Friday, July 29, 2011

Back-to-back Bard

Tonight, I'm off to New York to see the Royal Shakespeare Company in As You Like It, Julius Caesar, The Winter's Tale and King Lear (above, the RSC stage under construction in the Park Avenue Armory).  Reviews have been strongest for Winter's and As You Like It, but I'm hoping all the productions will prove invigorating - and it will be great to see four Bards back-to-back (even at Shakespeare festivals, as Art Hennessey has reported, that kind of immersion is becoming a rare thing!). In my few free hours in the Big Apple, I'm also hoping to squeeze into the Alexander McQueen show at the Met (wish me luck with that). I will duly report back on everything I saw next week!

The war at home

                                                    A sample of the video "interviews" from Outside the Wire.

Sometimes, it does still happen. A little company comes out of nowhere and stages a remarkable new play. These days, however, the question always is - will anybody notice?

Well, a few of us still notice. My colleague Larry Stark of the Theatre Mirror, who sees everything, began emailing me desperately over the weekend that I absolutely had to see Outside the Wire, by the fledgling Cornerstone Stage Company, at the BCA (through this Saturday evening only). Now Larry, God love him, is always a bit more - enthusiastic, shall we say? - than I am about things, so I took his initial rave with a small grain of salt. But when he waves his arms long enough - and the e-mails kept coming - I feel I have to pay attention. So I checked out Outside the Wire on Wednesday night, paying my way so I'd feel okay about slinking out at intermission if I had to.

Needless to say, I stayed for the whole thing, and was glad I did. Outside the Wire - which was written by Jimi Stanton, the young actor who made a splash in the overwrought 9 Circles just a few months ago - is hardly a perfect play; it is a sometimes awkward, but always heartfelt, attempt to deal in dramatic terms with the emotional adjustments veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars must make upon their return to the homefront (the experiences of Stanton's brother, we are let know, inspired him to write the play).  To be blunt, Stanton offers little that is new here - the script moves through utterly conventional conflicts to a highly predictable climax and resolution.  The playwright's one original stroke has been to mix his live action with videotaped "interviews" (see above), which together give the piece a surprising resonance (we feel we're watching a documentary and a drama simultaneously) - even if, at times, the 'documentary' piece, and several changes of scene between here and Iraq, inevitably slow down Stanton's plot.

What's remarkable about Outside the Wire, however, is its penetrating sense of emotional versimilitude (that's highbrow slang for "truth").  Stanton has an unerring ear for dialogue - particularly the overlapping masculine banter of his lead character's squadron - and what's more, he seems to know instinctively never to push anything, to let the pain his characters are experiencing simply surface in and of itself out of the everyday.  This, of course, is precisely the opposite of the approach taken by the purple 9 Circles, and it makes Stanton's superficially less-accomplished script far more gripping than that wildly over-rated potboiler was.  Indeed, I'm not sure I've ever seen the emotional isolation of the wounded soldier conveyed in a more intense fashion than it is here.

Then again, Stanton has been lucky in his performances (including his own - he has cast himself as his lead). The playwright has trusted his best-friend-since-childhood Daniel Marcum to direct, and young Marcum has drawn a suite of astonishingly convincing portrayals from a host of unknowns - mostly cast, I got the impression, from the theatre department at Fitchburg State.  What's in the water at Fitchburg State?  I've no idea, but it must be powerful stuff.  To be honest, many of these kids are doing "film" acting rather than "stage" acting - in close-up, as in their "interviews", they're impeccable, but a few haven't yet learned how to open out their vocal and physical performances when they're onstage (it's worth noting, I think, that director Marcum is trained as a filmmaker rather than a stage director). 

Still, the Black Box at the BCA is a small enough space that their emotional work registers with intense force.  Stanton's understated characterization is as fine as his performance was in 9 Circles, and there's really not a weak link in the ensemble - particularly nuanced turns came from Sara Cormier and Lance Flamino, as the lead's lonely wife and happy-go-lucky best friend, respectively.  But Reid W. Connell's turn as the haunted hotshot of the squad is what will be remembered from this show, because it's simply indelible; his long breakdown, which caps the first act, is one of the most subtly devastating pieces of acting I've seen on a local stage in some time.  You leave this production feeling that in the work of Stanton, Marcum, and Connell you've just seen the beginnings of what may turn out to be three remarkable careers.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The latest OK Go video - it's a tradition!

Like every other blog worth reading, we continue the Hub Review tradition of posting the latest OK Go video, which this time is an amusing collaboration with Pilobolus. Enjoy (there are also ways to enjoy it interactively, or even in 3D - details in video)!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Gloucester Stage should have buried this one

Francisco Solorzano and Timothy John Smith share back stories in Last Day.
There's been a bit of chatter of late in the blogosphere around new play development; a few influential theatres (such as Washington's Arena Stage) have admitted they don't really look at unsolicited submissions - instead, these are farmed out to be read by volunteers, who don't have the clout to push a worthwhile script up the food chain even when they find one. If we don't already know you, the message goes, then you better make sure we know you, because there's no way we're going to risk a production purely on the merits of your script. Okay? We're just being honest!

Okay, so let's be honest with you, Arena Stage. The unconscious admission here, of course, is that you can't tell a bad script from a good script all by yourselves. Which is a little depressing! But I've begun to wonder if you - and other theatres - might be better off poking around in the slush pile anyhow rather than looking to friends and friends-of-friends for plays that "match your mission." I mean, could the results really be that much weaker than they already are?

Take Last Day, for instance, currently at Gloucester Stage (which has been having a boffo summer season so far). Without the connections of its author, Richard Vetere, to this particular theatre (and its founder, Israel Horowitz) this aimlessly bleak pastiche would have wound up in the circular file, I'm sure. But instead, thanks to Vetere's history (he's had a few minor hits) and relationships, it's up onstage instead, where it really doesn't belong.

Because Last Day is just an exercise in - well, getting through roughly 100 minutes of playing time; it's basically what you'd expect of some smart playwriting student's senior project. The script seems to begin as a gruesome black comedy in the manner of Martin McDonagh: two cemetery hands - one mysteriously taciturn, the other none too bright - are faced with the grim realization that, because their employer is opening up a new "subdivision," a corpse they disposed of long ago is about to come back to haunt them. To be fair, this isn't that bad a set-up - various lacunae in the backstory promise the usual shocking revelations, and there's a sexy girl wandering around the premises to spice up whatever twists may come our way.

If only Vetere had been able to decide on a plot (or theme), his opening gambit might have yielded a small, but efficiently ghoulish, moral satire. But he hasn't been able to come up with either - or rather he hasn't been able to stick to any of the (many) ideas he has come up with. Instead Vetere shuffles through "twists" which almost all depend on off-stage personages (in the interests of economy, he has boiled his onstage cast down to three), or that strike us as emotionally unrealistic (if not flat-out ridiculous). The playwright does get a little traction out of the creepy re-burial of those mysterious remains; but soon after that we can feel the wheels coming off his funeral procession, even as he begins almost frantically piling on the complications.

First, we seem to be looking at a creepy little essay on the loss of (Catholic) faith; then, we're plunged into questions of adultery; then, a possible new murder! But "Who did you sleep with?" soon morphs into "Who could you kill?" which segues, believe it or not, into "Can you forgive her?" By the time you discover that one of the characters is also gay - and that the adulterous wife always assumed her husband was, too (????) - you may find yourself laughing at Last Day for the wrong reasons. I will say that I've never seen quite so many angles packed into a triangle. I suppose that's some sort of distinction. But my recommendation would still be to deep-six this particular script.

But alas, director Eric C. Engel has decided to mount it, and so three good actors must suffer through it every night. The lovely Therese Plaehn probably comes off best - but then she can coast a bit on in-your-face attitude, and believe it or not, despite the fact that she is willing to commit murder to save a marriage to a man she thinks is gay, she actually has to say the fewest number of howlers. Local luminary Timothy John Smith is probably saddled with the most, but despite the odds, he still has his moments. Sexy Francisco Solorzano (who did solid work in Horovitz's own Sins of the Mother a year or two ago) isn't so lucky as the dim bulb whose wife has been cheating on him and whose best friend turns out to want him in the worst possible way - both of whom, btw, egg him on to commit murder at various junctures. All you can think while watching his confused performance is that he, like his character, should have run for the hills long before the curtain rose.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Come to this cabaret, old chum

"Whatevah happened to class?" wonder Aimee Doherty and Leigh Barrett.

The funniest thing onstage in Boston this summer - and maybe the funniest thing you'll see on a local stage all year - is the scene above, from And the World Goes 'Round (at the New Rep through this weekend). In it, two of our most talented singer-comediennes, Aimee Doherty and Leigh Barrett, lament the lack of "Class" in the world today - all while demonstrating (in hilarious detail) that they're not really part of the solution, but instead part of the problem.  These two (in real life very classy) ladies have never been more inspired, or more charming - and their scene together is a classic.

It's also the comic peak of an evening that's often effortlessly entertaining, and never less than diverting - indeed, And the World Goes 'Round is probably the strongest cabaret-styled evening I've seen at the New Rep in some time (maybe years).  When I say that, however, I really should put "Cabaret" in quotes, because of course some of the best material in this tribute to composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb comes from their biggest hit, the landmark musical Cabaret.  That triumph (amplified by the brilliantly re-worked Bob Fosse film version), and one other huge hit, Chicago, kept afloat their joint reputation through a series of mixed successes, disappointments, and outright flops on Broadway - but luckily for us, even their biggest bombs contained nuggets of melodic gold, which were strung together into the current revue by Scott Ellis, Susan Stroman, and David Thompson in the early 90's (and thus includes no tunes from their final efforts - including The Visit, Curtains, and The Scottsboro Boys).

I'm not really here, however, to sing the praises of Ellis, Stroman, or Thompson - And the World Goes 'Round seems to me to lack much definition, and even its rhythm kind of comes and goes.  And there are a few songs I wish were missing ("Yes," "Sara Lee") while one or two more ("Nowadays") I wish had made the cut.  The show basically succeeds because so many of the songs themselves are so well-crafted, and so well-suited to - well, a cabaret.  Brassy, jazzy, sometimes a little trashy, the classic Kander and Ebb ditty was a vehicle tailored to a the abilities of a star personality, or designed to sell a certain worldly, slightly tawdry, fabulousness; their songs operate best in that show-biz zone where the mindsets of the diva and the theatre queen largely overlap.  But even if you're the type that smirks at the excesses of Kander and Ebb muses like Liza (or even Chita), still, you can't deny the songs are damn-well crafted - (unlike, to be honest, the sometimes-pretentious shows in which they made their debuts). Ebb's lyrics were consistently elegant in their rhymes and designs, and Kander, though better at the catchy phrase than the unfolding melody, still found plenty of memorable hooks within those limits.

Thus And the World Goes 'Round boasts not only familiar hits ("All That Jazz," "Maybe This Time," "New York, New York") but also charming, unknown numbers ("Coffee in a Cardboard Cup," "Arthur in the Afternoon," "How Lucky Can You Get") from forgotten shows like 70, Girls, 70 and Woman of the Year.  And the members of the New Rep cast - which features not only Doherty and Barrett but also the talented David Costa, De'Lon Grant, and Shannon Lee Jones - mostly sing the hell out of them, and even hoof a little in a vaguely Fosse-esque fashion (both the direction and the choreography are by the reliable Ilyse Robbins).  I felt in general the kickier songs came off best, including the frenzied ensemble number "Coffee in a Cardboard Cup" and the amusingly horny "Arthur in the Afternoon" (in which Shannon Lee Jones shamelessly sang the praises of De'Lon Grant, who proved both an athletic stud and a very good sport).  Not everything was jazzy or hot, however - unexpectedly touching surprises included "Colored Lights," "A Quiet Thing," and "When It All Comes True."  For me, the only wrong note was a weird choral arrangement of "Cabaret" - which seemed to be aiming for a "statement" we'd already long understood - but at least this was immediately followed by a big, gaudy encore of "New York, New York."  As we all know, Kander and Ebb made it there, so they can make it anywhere - including, as this show demonstrates, our own New Repertory Theatre.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Why settle for one actor doing Shakespeare when you can watch over two dozen?

Jim Meskimen, man of a thousand vocal impressions, squeezes 25 of them into Clarence's famous monologue from Richard III, in a performance that's a kind of deep meditation on manner and mannerism.

Finding Falstaff

Only rarely does a work of art derived from Shakespeare equal - much less surpass - the artistic standard set by its source. I can think of only one such case, in fact: Verdi's final opera, Falstaff, which is derived from the Bard's Merry Wives of Windsor (and bits of Henry IV, Part I).

Verdi edges out the Big Kahuna this time because, well, Verdi was no slouch (and neither was his librettist, Arrigo Boito), and also because  The Merry Wives of Windsor is the weakest play Shakespeare ever wrote - or at any rate it's certainly the least interesting.  Clearly cobbled together in a rush (as legend would have it, to please Queen Elizabeth), it wrenches Falstaff from his proper time and place and plunks him down among the Elizabethan bourgeoisie, where he is subjected to a series of sexual humiliations by the aforementioned merry wives. I've only seen a few productions, but I have to say, for me, hilarity always fails to ensue from these hijinks - and there's certainly not much thematic development to distract you from that fact. Still, the play has touches of atmosphere in its final intrigues in Windsor forest (above left, according to Fuseli), and it represents, I suppose, a kind of benign riposte to the sexual politics of The Taming of the Shrew (although I wish the women who are so horrified by Kate's humiliations didn't always laugh quite so loudly at Falstaff's). And certainly Wives provided a durable template for a whole ensuing history of goose-and-gander sitcoms; we probably wouldn't have Lucy and Desi without it.

Still, I'd much rather attend Falstaff than Merry Wives; most of the best jokes are here, and since little of the dialogue is inspired, we don't mind the rough translation into Italian. What's more, librettist Boito has stramlined the repetitious plot and punched up the fear of cuckoldry that undergirds the play. Add to that some of Verdi's loveliest melodies (which reach a glorious peak in the third act), and you have some very good reasons to hie thee to the Somerville Theatre (believe it or not), where the Boston Opera Collaborative production takes its final bows this weekend.

Now BOC may be a largely volunteer organization, but clearly they're on an upward curve when it comes to quality; Falstaff was sung at a consistently high level, and played with brio by a small orchestra under the baton of Mischa Santora (the ensemble held forth from a newly-renovated pit - yes, the Somerville Theatre had a pit; who knew?). Alas, in dramatic terms I'm afraid this Falstaff was a somewhat mixed bag - and I wasn't crazy about director Heidi Lauren Duke's decision to set the show in the 70's, either. Still, there were a few performances here that were as satisfying dramatically and comically as they were musically.

James Liu, Nicholas Hebert and Kevin Kees in Falstaff.
But first - can everyone please stop setting things in the 70's? Actually, there's an argument for plunking Merry Wives into a tacky Three's Company-style surround, but somehow "updating" things into this particular decade has itself come to seem very dated - it feels like something Diane Paulus would do, and some arthritic critic from the Phoenix would applaud. At any rate, scenic designer Ada Smith is apparently aiming for Quentin Tarantino's cheesy grindhouse-70's rather than the sunny, shag-rug suburban 70's, so the choice feels even more pointless and forced.

And there's another problem right at the production's center - as Falstaff, Kevin Kees boasts a deliciously deep baritone that's just right for the role, but he has a distant, somewhat jaundiced presence, and lacks the robust sense of comic invention the part requires.  Luckily, the merry wives themselves were cast more to type - Lindsay Conrad's hilarious Mistress Ford was a particular delight.  And as her daughter, Nannetta, Megan Stapleton supplied the most sublime singing of the evening (even if she wasn't too sure of herself on a skateboard!). Still, the stand-out performance of the show came from Jacob A. Cooper, who as the jealous Mister Ford sang well but acted brilliantly - indeed, his explosion of suspicious rage in the second act may have been the best piece of "Shakespearean" acting I've seen all year.  And something about the cast's general enthusiasm was simply infectious - when a fuse blew in the middle of act two, sending the chaotic centerpiece of the farce into complete darkness, you could still just make out everybody carrying on with their shenanigans in the blackness, just as if nothing was wrong (and the orchestra didn't miss a beat, either).  "Wow," I thought to myself at the time, "they've even added a black-out!"  It was perhaps the most charming moment in this generally-beguiling entertainment.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Doctoring Chekhov

Most of the cast of The Good Doctor.

The fringe scene is enduring a blow right now: the Independent Drama Society, which has offered consistently high-quality productions over the past three years, has announced they are shutting up shop. The reasons amount to the usual suspects: the twenty-something founders dream of doing other things, the administrative work is a grind, and momentum for a young company is hard to build, even with good reviews, of which IDS has had plenty (just few in the major print organs).

Which reminds me of an oft-repeated piece of local theatre lore - the tale of how a single Globe review saved the young, financially-strapped SpeakEasy Stage's production of Jeffrey, back in the 90's. The company itself has long credited that one rave with reversing what looked like a plunge into insolvency. But the Globe wouldn't go to a production like that now, so I guess we won't be seeing any more success stories like SpeakEasy's. Our mid-tier theatre scene has felt fairly static for some time, in fact, partly as a result of that paucity of press attention to aspiring troupes - and I have a hunch that ten years from now, we could be looking at exactly the same players we've got today unless something about that equation changes.

But anyway - back to IDS and their farewell production of The Good Doctor, which some might call an improbable dramatic marriage between the sensibilities of Neil Simon and Anton Chekhov. Now wait - don't laugh; or rather do laugh - that's certainly what Simons wants, but the kicker is that, at least early in his career, that's what Chekhov wanted too; The Good Doctor is drawn largely from the farcical sketches (and a few short stories) the Russian writer generated before making theatrical history with the revolutionary melodramas (or are they comedies? or tragedies?) that began with The Seagull.

So we have with The Good Doctor a curious case of overlap between two careers that's somewhat flattering to Simon - but not entirely. First produced in 1973, the project coincided with a period of tragedy and re-assessment for Broadway's most successful playwright: his wife of twenty years, Joan Baim, had just died, and Simon was groping for a deeper dimension to his work. And he wasn't entirely wrong to turn to early Chekhov for inspiration - the Russian dramatist's sketches often depend on gags as much as Plaza Suite does. The difference between the two, however, is that the dimension Simon was hoping to grow into Chekhov simply had from the start; floating in the background of his earliest, quickest skits is a level of perception that Simon would only attain in late-career successes like Lost in Yonkers. So while The Good Doctor does offer plenty of laughs - and more than a hint, here and there, of Chekhovian atmosphere - you can always perceive that its modern adaptor doesn't fully understand what he's dealing with.

Then again, perhaps Chekhov didn't appreciate the dimensions of his own work at that point, either - but it's certainly hard to miss them now. One reason to catch The Good Doctor is that it gives you a chance to be impressed yet again with just how influential Chekhov was - and in ways that might surprise you. Watching the strongest of these stories, for instance, it's hard to miss the debt that Joyce owes him for the famous "epiphanies" in Dubliners; and while some skits nod back in time to Gogol, others seem to cast a shadow all the way to Ionesco (while a few seem, Janus-like, to look both ways at once). Indeed, what's most laudable about Simon's efforts here is that he has managed to convey at least part of Chekhov's immense achievement in fiction onto the stage.

Still, the latterday comic almost can't help but "Simonize" his idol at times, and there is a little Broadway-style dumbing down of Chekhov in The Good Doctor - beginning with the opening, simplistic equation between Chekhov himself and one of his characters (Trigorin of The Seagull, from whose lines Simon constructs an opening monologue for his narrator, "The Writer"). And alas, more often than not, the actors of the Independent Drama Society are more comfortable in Simon's schticky, shallow idiom than in the unspoken depths of the  Russian master's.

This is partly because, simply put, almost all the IDS performers are young - and even more than Shakespeare, Chekhov demands of his actors an unforced maturity (even in his farces). All the folks in the large cast of The Good Doctor have talent, but most also unconsciously push their performances a bit (particularly for a space as small as the Factory Theater). This is fine in the skits that rely on slapstick (such as the dental nightmare "Surgery"), but alas, while you feel the laughs being punched up appropriately in such scenes - director Christine Toohey certainly understands how these sketches are structured - you don't feel a high level of physical finish to the pratfalls at hand.

Still, the show is always likeable, and the performers do nail many of their laughs (if with a heavy hand); we just don't feel the underlying emotional and thematic structures playing out beneath Simon's superficial effects. In "The Sneeze," for instance, the terrible inevitability of Chekhov's portrait of neurotic self-destruction never comes through (despite some impressively twitchy hijinks from Brian Tuttle) - just as in "The Governess," the actual class dynamics being mercilessly anatomized are a bit beyond the attractive performers.

More effective were the savage "The Drowned Man," in which Chekhov anticipates the coldness of the theatre of the absurd (and in which a calmer Brian Tuttle is quite a bit better), and particularly the exquisite "The Seduction," which probably ranks among the master's most rueful analyses of romance. Here Sarah Gazdowicz (at left) underplays her role beautifully as the undeceived target of a serial seducer, and as her smug pursuer Zach Eisenstadt almost matches her in confidence - only faltering at the piece's piercing, bittersweet conclusion. Meanwhile, as "the good doctor" himself, Bob Mussett likewise projects a welcome low-key command - but again, only rarely suggests the quirky weaknesses floating just beneath that confident social surface.

Still, even with all that said, I was glad to get acquainted (or re-acquainted) with this material, even in versions which were smart but a little naive. Few local fringe troupes could assemble a cast this large, and probably even fewer would attempt Chekhov - even by way of Simon. The scene will miss the Independent Drama Society - and I will, too.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Pulling out all the stops on Boston's organs

It's hard not to sound a little funny when you're talking about organs. For instance, when I say that Boston is home to some small organs, some beautiful organs, and some enormous organs (like the famous one in Methuen, at left), I know half of you are going to collapse in fits, giggling "Tom Garvey said 'organ'!" over and over. So go right ahead, you churls! Because it's true, it's true. Boston is home to some major organs.  And they make some beautiful music, let me tell you!

But don't take my word for it; this week you have a chance to . . uh, encounter these organs yourself, thanks to Pipe Organ Encounters, a conference and concert series going on all over town this week. Tonight there's a concert at Old West Church on Cambridge Street in Boston; tomorrow, the mighty "Boston Music Hall Organ" (at left) will crank up in Methuen. And on Thursday (not Friday, as I stated earlier by mistake!), organist Peter Krasinski will play along to Buster Keaton's classic The Cameraman at St. Paul's Cathedral on Tremont St (this should be a particular treat; you haven't really seen - much less heard - a silent movie until you've seen it with live musical accompaniment).  The whole schedule is here.  The Boston concerts are free and open to the public; the Methuen concert costs $12.  But then, you know, size not only matters - it costs more! ;-)

Monday, July 18, 2011

Greg Cook, of the awesome blog New England Journal of Aesthetic Research, and I have been chatting recently about the recent developments at the Rose Art Museum. We thought we'd share those comments with you; below is the first installment in what we hope will be a series of similar conversations on sundry art-related topics . . .

TG: So . . . here we are, two and a half years after Brandeis University first threatened to close the Rose Art Museum and sell off its collection - and the whole storm seems to have suddenly just . . . blown over. Brandeis still has the Rose, its gallery is being renovated, and they’re looking for a new director. Meanwhile the lawsuit filed to block the sale of the art has officially reached a settlement.  And as you can see from the below abbreviation of a key paragraph of the settlement (follow link to full statement, posted by "CultureGrrl"  Lee Rosenbaum), the plaintiffs seem to have gotten Brandeis to agree to just about all their terms:

The Parties agree that the Rose is - and will remain - a university art museum open to the public, professionally staffed, and dedicated to its primary purpose of collecting, preserving, studying and exhibiting fine art . . . The Rose is and will remain an active and valued part of Brandeis, contributing to its broader educational mission . . . The programs of the Rose will continue to adhere to the overall mission of the University, embracing its values of academic excellence, social justice, and freedom of expression.  In keeping with these purposes, Brandeis will hire and employ a Director suitable and well qualified . . . the Director will have a particular expertise in modern and contemporary art . . . Brandeis fully intends to continue to maintain the Museum in accordance with these terms.  Brandeis has no aim, plan, design, strategy or intention to sell any artwork donated to or purchased by the University on behalf of the Museum.

So - mission accomplished, and for once in the art world we have what looks like a happy ending - happier than perhaps anyone might have thought possible two years ago. Indeed, I count as one of my major errors since I began writing The Hub Review the fact that I took too seriously (at first) the claims of the previous Brandeis administration. I thought the university could in fact be in such dire financial straits that selling off part of the Rose might be a necessity. I opposed the sale, of course, but it seemed to me that even floating the idea of selling the art was so crazy that any sane administration would only do it if their backs were literally against the wall. But you were always more skeptical of them – perhaps because you were following the case so closely!

GC: My sense from early on was that Brandeis administrators were panicking and threatening to sell off treasures to fill a short-term budget shortfall. It was a crazy time for everyone economically, so perhaps their panic was understandable. But it was still lousy leadership. Early on, I ran the numbers from tax filings and Brandeis's public statements, and the shortfall the adminstrators were talking about seemed to be roughly 5 percent per year. That's not the kind of financial trouble that forces you to pawn grandma's jewels to survive. And if they had hurried to sell some of their treasures then--like their Warhol--they would likely have gotten a bad deal in their fire-sale haste. (Though they probably would have gotten decent prices if they waited a bit, as the art market rebounded within a year or two.) Add it all together and the plan was so crazy that it did make me wonder, too, if their financial troubles were somehow worse than reported. Because otherwise the administrators' actions just didn't make much sense.

But I also came to suspect that when the administration talked of closing the Rose and selling the collection they were overstating things. In retrospect, I wonder if Brandeis administrators may have been floating the idea of "closing the Rose" so that they could skirt some museum etiquette, particularly concerning the sale of art from the collection, while in fact continuing to operate something relatively similar to the Rose. And I doubt they ever really planned to sell all the art - too much trouble! - just a handful of the major treasures, which would have gutted the heart of the collection, but still left a lot of art.

A Rose treasure: Willem de Kooning's Untitled
TG: Do you think the administration was surprised by the outspoken reaction to the announced sale? I’ve often wondered if they imagined the collection was more obscure than it actually proved to be. I don’t think it’s widely recognized by the public at large, but clearly within the professional arts sphere it had quite the profile.

GC: Yeah, Brandeis administrators probably thought they could get away with attacking the Rose because they sensed the museum's lack of public presence in the area. But Brandeis and the Rose has been a significant training ground for art folks who are now around the country, including Whitney Museum Director Adam Weinberg. Which gets me mulling the power of the art community. I keep thinking that the old Brandeis president, head finance guy, etc., might still have those jobs at Brandeis if they hadn't targeted the Rose. Look at all the other schools --including Harvard--that suffered major financial losses in the Great Recession. Pretty much all of their administrators remain in place. It seems Brandeis leaders didn't piss people off with their (mis)management of the school's finances -- but going after the Rose seemed to turn the tide against them; that was their undoing.

TG: Well, it seemed like such a philistine move to make – and so blatantly anti-intellectual! And so much of the criticism of post-war art is tied up with the Jewish intellectual tradition, it seemed in a deep sense like an attack on a certain segment of Jewish identity (even if many of the artists in question were not Jewish).

But it strikes me that the donor community at large may have ultimately had more influence over the administration than the arts community alone. Because I can’t believe this played well among potential Brandeis donors. Indeed, selling off the Rose collection betrayed and insulted the trust and intentions of precisely the kind of donors the university was simultaneously trying to woo! And if you couldn’t trust the administration in their intentions vis-à-vis the Rose, how could you trust them about anything?

GC: Yeah, you're dead on about this offending donors, and the repercussions of that. Just looking at the Rose lawsuit, what you see is a group of four donors fighting to preserve what they and their family members helped build at Brandeis. Jonathan Lee, who formerly ran the Rose board and was part of the group that successfully sued the school to prevent the closing of the Rose and sale of its collection, also helped talk James Rosenquist out of showing at the Rose last summer. Certainly, in the end, the lawsuit may have functioned more as a public protest than as a substantial legal case, but it helped sustain national pressure on Brandeis when the controversy could have faded away and allowed Brandeis to do whatever it wanted with the Rose. To reporters, the lawsuit represented serious, monied opposition, not just whiny art types without power, which kept the story in the Globe, New York Times, etc., and put pressure on Brandeis leaders and its pool of donors.

TG: Still, it did seem that the administration fairly quickly retreated from those initial proposals (they got the message to some degree); but then things seemed frozen in a kind of holding pattern for the last, oh, nearly two years – the kind of holding pattern you’d expect from a bureaucracy that had decided not to follow through on its plans, but was also unwilling to admit it had made a mistake. And the lawsuit likewise seemed to be floating in some sort of limbo – with many people questioning - on technical grounds - whether the plaintiffs really had a case. Then suddenly it was announced the lawsuit had been settled. What do you think made the difference?

Ellsworth Kelly's Blue White
GC: I spoke with Jonathan Lee when the settlement was announced and he argued, correctly I think, that what allowed the lawsuit to be settled was a new Brandeis administration replacing the previous one, which had stubbornly clung to its bad Rose plan, even as it became clearer and clearer how bad it was. Another sign of bad leadership. But I think that new Brandeis President Frederick Lawrence, who started work at the school in January, was also correct when he recently told me that nearly two and a half years after this all began, Brandeis is in a much more stable financial situation, and that has allowed the school to back away from its threats to the Rose. The old Brandeis leaders probably had backed away from their threats to gut the Rose months and months ago, but who would trust them when they now said they'd changed their minds? The school needed to take concrete actions to show that it was actually committed to the Rose again. The first was the renovations to the Rose this summer. Then the settlement of the lawsuit.

TG: So a change of administration, and a general improvement in the economy, together are probably what saved the Rose. Somehow I don’t find that explanation entirely re-assuring. In the second of our conversations, Greg and I will discuss what steps could be taken to help ensure the Rose’s future existence.

(To be continued . . .)

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Hubbies return . . .

People have been asking - will I still be handing out Hubbies, now that I've sworn off several theatre companies due to the their participation in the machinations of Kati Mitchell and Shawn LaCount?

(Warning: NSFW graphics after the jump!)

Friday, July 15, 2011

Reagle goes back to its roots

Rie Ogura and Joshua Andino Nieto as Laurie and Curly in the "dream ballet."

Anyone in the Boston area who cares about musical theatre will want to be one place this weekend: in the auditorium at Waltham High School, where the Reagle Music Theatre will be presenting a kind of resurrection of Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic Oklahoma!.

Reagle has always been known for an attitude that some have called a hide-bound reverence for tradition; the company aims to present musicals from Broadway's golden age (even Sondheim counts as edgy for them!) in as close a form as possible to the original. They even aim for the original, enormous cast sizes - to do so, Reagle generally brings in Broadway stars for the leads, but fills out the ranks with local community theatre types. (60 performers were listed in the program for Oklahoma!.)

Of course this is the kind of thing - a frank appreciation of masterpieces - that would give someone like Bob Brustein apoplexy. Which is why you should feel very sorry for him. Because I have to say that while I have often felt like slitting my wrists at an ART show, just so that I wouldn't have to endure one more second of their patented morbid, pseudo-intellectual pretentiousness (now, of course, I feel the same way, only to avoid their newly patented pseudo-intellectual crassness), I've never been really sorry that I saw a Reagle show.

Sure, often one of these Waltham productions will boast a great turn by its featured star, but will be a little sloppy around the edges. I admit it. But that's not the case with Oklahoma!, because Reagle has really done its homework this time - or rather has borrowed the homework of the University of North Carolina, which scrupulously re-produced (from archival photos, costume swaths, and surviving plans) the "look and feel" of the 1943 Broadway production for one of its student shows. Reagle has rented all of that material, and has also had the good sense to hire as choreographer the legendary Gemze de Lappe, who danced in that 1943 production and eventually became a kind of ambassador-at-large for the work of Agnes de Mille.

All this alone would make this Oklahoma! a destination evening for musical theatre junkies. The sets and costumes are striking (and done up in eye-popping polka dots and plaids that all but scream the highly-keyed sense of fantasy that flourished in the 40's). The choreography is likewise rendered quite well - if, in the end, we must admit that in the "dream ballet" (at top) and elsewhere de Mille reveals that she really was no Balanchine (whose own work for Broadway I wish somebody would revive).

But the good news is that the stars once again are shining at Reagle. This production boasts a dynamically romantic Curly in Stephen Mark Lukas (who for some reason hasn't yet landed a lead on Broadway), and he's nearly matched by newcomer Eliza Xenakis, who sings like a prairie songbird but unfortunately is a bit stiff dramatically here and there (with Lukas, at left). But to be honest, both are sometimes overshadowed by the remarkable Doug Jabara as their nemesis, the menacing farmhand Judd. Mr. Jabara lacks the physical stature casting directors usually demand for this role, but he compensates with remarkable intensity and a chillingly powerful low baritone (and somehow, from the way he all but licks his chops in some scenes, I think Jabara knows that in this case, the villain is by far the best role in the show).

There's more fine work around the edges of the production from local luminary Ellen Peterson as the sunny Aunt Eller, and Todd Yard as the wily peddler, Ali Hakim. Meanwhile, in the famous role of Ado Annie (the "girl who can't say no"), Reagle has cast another appealing singer in Maggie McNeil, who's got just the right presence for the part, but who also isn't yet a highly skilled physical performer (but somehow you don't really care, McNeil is such a kick).

I'm also happy to report that director Holly-Anne Ruggiero knows how to keep a show this size moving without getting in the way, and choreographer de Lappe actually does her best work in the big hoe-down number, which all but two-steps right off the stage. To be honest, the structure of the show will be forever lumpy (both acts end oddly). But what can you say about the score? Well, you can say this: "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin',"The Surrey with the Fringe on Top," "I Cain't Say No," and especially the gorgeous "People Will Say We're in Love" - this isn't a score, it's a hit parade, and it's beautifully sung here (and under the capable baton of Jeffrey P. Leonard, the orchestra sounds fine, too). Right now we seem to be floating in a kind of golden musical moment in Boston - I couldn't believe I was watching this so soon after The Most Happy Fella up in Gloucester. But I was. And you can too, at least until Sunday.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The hilarious sacrileges of Red Priest

Red Priest in action.
It's hard not to get a kick out of Red Priest (above), a British baroque ensemble that injects a little 80's metal attitude into the early music scene (I really wish there was an umlaut in their logo) - so no wonder they have a growing following among fans of period performance. Surprisingly, however, they don't much mimic Judas Priest, the "metal gods" their sobriquet recalls (perhaps because they're actually named after Vivaldi, a priest whose auburn locks earned him the nickname il Prete Rosso).  Instead, these Priests favor power chords and lightning-fast bowing rather than the majestically dumb crunch of early metal - so they're really more speed or thrash baroque.  Then again, you could make a case that their costuming, though definitely doomy, also favors the Renaissance-fair stylings of 70's bands like Heart.  So maybe they're thrash-folk-metal-baröque (and there's the place for that umlaut!!).

But whatever their VH-1 antecedents, Red Priest mostly plays their namesake's music; indeed, their funny but frustrating concert last Sunday up at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival (in the gorgeous Shalin Liu Performance Center, at top), featured the entire Four Seasons (in a stripped-down version which has become their calling card) as well as La Notte, a less-often-heard but spookily atmospheric concerto (that the Priests played in masks and their best Satanic-orgy duds).  The rest of the concert - titled, appropriately enough, "Venetian Carnival" - was filled out with the usual suspects: Corelli, Gabrielli, and more obscure (but still worthy) composers who roughly overlapped with Vivaldi in the heyday of the Italian baroque.

Indeed, it seemed the more obscure you were, the better your chances of getting a really fabulous performance from Red Priest; they may have piled the stage histrionics on Vivaldi, but they kept things relatively simple for the likes of Dario Castello and Giovanni Paulo Cima (I know - who?), whose gorgeous sonatas were given richly wrought interpretations sans everything but brilliant musicianship.  The offerings from Gabrielli and Corelli were if anything even better - indeed, the spirited variations on Corelli's eloquent La Folia constituted perhaps the most striking performance of the concert.

For make no mistake, Red Priest boasts some serious musical chops - both violinist David Greenberg and harpsichordist David Wright are certifiably world-class, capable of sparkling passage work and sudden stretches of aching lyricism (and perhaps coincidentally, they seemed the least prone to onstage mugging).  But then I shouldn't forget their cellist, Angela East, who is also quite accomplished - and the best comedian of the lot, frankly.  But these three tended to be upstaged in the big production numbers by recorder wizard Piers Adams, who's a bit of a ham, and whose fallback mode is extreme speed (the better to impress us, my dear!).  Virtuosic speed of course can be wildly impressive, but it's rarely deeply expressive (there's just no time for that), and as Adams seemed intent on breaking the land speed record for Vivaldi, we often had to suffer through banging bowing from the string players and shrieking high notes from his smallest recorders.

All this made The Four Seasons musically disappointing, even though there were plenty of good, funny stage ideas in the Priests' performance - which cleverly dramatized Vivaldi's musical scene painting (love-struck shepherds, calling birds, summer storms, etc.).  Watching the show - I couldn't quite call it a concert - I often found myself laughing out loud, but also sometimes wondered, "Can't we have all this and really great music-making, too?"  It's not an impossible dream; when Il Giardino Armonico came to town last spring, they may have channeled Elvis Costello but they played impeccably at the same time.  Red Priest, by way of contrast, may bless their obscurities with some serious attention to detail, but when it comes to the music of their namesake, the elusive consummation of rock-star theatricality and sublime period musicianship remains something devoutly to be wished.

Monday, July 11, 2011

More (and more) of Loesser

Drew Pulver with (L to R): TS Burnham & Zachary Magee; Back: Haley Sullivan & Mark Turner.

Right now Gloucester Stage is on a roll. They just closed an impeccable production of Alan Ayckbourn's Living Together (which had local critics hoping they'd soon pull together the entire Norman Conquests); now they've followed that success with a most happy production of Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella (playing through July 17) - a show so strong, in fact, that it single-handedly puts Gloucester Stage on the map as a producer of large-scale musicals.

Not that this North Shore mainstay hasn't tried its hand at musicals before - but they've usually been chamber shows, like Marry Me a Little or You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Loesser's Most Happy Fella is a different beast entirely - and a huge beast, too: it features some 29 different songs, so many that some have described it as "through-sung" (it's not quite) or claimed that it was actually a kind of opera, like Sweeney Todd (again, not quite).

What it is, Loesser once said, is simply "a musical with music." A whole lotta music. Indeed, you could cut half the songs in Fella and still have an enviable score for a standard Broadway show (with encores). It's like a cornucopia of melody; music just seems to pour out of it. True, Fella doesn't boast any timeless standards - those rare numbers in which melody and lyric fuse into mirrored perfection - but it comes close to that gold standard repeatedly, with showstoppers like "Standing on the Corner," "Joey, Joey, Joey," and "Big D." Besides, just trust me - even lesser Loesser is better than anything heard on Broadway in the past fifteen years (at least). 

Of course like many local companies, Gloucester's stage lacks an orchestra pit - a major gap in mounting a musical! - but director Eric C. Engel has dodged this seeming show-stopper by utilizing a version of the score for two pianos (one that was even blessed by Loesser).  This works better than you might think - although alas, here they're both electronic keyboards, not "real" pianos - so inevitably, sometimes they go plinkety-plink.  Still, much of the beauty of the score comes through.  And Engel has pulled together a sterling vocal cast to sing it, including local lights Timothy John Smith, Jennifer Ellis, and Kerry A. Dowling, as well as New Jersey native Drew Pulver.  (The vocal prowess extends throughout the cast, which includes Andrew McLeavey, Dawn Tucker, Bob DeVivo, John F. King, and Eric Hamel - and thanks to piano accompaniment, nobody needs to be amplified, another plus.)

Perhaps keying off the distillation of the instrumental arrangements, Engel has poised the show somewhere between a "concert" and "full" staging; backed by effective projections, the cast sometimes sings from behind music stands, but just as often acts out (and even dances) much of the show. Some critics have deplored this, but I thought it worked well enough, and sometimes even charmed; Engel manages the transitions from one mode to another fluidly (those music stands double as all kinds of props), and the streamlined quality of the production matched the simplicity Loesser aimed for in his story and kept the focus on the score, where it belonged.  Indeed, sometimes I felt I could have done with less staging, or perhaps less dancing - Engel seemingly couldn't afford any featured professional dancers, and while choreographers can sometimes conjure a graceful simplicity with non-dancers (the film of The Sound of Music is the most famous example of this), I'm afraid choreographer David Connolly manages to keep anyone from looking bad, but doesn't quite pull off that "subtle grace" trick.  It seems dancing remains the Achilles' heel of local musical production.

The good news, however, is that most of this sterling vocal cast can act as well as sing.  And they need those acting chops, because Loesser's story is a curious one that flirts with tragedy as well as comedy. It's the tale of Tony, an aging California vinter (Drew Pulver) so taken with lovely young waitress Rosabella (Jennifer Ellis, both at left) that he pitches woo through a series of love letters (attached to a photograph of one of his handsome farmhands!).  When Rosabella arrives, smitten, at his vineyard for their wedding, she inevitably discovers his deception, and of course recoils; but a sudden accident leaves Tony clinging to life, and under pressure Rosabella agrees to take his hand in marriage. 

At this point Loesser cues up a classic triangle - for that handsome farmhand is still hanging around, and soon Rosabella finds herself married to a man she is slowly growing to love (for Tony survives the accident), while carrying the child of another man whom she turned to in a moment of weakness.  This surprisingly adult situation is never quite spelled out explicitly, of course - it's conveyed in that familiar, slightly-oblique manner in which pop culture of the 40's and 50's dealt with such themes.  Still,  the conflicts and mutual moral failures are all clear enough - and a slight distance from explicitness these days feels like a sophisticated balm, to be honest.

That same honesty requires me, however, to confess that Loesser doesn't handle well the climax(es) of his melodrama - the book of Most Happy Fella (which he wrote along with all the words and music), after holding us for most of its length, collapses at its finish.  But by then you don't really care, because the gorgeous hits have kept on coming, and in a wild variety of styles (one reason this show isn't an "opera" is that the Verdi and Puccini - whom Loesser channels for his more rapturous flights - really count as just one more genre he's working in).

If I were going to get really picky, I'd also point out that Pulver's baritone, so lustrous at its deep end, sounds stretched at its top, and Ellis sometimes thins out a bit, too.  Both are generally delightful, however - Pulver in particular all but sparkles with a rough masculine sweetness that seems just right for Loesser.  And I have to say Timothy John Smith is in peak form - his rendition of "Joey, Joey, Joey" (at right) sends chills down your spine.  Meanwhile the hearty Kerry A. Dowling gets to stretch out in a role that's all but tailored to her - sometimes, in fact, you feel she's about to walk off with the whole damn show.  (I was likewise charmed by Bob DeVivo's bright-eyed take on her pacifist sweetheart.)  I was only disappointed in Dawn Tucker's turn as Tony's scheming sister, Marie - Tucker has a sweet swet of pipes but seemed to be hanging back from the darker side of the role.  But so what if the show has a flaw here and there - I have to say that it still made me a most happy fella indeed.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Perfect harmony at Stoneham

The talented cast of Sisters of Swing.
I had a nice time at Stoneham Theatre's Sisters of Swing: The Story of the Andrews Sisters (which plays through July 24). And I have a hunch that if you're of a certain age (like me - although I'm hardly old enough to remember these hits from the first time around!), then you will, too.  It's a gently, but genuinely, entertaining evening out.

Does that sound like faint praise?  It's not meant to - although I have to also say that if you're looking for genuine drama, you should look elsewhere; writers Beth Gilleland and Bob Beverage pitch their joint effort as more of a revue than an actual play, and don't mine much conflict from their story in any case - even though one simmered pretty openly in the sisters' later years, bubbling largely around Patty, the youngest, prettiest, and blondest of the trio, who tended to style herself the group's star (and eventually tried to go solo).  But Patty, God bless her, is actually still with us (at the age of 93!); and perhaps in deference to her, Gilleland and Beverage draw a discreet veil over the inner dynamics of the Andrews act - indeed, we generally only hear about the various bumps in the sisters' personal and professional lives in disconnected snippets; it's entirely up to us to connect the dots.

Not that we much feel like doing so.  The Andrews Sisters were certainly no more personally flawed than your average singing act - and probably a good deal less flawed; after all, they managed to live and work together in relative harmony for something like two decades.  Still, the playwrights have to write something, so they cover their lack of conflict with vignettes painting the sisters as pioneers against anti-Semitism and racism; but while I imagine the sisters were, indeed, patriotic, open-minded girls who believed in opportunity for everybody, I don't think they were exactly crusaders.  You could write a fascinating play about the unhappy compromises mainstream acts like the Andrews Sisters made with entrenched prejudice in the 40's - but Sisters of Swing ain't it.

No, the core of this show is not the sisters' story but their music, served straight up, with only a shot of nostalgia as chaser, and the Stoneham cast and backup band (led by music director Mario Cruz, who tickles the ivories onstage) deliver a quite convincing simulation of their famous sound.  Singing actresses Laura DeGiacomo (Patty), Kerri Jill Garbis (LaVerne) and Kimberly Robertson (Maxene) share a sweet stage rapport, can handle the syncopated dancing, and pretty much nail the smoothly integrated harmonies the girls were famous for.  (Their sunny confidence may derive from the fact that they've done all this before - Sisters of Swing is essentially a reprise of a Stoneham hit from a few years back.)  Perhaps the versatile Steve Gagliastro - who basically plays every guy the girls ever met - is less successful at conjuring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, but he's a skillfull comic and certainly up for anything (including an appearance as Carmen Miranda).  And Stoneham's six-piece band, thanks in part to some high-quality arrangements, does evoke the big-band sound that backed the sisters up.  Indeed, the show only hits its real stride when it offers a pretty-much sung-through evocation of the tour the Andrews Sisters put together during World War II to entertain the troops.

Those troops got to hear a lot of great material, because the sisters had quite the catalogue of hits, among them "I Can Dream, Can't I?," "Accent-uate the Positive" (which they sang on vinyl, of course, with Bing Crosby), "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree with Anyone Else But Me," and the perennially kicky "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B."  These all get a full-throated treatment at Stoneham, and leave the audience happy and satisfied.  So what if the show is dramatically under-powered?  Sometimes you have to accent-uate the positive, e-lim-inate the negative, and not mess with Mr. In-Between.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The critic as artist

My friend and fellow blogger Greg Cook seems to be branching out from art criticism to the thing itself - or at least that's how I feel after checking out a recent post on his blog, The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research. Above and at right are two images from a set of photos he took up at the St. Peter's Fiesta in Gloucester a week or two ago.

You see in addition to being a damn good critic, Greg's a kind of social documentarian; he loves stalking the natives - the kind you don't find at art galleries - and photographing them in their natural habitats, particularly when they're celebrating, or improvising their own un-self-conscious aesthetics. Which explains how Greg went all Margaret Mead on Gloucester, capturing several quite striking images of a fiesta that's half religious festival and half wacky frat party (the triumphant young gentleman above had just won the "greasy pole contest"; that's St. Peter at right, presiding over the fireworks in his honor). 

Greg has always had an eye, but these may be his best work yet - I feel like I've actually been to the fiesta myself, and several of the images are emotionally powerful yet quite complex in their bemused detail.  I'm hoping an exhibit - or maybe even a book - will eventually come out of his predilection.  (Only I've told him he can't review it himself.)

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Yes Virginia, British theatre can suck, too

 The Cherry Orchard gets lost in wheat, fields of wheat at the National Theatre.

The simulcast phenomenon has been widely praised for bringing world-class performances to the suburbs and the sticks; these days, for instance, opera lovers around the world who can't afford a trip to New York (or Met ticket prices) can catch cutting-edge productions at their local mall.  Likewise theatre lovers in the States can now sample the best of the British stage via the National Theatre's popular simulcasts (which are currently exclusively shown at the Coolidge Corner).

Or so the thinking goes.  As Hub Review readers know, I'm on the fence when it comes to simulcasts. I, too, enjoy catching great opera and theatre affordably; and I'm intrigued by the epically-scaled, yet still-theatrical quality that the best simulcasts (such as Helen Mirren's Phaedra) have had.

The trouble is that the actual productions being simulcast don't always turn out to be so great. In fact plenty of what I've seen bounced off the satellite from London or New York has been fairly mediocre; I've even walked out of more than one of these broadcasts.  As I did last week, at the National Theatre's simulcast of The Cherry Orchard, which wasn't the worst production of the Chekhov classic I'd ever seen, but was certainly a contender in the race for the bottom of that particular heap.

Yet it came garlanded with accolades.  Starring stage veteran Zoe Wanamaker, and directed by NT mainstay Howard Davies - who has helmed a series of highly-praised productions of Russian classics translated by his Cherry Orchard collaborator, Andrew Upton - the production was launched with great fanfare, and the British press pretty much fell into line behind it (the Sunday Telegraph gave it five stars, the rest of the print press generally gave it four - although there were murmured dissents, often in, yes, the blogosphere.  Why, again, do we think bloggers are less insightful than print critics?  Oh right - because the print critics say so!)

Yet despite all this advance ballyhoo, from the start of last week's simulcast I smelled a disaster in the making.  Bunnie Christie's set was so dilapidated you half-expected the family manse to collapse at intermission, and you quickly realized that translator Andrew Upton had decided to openly politicize the play while "updating" it in a crudely anachronistic style.  These Chekhovians may have been wandering around in period dress, but they bickered about "making 25 or 30k a year," shouted "Bollocks!" at each other, or  "I've told you so a thousand bloody friggin' times!" Meanwhile the political speeches in the play were extended and none-too-subtly rewritten as full-throated calls-to-arms.  This Cherry Orchard wasn't merely politically prescient; it was, instead, an overt pamphlet - for a revolution that utterly failed, btw, read in a nineteenth-century ruin but in a twenty-first century idiom.  The thing was a conceptual car crash of truly epic proportions.

But judging from my personal experience of Chekhov onstage, turning the master's warhorses into political or artistic hobbyhorses seems to be a great temptation.  One reason that the ART has also always sucked at Chekhov is that its directors are likewise determined to present the playwright as the happy herald of  revolution - any revolution; if not actually the Bolshevik revolution, then the Symbolist revolution, or the Suprematist revolution, or, believe it or not, even the Guns N'Roses "revolution."

This kind of thing is, of course, a complete violation of the subtle, skeptical balance that Chekhov is all about - plus it's just deeply stupid - so stupid I always thought you'd have to be pickled in Harvard's special brand of arrogance to imagination it could count as intelligence.  But I was wrong!  It turns out the folks at the National Theatre are just as dumb - or just as arrogant (or both).  Perhaps they felt that given the current destructive conservative mania on both sides of the Atlantic, the times called for a more politically pointed Chekhov; but alas, the Russian master never rallied anyone to the barricades, and trying to push a Brechtian template onto The Cherry Orchard isn't going to change a single vote in either the House of Commons or Representatives.

Oh, well; while the show was a mess conceptually, there were some bright spots in its cast: James Laurenson was everything he should have been, and more, as Gaev, and Sarah Woodward turned the weird Charlotta into a funny comment on the other characters' tortured self-consciousness.  Pip Carter made a solid Yepihodov, and a few other actors struck sparks here and there - Tim McMullan had his moments as Pischik, and Mark Bonnar started off well as Trofimov, but eventually proved far too studly and vigorous for the role (he wasn't helped by the fact that Upton extended his armchair-socialist speeches into fist-pumping harangues).

In the end, however, you can't pull together a Cherry Orchard without a solid central ensemble, and here the National Theatre mysteriously came up a cropper.  Zoe Wanamaker's impishness undercut Ranevskaya's famous pathos, and she couldn't make much sense of her (admittedly sudden) swings in affect.  At the same time she certainly seemed no more aristocratic than the low-born Lopakhin - here played by Conleth Hill, who threw off some funny asides at first but seemed to grow more superficial by the minute.  Likewise Claudie Blakley made little or no impression as his supposed intended, Varya, while as her younger sister, Charity Wakefield was an emphatic blank.

Sigh.  I confess this is one of those rare times when I'm penning a review without seeing the entire show - but at intermission, I realized I'd simply had enough of all these people: bad translation, variable acting, nutty set - there was no way this baby was pulling out of its nose dive, and frankly, I felt life was too short to stick around.  So I told my friends to email me if the show improved in the second half, and I'd hold off on a review till I'd caught the encore.  But the next day I saw the sad email: "You were so right.  It only got worse!"

Well, that saves me a trip back to the cinema.  But it doesn't help with my worry over the underside of the simulcast phenomenon: how does one push back against it critically?  How does one convince an audience that what they just saw wasn't really much good, and that in fact there is far better to be seen locally (as in the Huntington's Cherry Orchard of three years ago)?  Sadly, the simulcast phenomenon could sometimes represent yet another way that global branding trumps local quality.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Good news from ArtsEmerson - and is Harvard's "populist" really all that popular?

The news is good from ArtsEmerson, even if the Globe doesn't want you to think so.

The Boston Globe includes an interesting statistic today - you have to look for it, though; it's buried in a hatchet job on ArtsEmerson by Laura Collins-Hughes. The article is clearly a response to the meme I first posited last fall - that ArtsEmerson's director, Robert Orchard, had pulled the intellectual rug right out from under the now-"populist" ART (his former employer).  By now I'd say that's the conventional wisdom - if you want to go to a baseball game, a strip club, or a Journey concert, you go to Harvard.  But if you want challenging theatre - that is, if you like Shakespeare with the words - you go to Emerson, which in one incredible year presented the dazzling millennial circus Psy, the hilarious Fräulein Maria, the stunning Aftermath, a brilliant social documentary by The Civilians, and a superb production of The Cripple of Inishmaan by the Druid Theatre. For a time, in fact, it seemed that everything Emerson touched was turning to gold - but of course, a few bombs eventually fell (like the Abbey Theatre's ridiculous Terminus), and the "big name" events, such as the visit by Peter Brook's troupe, or the tour of F. Murray Abraham's Merchant of Venice, turned out to be worthy, but slightly mixed, bags.

But you can't have everything, and even with those disappointments I still stand by my prediction of a few months back: the ArtsEmerson inaugural season did indeed prove to be the greatest theatrical season this town has seen in thirty years.

But anyway, back to why I'm jumping up and down this morning.  The Globe clearly has it in mind to question the staying power of ArtsEmerson - word on the street has it that several of their projects lost money, and judging from the announcement of their next season, they've slightly trimmed their sails.  Under pointed questioning, Orchard dodges the specifics of the program's finances, although he admits he'll be concentrating this year on fund-raising.  Still, he hasn't trimmed his seasonal sails by much, and even though ArtsEmerson is clearly relying on big-name draws from the BAM circuit (like John Malkovich) to boost their profile, they're also bringing back Kirk Lynn of the Rude Mechs and the great Civilians.  They're also betting on the super-sexy Circa from Australia, who blur the line between circus and dance (and whom I caught in Edinburgh a year or two ago; don't miss them) - and are finally bringing in (they promise) current Met bad-boy Robert Lepage.  And there is sure to be at least one more great surprise lurking among the acts I don't know.

But how popular will such a line-up be?  In other words, can Boston really support this much theatre for smart people?  Or do we need a little dumbed-down Harvard sugar - or scotch - to swallow what's good for us?

Well, as it turns out - the numbers are kind of encouraging.  We're not as dumb as Harvard and the Globe wants us to believe we are.  ArtsEmerson sold around 50,000 tickets last year, it turns out - trailing, it's true, the Huntington (at 106,000) and the ART (at 82,000).  And part of ArtsEmerson's box office was no doubt due to the drawing power of F. Murray Abraham (whose performance as Shylock was actually disappointing, but if he pays the bills, invite him back!).  Still, 50,000 tickets actually strikes me as a respectable number for a maiden season largely populated with unknowns.  And the news gets better when you look at the "membership" numbers - in one year ArtsEmerson has signed up 4,000 people.

Now an ArtsEmerson "membership" isn't nearly as large a financial commitment as a subscription would be.  Still - having 4,000 people sign up for anything cultural is a very good sign in this town.  (Compare to Celebrity Series's 2700 subscribers.)  Plus, ArtsEmerson members in many cases look like new converts to the arts - two-thirds of them don't overlap with any other arts series.  (Yes, you read that right, startling as that number is.) And the news gets better - the ART can boast far less sustained interest from its patrons: it only has 2600 subscribers for those 82,000 tickets sold.  Indeed, the real news in the article is the following statistic - the Huntington has nearly four times as many subscribers as the ART does (a whopping 10,000 subscribers!).

When I read that, I suddenly felt another rug being pulled right out from under Diane Paulus & Co.  I suppose the evil Paulus is up where she needs to be in terms of single ticket sales - but let's be honest, take out the horny kids who hit The Donkey Show over and over, as well as all of Amanda Palmer's Facebook friends, and I'd bet you good money the ART isn't selling many more tickets than ArtsEmerson did in its inaugural year (and maybe only two thirds of the Huntington's haul).  And that's even with the advantages of Harvard's incredible brand and social reach, along with really constant promotion in the press, and open threats to local critics who don't toe the line (as well as a slew of awards from frightened scribes who know better than to cross the ART's dragon lady!).

And yet with all that, it's clear Paulus isn't really getting any kind of traction; she's not building anything.  The young audiences the aging diva so covets aren't really committing to her vision.  I mean, I knew the Huntington was more popular than the ART - although you never read that in the paper - but still, Peter DuBois has gotten four times the commitment from the community that Paulus has?  That's kind of incredible; I've been raving about them recently, but even I'm kind of surprised.  I'd say that's Boston theatre's best-kept secret.

The excuse for Diane Paulus's meagre artistic achievement, of course, has always been that she's a "populist," that, as Paulus apologist Christopher Wallenberg put it in a recent article, her "whole mission" is to follow the audience.  (That's right: avant-garde theatre that follows the audience.  Can you spell o-x-y-m-o-r-o-n, Chris?)

But what do you have when your "populism" isn't really all that popular - when you're a series of flashes in the pan, when people check you out because they've heard you're dirty and loud, but then don't come back?  Well, I know what people like Christopher Wallenberg and Ed Siegel will prescribe - Harvard needs more Red Sox, more tits and ass!  Because after all, the millennials just don't commit, do they; they're so cheap they won't even pay for their favorite albums; so how could you expect more than an anemic subscription base for an organization targeting them?  You have to string the kids along from thrill to thrill, the way a video game or a porn site does.

There's some truth to this - but it's not the kind of truth that really helps Diane Paulus.  Because in the end memberships and subscriptions do point to the long-term health of an organization.  And somehow it seems the Huntington and ArtsEmerson, which are facing the same environment as the ART, are doing better at getting folks to commit; indeed, ArtsEmerson seems to be much better at pulling new converts into the high-culture fold - supposedly Paulus's specialty - and with real, not fake, art!  Which maps to a disconnect I've already perceived between what I hear informed Bostonians say and what I read in the print press; I never run into anyone, frankly - outside the Harvard/media echo chamber, that is - who takes Diane Paulus or the ART seriously.  When people say they like a Paulus show, it's always prefaced with an embarrassed little laugh that tells you "I know it was kind of stupid, but I'd drunk a little too much, okay?  So I kind of liked it." I'm beginning to realize that somewhere deep inside, believe it or not, people still know that Amanda Palmer can't sing, and that Aeschylus didn't write a rock opera, and that The Donkey Show isn't Shakespeare. And I believe Paulus's numbers reflect that.  And so I think - or at least for the first time I hope - that in those numbers I can finally see the light at the end of a long tunnel at the ART.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Kelley Donovan goes casual

Last weekend I had the opportunity to catch up with Kelley Donovan and Dancers at the Dance Center in Cambridge. Donovan is a leading light of the local dance scene, and performs regularly both here and in New York; it seems she has been poised for a "breakthrough" in both locales for a while - without, unfortunately, quite yet achieving it.  Unsurprisingly, last Saturday's recital gave some indication of why she deserves to indeed break through - as well as what may still be holding her back.

I confess I felt a bit like an interloper at the event, which was clearly a kind of fundraiser amongst friends, and thus had a casual atmosphere, with Donovan herself wandering around in her warm-ups before the show, greeting folks she knew.  Still, I'd been invited - after Donovan had belatedly read a positive review I'd given her almost a year ago; I was amused to note on her company website an endearingly blunt post that read, "On another note, I found this blogger review from something called The Hub Review from the ICA Boston show last fall! I did not even know it was out there til a week or so ago."

(I am currently considering changing the title of this blog to Something Called the Hub Review, btw.)

At any rate, the program turned out to be a little casual and funky, too; the sound system needed adjustment at the beginning, and not all of the performances were quite ready for prime time.  This was most noticeable in the opening piece, the swirling Within and Between, a 2009 work set to a chunk of Philip Glass; dancer Anna Kharaz confidently gave a fully-fledged performance, but her partner, Sam Wilson, seemed to be newer to the steps - and given that the piece is a kind of out-of-synch fugue for two, this was sometimes a problem.

Next came the premiere of Edge Closer, choreographed by one of Donovan's dancers, Lucy Considine, which purported to represent "the ongoing process of acceptance of life events."  Okay - I guess we don't need any specifics!  As essayed by an energetic cohort of young women, the dance showed ambition and some promise, but never quite cohered into an individual statement.

There was more punch to the premiere of Oh, beautiful, by another Donovan dancer and aspiring choreographer, Angie Hartley.  Here - to the warbling of Elvis Presley at his most "patriotic" - we watched as a woman (Hartley) crawled desperately toward a serene Laura Murphy, done up as a goddess reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty (or maybe one of those "Freedom" statues atop some Confederate statehouse).  Hartley's movement had a raw, needy physicality- which played nicely off Murphy's bemused cool; in her notes, Hartley explained that the work was "an exploration of the romanticism of nationalism," but it looked to me more like an exploration of the need for a lip-lock with America (which would have been fine by yours truly).  Given the lack of said lock, I'd say the piece needs a bit more of a choreographic climax - still, it was certainly heart-felt, and memorable.

Finally came more of Donovan's own contributions - the solo Vigilant and the group piece What is Stable Shifts, What is Solid Slips (image at top). Vigilant played as a short course in Donovan's favorite choreographic tropes - the keystone of her style is a kind of sinuous pivot that's both sensuously fluid and yet rooted to the floor (if airy elevation is fundamental to ballet, than the ground itself is what grounds modern dance).  Again, I felt an intricate structure but not too much development - and I questioned whether Donovan's vocabulary actually communicated an inner state of "hyper-vigilance," as her program note stated (she seemed to be in something more like a trance).  Similar issues hovered over the more ambitious What is Stable Shifts - and the piece seemed almost too elaborate for its spare Morton Feldman score.  Still, it featured committed, calmly detailed work from a large ensemble - who expertly conveyed the muted lyricism of Donovan's layered variations - and so proved the most satisfying performance of the evening.

In the end, said evening impressed me in many ways - and certainly I'm still interested in Donovan - but I also left feeling a little frustrated.  A deep problem for many local choreographers, it seems to me, is that they're stuck in a dated abstract-art mentality - and Donovan, I'm afraid, has a bit of this mindset. She has her own distinctive vocabulary - which is remarkable in and of itself - and oddly, a good sense of structure; but that doesn't seem to lead to a complementary sense of development.  And she tends to avoid actual conflict (or actual sex) in favor of "ideas" that even at first blush sound a little dull (in that familiar Cage-by-way-of-Duchamp kind of way). Take What is Stable Shifts, What is Solid Slips - uh, when I was twenty I probably would have found an "investigation" of equilibrium in the abstract really interesting; but today, not so much.  Instead I wonder why, with so many women on stage in so much local choreography, I see so little girl-on-girl action. (I wonder the same thing about our local theatre, but never mind.)

Now by that I don't mean some sort of lesbian fantasy devised by Diane Paulus and Randy Weiner for the Playboy Channel (and later PBS); I mean something with actual emotional connection rather than merely the consideration of emotional connection, something that genuinely heats up. Or something that gives us some sense of social interaction onstage - to my mind, dance should be a social event for the dancers, but too much of postmodern choreography is by default about isolation (and thus is itself isolating).  In the end, I think Donovan has the talent to transcend these limits of the arthouse dance scene - and I hope she does so soon.