Monday, October 31, 2011

What we talk about when we talk about what we talk about when we talk about race

The talented cast of Trinity's Clybourne Park.
I've been dragging my feet over writing up a response to Bruce Norris's Clybourne Park (through November 20 at Trinity Rep) and Hub Review readers know that means only one thing - I'm conflicted about it.

Not about the production, mind you; under the carefully balanced direction of Brian Mertes, the crack ensemble down at Trinity has served the play well, with particularly incisive turns from company stalwarts Timothy Crowe, Anne Scurria, and Rachael Warren.  I had issues with Eugene Lee's conceptual set (or lack thereof), as well as a few other minor details, but looking over our current theatrical landscape it's clear that Clybourne Park is right now the must-see show in New England.

Still, if you leave the production with doubts about the play itself, despite the brilliance of its performance - well then let's talk.  Because this 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner troubles me a little, both politically and artistically.  Not that I'm questioning its Pulitzer, not really - after all, a lot of plays have won the Pulitzer, and in its complexity and ambition Clybourne Park certainly meets the standards of the middle range of that august company.  And politically, its playwright's goals - to extend and explore the themes of an earlier Pulitzer-winner, Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun - are laudable; in fact they bulls-eye the post-liberal mindset of the Pulitzer crowd (i.e., the aging editors of the American press).  And in sheer dramaturgical terms, Clybourne certainly marks a huge step up in maturity for its playwright (the last Norris work we saw in Boston was the far snarkier The Pain and the Itch).

Yet the play always feels consciously constructed.  Its craft is not the craft of the true artist, working through his or her own inner conflicts, but rather a very intelligent wannabe's artful simulation of same. In its first half, set in the late 50's - the time of Raisin's Broadway debut -  Clybourne offers a gloss on the works of Edward Albee, and for its second half, set in the millennium, it proffers a familiar skit from Saturday Night Live.  So nothing in it feels fresh or new; and it's hard to fight the feeling, as the play moves toward its conclusion, that its author has begun to bob and weave, the better to dodge the claims of actual, up-to-the-minute cultural analysis one would expect from a major work.  In the end, the script feels most like a hipster's nostalgia piece, its seeming savagery encased in a witty, knowing distance; and I began to wonder - is Clybourne merely a jukebox play of the highest order, built by assembling - in a clever new arrangement - received cultural artifacts, just as one might assemble the parts of an "ironic" piece of decor purchased from IKEA?

Which perhaps raises a deeper question: our theatrical culture seems obsessed with race these days - in Boston, we have a whole theatre company pretty much devoted to it.  And yet the constant churn of new plays on the topic - The Mountaintop, Stick Fly, even David Mamet's silly old Race - doesn't seem to be leaving much of a mark on the discourse.  It has simply become a new kind of background buzz - in part, perhaps, because there's never a raw new vision on offer, not of the kind that could actually make the rest of the culture take notice; we never feel our supposed "dialogue" on race actually lurch forward as it once did (on occasion) because of a new play.

And so I've begun to wonder - could it be that "race" is written out?

Absurd!, I know, most politically-correct playgoers will cry - because there's still so much political work to be done on equality in America.  But does that mean there's an equivalent amount of artistic work to be done?  That's by no means clear - particularly when our latest, greatest, Pulitzer-Prize-winning meditation on the topic turns out to be a piece of complicated cultural ventriloquism.  One reviewer described Clybourne Park as being about "what we talk about when we talk about race."  But really, it's more like "what we talk about when we talk about what we talk about when we talk about race."  And how many more prepositional clauses and ironic distance can one dialogue withstand?

A comparison to Clybourne's inspiration, A Raisin in the Sun, seems pertinent at this point.  Lorraine Hansberry's breakout play was a barely-veiled testament to her family's efforts to cross the color line in Chicago, and buy the property at left, 6140 S. Rhodes Avenue (it now has landmark status as the Lorraine Hansberry House; perhaps the Trinity production's single major mistake is to back away from any evocation of its reality).

Back in the day, Raisin drew its authority not only from a realistic set, but from realistic acting, too; an appropriate approach, as the script operated almost as straight reportage - although it stopped far short of the chilling reality its author endured. To hang onto their new home, the Hansberries had to take their fight against housing covenants all the way to the Supreme Court, where they finally won their case - but their struggle was far from over.  Angry white mobs gathered outside their front door to hoot and jeer; chunks of cement were thrown through their windows; Hansberry told interviewers that her mother took to carrying a loaded pistol.  The harassment lasted for years.

This mortifying history may be one explanation for the almost hysterical adulation which has greeted Clybourne Park, particularly in Chicago itself, where critic Chris Jones applauded Norris for "peeling the racial onion down to its fetid core" and exposing the "fevered, dysfunctional souls" of its white characters.  Other reviewers went further: the play depicted "a molten avalanche of soul-searing ugliness," wailed one, who shuddered that "the oily, white-male entitlement" of its villains would make you "want to take a shower after shaking their hands."

Uh-huh.  This kind of hand-wringing (of the "Eek!  Human EVIL!!" variety) never impresses me much, particularly when it comes from white people.  Or at least it doesn't impress me the way Hansberry's sturdy, straightforward, heart-breaking dramaturgy does.  After all, everyone encounters, and accommodates, human evil every day.  Nor is such hysteria actually a valid critical response to Clybourne Park - which is coolly distanced in tone, eschews completely the actual attacks made on the Hansberries, and metes out far more contempt than condemnation to its villains.

Which may be why so many people have heard the echo of Edward Albee in Bruce Norris's authorial voice.  Actually, in Clybourne Park, make that "outright mimicry" rather than echo.  Which is a bit surprising, for while Norris seems to present his play as the "next step" in the struggle of Lorraine Hansberry's family - at the end of Raisin, her family prepares to move into (yes) a suburb called "Clybourne Park"  - he has dropped her style and voice entirely.  The first half of Clybourne is populated by despairing white souls lost in a moral vacuum - particularly an Albee-esque WASP couple with a house to unload who wrestle constantly with social disgust, self-disgust, and a pervasive sense of their absurd existential position.  The death of their troubled son, and the ensuing implication of shame and sterility (all constant Albee tropes) loom large in their shared psychology.  Plus the moral shame of Vietnam (here, though, Korea, where the son committed a war crime) is just off-stage for everybody. And of course not only is God dead, but their non-denominational minister is even in a corset.  In this haunted house of recycled absurdism, the color bar seems a million miles away.

Which actually might have made for an interesting new perspective on his themes, if Norris knew how to forge a connection between the stylistic worlds of Hansberry and Albee.  But he doesn't.  Instead he seems to think the two styles can simply hang together as companion pieces, because they both held sway on different American stages at roughly the same time; and we feel, too, that yes, there must be some connection between these modes - but what is it? For Norris's clumsy hinge between existential moral decline and the rising demands of social justice feels weird, and slightly wrong.  We can tell Norris is talking apples and oranges  - and so can his own African-American characters, who think the white people are simply "crazy."  And as if to underline the gap for everyone, Norris introduces a deaf character (Rachael Warren), who literally can't hear what anyone is saying.  Is she supposed to serve as some symbolic sign that the cultural modes in play share no points of communication?  Is Clybourne Park supposed to operate as a parody of a cultural moment?  There might be something to that, but it seems awfully meta.  Awfully meta.  I kind of doubt the Pulitzer committee picked that up, in fact.  And at any rate, Norris does try to yoke his two worlds together with one over-obvious symbol - here, the footlocker of the dead soldier, which is buried like a curse in the back yard of the house in question, only to re-surface along with the neighborhood's racism fifty years later.  But was Lt. William Calley really the cause of racism in Chicago?  When you ponder it, this gambit makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Which isn't to say Norris finds no common artistic ground with his source.  Tellingly, on both sides of the color bar, the sale of the property in question depends on death - the African-American family of Raisin, the Youngers, have the cash on hand to buy the house thanks to an insurance policy taken out by their fallen patriarch.  Meanwhile, in Norris's sequel, the white family is willing to sell because of the death of their son.  This unspoken parallel I think would have gotten the playwright a lot further in his quest for an actual statement than any of the retro-absurdist tropes he has come up with.  And yet it's the one detail he never makes really explicit.  Why?

Back to the future: Mia Ellis, Joe Wilson, Jr., and Rachael Warren in the second half of Clybourne Park.
But wait, things get weirder in the second half, when Norris fast-forwards to the millennium, after "Clybourne Park" has endured decades of white flight and decline (ironically, precisely what the racists predicted in Act I). The area is now on the verge of gentrification, though; white people are coming back. Indeed, a young yuppie couple - she's even pregnant - has bought what we take to be "the Hansberry house" (here a low-rise tract home, rather than the historical brick triple decker).

Only once again there's a rub - and the races have come together (as the liberals in the play's first half fervently wished they could) to sort things out.  It seems the yuppies would like to replace the existing structure with a new "McMansion" for their expanding family - which doesn't sit well with the people of color on the Neighborhood Committee.  In particular "Lena" (Mia Ellis) remembers that this property was the one in which the color bar was first broken - by her aunt; and thus, she feels, it deserves to be preserved as is.

Needless to say, the yuppies are shocked, shocked by the subtext of this demand - and we do feel at first that Norris has raised an intriguing new wrinkle in the canvas of race relations. For in essence, isn't Lena once more using "race" as a means of restricting property rights?  Isn't the reverse-racist shoe now on the other foot?

But on further reflection, we realize the answer to that question is - no, not really. Lena isn't demanding that only black families live in Clybourne Park. She is only asking that history be commemorated - much as Lorraine Hansberry's actual home was granted landmark status. Her request comes late, and so perhaps isn't fair to the house's new owners - but that doesn't make it a new form of racism, unless any commemoration of our racial struggle is construed as racism, too.

Somewhere, I think, Bruce Norris knows this; because he almost immediately drops any actual debate of Lena's claims.  To get through his play, however, he must carry on somehow, so he cranks up the hackneyed device of the squirm-inducing Slur Smackdown. You know the drill - it's a lot like the "Let's sing along with Susan Sarandon" trope I ridiculed here.  In the Slur Smackdown, one party - for reasons never convincingly explained - drops an ethnic, racial, sexual, or religious slur. Copious amounts of hi-larious offense ensue. And inevitably, the aggrieved party shoots back with their own offensive one-liner. Soon all "pretensions" of manners are shot to hell, and everybody is giving as good as they get, and we're forced to admit (yet again) that deep down we're all brothers and sisters under the skin, because we all hate each other's guts.

This is heart-warming, I know, in its way - and for the frat boys among us, both actual and honorary, it's a form of low catharsis.  Indeed, the survival of the mean-spirited ethnic joke (and the homophobic joke, the sexist joke, and every other kind of joke) actually only means that the inevitable frictions between competing social identities are being vented without, at least, open conflict (as Mel Brooks demonstrated ages ago).

What bothers me about the exercise here is that it's simply beside the point; there's interesting cultural work to be done, based on Norris's premise, but the playwright refuses to do it.  That the white family knows a nasty joke about black people, and the black family knows one about white people, doesn't really tell us all that much about life in the millennium.  Particularly when a latter-day Albee would have had a field day with the fatuous libertarianism of the yuppie husband (Mauro Hantmann), or the crass breeder avarice of his wife (Rachael Warren) - or, yes, Lena's own apparent feeling that the neighborhood could, or should, be frozen in time, like a living museum, to commemorate her aunt.

Clearly there's a lot there to unpack, but Norris can't be bothered - and why?  Well, I imagine because it might make his play truly controversial.  And he doesn't want that - we're all supposed to agree in the theatre, remember? The playwright is expected to pour his scorn onto somebody else, somebody who isn't actually in the audience.  So Norris diverts his action into shared laughter over outrageous dirty jokes.  He parodies "hysteria" a second time, but refuses to dig beneath it, into its actual causes.

Oh, well.   Can you see why I'm beginning to wonder if "race" is written out - or perhaps can't be written about any further in the mainstream theatre?  Here we have an enormous new work, that has been structured impeccably, in which themes echo between eras, and are even developed in counterpoint.  A work that has been showered with praise and awards.

And yet, at bottom, it's a dodge, designed to fulfill a political obligation without the de-stabilizing risks of actual art.   We've literally seen everything in Clybourne Park before.

So why do I think it's the must-see show right now in the region?  Well, because even simulation has its pleasures, and this production is packed with them - individual moments do pop with harrowing authenticity, even if nothing really hangs together, and the show is often bitterly, if superficially, funny.  Timothy Crowe's furious despair and Anne Scurria's desperation leap off the stage in the first act, and the rest of the ensemble is nearly as good.   It feels at first blush like a big, important night in the theatre.  Only later do you realize that its "mirrored" structure has been just that - a hall of mirrors reflecting other, better plays.

Friday, October 28, 2011

A lost opportunity at the Huntington

The cast of Before I Leave You.
Okay, I'm just going to say this fast, because there's no nice way to say it. The Huntington's latest show, Before I Leave You, by Rosanna Yamagiwa Alfaro, is a huge disappointment.  My dismay over its failure is all the more piercing because the production marks a late-career breakthrough for the 72-year-old author, a Cambridge resident, who (it is plain from her writing) is a lovely person who knows her milieu, and has something worthwhile - if perhaps not terribly original - to say.

But the bottom line is that this script isn't ready for a professional production.  Instead, right now it feels like it's ready for a first reading, perhaps, with a substantial rewrite to follow.  That the play's theme revolves around the passage of time, and the need to grab the main chance while you still have the chance, only makes this gap in quality all the more poignant, I know.

The gap nevertheless still looms. Ms. Alfaro seems to have intended to pen a rueful essay on love at the end of life, and the issues that plague a failing marriage; in her opening scene, an aging Cambridge writer, Jeremy (Ross Bickell) suffers a choking episode that makes him realize he may not have much time left among the living.  And we glean from stolen glances and other asides that he has long carried a torch (silently) for Emily (Kippy Goldfarb), the wife of a narcissistic best friend and colleague, Koji (Glenn Kubota).

So far, so good; we fully expect Ms. Alfaro to gear up for a meditation on late-September romance, with all its emotional (and here moral) pitfalls.  Think Brief Encounter crossed with Love Among the Ruins set just off Brattle Street.  Will Jeremy make his move, we wonder?  Will Emily respond?  Will she make a clean break with her husband or will the lovers slink along on the down low?  We sense Ms. Alfaro's script could move in any number of interesting, complex directions.

Instead, it runs in circles - to the smoky melody of Kurt Weill's "September Song," which would be the perfect accompaniment to the play Ms. Alfaro seems to think she's writing, but doesn't get around to until the very last minute.  In the meantime we're distracted repeatedly by subplots which the author can't seem to integrate into her main action - Emily and Koji's troubled son becomes the focus of the first act, for instance (while Jeremy takes a back seat!) even though his plotline is all but dropped after intermission.  And Koji (himself an adulterer, we quickly realize) is lavished with stage time, even though Alfaro doesn't develop his character so much as repeat the broad strokes of her initial sketch.  Meanwhile Jeremy stays passive, Emily remains a cipher, and the play becomes increasingly episodic - scenes end repeatedly well before they should, sometimes before their implicit conflicts have even come clear.

How did this happen?  I'm not sure, as the question here isn't adventurous plotting or structure, it's a simple lack thereof.  I perceived sometimes the effects of last-minute rewrites - in the wrong direction, probably (the old pros in the cast were a little unsteady on their lines, and even their blocking).  But whatever the reason for its failure, the production casts a poor light on the Huntington's new play program, which has never been strong on instilling structure in its offerings, but this time around seems to have completely blown what was a truly inspiring opportunity.  To be blunt, I feel Ms. Alfaro's nascent script, which even now boasts some clever jokes and a few touching exchanges, deserved far more vigorous and focused guidance than it has received.  Fixing it isn't rocket science; it's just hard work.

And for what it's worth, Allen Moyer's scenic design - a kind of cityscape of bookshelves - is apt, but Jonathan Silverstein's direction feels aimless; perhaps he was hamstrung, however, by a flat central performance from Glenn Kubota, who brings little depth or complexity to the irritating Koji.  The other actors fare better, even if they sometimes look a bit uncertain of how to proceed.  I got the feeling Bickell and Goldfarb were simply holding back from the inchoate material, but the reliable Karen MacDonald, bless her, just dives right in - sometimes she's all but sweating bullets, you can see her working so hard to fill in moments and keep things moving.  And she's appealing - she always is - but in the end she can only draw focus (she's a supporting character); she can't actually push the production forward.  Only the author can do that - and I hope, actually, that someday and somehow Ms. Alfaro does return to this material.  Her initial idea was a good one; it just has yet to take effective dramatic form.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

May divorce be with you

I'm not quite sure what to make of You Better Sit Down: Tales from My Parents' Divorce, the latest from The Civilians, at ArtsEmerson through this weekend. But then to be honest, the show's very concept sounded perverse to me - adult children of divorce interviewing their parents about their failed marriages, and then impersonating them on stage as they related their travails.  Divorce - and its effect on children - just seemed too agonizing and intimate an experience to ask anyone to re-live in front of other people; I wondered if the resulting performance would feel like the theatrical equivalent of those horrifying moments on TV when callous cameramen zoom in on hapless innocents stricken by tragedy.

Yet strangely enough, tragedy feels worlds away from You Better Sit Down.  As the Civilians recite their recollections in a kind of suburban echo chamber (see above), no really painful exchanges occur - the emotional blows never land - because you rarely hear any of the kids' reactions, and in only one case do you hear both partners' side of the story; and at any rate, all four of the divorces under consideration occurred ages ago.  Perhaps as a result, you never feel the need to sit down; you can handle all this standing up, and you never really identify with either the parents or the children in question (who somehow feel, oddly enough, like separate entities from the actors themselves).

Thus nothing in the show feels devastating, although dishonesty, theft, emotional abuse, and the calmest alienation imaginable are the basis of the evening.  Indeed, as it unfolds you slowly realize that You Better Sit Down is coming off as a jaundiced, slightly morbid comedy, with plenty of laughs, but few, if any, shocks or squirm-worthy silences.  Some really bad stuff may have happened, the parents admit with a shrug and a smile, but hey, you know, it's not like anybody died.  By now it's all water - or maybe blood - under the bridge.

I'm divided at the moment, therefore, as to whether the performance represents a success or failure for the  "devised" theatre techniques that are the Civilians' trademark.  Certainly if an actual "investigation" of the emotional and psychological effects of divorce was the troupe's intent, then You Better Sit Down is an abject failure.  But if their real interest was in the limits of their own technique - and perhaps the limits of emotional communication itself - then I'd say it counts as a weird kind of small success.  You leave it wondering what it means that parents can't communicate the actual pain of divorce, and what it means that their children can't relate to it.  You may also find yourself pondering the narcissism of both yourself and those you love, and whether even the most intimate of relationships ever leads to true intimacy - indeed, whether the very closeness of a relationship may prevent real intimacy!

Or you may just chuckle at some of the unintentional stand-up these parents deliver; indeed, plenty of their lines sound as if they've been consciously structured as punch-lines.  "All I really wanted to do was go to bed with your father," one mother abruptly chirps to her horrified daughter.  "Which is really hard for me to talk about!" she adds.  And she's not alone in those feelings.  Sex, which for this generation could only reliably be found within the confines of marriage, surfaces again and again as a foil to actual intimacy between these couples - as it wasn't simply shared but traded, bartered.   Indeed, the one father who sat for an interview confesses to his son that after he and his wife (who was having an affair) had decided to separate, he still demanded sex while he was living in the house - in between her sessions with her lover, I guess - and she was happy enough to comply.  As both saw it, sex was part of the deal. "I hope this doesn't send you to a shrink or anything," Dad says to his son with a smile, "but she was like, 'Sure, whatever.'  I mean we were socialists.  We didn't sweat the small stuff."

Is married intimacy even possible?
Just btw, if you can't tell from that particular line, there's a sly satire of the 60's - when all these parents hooked up - banging around in this piece as well.  These divorcées are the type who met at cocktail parties for César Chávez, who felt that they and the world were on the brink of a social revolution, and that marriage was some kind of grand experiment in personal fulfillment.  And it's also clear that these political ideals mapped rather obviously to an unconscious narcissism; that fan of Chávez babbles to her daughter that now she realizes her children exist not as personalities in their own right, but "more as pictures hanging in the living room of my life."  Uh-huh.

Still, it's also true most of the divorces contemplated here happened for a good reason - one deadbeat dad, for instance, was an outright thief (and his wife's sarcastic Southern drawl counts as some sort of flag of victory); others were emotionally abusive, distant, or unfaithful (some of the wives were, too).  I often longed, however, for these crimes of the heart to have more impact in performance; in fact one moment limned in a single flash the broken heart that seems to be missing from the show.  "I remember you used to snuggle up to your court guardian on the couch," one mother muses to her daughter in a puzzled tone of voice.  "So - was that something you were missing?  Was that like something you never had?  Because you never used to do that with your father."

Indeed.  At such moments the po-faced performances of the cast - the poised Matthew Maher, Caitlin Miller, Jennifer R. Morris, and Robbie Collier Sublett - seem to be remarkably on target and yet missing something, too.   And yet I wondered to myself, if open feeling were suddenly allowed to surface in You Better Sit Down, would the piece suddenly fall to the floor itself, collapsing into raw, angry bathos?  The Civilians, and their director, Anne Kauffman, are clearly walking a kind of tightrope here.

Along which, I think, they are still finding their way.  The last Civilians piece to appear at ArtsEmerson, In the Footprint, swung with a confident satiric swagger, because their investigatory style mapped well to its public political thrust. Now divorce is a political issue - that reminder is part of what's worthwhile about this production - yet where the political becomes the personal, I think the Civilians are less sure of themselves. This is also a newer piece than Footprint, so perhaps it's still in some phase of development.  Right now, for instance, the backdrop of a suburban tract home feels only half-integrated into the show - actors sometimes go off to the kitchen to make tea, or wander over to the foyer for no real reason; better to fully use the set, I think - or lose it entirely.  But then how best to integrate the projections the troupe often favors - which again, felt a little half-hearted here?  All these issues feel as if they're still being sorted out.  Which is fine - there's more than enough finished performance here to make up a full evening of theatre.  But it's always best for audiences to know what they're getting into, I think, before they sit down.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What Boston needs to see, from the Up-to-the-Minute Theatre Fund

Last week I wrote about the fact that Boston often seems to be ahead of the national curve, theatrically - even ahead of New York (or at least neck-and-neck).  That doesn't mean we're not still missing out on some things, though - and seeing terrific shows like Candide, or the best of ArtsEmerson, only makes you all the hungrier for what else is out there on the cutting edge, both nationally and internationally.

So why can't we have it all?

Well, one reason is that - simply put - several of our more successful local theatres have lost their edge.  I won't even go into You-Know-Who at You-Know-Where - that's a totally lost cause; but there are signs of a growing artistic slack elsewhere, too.  I mean seriously - gay men as hi-larious nuns (on bikes, yet)?  Another lady scientist/writer/explorer who discovers - wait for it - sexism?  Big River - AND Rent? Rocky Horror?  Sure - let's do the time warp again!  And again and again!  Some folks just seem to love a trip down memory lane.

Now I realize a theatre company needs to pay the bills, so some tried-and-true fare is inevitable; and of course everyone knows I love me a great revival of a classic!  Only many of these shows aren't really classics - they're just familiar - and meanwhile, up-to-the-minute theatrical life is elsewhere.  The Civilians are working on an Occupy Wall Street cabaret in New York - isn't there any way we could see it up here?  Mike Daisey has been making headlines with The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs around the country - isn't Boston the perfect place to hear it, and isn't now the perfect time?  Last week's terrific Speaker's Progress at ArtsEmerson was actually the final part of a Shakespearean trilogy by its brilliant director, Sulayman al-Bassam; is there any way we could see the whole thing, and soon?

Now by this I do NOT mean we need to spend more time developing new plays! (Yikes!!)  Far from it - I'm talking about theatre work that's already on its feet, that's trying to keep up with current events.  Indeed, sometimes I think what we need is a special Up-to-the-Minute Theatrical Fund - a grant that can be given at a moment's notice (comparatively) to an opportunity that appears this very season, and might vanish the next.  But of course donors don't want to give money to theatre itself at all - they want to give it to buildings, or to educational efforts, or diversity or what have you.  Real estate and politics, basically.  Isn't there at least one brilliant tech millionaire out there with a yen for the theatrically hip?

I mean, I can dream, can't I?

Another busy week

John Lam in a stellar performance.
The fall season is now at its height, so the week is overflowing with openings and premieres.  Last night I caught You Better Sit Down, a meditation on divorce by The Civilians, at ArtsEmerson; tonight I'm back to the Huntington (at the Calderwood Pavilion) for Before I Leave You, the new play by Cambridge resident Rosanna Yamagiwa Alfaro.  Thursday I will probably check out one of the new fringe offerings - possibilities include Whistler in the Dark's Halloween double bill,  the Happy Medium's Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom, or Metro Stage's Chicago.  Friday I'm booked at Handel and Haydn, for Pergolesi's Stabat Mater.  Saturday is Boston Ballet's dazzling Night of Stars, featuring the entire company in selections from its repertoire.  Sunday I plan to play more catch-up, out in Lowell, at the Merrimack's portrait of Robert Frost, This Verse Business. And then you'll get to hear all about it.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Boston Baroque moves heaven and earth

Boston Baroque, with soloists, in action.

I confess that "In the beginning," as the saying goes, I was nervous. As Boston Baroque essayed the famous opening bars of Haydn's The Creation (Die Schöpfung), which are meant to convey primordial chaos, things sounded, well . . . not exactly chaotic, but instead simply under-rehearsed. Entrances and exits felt perfunctory, and crucial crescendos and diminuendos just weren't there (particularly in a climbing scale from the clarinet, which should shoot off into the sonic nebulae like a sputtering comet).  My partner and I gave each other our patented "Uh-oh" look.  Were we in for a long night?

Thankfully, we quickly realized we weren't.  The orchestra righted itself with the C-major blast that accompanies "Let there be light," and never looked back.  And strangely enough, when the instrumentalists returned to the heavens for the moment in which God puts the sun and moon through their paces, they did their best playing of the night.  So go figure.  Other highlights - among many - included the lugubriously lilting entrance of the great whales, and the rise of dawn over Eden. The Creation is famously all about tone-painting, as Haydn musically catalogs everything mentioned in Genesis (and a whole lot more), and happily conductor Martin Pearlman and his orchestra brought the same even-handed detail to the Leviathan as they did to the lowly worm (which yes, gets its own brief motif).

The chorus was likewise in solid form - although they were singing in German, a language which is always hard for me to assess in performance (even when sung correctly, it rarely sounds pinpoint sharp).  At any rate, the choruses don't do all that much in The Creation but add an exclamation point of praise (perhaps a bit repetitively) to the arias of the soloists, which the chorale did with gusto.

And fortunately Boston Baroque had brought an A-team of soloists to this particular game - soprano Amanda Forsythe shared the stage with tenor Keith Jameson and bass-baritone Kevin Deas.  Ms. Forsythe looked radiant, and undaunted by the fact that she's once more expecting - perhaps any minute,  to be honest, from the look of things.  (Someone should really write this intrepid lady an oratorio called The Procreation!)  Forsythe sang the role of Gabriel with her usual exquisitely lyrical purity, perhaps reaching a new height in the song to the lark and the nightingale (which as yet sings no mournful note of sorrow) accompanied by evocative trills from flutists Sandra Miller, Wendy Rolfe, and Andrea LeBlanc.  Later,  as Eve, Forsythe smiled patiently through Haydn's silly emphasis on her obedience to Adam (but perhaps we should forgive the aging composer's sexist daydream, as it's known his own wife, to whom he was always faithful, was famously difficult, and even professed to dislike his music!).

Forsythe was perhaps the first among equals in this talented trio, but both Deas and Jameson had brilliant moments.  Deas's voice wasn't showcased at its strongest in his opening arias, which are placed a bit high in his range; his instrument is at its richest lower down - luckily for us, he also essayed both the whales and the lowly worm (with a closing note that seemed to drop at least an octave below the stage floor).  Deas also made a warm and unassuming Adam - and Jameson had his best moments in Eden, too, singing of the creation of the First Couple with a ravishingly sophisticated radiance.  The evening ended just as it should - on a note of poignant, innocent sweetness (Eve and Adam are just about to be tempted by that notorious apple).  One of the things that is special about Haydn is his expression of a truly thankful faith via an exquisitely inventive musical voice.  In Boston Baroque's performance you could hear both sides of that deeply moving combination.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Soft stillness and the night at Opera Boston

Julie Boulianne and Sean Panikkar as Béatrice et Bénédict.
Opera fans who don't have tickets yet for Béatrice et Bénédict will want to hustle: there's only one performance left (on Tuesday night) for Opera Boston's season opener, Berlioz's short-but-sweet genuflection to the Bard's Much Ado About Nothing. Devotees of the human voice will certainly want to be there: the production boasts at least four world-class voices: soprano Heather Buck, mezzos Julie Boulianne and Kelley O'Connor, and tenor Sean Panikkar. In the past, a recurring carp I've had with Opera Boston has been that they often seemed unable to assemble a full Met-level cast; their stars would shine, but the ensemble was sometimes variable. Not this time. Not only are the (rising) stars sublime, but the supporting roles are capably sung, and the chorus sounds great, too. Béatrice et Bénédict is solid, shining vocal gold.

Whether fans of Shakespeare will find the comedy as glittering, however - well, that's a harder call, particularly given that we're experiencing a tsunami of Shakespearean opera these days. Last spring we saw Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream, and the summer brought both Gounod's Roméo et Juliette as well as Verdi's Falstaff. This season we're being treated to not only Berlioz's take on Much Ado but also Verdi's Macbeth. And next spring Opera Boston returns with Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi.

Now generally in Shakespearean opera you find the dramatic stakes and emotional moods have been heightened, but the intellectual structure has been stripped out.  And while you might imagine the very-literary Berlioz could prove (like Britten) an exception to that general rule,  I'm afraid the highly-edited Béatrice et Bénédict hews closely to that simplifying tradition, with one unusual wrinkle: the sombre romantic notes that Berlioz often strikes aren't much in evidence in the original play.  There's much worldliness in Much Ado - and far more shadow than Berlioz allows - but only one stretch of mournful, moonlit melancholy, and unsurprisingly, it's a musical interlude (the song before Hero's supposed grave).  Now Berlioz has ditched entirely the sinister plot against poor Hero, but he has retained, and even extended, the sweet eeriness of that song into two set-pieces that are probably the high points of his opera: a duet, "Nuit paisible et sereine," that's a kind of mutual dream for Héro and her maid Ursule at the close of Act I, and a haunting chorus offstage just before the joint wedding in Act II.

Both are paeans to love, but they resonate not with the joy of youth but with the rue of age; unsurprisingly, Berlioz composed the opera, his last major work, near the end of his life (while Shakespeare was just 34 when he penned the play).  The elder artist also had perhaps a more pointed view of human folly - there are a few more "caustic" jabs (in the words of the composer) at the play's self-deluded heroes than there are in the original (although there's also a brilliant piece of psychological insight into Béatrice in one aria that I'd say Shakespeare actually misses).

Julie Boulianne by moonlight.
Which isn't to say that Béatrice et Bénédict is in any way grim; it's simply light on its feet but mature; its occasional bitter-sweetness only enhances its piquant comedy.  If only, that is, its comedy were funnier.  For I'm afraid Berlioz, unlike the Bard, was no comic genius, and Béatrice et Bénédict  may strike Much Ado fans as something of an uphill comic struggle.

Fear not, much of the leading couple's "merry war" is here, verbatim (the dialogue of this opéra comique is wisely done in English - perhaps for this reason - while the singing is in French).  But Berlioz has dropped Shakespeare's clowns, and supplied his own musical jesters instead; he has added a pompous, incompetent musician to the mix, 'Somarone' - which, in a nod to Shakespeare's Dogberry, translates from Italian as "Great Ass."  Bass Andrew Funk gives the role his best shot, but I'm afraid the forced hijinx fall flat - even if his musical offerings fall flat, too, in just the right amusing way.

Even where Shakespeare's sparring has been retained, however, it has sometimes been interlarded with director David Kneuss's ad-libs, which are set in a modern idiom (like the costumes and staging, mostly), and, well - is it really much of a criticism to say that Kneuss just ain't Shakespeare?  (And btw, bring back "For man is a giddy thing," Mr. K.)

What surprised me more, however, was that Kneuss's stage business wasn't nearly as inspired as his work on La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein a year or so ago, which was a lively, witty riot. What went wrong this time around? I don't know, but over and over again I felt the dreamy atmosphere of Héro and Ursule's duet was tugging at the whole show.

I should also add, I'm afraid, that Julie Boulianne (above left) and Sean Panikkar aren't quite convincing as the opera's eponymous lovers.  Both are pleasing personalities; Boulianne, despite the difficulty of delivering Elizabethan quips in English (she's Québécoise) proves the more accomplished comic actress; it's just that neither feels romantically "right" for the other, an accident of casting which is simply too bad.

You could forgive all that, though, once either began to sing.  Boulianne is blessed with a complex and darkly lustrous mezzo that conveys through its very timbre everything you need to know about her character.  And Panikkar's clarion tenor - perhaps a shade too light for Bénédict's bluffness - seemed to open up to a dazzling size as he climbed higher in his range.  Meanwhile, as Héro, the gorgeous and delightfully poised Heather Buck took a little time to warm up, but achieved a kind of soft, luminous rapture in her duet with mezzo (but almost-alto) Kelley O'Connor, whose own smoky tone may have been the most sophisticated color yet in this dazzling vocal palette.

The same sophistication wasn't always evident in the orchestral playing - although under Gil Rose's baton, the performance was always solid, if not stylish (things did improve when the moon came out).  But it certainly extended to the elegant production design, by the Met's Robert Perdziola. You could quibble, I suppose, with Perdziola's pretty costumes - the gorgeous gowns all seemed to be from roughly 1947, while the men's suits were from . . . well, something like a forty-year span! I wasn't sure what that was supposed to convey; but I forgot all about it when I took in the exquisite, subtly-painted set - particularly when it opened up to reveal a ravishing moonlit scene for the "Nuit paisible et sereine." Here soft stillness and the night did indeed become the touches of sweet harmony.  Heather Buck and Kelley O'Connor took us to the moon vocally; Perdziola did it visually. Together they brought this memorable production to the edge of the sublime.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Gershwins' 'Porgy and Bess'

Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis in Porgy and Bess.

I think what I'll remember most about the recent A.R.T. production of The Gershwins' 'Porgy and Bess' (henceforth just Porgy and Bess, btw) was the show that surrounded the show. The production itself proved pretty forgettable, aside from its vocals (from the great Audra McDonald, of course, but also from Philip Boykin, Bryonha Marie Parham, and Natasha Yvette Williams). Diane Paulus's direction was competent but a bit pedestrian, the choreography ditto, and the set design was weirdly grandiose - in fact it looked like something from Bayreuth circa 1976, amusingly enough.  Meanwhile Suzan-Lori Parks' controversial adaptation was streamlined, but clumsily so, and was thematically hamstrung by its political correctness.  And while the singers sounded pretty good (even though they were miked), the orchestra most definitely did not - its natural timbres were all but drowned out by amplification in the modernist barn that is the Loeb.

So the production was at best mediocre.  Yet local reviewers generally fell over themselves in their praise, because (hallelujah), it wasn't outright terrible, and because - of course - it had been designed to align with, and amplify, a middlebrow progressive politics that all our theatre critics feel they must kow-tow to.  (Tellingly, when I saw it, virtually everyone in the audience, aside from a school group, was a crunchy 70-year-old white Cantabridgian.)

The trouble with this kind of obeisance, however, crops up whenever a work's artistic content comes into conflict with the prejudices of its reformers.  For the "reform" of Porgy was bluntly posited as a chief motivator behind its revival; we were often told (in the New York Times, and elsewhere) by director Diane Paulus and her team of "excavators" that the opera traded in stereotypes that were now offensive.  When this proved controversial to those who love the original work (including Stephen Sondheim), and understand its place in history as a trail-blazing anti-racist piece of theatre, Paulus & Co. began an elaborate dance of back-tracking.  No, the show wasn't racist, no, not really, there were just "failures of understanding" in it, Suzan-Lori Parks babbled.  There were things, Paulus insisted, that a Broadway audience just would no longer tolerate!  NOT "racist" things, just "things!"

You get the idea. Basically, Porgy and Bess was racist, only it wasn't really, only it was in a way, unintentionally, only it kind of wasn't, not actually.

What this back-and-forth obscured, of course, was a simple discomfort with the abjection of the opera's characters. Porgy is a cripple, who gets around in a cart drawn by a goat (a metaphor for lost potency that is almost too intense in its pathos).  Meanwhile Bess is a "fallen woman" fighting a drug habit, who submits pathetically to the abuses of her lover, Crown.  To Paulus & Co., this was all offensive; they wanted to "empower" characters whose powerlessness was central to their being.  So Porgy got canes instead of a cart, and staggered off on his own two feet at the play's finale.  Bess was restyled even more radically - she threw away her "happy dust" in disgust, and seemed to "choose," rather than succumb to, her sexual abuse.

The trouble is, these decisions played hacky-sack with the themes, emotional trajectory, and even tragic dimension of the opera.  They turned a great, disturbing work of art into a "teaching moment" about, well, something, but I've no idea what; this Porgy and Bess was completely at odds with itself.  Because if the abjection of the characters was what offended, then why make them only a little less abject?  What was the artistic point of that?  And if you were going to really transform Dubose and Dorothy Heyward's Bess (note the Heyward name was not included in the project's marquee title), into an angry, totally-together Power Grrl, then how could you also hope to hang onto the Heyward plot, which depends completely on Bess's weakness?  To make good on such a re-conception, you'd  have to thoroughly rewrite the second half of the opera - something Suzan-Lori Parks simply didn't do.

What we were left with, then, was an oddity: an opera "reformed" of a racism it didn't "really have," by means of interventions which rendered it as crippled thematically as its lead character was physically.

But let's be honest - in the view of the revival's admirers, the opera had to be racist, because without a veneer of reform, Paulus's direction generally looks denuded of any significance (and Suzan-Lori Parks' playwriting doesn't fare much better).  I know, I know - Diane Paulus knows how to engineer an "event" (the publicity prior to Porgy was her real masterpiece), and thus she gets not only buzz, but butts in seats - the production quickly sold out at the A.R.T.  But once my butt is in that seat, I can't help but notice that as a director Diane Paulus is . . . well, she's okay, but no great shakes.  I keep trying to think of something particular to say about her style or sense of interpretation - but honestly, not much comes to mind.  She is dutiful; she attends to details; she has a good sense of pace.  (She was obviously once a Harvard student.)  She directs the traffic of her stage fairly well, and every now and then has a striking visual idea.  This only puts her, however, in the solid middle of the lowest tier of national-level directors.  She has no real interpretive profile; beneath her publicity-driven "brand" of pop-political activism, there is something close to an artistic void.

And please, don't write in to tell me I feel this way because she's a woman.  Would everyone stop making that kind of excuse for her?  I feel this way because I see a lot of great direction.  And even if Diane Paulus suddenly grew testicles she wouldn't be a patch on the ass of a director like, say, Mary Zimmerman.  Even locally, we have Melia Bensussen, who's clearly smarter and more imaginative than Paulus.  We have plenty of better female directors than Diane Paulus; her career is held in place by her politics, her connections, and the success of Hair.  That's it.  (And honestly, how interesting is Hair?  Seriously, people, catch a grip.)

What made this production even weirder was that basically all its racial stereotypes were still firmly in place (at left), just rendered in a warmly sappy, aw-shucks! idiom that made Cabin in the Sky look sophisticated; and it certainly still sported the unspoken frame of deracinated white folks watching the antics of earthy, free-spirited "Negroes."  Sassy, oversized mamas still clucked after randy, sexist bucks, just as I remembered from earlier productions of Porgy and Bess - and as I remember from The Color Purple, by the way, and all of Tyler Perry's movies, too.  Yeah, I know, Parks deleted the vulture scene, and Porgy's fear that a corpse might bleed afresh in the morgue, because these tropes were seen (by her) as too "superstitious."  Which makes no sense to me whatsoever, by the way.  Superstition is a mainstay of grand opera, and of Shakespeare, too.  Nobody ever thought any less of an opera character because he or she was superstitious.  (And oddly, one left this production more convinced than ever that Porgy and Bess is indeed an opera, not a musical - the lurches from recitative into dialogue were always abrupt and disconcerting.)

So if affectionate, but condescending, stereotype rattles your political cage, then I can't see how you wouldn't be staggered by this Porgy and Bess.  As for me, I put this kind of thing in the same category as O'Neill's parody of Irish poverty in Moon for the Misbegotten - I'm Irish, but I'm not offended.  Art may be rooted in stereotype, for all we know, and at any rate, Tobacco Road ain't so far from Catfish Row; there's plenty of Caucasian abjection out there, too.

I am offended, however, by productions that pretend they have conjured drama where instead they've only put up After-school Special talking points. (Like "Nice girls can be sluts, but they don't do drugs!") And as I've noted, this Porgy and Bess made no dramatic sense whatsoever.  The whole point of the opera is the fragility of its lovers' relationship, how their mutual frailty both allows their romance to blossom (Bess has always been overwhelmed by more powerful men), and also threatens to destroy it.  Its theme is the vexed condition of human weakness, and I'll be honest - the dilemma of these heroes always makes me cry; they are titanic, two of the truly tragic heroes of the twentieth-century theatre.

So rather obviously, turning them into avatars of empowerment pretty much drains them of their actual artistic power.  Plus it inevitably led this production into odd non-sequiturs.  Audra McDonald sang like an angel, it's true, but she only connected with Norm Lewis' Porgy musically - because the restyled script obviated the tender basis of their relationship.  Likewise, when attacked by Crown in the second act, she mysteriously strode off to her own rape with an irritated, "Come on, let's get it over with!" authority.  Then, once Porgy had been detained by police, she was seduced by Sportin' Life to abandon her lover because - well, because WHAT?  In the original version, of course, the spectre of "happy dust" reclaiming her desperate soul arises, and Porgy's journey to New York becomes one of redemption.  Here, however, Bess spurned Sportin' Life's offers of cocaine . . . and yet decided to run off with him anyway.  And how many drug-free Power Grrls would decide to run off with a pusher?  My guess is not many.  Clearly this was one moment that required a little extra inspiration from Suzan-Lori Parks, but so far she has come up with zip.

But by the end of the production I had long since understood that this was no longer a work of drama, music, or opera, at all, but merely a vehicle for an obviously muddled and pretentious politics.  Not even a politics, actually - just an etiquette.  And let's not forget it's a financial vehicle, too - a possible gold mine, I'd guess, for Paulus and the Gershwin estate.  Paulus by now has made a career from eking a profit out of white guilt - she's like some New Age "P.C." Barnum.  Which wouldn't be so bad, I suppose, if she weren't perverting the purpose of her non-profit theatre in the process.  By now, of course, the A.R.T.'s second stage is a lost cause; Paulus's personal moneymaker, The Donkey Show, has run there for over two years, and what productions the space offers in addition must inevitably be styled around its requirements.  Thus a space that used to house truly challenging and original new work is programmed with rock "operas" or the likes of Cabaret and The Rocky Horror Show.  And the main stage Paulus clearly views as a launching pad for her own Broadway projects, like Porgy, which was obviously streamlined for purely commercial purposes.  That's right - the goal of this particular "nonprofit" theatre has become the commercialization of art into more politically-palatable pop entertainment.  It's doing precisely the opposite of what it was founded to do.   But then as several of the smarter critics have already pointed out, P.C. pop entertainment is what the PBS and NPR crowd now considers "art."   So why, I sometimes wonder, do I even mourn the mauling of a great work like Porgy and Bess?  Diane Paulus is probably right; there's no audience left to appreciate it anyway.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

You know, maybe Chuck does kind of suck

I guess I've been a little slow admitting to myself what a lot of other people have been saying for quite some time:

Maybe Charles Isherwood does suck.

I just finished reading a rave - and I mean a rave - from Isherwood for a play I gave nearly a pan when I saw it last spring, Stephen Karam's Sons of the Prophet.  I advised Karam, in fact, to do a thorough rewrite - but it doesn't sound like he has, because Isherwood cites every plot point I recall from last spring.

And man, does he gush.  Isherwood weeps over the play's "many soul-piercing truths."  He calls it "an absolutely wonderful new comedy-drama . . .that shines a clarifying light into some of life's darker passages."  He says it's the first important play of the season.

Yet six months ago I described the play as "a car crash . . . an entertaining, funny one, mind you . . . but still a car crash . . . that doesn't really have anything new to say." I will note that director Peter DuBois (who handled his duties well) has recast his lead role - which I'm sure helped with what I called the "void" at the center of the script. But still . . .

See, I'm also struggling with Isherwood's review of Mary Zimmerman's Candide. Everyone I know felt it was the show of the year; several friends saw it twice (I saw it three times). Isherwood, however, called its Goodman Theatre version "polished, pretty and well-sung," but insisted it faltered because Zimmerman returned to the original Voltaire, which made the show "a punishing three-hour ride."

Okay, so, in the world according to Isherwood, Voltaire = punishing; Stephen Karam = soul-piercing and wonderful.

Now, maybe I'm crazy, but honestly - I don't think that's how history is going to view those two authors.  That's how a certain pseudo-intellectual, self-satisfied segment of the gay (and gay-friendly) audience may view those two authors; but  I am 99.9999% confident that people will still be reading Candide long after Stephen Karam - and certainly Charles Isherwood - are long forgotten.  And right now the feeling that Isherwood's dismissive review may be hurting Candide's chances of being seen in New York are beginning to really irk me.

(Sorry for the gay-bashing, btw, but one attribute of my own tribe that really irritates me sometimes is its propensity to imagine that simply being gay makes one stylishly insightful.  It ain't necessarily so.)

I also can't forget Isherwood's wild over-promotion of Sarah Ruhl - he called the sweet, but slight (and often vapid) Euridyce "devastatingly lovely," and basically launched the fatuous playwright's career in New York.  But when I saw Eurydice, I was - well, underwhelmed, to say the least; I noted that it played like jottings from an undergraduate's journal.  (I later discovered while reading an interview with Ruhl that my surmise was literally true.)

So who's ahead so far, would you say?  I'm siding with Voltaire; Chuck's with Sarah and Stephen. Hell, this is even making me think twice about Adam Rapp - if "the Ish" hates his latest, perhaps it's great!  Although I will say this - I was probably right to argue that he should be taken off the Adam Rapp "beat," as Isherwood requested in a now-notorious column.  In fact, I don't think I went far enough in that argument - Isherwood should be taken off everybody's beat.  This silly, superficial man has done enough damage to the theatrical scene already.

Zander's grandeur

The Boston Philharmonic

Last weekend's season opener from Ben Zander's Boston Philharmonic proved full of surprises (even its press reception was a bit shocking) - and thus it provided a pretty good sense of both the orchestra's core strength and its unusual range.

It's true that everything on the program came from the period with which the Philharmonic is closely identified - the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when orchestral size was approaching its zenith, and romantic (and post-romantic) musical gestures were correspondingly titanic.  And all, btw, came from Northern Europe (that is if you count Russia as part of Northern Europe).  Beyond that superficial similarity, however, the choices were strikingly divergent.  Sibelius's Swan of Tuonela is an elegiac tone poem, Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto an expansive, dancing rapture; and Neilsen's Fourth Symphony ("The Inextinguishable") a super-sized allegory of war.

Yet in all three categories, the Philharmonic came through with colors flying.  Some tend to think of Zander as a grand rhetorician, but his Sibelius belied that stereotype; subtly rendered, the piece's eponymous swan (given exquisite voice by Peggy Pearson on English horn) floated with just the right edge of romantic dread through a mist of shimmering strings, occasionally broken by mournful solos from star cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer.

Then the orchestra seemed to slip easily into the lively passions of the Tchaikovsky concerto.  Violinist Ilya Kaler. the soloist, is little known in these parts; his only previous local appearance - that I can think of - was with the Philharmonic itself last season. Zander asked him to return immediately, and it was soon obvious why.  The Russian Kaler has a kind of lightly muscular - perhaps the better word is wiry - sound that taps into a folk idiom we sometimes forget often underpins Tchaikovsky.  His is not a particularly singing line, but he brought the Concerto's romping third movement to a wickedly dancing conclusion.  (You can judge for yourself from a video of the young Kaler performing the same piece, below.)  I was surprised to discover that the Globe's Jeremy Eichler described this interpretation - which he saw in the first concert of the run (I saw the last) - as far too slow; unless the violinist suddenly speeded up his tempo, I find that claim bizarre.  Eichler also took time out to describe Kaler as "ursine."  Nice!  I've often felt the Globe's lead critic doesn't much care for music with hair on its chest - but I guess I just do!

A younger Ilya Kaler plays Tchaikovsky. Jeremy Eichler thinks this is waay too slow.

The concert concluded with Carl Nielsen's Fourth Symphony ("The Inextinguishable"), which my companion aptly described as "Zander-bait." The Nielsen Fourth is big, and loud, and has a soaring theme - the human spirit in time of war (it was composed during the dark years of the First World War, which Nielsen himself watched from the neutral precincts of Denmark). I confess I'm often slightly amused by this kind of thing - classical fans who smile at obvious program music (and Nielsen himself professed to hate it) always seem to go gaga if the composer changes his program from "the dying swan" to "the human spirit." And I wasn't completely convinced by the Fourth (admittedly, this is my first time through it live); it's over-complicated tonally without ever getting really interesting, and I feel there's a good deal of high-minded filler in it, too (of the "Will Mankind prevail??? Noooo - YES!!!" variety).

Still, you can't deny the Fourth is often effective in its idealistic passion - the opening movement sounds like a frenzied Brahms slowly cracking up, and there's a famous duel for timpani in the finale that shakes you like the artillery then blowing Europe apart; the soaring coda at the last moment is truly moving, too. And Zander, always a great shaper of large forces, kept the orchestra gloriously coherent throughout - with particular praise due to those convulsive timpanists, Edward Meltzer and Hans Morrison. Sometimes you can leave a concert unconvinced but still admiring, and that's how I left Zander's Nielsen that evening.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Coming this week

This weekend is a crowded one, stacked with major events, even for a season in full swing.  What I'm seeing: first, Trinity Rep's New England premiere of Bruce Norris's Pulitzer-winning Clybourne Park, down in Providence.  Trinity is coming off a strong production of His Girl Friday; hopefully they can keep the fire alive for Norris's sardonic extension of A Raisin in the Sun.

Then on Friday I'm off to Boston Baroque's season opener, Haydn's glorious The Creation.  The soloists I think could not be bettered - soprano Amanda Forsythe, tenor Keith Jameson, and especially bass-baritone Kevin Deas.  And of course the oratorio is one of the jewels in the crown of Western culture - a profound yet buoyant journey from primordial chaos to the garden of Eden - to the poignant moment, in fact, just before Adam and Eve taste the apple.

(I've got a social commitment on Saturday, btw, or I would have been able to juggle Boston Baroque with  Boston Early Music Festival's opener, Dame Emma Kirkby and lutenist Jakob Lindberg at First Congregational in Cambridge on Friday. Kirkby is by all reports a wonder; I'm sorry to be missing her.)

Then it's more music on Sunday - Opera Boston's season opener, Berlioz's Béatrice et Bénédict (based on - or simplified from - Shakespeare's Much Ado, of course). There's advance buzz for stars Julie Boulianne and Sean Panikkar, but I confess the real draw for me is director David Kneuss, a stalwart of the Met whose brilliant production of La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein was the best thing I've ever seen Opera Boston do. The company is also welcoming a new general director, Lesley Koenig, this year. The almost scarily-accomplished Koenig's last gig was at San Francisco Ballet - that went pretty well - could a new era be dawning at Opera Boston?  Check out Béatrice et Bénédict (it plays through Tuesday) and judge for yourself.

In my downtime, I'll be taking in "Dance/Draw" at the ICA, and working through another he said/he said exchange with Greg Cook regarding same. I even hope to make it up to the Peabody Essex to catch its show of the Hudson River School before it closes. And as always, of course, I'll tell everybody what I thought.

Re-collected stories

Liz Hayes and Bobbie Steinbach in Collected Stories.  Photo: Andrew Brilliant

Donald Margulies chose an old, simple tale for the spine of his two-hander Collected Stories. Perhaps you've heard it before - it goes something like:

Mother nurtures daughter; daughter betrays mother.  Mother decides to murder daughter.

I know; it's not the kind of thing you'd put on a Hallmark card.  But matricide and filicide (as well as plain old sororicide), savage as they may be, are always highly theatrical; they make you sit up and pay attention (just ask the Greeks).

But that savage edge is precisely what's missing from an otherwise thoughtful, finely shaded version of Collected Stories now playing at the New Rep.  So we're never quite on the edge of our seats.  The production has been directed subtly by Bridget Kathleen O'Leary, and features nuanced turns from local stars Bobbie Steinbach and Liz Hayes; and its physical production is superb.  But it's almost too nuanced; O'Leary doesn't seem to want the script to shake us; she wants instead to remind us that life is complicated, that everyone has his (or her) reasons, that our motives are never wholly good or wholly bad, etc. - the whole creative-writing-class how-to-create-a-complex-character lesson plan.

And these are all worthwhile strategies, of course.  Usually.  Certainly they have their place in any production of Collected Stories, which is rife with knowing details of Manhattan's boho literary set - right down to a reading at the 92nd St. Y.  But at bottom - and it's not so very far down - Collected Stories is a stripped-down saga of betrayal and revenge; it's a David Mamet 90-minute wonder set in the rumpled, humanist precincts of those addicted to the Sunday Times - and with an inscrutable lady villain straight outta Speed-the-Plow who this time is after one of her own gender.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Art for that other ten-year anniversary

Damian Cote,  Notice: There will be no parade for this war
It was somehow culturally telling that the tenth anniversary of 9/11 became a national obsession - while the same anniversary passed for the launch of the war in Afghanistan almost without comment, at least in the United States.  (Meanwhile, in-country, the Taliban marked the date by attacking four NATO bases.)

But several local artists, coordinated by Greg Cook of the New England Journal of Aesthetic Research, felt attention must be paid.  The resulting project - a set of banners hung from overpasses and bridges on October 7 - offered homage to those who gave their lives in the war while quietly subverting the attitudes that often come bundled with the yellow ribbons we tie around our oak trees.

Or was the project a comment on the fact that this time Americans weren't tying those ribbons around those oaks - that while nursing its 9/11 wounds, the nation was ignoring the wars it had launched in response to its injuries?  Cook is a new kind of activist-critic (he recently coordinated a small, funny insurrection at the MFA), as well as a self-confessed "yokelist," a reviewer of high art who's almost more deeply concerned with popular cultural expression (he's a dedicated and talented photographer of local festivals, parades and events).  So this kind of aesthetic Trojan Horse - a political critique couched in a populist cultural trope - seemed right up his alley.

Recently I asked him about the intriguing double meaning of the work.  Were the banners meant to whisper a hint of accusation as well as respect?

"The project was just a small assertion that we need to remember and pay attention to these continuing wars," Greg replied. "After weeks of reports and reminiscences around 9/11, look at the news: No mention of the 10th anniversary of the war. The front pages offer basically no mention of war at all."  [Indeed, President Obama marked the anniversary with merely a written statement, sans any public speech or appearance.]  "I think for Americans, 9/11 symbolizes how we spontaneously, heroically rose up in the face of a sudden, monumental tragedy. But the beginning of the Afghanistan War symbolizes the government's official response to that ambush and the record is so depressing, so unheroic that we want to forget it."

Ah, but there's the rub, and perhaps one reason why people want to forget the war - can you be a hero if your war was unheroic?   But Cook sees the honor going to the fallen, while the critique should go - well, somewhere else, probably further up the chain of command.  "After the quick routing of the Taliban, bin Laden escaped - and the Bush Administration turned its attention to Iraq - even as the Taliban regrouped," he explained.  "And so the war dragged on, and thousands more Americans died or were injured. Somewhere in there we also began to torture people. And so on.  The whole effort went so badly and became so morally suspect that now Americans just want it to disappear."

Damian Cote, Sgt. White We Missed You
Damian Cote was one of the artists participating in the project, hanging several banners (at left and top) from overpasses in the Boston area.  A veteran himself, Cote has been doing work like this for the past three years, hanging memorial banners across New England as well as points further south.  Until now he has worked almost anonymously, however - and he maintains little connection to the work once it is installed; indeed, Cote has never returned to most of the banners he has hung.  But he imagines they last a while, as they usually include a tribute to a fallen soldier.  "It is sort of a taboo to take down a welcome home banner for some one that is dead . . .  it's like vandalizing a grave," he notes.

And for Cote, his own anonymity reinforces the questioning intent of the banner.  "All my work is largely about propinquity - the nearness of space, time, family, religion, etc., all wrapped up in one experience.  Our lack of propinquity to terrible events is why we don't care about them. A starving kid dies every minute, but no one cares unless there is a strong connection to the event.  I don't want to make 'a statement,' I simply want to bring such a connection closer to home - just as if I were to take a starving kid and place him or her in your living room."

Yet he's realistic about the impact of the banners.  "In the end they quickly become noise or highway wallpaper to those that have already seen them," Cote sighs. "People forget them as soon as the next text message comes in."

"In fact, the person driving the car on the highway is likely to care more about the price of gas than the war in Afghanistan," he continues grimly. "They don't care about the people that have to be hurt or die in order to shave 65 cents off that price-per-gallon. They are mostly unaware.  As a future project, I would love to take the bodies of the dead from this war and hang them from the overpasses instead of banners," he adds with dark sarcasm.  "And the ones that have been only injured - I'd love to have them pump gas.  Now that would be propinquity."

And in the end, that might be what it takes to change the status quo, for the war grinds on, even if it's winding down; President Obama's current withdrawal plan - always under revision - means American troops will remain in harm's way till 2014. Which only exasperates Cook. "If our goal was to defeat Al Qaeda," he says, "that seems to have been mostly accomplished with the killing of Bin Laden [which occurred in a different country, of course - an ally, in fact]. But it seems now we also want at some level to stabilize Afghanistan. And if that's the goal, how will we ever be able to leave completely?"

Jill Slosburg-Ackerman and Marilyn Pappas, War is Over if You Want It

Farewell to Candide

Mary Zimmerman's definitive production of Candide gave its final performance yesterday at the Huntington, and you know the partner unit and I had to be there (it was our third time at the show).  So we were squeezed into the sold-out house one last time - along with several familiar faces; there were a lot of second- and third-timers at this performance.  And we all watched as the musical unfurled in just as fresh and magical a fashion as it had the first time around; I'm always amazed at how great actors can inhabit the same emotional material again and again and keep it thrillingly alive.  The show had edged slightly closer to farce, I thought - a natural event when you've got so many talented comedians in one company - but only slightly; the rueful romantic tone and the intellectual edge - along with the stunning theatrical sweep - were still there, too.  And the reduction of the score has grown on me the more I've heard it; I still missed the richness of the original version of the overture - but elsewhere the light, sweet instrumentation struck me as lovely, and perhaps more appropriate to Zimmerman's staging than a symphonic accompaniment would have been.

The chatter at intermission was, of course, about a possible Broadway transfer - which most people assume, from the stunning quality of the production, is already a done deal.  But beyond a little gossip about the Roundabout, there seems to be little fresh news on that front.  Can New York possibly pass this up?  It seems incredible, but that's where it stands right now.

So perhaps yesterday was the last time I'll ever see this version of Candide.  The performance closed with one unexpected flourish, however.  At previous shows, I've always been struck by the lack of any repeated curtain calls (the audience was always cheering well after the actors left the stage); I assumed this disciplined abbreviation was intended as one last extension of Zimmerman's emphasis on ensemble and community.

But on Sunday afternoon, the crowd just wouldn't stop cheering.  The lights went up, the doors opened, but people wouldn't leave; they just stood there, clapping and hollering and stamping their feet.  In fact as minutes ticked by, the noise only got louder; we weren't going to let these people go.  Finally, the actors staggered out, looking delighted but not quite certain what to do.  For a moment they milled onstage, laughing and hugging; Geoff Packard (Candide) looked near tears.  Then they joined hands in a rough line, and there was one more charmingly awkward group bow.  People waved good-bye, from both the stage and the house.

And then, finally, it was really over.  My partner and I looked at each other.  "Well," he said, "it still might play in New York, and that's not very far away."

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Two "must-sees" close this weekend

The two are: Candide at the Huntington, and The Speaker's Progress at ArtsEmerson.  Candide is a kind of masterpiece reborn; a truly incredible cast - led by the unbelievable Lauren Molina and Geoff Packard (at left), under the inspired direction of Mary Zimmerman, solve every problem in this famously problematic musical - which boasts one of Leonard Bernstein's greatest, deepest scores.

Meanwhile The Speaker's Progress - a brilliant re-working of Twelfth Night in the heady milieu of the Arab Spring - is a dazzling sketch by the man who may be the next Peter Brook, Sulayman Al-Bassam.  One thing I'm sure of is that Zimmerman and Al-Bassam are two of the greatest directors on the planet today; whether you choose one's definitive renovation or the other's breathless, up-to-the-minute re-interpretation, be sure to catch at least one of these stunning productions before Sunday.

Is New York the new Peoria?

This is just a quick post to note a trend that I think many of us have been conscious of for a long time, and that can be summed up in the following question: Has New York become the new Peoria?  It used to be that Broadway was the source of theatrical culture - but these days it's more like the last stop, the site of final ratification of cultural touchstones perfected elsewhere.  Musicals are probably the exception - but even hits like The Book of Mormon feel like re-formulations of cultural ideas long incubated in Chicago, L.A., or some other city; they're familiar even at their premieres.  And it seems many, if not most, of the game-changing "New York productions" of the past two decades (Angels in America, Intelligent Homosexual's Guide, The Seafarer, August: Osage County, War Horse) were actually imports.  Even musicals like The Drowsy Chaperone came from Canada.  (Canada!) And it seems people suddenly pretty much accept, after this summer's RSC occupation of the Arsenal, that New York has to import great Shakespeare - and solid productions of the rest of the classics are hardly staples of the Big Apple, either . . .

This is all top-of-mind today because as I looked over a current list of New York's most-lauded productions, I couldn't help but notice how familiar most of them sounded.  Les 7 Doigts de la Main, for example, are earning raves for Traces - only Boston audiences are already quite familiar with this brilliant new Canadian circus troupe; we've seen them twice. Sleep No More was a sleeper hit here (as it was in the UK) before it opened in New York. Likewise War Horse arrived in Manhattan from London.  And I saw Freud's Last Session out in the Berkshires last summer.  As for the leading edge in performance in the Five Boroughs, it's also indebted to the national and international circuit: these days Boston gets the latest just a week after the Brooklyn Academy of Music does (at ArtsEmerson).  Yes, I'm afraid these days BAM is often merely another tour stop, just like Boston is!  Of course plays still flow from the Broadway and Off-Broadway fonts, to our smaller regionals, every year.  But the general rule now seems to be: minor work flows out of Manhattan, major work flows in.

When will the popular conception of New York catch up with the reality, I wonder?  Perhaps never - New York is still, in absolute terms, the center of theatrical production - and theatrical money - in this country.  Yet for some reason that money doesn't lead to a corresponding theatrical edge.  And people may begin to slowly notice this strange inversion in the cultural climate; these kinds of things often sneak up on the national consciousness, and then suddenly become the new conventional wisdom overnight.  You can already feel the pronounced lack of interest in the classic national Broadway tour (which is often just re-heated regional work, anyhow).  How long before people recognize that New York is no longer the source of our theatrical culture, but rather its final resting place?

Friday, October 14, 2011

Shadows of modern romance

A tableau on the Isle of the Dead.  Photo: Gary Sloan.
José Mateo remains as dependable as ever.  His latest program, "Broken Shadows," (at the Sanctuary Theatre, near Harvard Square, through October 30) offers another tasty course of his specialty: that exquisite cross between modern dance and ballet which Balanchine brought to its highest pitch - and which has begun to fall from favor among the new generation of choreographers.  But if the dance world has moved on from the style, Mateo still remains a true believer; and he has carved out, over the past few decades, a personal artistic niche with a body of work that preserves and personalizes the Balanchine tradition.

Now as Hub Review readers are aware, I'm a huge Balanchine fan - to me, he's the Shakespeare of dance; no other choreographic talent, however great, even comes close.  So the fact that Mateo moves and intrigues me counts for a lot.  He clearly operates in the shadow of Mr. B., but Mateo's a little warmer, a little broader, a little more sensual; if Balanchine sometimes seemed to torture the dancer's body from a cool distance, Mateo always seems to hold that body close.  He's a formalist of a kind - certainly there's an intellectual structure to what he does; but in his heart, you can tell Mateo is basically a fan of old-fashioned balletic passion.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Spring awakening; or, Malvolio as mullah

Nassar Al Nassar and Faisal Al Ameeri grove with Shakespeare's Lord of Misrule.
As Rodgers and Hammerstein might have said, the Arab Spring is bustin' out all over - we just saw the intriguing Persian Quarter take a bow at Merrimack, and right now, downtown, Occupy Boston is showing what may be the green shoots of an "American Spring" (okay, an "American Fall" - an interesting double entendre; let's hope metaphorically that it's spring!).

And now we have, from Arts Emerson, the best news (artistically speaking) of all - SABAB Theatre's The Speaker's Progress (through this weekend only), a brilliant translation and transposition of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night into the milieu of the Arab world.  Written and directed by the Kuwait-born - but I think Edinburgh-educated - Sulayman Al-Bassam (note his company's name looks like an anagram of his own), the production dazzled last night at its local premiere, leaving its audience haunted and moved, if, it seemed, slightly puzzled: a talkback after the performance proved a disaster, with WBUR radio host Tom Ashbrook cluelessly wondering "Who is this production for?" while confused ladies in the audience demanded "Tell us what the ending meant!"  (It was a poignant demonstration of the limits of philistine good intentions.)

Meanwhile I felt as if a dozen windows had been blown open in my mind, and I'm quite sure that The Speaker's Progress is the most important event (in intellectual terms) of the theatrical year.  Which isn't to say it's a masterpiece; in fact, it starts slowly, and in places it's a mess.  Nor is it a fully legitimate interpretation of Twelfth Night; the Bard's classic comedy is merely a springboard for Al-Bassam's inspired theatrical sketches - although fair warning: as the author-director (and lead actor) dips into Twelfth Night at will, if you don't have at least a working knowledge of the play, much of The Speaker's Progress may prove frustratingly opaque to you.

Malvolio as mullah, and madness as modernity - the wonderful Fayez Kazak.
If you do, though - and if you don't mind listening to iambic pentameter translated into the seductive cadences of Arabic (don't worry, there are subtitles) - I promise you the kind of elevated entertainment we rarely see in these parts. In fact, I can't think of any production I've ever seen in America that matches the superbly casual, sophisticated charm that The Speaker's Progress boasts at its best (the acting of the SABAB company is its own small-scaled miracle).

And there's another dimension to the production which is difficult to explain, and which you'll just have to take from me on faith: Al-Bassam is already moving in the international-theatre circles of figures like Peter Brook, and he strikes me - admittedly on just a single exposure - as being, indeed, at that level of cultural importance.  (So remember the name of this Arab Orson Welles, you're going to hear it again.)  The Speaker's Progress is not, as I said, a consistent success as an interpretation of Shakespeare - and yet somehow you realize that nonetheless it's operating at something like Shakespeare's level.  Which I've never felt in any Boston production of the Bard before, not in thirty years of theatre-going.  (Plus this is only the end of a whole trilogy, it turns out, of Al-Bassam's meditations on Shakespeare, which I'm now dying to see.)

Understandably enough, SABAB's version of Twelfth Night focuses on the political struggle embedded in the play. Here Malvolio has been translated from a Puritan into a mullah, and Viola operates as a dangerously seductive image of gender subversion; and the "madness" into which the action tips is confused with "modernity."  Meanwhile Feste is a blinded wanderer (more from Lear than Twelfth Night, if you ask me) who sings on a desolate shore, and Orsino's sexism turns genuinely murderous by the play's finish.  The production's over-arching conceit is that it's being presented as a kind of show trial - the eponymous Speaker (fluidly played by Al-Bassam himself), a former director of renown, has restaged a famous production from the 60's to decry and denounce it (while censors watch from security cameras, and buzzers go off whenever a man and a woman brush each other on stage).  Needless to say, however, the poetic force of Shakespeare won't be denied, and the censors eventually prove powerless before the challenge to authority that the text represents.  (That it represents to even its own authority, it seems - The Speaker's Progress morphs relentlessly, as if to keep up with current events.)

Something has to be said aloud, however, about the production - it's obvious, from its style as well as its text, that The Speaker's Progress was inspired by - indeed, has "appropriated" much of the conceptual basis of - the Wooster Group's widely-noted Hamlet from a few years back (which likewise "excavated" a famous production of Shakespeare from the 60's).  Does this turn Al-Bassam into the avant-garde equivalent of Beyoncé? Hardly. Al-Bassam should, of course, always acknowledge his sources - but, as I argued just the other day, there are contexts in which even the most blatant borrowing is legitimate, and Al-Bassam all but soars over that bar, as he translates and transforms his material into a new context with skill and insight.

How are we to live?  The luminous Amal Omran and Carole Abboud as Viola and Olivia.
And as pure political theatre, Progress is often an intoxicating thrill - it breathes with the bracing air of inspired revision on the fly (Al-Bassam rewrote, and his company rehearsed, as the Arab Spring unfolded around them).  Which may be one reason why it operates as the antithesis of agitprop.  Instead, it's political theatre as it always should be - questing, open-ended, and humane, with a sweet, almost-erotic edge.  (This is political theatre drained of the bitterness of Brecht; it's meant to overturn and simultaneously extend civilization.)  The text's mystifying finish, for instance, left me wanting to dance in the aisles as I pondered its ramifications: Al-Bassam closes with the basic question "How are we to live?," which is the query every revolution eventually raises.  Only no wonder such a quixotic finish confused the earnest ladies in the audience!  Americans can't even think that way anymore; we're unable to articulate our own political dilemmas (which are really not so far from those of the Middle East).  And if you imagine our own political theatre is particularly "free," then you haven't been paying attention -  it's abundantly clear the only existential question we're allowed to ponder anymore is "What should I buy next?"

Indeed, it's hard these days not to be humbled by the cultural ferment in the Middle East, isn't it.  Democracy is more important to the Arabs then it is to us - obviously - and here they are showing us how to approach our own greatest playwright, to boot.  Which made the gently patronizing questions from Tom Ashbrook all the more irritating - he didn't seem to realize that in this production we were encountering our moral and artistic superiors.  Who is this production for?  It's for all of us, Mr. Ashbrook, both East and West.