Thursday, June 30, 2011

Dynamic duo

There's no lovelier place to listen to classical music in the Boston area than the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport. If you doubt me, merely cast a glance northward; that's it above.  You're not always lucky enough to catch a sunset like that over Sandy Bay, but usually the music ain't too shabby (to say the least), and the famous acoustics are almost as good as the view.

So I was happy to make the trek up from Boston last Sunday to hear cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han essay a series of duets from Beethoven and Brahms.  Finckel and Han are famous as one of classical music's "power couples;" married for over twenty-five years, they are now almost as often noted for their organizational prowess as their musicianship.  They're co-directors of Lincoln Center's Chamber Music Society, and have founded a music festival and training program, They've also found time to serve as creative directors of ArtistLed Records, and of course since 1979 Finckel has been a core member of the famous Emerson String Quartet, one of the longest-lived and most widely praised string quartets in existence (they've won 9 Grammys).

The critical line on this dynamic duo (at left, in an unfortunately vampy picture that gives no sense of their actual friendly appeal) is that their long history together - along with their truly incredible musical pedigrees (multiple awards, famous mentors, you name it) has led to a sublime musical synthesis.  But I'm afraid this listener found little evidence, at least at last Sunday's concert, to support that thesis.  And I wonder a bit whether an understandable desire to approve of everything these powerful, but clearly benevolent, classical music citizens do has led to a certain critical blindness regarding their mutual artistry.

I have to say upfront, however, that Finckel was just as sublime playing against his wife as he was when I've heard him bowing with the powerhouses of the Emerson String Quartet.  He's a cellist for the ages - at times, it seems, almost the personification of a certain intellectual lyricism that flows at a high pitch (of course) through the sonatas of Beethoven and Brahms.

Han is more problematic - at least when set against Finckel.  The contrast between the two was apparent from the moment they took the stage - Finckel preferred a dark, mod look, with a dash of quirk (a red bow tie), while Han came out in a bright, billowing number sporting every color of the rainbow (with heels striped in the entire spectrum, too - I'm dying for a pair).  Finckel played from memory, while Han worked from music (even though she must know this repertoire by heart by now); Han bubbled between numbers, while Finckel kept mum.  So it was no surprise that at the musical level, these life partners seemed to approach their program from opposing points of reference - Finckel has a subtle fluidity at his beck and call, even in the most fiendishly difficult passages, while Han favors a cleaner, more declarative attack.

In theory, that opposition sounds like it should lead to exciting sparks onstage - the problem is that Han, for all her undeniable technique, seemed unable to assert a consistent musical profile to match Finckel's.  In the opening Beethoven sonata (No. 3, Op. 69), she sometimes sounded more like a percussionist than a pianist; and the Shalin Liu has a somewhat bright response to the piano (it's ideal for strings), so at least from my and my partner's seats, the balance was off throughout, and Beethoven's dancing scherzo at times sounded like a forced march. 

To be fair, Han seemed to become aware of this problem herself; she essayed the Brahms Sonata No. 1 (Op. 38) with considerably more subtlety (perhaps this shift was also due in part to the cello's more dominant role); the exquisite minuet at its core was adorable, and she and Finckel stayed in extended synch throughout the propulsive final movement.  Beethoven's variations on Handel's "Hail the Conqu'ring Hero" from Judas Maccabaeus likewise came off well, perhaps because the work is technically challenging but thematically direct. 

But in the closing Brahms Sonata (No. 2, Op. 99), Han seemed to be wandering around, which was too bad, because Finckel's reading was probably close to ideal - suggesting in that mysterious manner great players are often able to manage the contradictory qualities of Brahms: the vision cast simultaneously forward and back, the teasing tension between the ambitious and the intimate (several themes hint at motifs from larger, or even symphonic, works).  I couldn't say that the Sonata wasn't lovely to listen to; but at the same time, I had no idea what these two were getting at; and I was reminded that musical couples, at least in artistic terms, can just as often drift apart as draw closer together.  Luckily the encore represented a final upswing - a lushly rendered slow movement from the Chopin cello sonata: straightforward rapture is clearly the dynamic this duo does best.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Watching the reruns on That 70's Show

Politically and culturally, ours is a backward-looking nation. In our politics, we endlessly battle over the legacy of the 60's, and much of our pop culture still takes its cues from the 70's (not coincidentally, the era in which the mutual co-optation of our political cultures first took form). That observation goes double for the movies - the tail end of the 70's (and the cusp of the 80's) was the period in which the blockbuster and the video game emerged, cable TV first splintered the national audience, and the comic book was posited as a format for A-list production.  Those tropes and issues have been working and re-working their way through the multiplex ever since.

What's most fascinating about these developments, however, is that they seemed to nip the last great flowering of American film in the bud. Indeed, by the mid-80's it was clear the movies had taken a nose-dive in quality - a collapse from which they've never fully recovered. One by one the old arthouse masters fell silent (Bergman bade farewell to film, Fellini foundered), while the mainstream auteurs, the ones who hoped to yoke high and low together onscreen, were heard from less and less (Hitchcock and Lean died, Kubrick's output dwindled).

What was more surprising was that all the young turks who had dominated the American screen in the 70's suddenly hit a wall; Coppola never recovered from the debacle of One from the Heart (1982); Spielberg repeated himself or groped for a vision after E.T. (also 1982); Polanski remained in exile; Woody Allen began his long decline; Lucas openly declared himself the effects engineer he had always been.  The slide didn't feel like a crash because there were still pop pleasures to be had (Aliens, Back to the Future) - and quirky new talents did appear (Terry Gilliam, Steven Soderbergh, Tim Burton, the Coens).  But slowly it sank in that none of this latest generation of filmmakers was able to scale the heights of their predecessors - much less carve out movies that could transform the culture.

Why that should have proved true is the kind of question that, if film criticism were a science rather than a degraded form of cheap rhetoric, it might be equipped to answer.  Certainly Reagan's reactionary 40's mentality (so oddly mimicking the 40's pop-surround of Star Wars) had something to do with it; politically, America was in a retrenchment (from which, again, it has never fully recovered, and which may destroy the nation yet).  And as noted before, technology continued to crib on the cultural space of the movies, and further fragment a diminishing audience, while general cultural literacy (necessary for any serious art form) continued its steady descent. And the business codes of the industry evolved from skepticism to something like hostility toward individual vision.  In this regard the annual slate of Oscar nominations operates as a sad palimpsest: in 1975, the nominees for best picture were One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Barry Lyndon, Jaws, Dog Day Afternoon, and Nashville; in 1988, the nominees were Rain Man, Working Girl, Dangerous Liaisons, Mississippi Burning, and The Accidental Tourist. Other years, Out of Africa and Driving Miss Daisy actually won the trophy.  Sigh.

Cross this with The Goonies and you have what Super 8 hoped to be.

These thoughts came to mind (again) as I sat through two recent movies that both felt like repeats of that 70's show: J.J. Abrams's Super 8, a Spielberg homage produced by the master himself, and Terrence Malick's big, beautiful new bore, The Tree of Life.  Both were striking in their devotion to the zeitgeist of that benighted decade (in one case, the director borrowed from himself), but both attempts at cultural ventriloquism - or should I say turning back the clock? - essentially failed.  And as I watched them, I sensed a drifting pop establishment once again attempting to re-connect with its roots, but failing to do so.  Which again, made me heave a heavy sigh.

But I couldn't help but notice what was missing in each case - in Super 8, it was particularly obvious (and thus had its own kind of added poignance).  I admit that J. J. Abrams is brilliant at triangulated audience-development strategies - he got people to buy into the ever-sillier elaborations of Lost, and then his empty "re-boot" of the Star Trek series, too.  But you could never pretend to yourself, while you're sitting in front of the screen during one of his pictures, that Abrams has any real talent as a filmmaker.  Where he places his camera, how he structures his sequences, how his themes develop - all this feels either borrowed or banal (his one talent is for casting). And so it seems to me Abrams shouldn't set himself up before the example of Spielberg - a natural with the camera if ever there was one, who even in his lesser films will startle you with a scene that in purely cinematic terms is so inspired it's close to perfection.

And there are a lot of sequences like that in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (complete movie above), which, if you combined its spookier sequences with the Goonies (and added a few jolts from Jaws and other Spielberg flicks), appears to have served as the template for Super 8.  Don't get me wrong - I think Close Encounters is at times a bit flaccid in its uplift - Spielberg was never a screenwriter - and it's probably ground zero for what a friend of mine snarkily calls "The Spielberg Facial," in which a character - and sometimes character after character - stares in awe at the approaching shark/spaceship/dinosaur as the director zooms in for the money shot.  But I have to admit that many of the sequences in CE3K are nonetheless unforgettable, even if they depend on the Spielberg Facial; editing, imagery, action and, of course, music (by the amazingly versatile John Williams) cohere into scenes that still look, well, awesome.  Indeed, just about every appearance of the alien craft in CE3K is the kind of cinematic tour de force that George Lucas could only dream of.  Spielberg just had it goin' on.

But J.J. Abrams doesn't.  He couldn't orchestrate a scene if his life depended on it.  Half of Close Encounters was burned into my memory back when I first saw it in 1977 (I even remember the theatre I saw it in, which you usually do when the picture is a great one).  Meanwhile, only a week has passed since I caught Super 8, but already I can hardly remember anything about it.  The young actors were subtle and affecting, I remember that; the special effects were certainly convincing (but they always are, these days; special effects are the one thing Hollywood can still do).  The conceit of the movie -that Abrams's nouveau-Goonies were making a Romero-style zombie film - was hilariously realized over the final credits.  And the period - actually, the year, 1979 (you can pinpoint it) - was invoked almost as a fetish. from the pop songs on the radio (My Sharona, Heart of Glass) to the introduction of the Walkman to the faint yellow stains carefully painted onto the stars' capped teeth.

But for all that, the fraying, frazzled sunniness of the decade - the loose, cynically genial attitude that Spielberg conjured effortlessly in Close Encounters - somehow never came over; a blandly ironic millennial self-consciousness was always just being held at bay.  And the film's plot, like its tone, refused to cohere - indeed, the fact that the kids had accidentally photographed the monster terrorizing their scrappy little town eventually felt like an afterthought in a movie that seemed to be running on several separate tracks at once.  By the finish, Abrams had begun jumping from one digital setpiece to another with predictable crudeness, and more and more scenes felt like half-hearted glosses on Spielberg's early hits.  Most critics have praised the film for being better than  Thor and The Green Lantern - which I'm sure it is.  But it's still mired in its own under-achieving period - i.e., the millennium - so why pay to see it when the real thing is available on YouTube for free?  I'm afraid the ultimate message of Super 8 is a dispiriting reminder to America that you can't go home to the multiplex anymore.

An inside look at how Malick created the exquisite look of his 70's masterpiece, Days of Heaven.

Somehow, though, Terrence Malick didn't get that memo. He literally tries to go home in The Tree of Life - and not only to his childhood home in Texas, but all the way back to everybody's home, the primordial soup of the cosmos. I'm not kidding; after a brief introduction to his characters - a 50's family much like the director's own - this Rhodes scholar backs up the way James Michener used to in blockbusters like Hawaii to tell his tale from the very beginning: we stare in ravished disbelief as galaxies form, and amino acids coalesce into proteins, and eventually dinosaurs rule the earth (albeit with curiously soulful attitude).

The only director who has ever brought this kind of thing off, of course, is Kubrick (in 2001:A Space Odyssey, produced just before the high tide of American cinema). But much as J. J. Abrams is no Spielberg, Malick is no Kubrick; while 2001 opens with a stunningly photographed prehistoric drama which poetically compresses every theme in the ensuing film, Malick's "fantasia" (yes, I also couldn't help but recall that corny Disney visualization of Rite of Spring) is merely stunningly photographed (ironically enough, it was photographed by Douglas Trumbull, one of Kubrick's special effects men on 2001).

But then almost everything in The Tree of Life is merely stunningly photographed - it's basically a catalogue of Malick's familiar concerns, stripped down to their imagistic essence. I suppose the director's central theme is evanescence, so the arc of his career makes its own kind of stylistic sense; whereas in his early, great films (Badlands, Days of Heaven), Malick at least lightly tethered his haunting imagery to sturdy plotlines, in his later, more self-indulgent work he has begun to skimp on that boring story-structure stuff, the better to riff on his addiction to luminism. In short, this self-serious director was always episodic; now - despite pretending he's telling a story so big it has to start with the Big Bang - he's purely impressionistic. Indeed, sometimes his movie boils down to simplistic existential questions literally whispered over the pretty pictures.

Although don't get me wrong - those pretty pictures can be pretty seductive; indeed, the luminousness never stops in The Tree of Life; Malick seems to be able to find it anywhere. Whereas the famously ravishing Days of Heaven depended on what photographers call "the magic hour" for its haunted look, Malick now seems to be able to tease a delicately soulful glow from any time of day. And to be fair, there are moments of wide-eyed wonder here that capture precisely what it's like to see the world as a child does (that is, as mysteriously new), as well as several inspired images - like the moment in which sunlight flickers on a wall like an errant soul - that can stand up to anything in this director's earlier achievement.

It's always the magic hour in The Tree of Life.

Which makes sense, as the embedment of the spiritual in the physical is one of this director's conceptual hobbyhorses, and in Tree of Life it's more apparent than ever that there's a streak of Melville in Malick - he shares the great novelist's spiritual homo-eroticism (as do many, if not most, heterosexual men - they're all in love with innocent guy-ness). Thus there's a curiously obsessive undertow to Malick's adoration of the crewcut boys who figure as his heroes (and who struggle, in predictable fashion, with their thorny but loving father, played by Brad Pitt); they're not only freshly minted Holden Caulfield clones but also little Billy Budds running innocently around their tiny town (one of them, we know, will die at the end of adolescence). But again, to be fair, there's a clear-eyed awareness at work, here, too - Malick's boys (one of whom is a dead ringer for Pitt) break windows and gleefully strap helpless frogs to fireworks, just the way real boys do. Indeed, Tree of Life is most affecting when it dances along the line between Buddhist reverie and an acquiescence of the hard truths of human nature.

Still, we slowly zone out on all the zen, and Malick doesn't even attempt the development of the kind of climax that Melville always relied on. The movie begins to feel less and less, rather than more and more, coherent, as Malick starts hopping back and forth between his boys' childhood and adulthood - and by the time a strange kind of Rapture (we saw Mom floating around earlier) has begun to take place at some heavenly beach, we find ourselves patting back a smile rather than tearing up. (Needless to say, the picture closes with ANOTHER galaxy forming - the cycle begins again, Little Grasshopper!)  We also begin to sense an off-putting self-absorption operating beneath Malick's twilit Eden; he and Pitt, for instance, can't really make their iconically prickly father figure come alive - and Sean Penn, who plays one of the boys all grown up, just looks lost; all the auto-erotic innocence apparently precludes any messy adult complexity.

Thus we're left feeling that we're watching a different kind of reminiscence - one for a time in which Terrence Malick could actually pull his philosophical visions off. It's fairly apparent that The Tree of Life only got made because of the participation of Pitt and Penn; interesting movies are only made by studios these days because of pressure from actors (not the audience). And like many stars, these two are no doubt nostalgic for the old mojo of American film - when they could be confident, at least now and then, that they were devoting themselves to art, not commerce; and Malick is one of that tradition's last living auteurs. Only his highbrow well seems as dry as Spielberg's middlebrow one - indeed, one thing we wonder while we're watching the wondrous imagery of The Tree of Life is why the movie exists at all; in some deep way, it feels oddly superfluous. Tellingly, when Robert DeNiro tried to explain why he had voted to give it the Palme d'Or at Cannes, the actor stammered that "It had the size, the importance, the intention, whatever you want to call it, that seemed to fit the prize." Okay.  Note he didn't mention the "artistic success." But I doubt we'd have to go back to the dawn of time to explain that ellipsis; we'd probably only have to go back to 1973.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

For an interesting look at the resentments simmering beneath the happy face of Boston theatre . . .

 . . . you could do worse than 'cast' a glance at this posting on the Stage Source blog.  (Be sure to read the comments.)  The post, by Member Services Manager Jeremy Johnson, is the result of an anonymous letter left in melodramatic style at the Stage Source offices, alleging that our local cast system is largely, well, a caste system, with most of the roles in the Boston theatre season going to folks in a few "small-town cliques," who together are giving the scene "a community theater feel."  The writer, clearly a frustrated - or exasperated - local actor or actress, lamented that "We see the same people on stage over and over again."

From the number of responses to the post, it also seems clear the letter touched a chord.  It looks like half of the Actors' Shakespeare Project has weighed in - as has SpeakEasy founder Paul Daigneault.  Which is a bit ironic (or do I mean inevitable?), as ASP and SpeakEasy have the reputation for running the tightest casting cliques around; but then again, the ASP folks say they're looking for new people, and Daigneault has run numbers exonerating himself.

All I'll say is that I'm on the fence about this particular issue.  What the letter writer alleges, I think, is to some extent true - but at the same time, theatres generate both their identities and their loyalties largely from "cliques," don't they.  A better argument would be that people with lesser talent were being promoted to prominence onstage because of their connections - but I don't think that's the case (aside from one or two obvious examples, but then no system is perfect).  Of course it's hard for a frustrated actor to appreciate what a risk it is to gamble on an unknown - or to appreciate that a theatre's established audience does develop loyalty, for better or worse, to a certain set of familiar faces.  Still, you never hear of an untried actor saying he or she will guarantee a shortfall in revenue if their performance doesn't work out, do you.   Indeed, if actors don't do their jobs properly, they nevertheless always walk away financially unscathed.  No, this kind of thing is always about a one-way demand for trust - a kind of complaint that's far from unusual in other fields, btw; how many critics who wouldn't part with a dime for a theatrical project are nevertheless always railing that other people aren't risking more of their own money on daring scripts?  Too many to mention.

On the other hand, I have to admit it would be good to see more fresh faces on Boston's stages.  So I always try to applaud actors who make work for themselves, or who struggle in spaces on the fringe.  And if it's a trust issue that's holding untried actors and actresses back, I wonder if StageSource might do more than just hold auditions.  Would low-tech StageSource "showcase" productions offer casting directors more confidence in unknowns?  Would established theatres like SpeakEasy or the Lyric (or the Huntington!) be willing to give over their spaces on dark nights to these kinds of performances?  That might be one way to build a bridge between the cast and the uncast.

Friday, June 24, 2011

So - how bad is the Dale Chihuly show?

Shouldn't some Oompa-Loompas be rowing this thing?
Recently something very strange occurred in the pages of the Boston Globe. Its star art critic, Sebastian Smee, whose glittering paeans to things everybody can agree on had just won him a Pulitzer Prize, did something he'd never done before.

He dared not to like a big fat crowd-pleaser.

Smee's target was Chihuly: Through the Looking Glass, the MFA's current blockbuster devoted to the output (I won't call it an oeuvre) of Dale Chihuly, certainly the most successful glass artist in the country. Actually, Chihuly is more like his own industry; teams of glassblowers and engineers produce his work and install it all over the globe (sadly, the artist lost the vision in one eye in a car accident years ago, forever complicating his ability to personally craft his pieces).

Chihuly's installations can be enormous, and are best known for making a forceful case for glass in the public square, where stone and steel used to rule the roost.  And they're always popular (I think this is the third major exhibition of his stuff in New England in the past few years), partly because they're remarkably consistent - indeed so predictable that Chihuly now counts as a brand.

All this popularity and "innovation" does offer the MFA half an excuse for taking Chihuly seriously, I suppose; the problem is that the style which has won him acclaim has varied in only one dimension over the years - it's gotten bigger and brighter. That's the extent of its "development." Small, early "Chihulies" are like bubbles of color bursting before your eyes; later ones are more like megaton technicolor explosions that just won't quit (at left). And that's about it in terms of any shift in aesthetics, which makes the idea of a "retrospective" slightly absurd.

Still, Chihuly takes himself seriously enough; he gives his stuff the kind of classy monikers that the Bellagio (where he runs a gallery) might give to a high-end eatery (Chiostro di Sant'Apollonia and Mille Fiori are samples). And he's prone to classifying his works into formal groups, like "Reeds" and "Boats" and "Chandeliers." But basically everything he does, from his candy-landscapes to his giant umbrella drinks (at top), is a happy, splashy blast of vulgarity, and that's that.

And this was Sebastian Smee's mistake - pointing, oh-so-delicately but undeniably, to the Bellagio-level taste of the whole show. Eek! Globe readers don't like that kind of thing; after all, isn't it the Herald that's supposed to target down-market taste?  And doesn't Smee remember what happened to Louise Kennedy when she described the self-consciously vulgar Huntington show Pirates! as, in fact, self-consciously vulgar?

I guess not.

Still, something tells me Smee will survive the outraged letters I've been reading in the Globe. And Chihuly of course can survive any review, anywhere; he'd only be bothered by criticism if he were, in fact, attempting something like art, which he's not. Come to think of it, there really isn't a single aesthetic idea in evidence in his entire show. (Even when this artist calms down for something more "elegant," as in his "Reeds" series, he hangs onto his signature sense of inner vacuum.)

That emptiness is a bit interesting in and of itself - it's quite unusual, really. Master craftsmen generally edge toward art as their skill deepens; their formal concerns begin to coalesce into metaphors in and of themselves; they discover what their work means. But this hasn't happened with Chihuly - indeed, his one stab at connecting with an actual aesthetic (in an odd display of forms based on Native-American motifs) comes off as a weird little detour from the main event.

No, Chihuly isn't an "artist;" he's more like the head of a management team engineering a designer drug targeting your visual pleasure center. He only wants to give you a rush; the whole show is like a giant tab of lysergic acid. Of course, LSD can be fun in small doses (don't ask me how I know that), and the pleasure center does deliver, well, pleasure - just ask the kids romping through the show, asking if you can lick the sculptures (really, the docents for this exhibit oughta be Oompa-Loompas). You might get a lingering case of retina-burn at Through the Looking Glass, but that's the extent of its impact - or danger.

Still, I admit you can't dismiss Chihuly completely, because in the right context, he can truly charm - or better yet, make you laugh; indeed, his visual giddiness throws a kick into all sorts of formal spaces. I know it sounds funny, but while his sculptures utterly fail as statements, they operate quite well as ripostes. In fact they're probably best described as visual raspberries.

If you doubt me, go up the stairs from the current show and take in his delightful Lime Green Icicle Tower, (at left) which stands like a luminous spire in the MFA's severe new Shapiro Courtyard. It's everything the courtyard isn't: a whimsically organic folly (it looks like a mutant anemone), shooting like a firework all the way to the top of a space that in its expensive serenity could pass for a crypt. Indeed, the impossible height of the piece almost operates as a joke; it activates the whole space like an exclamation point, sweetly punctuating - and puncturing - the pretentiousness of its presentation. You can almost hear it whispering: Oh, lighten up!

Likewise, if you're inclined to think that Ikebana Boat (at top) is an atrocity, just look what happens when you float it past the rigid restraint of Chatsworth (at right): suddenly you've got a party.  When I browsed through images of Chihuly's public installations on the web, I saw something like the same effect over and over - just about everything his team comes up with plays as jazzy fun in a public context.  It's only when you isolate it against a hushed, black backdrop, that the work suddenly seems pushy and empty.  So Chihuly doesn't produce art, he produces carnival floats - but are carnival floats such a bad thing?  He may not belong in a museum.  But that doesn't mean I feel like raining on his parade.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Lindsay Crouse and Richard Snee in Living Together.

Last summer it seemed I was alone in raving over Gloucester Stage's production of Table Manners, the first play in Alan Ayckbourn's celebrated trilogy The Norman Conquests. In the Globe, Louise Kennedy smiled wanly but held her nose; meanwhile, in the Phoenix, Ed Siegel said it made him laugh but didn't "haunt his dreams."  Okay . . .  Meanwhile the Herald only deemed it "a solid production." Then last winter I had to argue for all I was worth to get it an IRNE nomination, and I don't think the Nahton Awahds deigned to notice it at all . . .

But as is so often the case here at the Hub Review, over the period of about a year everybody seems to have come around to my opinion; critic after critic now attests that Table Manners was a classic, to which this year's sequel, Living Together - which is blessed with the same artistic team - doesn't always measure up.

And in a way they have a point - Living Together isn't quite the play Table Manners is, primarily because for much of its first half we feel the exposition and action of the earlier play is merely being reworked in variation - perhaps an inevitable problem in a suite of comedies which are constructed to wrap around each other. Once again we find we are spending the weekend with three couples (thus three plays?), linked by blood or marriage, who are working their way through the disappointments and imprisonments of middle-class middle-age as they tend to an ailing matriarch in her dismal suburban homestead.  And once again the perpetually priapic, but not terribly attractive, Norman is attempting to give existential despair the slip with one "affair" after another - and he doesn't much care if this involves betraying his own wife with her sister; indeed, he's happy to do every female-in-law in his family (we assume he'd stop at actual incest). And needless to say, the women in question are disapproving when they must play the betrayed victim, but rather more accommodating when they are Norman's actual targets - while their hapless menfolk are pretty much blind to everything.

But Living Together does eventually break some new emotional ground in its second act (and brings a touching new perspective to its clueless cuckolds) with the arrival of Norman's own wife, Ruth, who seemed so, well, ruthless in Table Manners but here is carefully complicated by the playwright into a more sympathetic figure. Utterly self-possessed and professional, Ruth seemed a kind of steamroller in the earlier play; she simply refused to believe Norman's squirrely horniness - or the depression that fed it - was worthy of her notice. But here we appreciate her overbearing calm is largely the result of her emotional (and literal) myopia - the blindness of this playwright's fools is one of his signatures - and Ayckbourn gives her a sweet, trusting openness to seduction (which Norman, of course, is happy to exploit). Indeed, the play climaxes cleverly with a desperately erectile Norman managing a startling sexual trifecta - in one case right beneath the nose of an uncomprehending spouse; like Ayckbourn himself, Norman is a master at cramming multiple narratives into a very confined space.

Still, does Living Together deepen the content of The Norman Conquests as much as it could - or should? My feeling is - not quite, although it's still a richer dramatic meal than you can expect from almost any of our millennial playwrights, and Gloucester Stage is carrying on here at nearly the same level it achieved with the trilogy's first installment.

The gap this time around, surprisingly enough, is Steven Barkhimer's Norman, who seems a bit too melancholic and deflated in the first act, and not quite relentless enough in the second. Ideally, we should sense behind Norman's tiny triumphs the emotional hollowness that, yes, haunts him - but while Barkhimer is clearly aware of this dimension of the role, he hasn't yet figured out how to crack it. Meanwhile, as the disapproving control-freak Sarah (who eventually becomes one of Norman's attempted conquests, too) Lindsay Crouse still hasn't fully put on the pair of bossypants Ayckbourn has written for her, perhaps out of fear of seeming too unsympathetic to the audience (she shouldn't worry); but Crouse does bloom nicely once her character starts to respond to Norman's attentions.

The rest of the cast - Richard Snee, Sarah Newhouse, Barlow Adamson, and Jennie Israel - is pretty much flawless. Newhouse is once again utterly believable as the disappointed Annie, who's literally in a slump, while Snee's comic timing is impeccable as the meticulously sublimated Reg, who's always devising parlor games so complicated even he can't remember all the rules. But it's Adamson and Israel who come off this time as best in show, even though Adamson has the least emotional development to work with, and Israel (who plays Ruth) the most. I'm not quite sure, in fact, how Adamson makes his dunder-headed character's silences work theatrically, but he does. And as for Israel, she all but walks off with the production in the second act; I wrote last summer that her Ruth was probably the best work I'd seen her do, and the performance has only deepened since then.

Meanwhile director Eric Engel skillfully keeps Ayckbourn's many comic gears turning smoothly - but I'm not sure he has made the climactic seductions quite as touching (or disturbing) as they might be. There are perhaps deeper, and even darker, dimensions to The Norman Conquests than the Gloucester cast reaches - still, this little playhouse, which often offers Boston's most sophisticated summer theatre, has come one step closer to completing one of the subtler artistic achievements I've seen on a local stage in the past few years. So I can't wait for the final installment next summer (which may the theatre gods grant!).

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Farewell to the Barnes - and good riddance?

As I'm sure many Hub Review readers are aware, the world-famous Barnes Foundation (above), which many consider the greatest private collection of impressionist, post-impressionist, and early modern art in existence, is closing its hallowed doors in the suburbs of Philadelphia and moving to the city center in two years (the new gallery's design is below). The Foundation is famous for its many eccentricities - all stipulated in the will of its founder, Albert C. Barnes, a self-made millionaire who made his money in antiseptics, and of whom biographers have often tactfully noted that "even his friends thought him a misanthrope."  But Barnes also had a supremely discerning eye for the art of his age, and after becoming a multi-millionaire in his early thirties, spent his middle and later years amassing an amazing number of Renoirs, Cezannes, Picassos, and Matisses at bargain-basement prices (the collection is now estimated to be worth some $20-30 billion).

The kicker to this story, however, is that by the end of his life Barnes was all but determined to keep his fantastic collection from the public (the reasons today now seem obscure, but most certainly had to do with his pique at the snobbish treatment he and his collection received from Philly high society).  Indeed, for many years the collection styled itself a private school, and so was not open to outsiders at all - only through a series of lawsuits and legal wranglings was the art slowly made available to the public, if in a limited way.  For getting into the Barnes remained a laborious process - you had to order a ticket well ahead of time, and only on certain days, and then you had to show up at the security gate at a specific time to be vetted, etc. - which is why I always put off a visit.  Besides, I'd seen many of the collection's masterpieces in a rare tour organized in the early 90's - and by all accounts the new Barnes facility along Benjamin Franklin Parkway will closely mimic the current villa's layout anyway.

Still, I had a little itch telling me that if I wanted to be able to hold up my head at certain cocktail parties,  I really had to see the original Barnes - or at least as much of the original as possible (some of the collection was already in storage).  So I made the pilgrimage down to Philly last weekend - just two weeks before the galleries in Merion are scheduled to close for good.

I confess I went down thinking I would be charmed, in the end, by the Foundation's eccentricities - and, like many, would be able to luxuriate in a pleasurable outrage that through various machinations (only made possible, it must be admitted, by the Foundation's own failing fortunes) the will of the great Alfred C. Barnes had been broken, and the collection re-housed in a simulation of its original setting (from which it would be possible to greatly boost attendance revenue).  In short, I imagined I'd have something like the same response to the Barnes situation that I'd had to the bland "renovation" of the Gardner Museum (and the inexcusable destruction of its carriage house).

The exterior of the new Barnes.
But it turned out I wasn't much charmed by the Barnes.  In fact I had rather the opposite reaction - I'm not only glad the collection is going to be made more accessible, I'm actually dismayed that Barnes's cock-a-mamie gallery scheme is going to survive the move intact!

Henri Matisse may have described the Barnes as the "only sane place in America to see art," but he must have been a bit touched the day he said that, because the design of the galleries is plainly insane.  Pictures are grouped together not by artist, or school, or theme, or historical timeline, but basically willy-nilly, with a hidden agenda devised by Mr. Barnes that the Foundation invites you to guess.  But when I dutifully inquired of the docent leading my tour why, exactly, that Cezanne was hanging next to that Courbet, which was next to an unknown Flemish master from the fifteenth century, I would inevitably get a reply like "Don't you see?  They all feature the color red!" or "Didn't you notice the cross-hatching?" or "That wall (Cezanne, Seurat, Prendergast) makes a comment about the Italian pictorial tradition.'"  To be honest, often I couldn't quite believe my ears, and sometimes even found myself stifling laughter at these sweetly philistine responses.  But I think they were honest, and probably pretty accurate.  And I began to wonder - could the world's greatest collector also have been the world's worst curator?

For the trouble with Barnes, you get the impression, was that he began to imagine (like so many curators) that he, too, was a kind of artiste.  But ah, if only!  The paintings aren't merely hung according to his lack of comprehension of them - their arrangements are also broken up by klutzy metal "ornaments" (door knockers, escutcheons, what look like soup spoons, etc.) which Barnes himself created, and which you get the vague idea he intended as implements of visual organization, or perhaps even rhythm.  Alas, they pretty much fail at that; indeed, they're just mildly distracting - like the puzzling arrangements they adorn (which are all hung, believe it or not, on burlap).  Indeed, walking through these galleries, you find yourself fighting the feeling that old Alfred C. Barnes is actually trying to get between you and the art, with the kind of naively arty instruction you might expect of Miss Jean Brodie in her prime - and so you keep having to pat back feelings of mild irritation.

Of course you could make many of the same claims about our own Isabella Gardner (and many have).  Still, where Gardner dances, Barnes trudges, and you never feel - once you have discovered one of the few masterpieces left at the Gardner - that its founder's ghost is actually trying to tell you how you should experience the art.

Still, none of this detracts from the Barnes collection itself, which is as tremendous as advertised.  The famous Matisse mural The Dance II is there, as is Seurat's Les Poseuses, perhaps my favorite Cezanne still life and an early Card Players, as well as The Large Bathers - they're all there, along with innumerable Renoirs, dozens of Picassos, and as many Courbets, Rosseaus, and van Goghs as you could hope for.  (There are also a number of Old Masters - although most of these have been downgraded to "School of" or "Attributed to" - and looking at some of them, you wonder how anyone ever took them for the genuine article.)

But the thing is, you'll be able to see all of this in the "new" Barnes as well (and, I think, in better light).  What I do count as a loss, however, is the sweet gentility of the faded - but still charming - villa in which the collection has been housed all these years; there's a whiff of Mrs. Gardner's monied bohemianism about the place that's appealing: it's a kind of amusingly dignified suburban pleasure-dome.  By way of contrast, the new Barnes looks elegant, but blankly impersonal - a cross between a monastery and an office park (like so much contemporary architecture).  So more's the pity, in at least one way.  But I can't say I'm shedding any other real tears over the Barnes.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

To revive - or revise? That is the question.

Jesse Blumberg and Amanda Forsythe in Niobe, Regina di Tebe.

The Boston Early Music Festival's production of Agostino Steffani's Niobe, Regina di Tebe is, in a way, precisely what an accurate historical revival should be. On the one hand, it represents the resurrection of a musical ravishment; vocally and instrumentally, it is gorgeous beyond compare, and BEMF has staged it sumptuously (see photo above, and masthead). But watching it, we can't help but notice how far opera has come dramatically over the three centuries (and change) since its premiere.  In short, Niobe is long - quite long, and quite meandering, too, both in terms of story and theme, and there didn't seem to be too much the production's talented director, Gilbert Blin, could do about that.  Indeed, we didn't really get a bead on where the opera was even going till its last act (which is where it differs from Wagner's behemoths, which may stretch for hours but are utterly coherent thematically).  Thus we wonder, as the curtain falls, whether Niobe is really viable on the modern stage, despite its musical riches.

Although baroque music fans, take note - I'm not kidding about those riches.  Steffani lavishes his best writing not on his leading lady, but on her melancholy consort, Anfione, who gets to sing several mournfully beautiful arias (including one eerie show-stopper accompanied by an off-stage consort) that at times feel unlike any other music ever written.  And to sing them, BEMF has engaged Philippe Jaroussky, the French early-music star whom many have called the greatest countertenor in the world.  After hearing this performance, I was inclined to agree; there seems to be little of the carefully-bounded sense of control that's so common among countertenors in Jaroussky's instrument, and he sings with a movingly transparent sincerity that holds you spell-bound.  Jaroussky alone makes this production an event.

But he's also surrounded by a sterling vocal cast - there were remarkable performances here from local luminary Amanda Forsythe (who sang like an angel but wasn't nearly enough of a diva to pull together her character's swings in temperament), as well as Colin Balzer, Charles Robert Stephens, Jesse Blumberg, Matthew White, and particularly the radiant Yulia van Doren.  Meanwhile, down in the (non)-pit, the BEMF Orchestra played with consistently sensitive spirit.

So you couldn't have asked for a lovelier evening of (for all practical purposes, brand-new) baroque music.  Was it too much to ask for a decent libretto, too?  Perhaps (and to be fair, a few cuts in the score may have made the opera feel even choppier than it must have been originally).  Still, one wonders at the ultimate point of resurrecting a work without fully preparing it for a new life.  Should BEMF have an added mission in some cases, which might be not only to revive but revise?  I hate to think that the best of Steffani's music may be forgotten once more - but without a more substantial reworking of this text, I fear that may be precisely what happens.

The Buddha's touch

I haven't been able to find out much about this performance, dubbed "Chinese Hands" on the web, but it's so striking I thought I'd share it with you. What few scraps of info I've been able to discover only confirm that it's an evocation of bodhisattva (the Buddhist concept of "enlightened existence") performed by a troupe of deaf Chinese performers - which only makes the perfection of its synchronization all the more extraordinary. (Hat tip to Larry Stark.)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

There's been a resurgence of interest of late in My Fair Lady, Lerner and Loewe's classic musical transformation of Shaw's Pygmalion. The Stoneham Theatre did a strong production last year, which rode the coat-tails of the Trevor Nunn touring version that had rolled through town a year or two before. That version starred Lisa O'Hare as Eliza (at left) who is now back in another production, opposite Charles Shaughnessy (of TV's The Nanny), at the North Shore Music Theatre.

So - are three Ladies in as many years almost too much of a good thing?

Not in my book - I could see this show every week, particularly with O'Hare as its star. She matches Audrey Hepburn's gamine presence with Julie Andrews' aristocratic pipes, and if she was impishly charming in that tour three years ago, she's absolutely adorable now; O'Hare is nestled completely inside the role at this point, yet keeps finding subtly original ways of mining it for both sentiment and whimsy.  In this performance lover-ly singing (and Lady regularly soars into coloratura territory) meets hilariously perceptive acting; O'Hare's is truly a classic Eliza.

And as her romantic - and phonetic - nemesis, Henry Higgins (I don't have to tell you the plot, do I?), Charles Shaughnessy proves a genially dapper surprise.  He perhaps doesn't have the piquant arrogance of Rex Harrison, nor that sense that he's an unstoppable force - and therefore he doesn't drive you, or Eliza, mad, which is too bad.  But Shaughnessy compensates with his own impishly light touch, and it's a definite plus that he can actually sing a little (which is all he has to do).  It likewise doesn't hurt that he hasn't lost his looks - Shaughnessy's performance may not be as deep or forceful as Harrison's, but he's a far more convincing romantic figure (below) than Rex ever was.

Alas, it must be said that My Fair Lady isn't, perhaps, ideally suited for an arena staging, but choreographer Michael Lichtefeld's use of the space was consistently inventive (with "Get Me to the Church on Time" proving a genuine showstopper); and while the production was rarely opulent, under the firm hand of director Charles Repole, it was admirably streamlined, and kept up a quicker pace than Trevor Nunn's ever did.  And it seemed to me that a few numbers, such as the "Ascot Gavotte," (the one time the show did pull out every glamorous stop) actually seemed wittier in the round. Luckily the North Shore was also blessed with a strong supporting cast (several of them locals). Hayden Tee made a marvelously callow Freddy, and his marvelous tenor made the most of the gorgeously lyrical "On the Street Where You Live." Meanwhile Bostonians Cheryl McMahon and Sarah deLima nailed their respective roles as Mrs. Pearce and Higgins's drily poised mother (deLima was a particular hoot). I only had my doubts (some doubts, anyway) about the swagger Bill Dietrich brought to Alfred P. Doolittle - I like my Doolittles with more of a lilt.

So I think fans of the musical will almost certainly be won over by this latest version, and if you haven't seen it (if you had, you'd be a fan) - well, what are you waiting for?

The opening everybody's NOT talking about . . .

It's all been very hush-hush till now, but if all goes well, the lower level restrooms at the Museum of Fine Arts will be, well, "flush" with art by Boston artists right about now.

With a wicked nod to desperate precedent - a famous "show" of contemporary art in the MFA men's room in 1971 (at left) - local artists will be sneaking in to install their own work in the spiffy latrines below the new atrium courtyard in "Flush with the Walls," a "renegade" show which opens - well, right about now, 7 pm on June 15, precisely forty years after that first exhibit. How long the show will last is anybody's guess.  But hopefully its brevity won't reduce its influence - after all, the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art is scheduled to open in September; who knows what local artists may find themselves still hanging at the MFA, only in a more public location?  For those of you who can't make it this evening, I've been told the exhibition will also include "a fully illustrated historical commemorative catalogue, subtitled Bathroom Reading."  Too funny.

[Update: Well, as I guessed, the show didn't last too long!  Provocateur/crypto-anarchist/art-nerd sweetheart Greg Cook had only just concluded his welcoming remarks to the assembled crowd (of maybe two dozen people, squeezed into the corridor to the bathrooms outside the Chihuly show) when security descended, ostensibly to clear the hallway.

A reasonable excuse, but in a matter of moments the MFA's minions had invaded the bathrooms and begun to tear the art down from the walls - and none too carefully, either.  I protested; sure, the crowd had to go, but couldn't the art stay up?  (The artists had thoughtfully NOT posted anything in the stalls, as they had in 1971; the art was confined to the sink counters and vestibule, for the protection of everyone's privacy!)  The guards just gave me that look that reads "Don't make me be a jerk, okay?," and when another gallery-goer tried to video the dismantling of the exhibit, he was told to put his phone away, because "It's a federal offense to take photographs in a restroom, sir."  Oh, dear, Dorothy, I suppose we can't go against the law, can we!  So the exhibit was down in a matter of moments, and the crowd unhappily, but still genially, dispersed.

The art I caught a glimpse of was poignant in its simplicity - a sketch of the Mona Lisa on a paper towel was typical.  (I didn't notice any artists' names on the pieces.)  The show exuded a crunchy - or maybe crusty - idealism that defiantly refused to die despite the determination of the MFA marketing juggernaut to ignore it.  Meanwhile, the museum-goers who pushed their way through the proceedings looked confused but seriously miffed, in the manner of Disney patrons who find a Greenpeace protest is ruining their visit to the Magic Kingdom.  Or was that impression due to the Willy-Wonka-esque fantasia of the Dale Chihuly show next door?  Oh, well - who knows.  Somebody bring on Veruca Salt!]

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Solid Gold at Peabody Essex

Detail of Portrait of Aeltje Uylenburg, painted in 1632, when Rembrandt was 26.

Sometimes, yes, the Hub Review makes mistakes (we're partial, however, to self-admitted ones - don't look so shocked). One of those recent errors was putting off until the last minute a visit to Golden, the exhibit of works from the Golden Age of Dutch and Flemish Art at the Peabody Essex Museum - it closes this weekend, which means I won't be able to visit it again, much as I'd like to (and if you do go, expect crowds - don't worry, it's still worth it). 

Portrait of a Preacher, by Frans Hals
Golden is essentially a showcase for the collection of Eijk and Rose-Marie van Otterloo, who have been quietly amassing over the past two decades what many consider to be one of the best selections of Dutch and Flemish art (and furniture) in private hands.  And it's hard to disagree with that assessment as you wander through the exhibit, which includes one world-class masterpiece (the Rembrandt pictured above) that the Rijksmuseum or Hermitage would kill for, as well as a late, heart-breaking Hals (at left), and two major Ruisdael landscapes.  No, there is no Rubens (and of course no Vermeer), but as if to compensate, there's a galaxy of minor masterpieces by names that are only "lesser" when you set them next to Rembrandt (Cuyp, Dou, Steen, Maes), as well as stunning works by people you've (or at least I've) never heard of (Koedijck? Coorte?).

Much of the show is devoted to the investigation of the many genres - the sea-, land-, and town-scape, the private portrait, the several varieties of still life (flowers, silver, seashells), etc. - that flourished in the rapidly-expanding bourgeois markets of the seventeenth-century "low countries." What's startling about the van Otterloo's collecting, however, is their ability to discern that moment when craft transcends itself, when genre tips over into art - Maes's Sleeping Man Having His Pocket Picked, for instance, all but glows with the spontaneity of a split-second that occurred three hundred years ago, while Dou's simple Sleeping Dog feels mysteriously (yet unostentatiously) timeless.

These two collectors also seem to have been fired by a delightful curiosity in the physical reality of their chosen period, and you leave the exhibit feeling you know life in the Golden Age almost as well as you know your own. In these paintings we see the Dutch at church and at play, at the market and at the doctor's, flirting, skating, dancing - even pooping (Hendrick Avercamp includes an open-air latrine in his wonderful Winter Landscape Near a Village).  Indeed, the earthy truths of human life are in evidence in these paintings in a way they had never been before; clearly for the Dutch of the seventeenth century (who in political terms were shaking off the torments of Spanish Catholicism), the spirit can calmly co-exist with the body, and the erotic, religious, and social ego is subject to a constant, if sympathetic, empirical critique.

View of the Westerkerk, Amsterdam
Thus Rembrandt's Portrait of Aeltje Uylenburgh beams with a soulful radiance (at top), but the artist also carefully accounts for every single one of his kindly sitter's wrinkles.  And when Jan van der Heyden paints the splendid new church in town, the Westerkerk (above), he reverently records every brick in its majestic facade - but if you look closely, you'll also notice a tiny gentleman (at center!) surreptitiously relieving himself against its august walls.  In Dutch painting, there are flies on the flowers, and a pretty girl can be a pickpocket - and while the glory of God is a wonderful thing, still, when you gotta go, you gotta go.  There's an intelligent humility here that casts an instructive charm across the centuries - as you gaze at these images, you wonder whether, even with our zillion new modes of image-making, we are accounting for our own times with anything like this level of gently perceptive accuracy.

And trust me, gaze at these paintings you will -the unbelievable level of detail in these images is incredibly seductive to the eye; I found myself glued to A Barber-Surgeon Tending a Peasant's Foot (at left), for instance, and there are similar small miracles to be savored throughout the show.  Be sure not to miss, for instance, Coorte's haunting Still Life with Seashells, or Willem van Aelst’s fearful mouse tentatively sniffing at a walnut.  (If you're lucky, the museum may even have a few magnifying glasses left to give out - or better yet, bring your own.)  And I just don't have the space to do justice to the glorious landscapes - with their clouds shining like virtual mountain ranges above the horizon - or the glorious explosions of flowers.

There is one question that looms over the show - where is this collection going?  The van Otterloos have announced they intend to eventually donate it to the public; but who's going to get it?  This exhibit is so striking in part because the collection has been so carefully curated that it already feels like a small museum department (it's worth noting the van Otterloos received advice over the years from mucky-mucks at the Rijksmuseum and the Mauritshuis).  Yet despite its kaleidoscopic balance, the collection also has its own personality, and even quirks, if you will; you'd hate to see it broken up, and ideally it should go to a facility with the resources to display most (if not all!) of it coherently.  The MFA - which already has a strong, and largely complementary, Northern European department - feels like a natural landing place for it, but could the museum commit the additional gallery space to do the collection justice, and ensure its own identity?  (You'd hate to see the Rembrandt on the walls, but the Avercamp in storage.)   Clearly the van Otterloos' dazzling success has only set them an even more intriguing aesthetic challenge; I'm hoping they have a few million dollars left over to assist in the construction of a permanent home for the artistic legacy they have created.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The eyes (and ears) of the music world are on Boston . . .

. . . because this week the Boston Early Music Festival and Exhibition is in full swing across the city. The centerpiece of the Festival is always a lavishly mounted "lost" opera, complete with baroque stage machinery and flying effects. This year it's Niobe, Regina di Tebe, by Agostino Steffani (nope, I'd never heard of him either) which plays at the Cutler Majestic through Sunday, and stars Philippe Jaroussky, who's the current big noise among countertenors. And you have to admit - he doesn't sound half bad in the clip above, does he! I'm seeing it Tuesday night and will report back immediately, but I should warn you that tickets are already in short supply, I expect to have a good time, and you might not want to wait!

Is critical ignorance critical bliss?

The cast of The Drowsy Chaperone.
It doesn't much happen anymore, but for a period of years I often found myself facing a friendly question like this one:

"Oh - you're a critic? What did you think of Vanya on 42nd Street? That film was a-mazing. The best production of Chekhov I've ever seen!"

Now I immediately knew from this statement that:

a) the speaker was not a regular theatregoer, and what's more,

b) he or she had never seen a good production of Chekhov (if, in fact, they'd ever seen any Chekhov at all).

Now if you, like me, have seen a lot of Chekhov - some of it shattering - and have also suffered through the pretensions of Vanya on 42nd Street, you immediately appreciate my quandary in such a conversation - and indeed the general quandary of the knowledgeable critic in an ignorant world: how do you stay honest without pissing off your audience?

Nobody likes to be told they're aesthetically clueless, after all - (I don't, either) - and frankly, there are a few good moments in Vanya on 42nd Street (mostly in the last act), although nobody delivers anything close to a great performance, Julianne Moore gets by on her smile, and Wallace Shawn and Brooke Smith are terrible.  Indeed, what's poignant about fans of V on 42 is that you can only imagine how they might respond to the real thing - although you also worry it might be too much for them.  They've gone to a movie that offers a glimpse here and there of Chekhov's richness, and they're stunned; they think it's a-mazing; but does that mean they could appreciate a truly great production, or does it mean that director Andre Gregory precisely calibrated how much to spoon-feed them?

I guess we'll never know.  And to be completely honest, I sometimes wonder - how would I react to V on 42 if I were more ignorant of Chekhov in performance?  Would I be dazzled, too?

All these thoughts were stirred, believe it or not, by a recent trip to The Drowsy Chaperone at SpeakEasy Stage.  I wasn't going to review it officially - since SpeakEasy signed the infamous letter protesting my membership in the IRNE organization, I've taken a more - well, disillusioned view of their "friendly" solicitousness.  Still, the partner unit was clamoring to catch Chaperone (as he'd never seen it), and I figured it was right up SpeakEasy's alley, so, yes, we actually paid to see it.

But then the production came pre-sold with a vengeance.  I can't think of a single negative review, in fact.  A brief survey:

"Exhilarating! (The Globe); "It's impossible not to love every minute!" (The Edge); "This one is once in a lifetime . . ." (Boston Theatre Review); "Not even Stephen Sondheim could resist . . ." (Boston Phoenix); "Excellent . . . " (The Arts Fuse) . . . well, you get the idea.  The local response was summed up for me by a friend who gushed just before the curtain rose that, "This performance is perfect.  I cannot imagine a better performance.  A better production would be impossible!"

Sigh.  Needless to say, soon after the actors took the stage, I quickly realized that . . . yes, a far better production of The Drowsy Chaperone was not only possible, but I'd actually seen it.

So the Vanya on 42nd Street phenomenon had struck again, in almost every detail.  For don't get me wrong - the SpeakEasy production was fun, yes - and it gave you some idea of what The Drowsy Chaperone is all about.  But at the same time it was too broad by half, the set was a little crude, the cast a bit uneven, and the dancing (never a SpeakEasy strength) was sweetly amateurish.

How do I know all this?  I'd like to imagine it's because I can perceive the true reach of the original material, but I'm sure many would claim it's only because I saw the far-superior New York tour (which included some of the original Broadway cast).  The problem in that theory, of course, is that I can imagine an even better production than that tour; it was hardly flawless.  But it had an emotional resonance - almost a poetic dimension - that the flat, brightly ironic strokes of the SpeakEasy production lacked.  (Amusingly, one Boston critic - the Phoenix's Carolyn Clay - actually insisted that the national tour was inferior!  She can't claim ignorance as an excuse, I guess.)

There were a few things about the SpeakEasy version that were as strong, or even stronger, than the corresponding elements in that tour: Karen MacDonald and Thomas Derrah were as good as their Broadway counterparts, and Robert Saoud was likewise a hoot.  Other folks had their moments,  and the costumes, by Seth Bodie, were loud but divine.

But the problems began with the rest of the production's design, and ran right through its central performance.  Needless to say, SpeakEasy is working under tight physical constraints in the Roberts Studio Theatre, but still, Jenna McFarland Lord's set pretty much failed completely to conjure an essential component of The Drowsy Chaperone: its eponymous ersatz-20's musical should slowly invade the fallen world of its enchanted listener (the archetypal "Man in Chair").  We should never lose sight of the poignant, disappointed reality that frames the frothy shenanigans of his favorite (mythical) show.

Thus on Broadway, and in the ensuing tour, a detailed version of the lonely leading man's dingy apartment remained onstage throughout; rain poured down outside its windows as he listened to his scratchy old album, and the ghosts of a bygone era began to pop out of his closet and refrigerator, slowly warming the literally blue light of his life  - indeed, the conceit built to a climax in which a bi-plane landed in his living room. But at SpeakEasy, the Man in Chair's apartment pretty much vanished after the first moments, to be replaced by the supposed set of Chaperone (which was done up none too subtly);  we were plunked from one "reality" into another at once, and lost all sense of the pervasive atmosphere of evanescence that's central to the show.

Okay, SpeakEasy lacks the physical resources of Broadway, or even of a national tour; you simply can't land a plane in the Roberts Studio Theatre.  All the more reason, then, to imbue the performances with the right notes of imagination and wistfulness.  But the usually-reliable Will McGarrahan took precisely the opposite tack in his performance as Man in Chair - snarky and a bit bitter, he nailed all his laughs expertly, but lacked any trace of the sweetness that can make the role so memorable.  You didn't really care about this guy, or about the fact that he was lonely - if he was lonely, that is; tellingly, a key moment in the show played sourly at SpeakEasy that in the tour was heart-breaking.  When a fuse blows in Man in Chair's apartment, the building super lumbers through the musical-in-progress - which stands frozen in the dark - to change it.  I can still remember the enchantment of this encounter from the tour, and the strange resonance of its contrast between darkened fantasy and our quotidian, every-day world.  Once the lights are back on, the big lug mentions that he, too, loves musicals - and a moment of human connection suddenly flickers before us.  But it turns out he's into Andrew Lloyd Webber and The Lion King; and in the national tour, you almost sighed as the gossamer thread of a possible human attachment was severed for Man in Chair. But at SpeakEasy, it was just another knowing laugh line.

I don't even want to go into the issue of the dancing - needless to say, a central trope of Chaperone is the hilariously wide range of tap; the choreography should affectionately parody every zany trick of its period, with an emphasis on virtuosity, the more vapid the better.  But this cast didn't include even a single polished hoofer, and the ensuing gap was a sore one; one novelty number (on roller skates, no less) remained a klutzy mystery because its dancers couldn't really roller skate (so why would such a number be in a 20's-era show?).

The net effect of all this created a weird inversion in the show's seeming theme: we kept hearing, loud and clear, Man in Chair's witty asides about the political incorrectness, and sometimes tawdry reality, of his favorite musical genre, without ever getting much of the infectious joy of the thing itself; even the performers seemed to be constantly winking at us rather than living entirely within their own musical reality (a fatal mistake in this case).  Thus while the original Chaperone danced gloriously between worship and worldliness, this one by comparison was conceptually flat: just the usual arch deconstruction of a naive cultural form with no contradictory chaser; in effect SpeakEasy was patting you on the back for knowing better than Gershwin and Kern.

Still, I wonder - would I have figured that out all by myself?  (And would I appreciate Chekhov without the great productions I've seen?  Would I get Shakespeare?)

And does it really matter if Bostonians go home from the SpeakEasy Drowsy Chaperone thinking they've seen a great production when they haven't?  After all, it still is pretty good - and that's good enough for Boston, isn't it?  Why not pretend it's great - where's the harm?

I have to admit the only answers I have to these questions are romantic ones that would only matter to other people who have seen great theatre, and understood it; a dwindling minority even of the people who still read reviews.  So - if the blind are leading the blind here in Boston, is that so bad?  Maybe not; I have to admit, people always seem so happy with their self-aware, but gimcrack, versions of the culture; you hate to break the news to them that Vanya on 42nd Street wasn't really much good.  I keep feeling that perhaps critical ignorance is critical bliss - after all, it's even re-inforced by most of the intellectual attitudes around here.  It would be hard to swoon for Bob Brustein's dog-and-pony "theatre of revolt," for instance, if you'd really been exposed to a lot of great traditional theatre.  Indeed, the "elevated" discourse of our chattering class often depends on the fact that the chattering class just doesn't get out that much.  I mean, how could you face Diane Paulus and the A.R.T., and write the review that Kati Mitchell expects, with real knowledge of how great the theatre once was?  It would slowly kill you inside.  So it seems the choice for any reviewer of real ability who wants a foothold in the local profession is either self-inforced ignorance or intense cognitive dissonance. Sigh.  I think I have to find some sort of amnesia potion. Or maybe just read more Carolyn Clay.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Putting the bite in Bat Boy

Metro Stage Company can't seem to catch a break publicity-wise - they still haven't garnered any interest from the print press (I guess because their productions are usually low-tech); and even I often only catch them at the tail-end of their runs (as I am this time; sorry!). Still, Metro presses on, in the "Cambridge Fringe" centered around Central Square's YMCA, powered by a love for musical theatre and an impressive amount of skill at presenting it (and we all know those two don't always go together!).

Indeed, in their latest, Bat Boy (which closes tonight) their greatest strength is very much in evidence - these folks can put together a singing cast better than anybody in town.  In fact, to be honest, there are several local stars who appear regularly at our mid-sized theatres who couldn't cut the vocal mustard at scrappy little Metro Stage.  I've already seen expertly-sung versions of Working, Sweeney Todd, and A Little Night Music there, and Bat Boy hews to that same high standard (and the songs are powered by a punchy, if slightly too loud, rock quartet).

Still, it must also be said these great singers can't quite hide the fact that the score of Bat Boy - well, if it doesn't quite suck, it sometimes bites;  I think half the songs were in the same key, and in some of them I'm not sure I heard a single accidental.  At least songwriter Laurence O'Keefe distracts us from this monotony with some witty wordplay, and by lurching at will from one musical style to another (it's okay, the plot lurches from one twist to another, too).  The idea seems to be that if you don't like bad rock, then maybe you'll like bad country, or bad gospel.

Oh, well.  Despite its melodic poverty, the score is still challenging to sing (it's not low on high notes), and every now and then (as in the gospel number) O'Keefe does get a simple, frisky tune going.  And then to be fair, the score is supposed to be 'so bad it's good,' in the manner of all those gay-pop pastiches that the Off-Broadway factory has been pumping out for years.  Indeed, Bat Boy (which premiered in 1997) may count as an avatar of this alternative fodder.  It's sourced in low pop culture (the Weekly World News headline that inspired it is above), and mixes a heavy-handed AIDS allegory with shots of sex-horror camp in the manner of Charles Busch (or do I mean Ludlam?), topped off with an affectionate parody of the white-trash culture half the East Village fled to New York to escape.  I suppose I should also mention the quick nods to musicals like My Fair Lady and Hair, along with the capping earnest plea for tolerance - just like the kind Rodgers and Hammerstein used to make (only with incomparably better tunes).

The current production's publicity.
Alas, as you can probably tell, Bat Boy didn't make me feel very tolerant. But I was happy nevertheless to spend time with this great cast, which acted as well as it sang, and where you might find several future local stars, particularly Nick Sulfaro (who made a wittily gonzo Bat Boy), the lovely Aubin Wise (a kind of Audra-McDonald-in-waiting), and the sweet-faced (and voiced) Melody Madarasz - all of whom, I imagine, could soon garner IRNE nominations (whether or not I'm on that committee).  There were even more amusing turns from Nathanael Shea, Michael Ryan Buckley, Anthony Alfaro, and the cross-dressing James Tallach (who brought memorable fire to two trashy ladies who were not to be trifled with).  But come to think of it, there wasn't a weak link in this cast, which ran the East-Village-hillbilly gauntlet with gusto.  So I'll go ahead and list everybody: kudos to Henry McEnerny, Emma Boroson, Tom Hamlett, Sarajane Mullins, Rebekah Hardeson, Carly Kastel, and Gary Ryan, too.

Meanwhile director M. Bevin O'Gara, of whom I'm generally a fan, staged the wild goings-on with wit and imagination, but I'm not sure she brought quite the right snarky meta-tone to the show.  Only po-faced irony telegraphed to the audience can glue the silly shards of Bat Boy together, but not everybody in the cast had gotten that memo (Wise and Shea in particular groped at the right note to strike as their scenes grew ever more bizarre).  In the end, I think there's a very low ceiling on how high Bat Boy can fly; but I admit this production flapped about entertainingly, and offered more proof (if any was needed) that Metro Stage deserves a higher profile in our local theatre scene.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Golden Section

The strange finale of Caesarean Section.
American theatre doesn't really do "raw" anymore.  In fact I can't think of a professional show I've seen in the last oh, five years or so that dared to flaunt its vulnerability, much less its rough, warts-and-all humanity.  Or one that risked looking long and hard at the dark places within us without the props of adolescent bravado or alienated chic (or, in fact, cultural or literal amplification of any kind).

But somehow the Poles have clung to that defiant ideal, long after the American theatre has forgotten all about Grotowski, artistic community, and (eeek!) poverty.  Which made the brief appearance by Teatr Zar at the Charlestown Working Theater last week bizarrely refreshing, even though the performance was entirely absorbed in the question of suicide.

No, this was not The Drowsy Chaperone.  (It was a far more fascinating show than that was!)  And it wasn't exactly depressing, either - in part because it wasn't simply about suicide, not exactly; it was instead about pulling back from suicide, about going up to the edge but not over, about that Beckettian decision to soldier on despite everything.  (Not for nothing did the title of the piece refer to a difficult birth against the odds.)

Of course that's still enough to scare off the SpeakEasy crowd, but I was surprised to find the Zarists (sorry) playing to a full, appreciative house in Charlestown - despite the threats of oncoming tornadoes and power outages.  Those adventurous souls got to ponder a form of theatre unlike that being seen on any other stage in this city right now: Teatr Zar is poised somewhere between dance, musical performance, and religious ritual.  There's no text per se, just movement and song - although there's plenty of drama, and a disturbing level of physical risk: the "show" opened with the Zarists smashing up glass in the dark, and they carried on their performance barefoot despite the presence of a thin river of glittering pain bisecting their tight little stage (above left).

Said performance was seemingly designed to directly translate the emotional and spiritual into the physical, in a manner which elided clear explication.  (Indeed, the "poetic" text provided in the program I think was something of a mistake.)  Two women (Ditte Berkeley and Emma Bonnici) and one man (Martej Matejka) were generally center stage, struggling against each other with a force utterly unlike the practiced mime of stage combat.  All were clearly trained in movement, yet somehow their actions felt unskilled, awkward (they often fell to the floor with a wince-worthy crash).  Grace was what they sought (they sometimes climbed atop each other to get closer to heaven), yet that was precisely what always eluded them; clearly they didn't know how to live, neither with each other nor with themselves.  I couldn't say that the piece built to a "conclusion" - it felt more like a single moment repeated in several variations - but it certainly conveyed the throes of emotional desperation with intense clarity.

This was largely due to the piece's musical dimension: its archetypal "characters" suffered (almost always) in silence, yet a startling score gave them voice - in a set of wailing, polyphonic "songs" drawn from Corsican musical traditions, played by a tight instrumental ensemble and led with frightening abandon by vocalist/cellist Nini Julia Bang.  The piece is worthwhile in musical terms alone, frankly - although the music is exquisitely integrated with the physical performance; there seems to be no separation between "musician" and "actor" here. 

The Charlestown Working Theater has been lucky of late in its visiting artists (I believe this weekend they're hosting yet another foreign visitor, Yaroslava Pulinovich's The Natasha Plays), and as a result, buzz has been building around this gritty, daring little space. So let's hope the CWT can expand its offerings as they rise in popularity (local donors, take note). Caesarean Section is actually only one part of a triptych of work from Teatr Zar; it would be wonderful if Boston audiences someday might be able to see this compelling piece in its entirety.