, in the composing the Requiem, which in Christophers's hands rang more with warning than mourning, and which he also often took at a sometimes-blistering pace (for some sense of the committed connection this conductor brings to the stage, check out the photo at left). He slowed down, however, for some truly threatening moments in the Dies irae, while Owens triumphed in the forceful Tuba mirum and the string section broke the judgmental mood with a piercing rendition of the famous Lacrimosa.

These two titanic, back-to-back statements dominated the concert, but it would be wrong to ignore the beautiful pieces that filled out the program: Mozart's  Ave verum corpus, a short motet which I'd never heard before, but which was surpassingly lovely (with more exquisite work from the chorus), and the charming Por questa bella mano, which bass-baritone Eric Owens essayed with resonant feeling. As is sometimes the case in a period music concert, we also got to hear some unusual instrumentation - "basset horns" sang out during the Recordare of the Requiem, and  Por questa set Mr. Owens against an even deeper sound, that of the double bass obbligato - one of those early instruments you really think must have been designed by Dr. Seuss. Just watching bassist Rob Nairn attack this giant with his bow brought a sense of comedy to the performance that Owens seemed to eschew - which may have been just as well; somehow the contrast between the singer's sincerity and the player's struggles seemed wonderfully Mozartean all on its own.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Titania in her bower in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Right now Hub audiences have the unusual chance to take in the second of two genius-on-genius Midsummer Night's Dream mash-ups: after Boston Ballet's splendid mounting of Balanchine's version last month, we can now savor Benjamin Britten's gorgeous response to the same masterpiece at Boston Lyric Opera (through this weekend at the Schubert).

It's pretty much agreed that both these derivative works are masterpieces in their own rights - and what's more, they serve as conceptual bookends for their expansive source. Balanchine stresses the romance and structure of Shakespeare's mother of all romantic comedies (and all but ignores its goofy "mechanicals"); Britten, meanwhile, emphasizes the work's infinite variety rather than its unity - musically, he conjures a different sound-garden, in fact, for each "cast" of characters.  And surprisingly he punches up the comedy, particularly the baggy-pants stuff; indeed the mechanicals are all but center-stage much of the time, and their travesty of the "tragedy" of Pyramus and Thisbe becomes the opera's hilarious climax.

It's here that the BLO soars to the same brilliant level it achieved in recent productions of Agrippina and The Emperor of Atlantis (it occurs to me that comedy may be their strong suit). But at first it seems director Tazewell Thompson and set designer John Conklin are a little lost in the woods themselves, and it takes the production a long time - indeed, the entire first act - to come together. The singing, however, is first-rate throughout, and Britten's instrumental writing is so lustrous that classical fans may not mind the conceptual confusion unfolding on stage.

No doubt Thompson and Conklin thought they were simply taking a note from Britten's own approach: just as the composer devised individual sound-scapes for Midsummer's different characters, so Conklin and Thompson seem to have concocted a separate look for each as well.  (Perhaps they also think that the "contradictions, confusions, and disguises" that afflict the play's characters should afflict the audience, too.)  Thus the lovers are roughly Edwardian, while Oberon and Titania seem more historic and fanciful; meanwhile the fairies look to be modeled on the Boy Scouts.  Odder still are the many design gambits Conklin offers and then discards: the general mood is mod and coolly geometric, but sometimes the furniture grows or shrinks like decor from Alice in Wonderland, and when the mechanicals wander through the forest, the trees are labeled "TREES" (apparently because Bottom and his crew are so literal-minded).  The moon remains an organizing motif, at least - but when things grow more surreal after Bottom's transformation, even it gets tricked out with a Man Ray photograph - again, just in case we don't "get it." 

A few of the contradictions and confusions in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo(s) by Erik Jacobs.
These ideas aren't "wrong," exactly, it's just that they keep calling attention to themselves, and begin to seem too clever by half - and that makes the opera feel disjointed and slightly incoherent, when actually Shakespeare's complex text and Britten's delicately ambiguous music are both highly unified beneath their surface effects.  (For the record, the opera's underlying style is something like Purcell gone modern - and it's worth noting that this is a rare case in which a Shakespearean opera is based on Shakespeare's own text, a stunning achievement in and of itself.)  There are some lovely vocals to savor, from the sweet countertenor of John Gaston's Oberon to Nadine Sierra's languidly plush turn as Titania, to Andrew Shore's robustly rendered bully of a Bottom.  And the children of the PALS Children's Chorus charmed whenever they sang.  Still, the performances somehow couldn't make much headway against a persistent sense of conceptual drift; and it didn't help that stage director Thompson and new music director David Angus both favored a very measured pace - which only gave us plenty of time to wonder what, exactly, they were getting at.

A heartbroken Thisbe (Matthew DiBattista) mourns the fallen Pyramus (Andrew Shore).
Luckily, things turned a corner at intermission; Britten's music gathers more dramatic momentum, and Conklin settled on a design motif, and the lovers got a wonderfully punchy scene to strut their stuff (that's Chad A. Johnson, Heather Johnson, Susanna Phillips, and the clarion-voiced Matthew Worth, above).  Best of all, the mechanicals did a boffo job with "Pyramus and Thisbe."  It's a little surprising to realize that Shakespeare actually invented "camp" some four hundred years ago with this little skit (it even includes what may be the stage's first drag queen), but Britten understood its true nature all too well, and offers up a hilarious parody of classic bel canto opera, complete with a mad scene out of Lucia di Lammermoor (above left), in which Lucia is a brawny lad with a mop on his head (played originally by Britten's lover/librettist, Peter Pears).   Here the whole sequence was pure perfection - balancing beautifully Shakespeare's point about perspective being everything in romance with his deeper affection for the faith that makes all romantic (and artistic) feeling possible.  And thus somehow Britten and Boston Lyric Opera brought off the depth of this great work as few theatrical productions do, making this Midsummer something of a dream in the end.