Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The return - and last bow - of a classic

Whitney Jensen sails through the Waltz of the Flowers.  Photos: Gene Schiavone.

I'm not sure I have anything left to say about The Nutcracker. I'm not sure anybody does. But as I settled into my seat to catch the first night of Boston Ballet's annual edition, I looked forward to its familiar pleasures just as I always do.   Does the Ballet do this holiday classic up right?  Yes, most definitely, and I'm not alone in that opinion - judging from online polls, it's the most popular Nutcracker in the country.  Which really should come as no surprise, given artistic director Mikko Nissinen has taken great care to pack as much entertainment value as he can into his company's big moneymaker - indeed, at times it feels almost overstuffed, a kind of holiday behemoth with something for everyone.

You could argue, I suppose, that some versions are cleaner and more coherent - often because they've recruited an adult Clara, which allows for more narrative dancing in the second half.  And indeed, the Boston Ballet edition is not so much an artistic statement as an extravaganza; it lurches occasionally in its narrative, and swings from fantasy to romance to comedy at the drop of a snowflake.  But who cares?  The kids always laugh at the mechanical mouse, and Dad always wakes up when the sylph of the "Arabian" dance begins her barely-PG contortions, while Mom just finds everything adorable; and I'm not going to argue with any of them.

Alas, a few of this elaborate production's tricks didn't quite come off on opening night; a magic handkerchief went rogue, for instance, briefly entangling Sabi Varga's spooky, sexy Drosselmeier.  So maybe it's a good thing the sets and costumes are being "retired," bright and bold as they are - in case you haven't heard, this year is your last chance to see them.  And you should, of course, because they're charming in a deliciously high, fantastical key - but something tells me next year's edition will be charming, too (never fear, my inside sources assure me the production will remain traditional - you can see an initial sketch of the possibilities at www.bostonballet.org/nutcracker2012).  So you should probably see the show this year and next, just like I do.

Indeed, watching the production play out over time has turned out to be the best way for me to assess the growth of the Ballet's general technical ability. By now, however, the bench of talent has grown so deep and so wide that it may have outgrown this particular yardstick.  To be honest, the second act is now one long stretch of technical prowess - every one of Tchaikovsky's divertissements seems to have its own expert interpreter.  Indeed, as the dancers parade into the Kingdom of Sweets at the top of the act, you could be forgiven for feeling slightly stunned.   We've already met mainstays James Whiteside, Lia Cirio, and Misa Kuranaga - but then Rie Ichikawa, Kathleen Breen Combes, Lasha Khozashvili, Adiarys Almeida, Joseph Gatti, Jeffrey Cirio, and Whitney Jensen file through, along with many others - the great dancers just keep coming and coming, until they fill the stage.

Lia Cirio (the Sugar Plum Fairy) guides Rachel Harrison (Clara) through the Kingdom of Sweets.

There were incremental steps forward evident for some younger members of the company, too.  The up-and-coming Paolo Arrais, for instance, who dazzled us as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, unexpectedly had to step in for John Lam as the Snow King - and dazzled us all over again.  And somehow Isaac Akiba's leaps during his "Russian" dance had a lyricism this time around they've lacked before; Akiba has always been a great athlete, but now I could feel real emotion moving beneath his sunny ability; he's becoming a great dancer, too.  Lawrence Rines likewise made a solid impression as a loose-limbed Harlequin, against Dalay Parrondo's reliably precise Columbine.  And the very youngest members of the cast - the children - all performed with dedication and charm, while Rachel Harrison (above, with Lia Cirio) made a sweetly poised Clara.

Down in the pit, conductor Jonathan McPhee gave what may be the longest stretch of memorable melody in existence his usual vigorous shape, although as in Romeo and Juliet, I'm afraid there was roughness in the horns here and there.  Still, principal trumpet Bruce Hall came through with a gleamingly confident solo in the "Spanish" dance that seemed to almost sum up the virtues of this much-loved version - dazzling show-biz brio, a solid sense of fun, and dancing chops to die for.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Janet Echelman's world-wide webs at Northeastern



In these networked days, it's no surprise that literal nets have become an artform unto themselves - and the artist who has made them resonate best as public art is probably Janet Echelman, whose wonderful 160-foot wide project, She Changes (above) brilliantly transformed a traffic circle along the coast of Portugal into a meditation on the sea and wind. Ms. Echelman first drew her inspiration from fishermen's nets, but now she's gone all high-tech, and her installations are in demand all over the world.  And I'd certainly say there are barren public spaces in our own "Windy City" that could be enlivened by her brand of floating magic (as long as it can withstand a strong nor'eatster, that is).  At any rate, you can get to know the artist a little better this Thursday night at Northeastern University, where she will be speaking in the Raytheon Amphitheater at 5:00 PM, as part of the Presidential Speaker Series, Profiles in Innovation. The event will be also be streamed live on facebook.com/northeastern and via the university's homepage, northeastern.edu.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Ok, everybody's a critic - only Michael Kaiser is a really bad one! (And you can be a better one.)

Sorry, I know it's wrong to make fun of people with mental challenges, but I can't resist the temptation to pile onto Michael Kaiser (who is, I can barely believe, a graduate of my own alma mater, MIT!), after he has been all but buried under a heap of ridicule for this truly block-headed cri de coeur on the Huffington Post. In that by-now-infamous whine, Kaiser lamented the demise of the professional critic, and found the rise of reviewing on the Internet "a scary trend."  (Included in that trend were not only bloggers like moi, but also frequenters of chat rooms, people who write for "professional" websites like Broadway World, and even folks who praise or diss shows they've seen on the producing theatres' own websites.)  In essence, Kaiser worried that without paid critics offering the public guidance, "art that appeals to the lowest common denominator will always be deemed the best."

And you know, at first glance, that sounds like an argument, I suppose.  But only at first glance.  The fact that it has been posted on a website that does not pay its authors should, I think, be the first amusing signal that all's not right with Kaiser's analysis.  (For in effect, he's arguing against his own forum, isn't he?)  And then one has to wonder - exactly what Golden Age of Professional Criticism is he referring to?  There has never been a moment (in my lifetime, at least) in which print critics in Boston were leading any kind of intellectual charge for any kind of theatre - much less proffering complex arguments of any real artistic discernment.  In New York - yes, a bit; but honestly only from a handful of people, who were wrong almost as often as they were right.  I suppose there were a few glimmers of critical ability in Chicago and on the West Coast over the years; and I know some folks cling to Theatre of Revolt as an example of engaged criticism - although to me, Robert Brustein's own checkered theatrical career kind of undermines that argument; but hey, I'll throw his fans a bone - one book, fifty years ago.   And Frank Rich was a smart guy with a sharp, upper-middle-brow eye.  But all in all, I'm inclined to say:

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Tonight, tonight



By now the annual Boston Early Music Festival chamber opera production qualifies as an "event." And that event is tonight (above is the promo video, which gives you some sense of the intelligent stagings and high musical standards at BEMF). This year the selection(s) are a double bill of Charpentier's La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers and La Couronne de Fleurs (from a text by Molière). Tonight and tomorrow only.  (It's probably sold out, but who knows, you may have a shot.)  And I'm hearing more music tomorrow, btw, in a different key - the wonderful Fats Waller musical Ain't Misbehavin' at the Lyric Stage.  You'll hear all about both over the coming week, along with (I hope) my thoughts on Dance/Draw at the ICA, George Clooney's new flick The Descendants, and, you know, other stuff.

Captors at the Huntington


I didn't think it was possible to write a boring play about Adolf Eichmann.

Nevertheless, fledgling playwright Evan M. Wiener has managed to do it, and the Huntington has staged it with all the trimmings, under the guidance of artistic director Peter DuBois.  If you doubt me as to its tedium, go ahead and sit through Captors (through Dec. 11) - but seriously, you're better off staying home and reading Hannah Arendt, on whose work Weiner's derivative ramblings are merely a thin theatrical gloss.

Does that sound harsh?  I think I'm actually going easy on Wiener; he practically obscures Arendt, I'd argue.  But then the real source of Captors is not the great Eichmann in Jerusalem but rather the lesser Eichmann in My Hands, a first-hand account of the fugitive war criminal's 1960 capture in Argentina by Peter Z. Malkin ("as told to" Harry Stein).  Malkin was on the Israeli team that nabbed the Nazi, and his book essentially covers the ten days during which the kidnappers hunkered down in their safe house, to devise both an exit strategy and a disguise for their captive - all while simultaneously attempting to cajole (or threaten) him into signing a paper agreeing to his extradition and trial.

The eventual bestowal of that signature is one of the script's two small-scaled, but genuine, dramatic coups (the other occurs when Eichmann answers his guilt in the killing of children with the horrifying line - straight from Malkin's book - "But they were Jewish, weren't they?").  To some, these small shudders - created almost entirely by Michael Cristofer, in a striking performance as Eichmann (below) - may be enough to justify the evening, but all I can say is they're a long time coming; both occur about two hours into the play, and neither counts as a revelation.  And I think it's worth noting that Malkin's (and Stein's, and Wiener's) account of how that key signature was obtained is widely contested.  In Captors, Eichmann's pride seduces him into signing his own death warrant; but while one reading of his character lends some support to this idea, more worldly-wise historians think Eichmann only signed on the dotted line once a gun (or its equivalent) had been held to his head.  (For tellingly, despite that signature, Eichmann had to be sedated to the edge of consciousness before he could be hustled out of the country.)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Five years and counting . . .

A scene from last year's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

It's that time of year again - so here's a sincere wish for a Happy Thanksgiving from me to you.

I also thought it was worth noting (in passing) that this is the fifth Thanksgiving for the Hub Review. Yes, on November 15, 2006, under the banner "Welcome to the Hub Review," I posted the following:

You've found it - the only site devoted to Boston (high) culture that tries to cover everything that matters (at least to me). Yes, I'm elitist. Yes, I'm gay. If you don't like either of those things, there are plenty of middlebrow-religious-hetero sites around to tickle your fancy. So get outta here and go crazy. Just don't whine that my standards are too high or that I'm a pervert threatening the arts or what have you. 'Cause I don't put up with that you-know-what.

As you can see, the tone was there right from the start.  I think that post had about twenty readers - basically, my close friends and the folks at the office who knew I'd begun blogging.  Now I reach about forty or fifty times that many - still a small audience, but a pivotal one, I believe.

Or at least a lot of people seem to think so.  For this has been a rough year, frankly, for the Hub Review - I've always gotten personal threats, but for the past two years or so there was a concerted effort afoot to silence me from various powers-that-be on the local scene - an effort which came to a head last spring.  Things looked pretty dark for a while; but it turned out I had plenty of supporters, too.  (I think the most common thing I heard from readers this year was, "I don't always agree with you, but you're the only real critic Boston has.")  So I hung in there, and rest assured, things seem to have turned a corner - I'm still here, and hope to be so for the foreseeable future, with, perhaps, more influence than ever.  And at least I think that's something to be thankful for.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Another sublime afternoon with Uncle Itzhak

Perlman in action in New York.
I came to Itzhak Perlman's Celebrity Series appearance at Symphony Hall last weekend after a series of disappointing experiences at the theatre, and so the concert felt like a long, wonderful wash of aesthetic balm. I think by now Mr. Perlman needs no introduction; the virtuosity of his musicianship is pretty much an accepted fact.  (And perhaps it's some consolation, I think, in these days of decay and dissolution, to remember that there are still a few things on which we can all agree.)

Indeed, every time I've heard Perlman play, the same awed, grateful sensation seemed to ripple through the crowd as soon as his bow touched his instrument's strings. The only thing I can compare the moment to is the lighting of a candle in a darkened room; at once the entire hall is always stilled, as the separate attentions of thousands of people become focused on a single, sublime sensation emanating from the graying, bespectacled man and his violin.  Sometimes I think that as long as we're awed by superb technique, we can still call ourselves human.  (So how we'll hang onto our humanity after we've lost Itzhak Perlman I've no idea.)

Of course Perlman has his critics (the Globe's Jeremy Eichler among them) who are perhaps disturbed by the fact that he has long since become the star of his concerts; indeed, the music he plays is almost incidental; he could play "Mary Had a Little Lamb," and still fill Symphony Hall.  The virtuoso himself is obviously aware of this - although it must be added, he wears his stardom lightly.  He's hardly a diva - instead, Perlman has the dry warmth of that witty uncle who knows better than to take himself (or his music) too seriously - or rather too self-seriously.  Or at least that's the kind of affectionate avuncularity he manages to project as he runs through his encores - many of them simple showpieces by the likes of Kreisler - whom Perlman himself mocks lightly from the stage.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Short Cuts: Jumping off The Balcony with The Divine Sister

A tech rehearsal for The Balcony.

In his program notes to The Balcony (which closed last weekend at Boston Conservatory), director John Kuntz tells us that he attempted to approach Jean Genet's masterpiece as if it were "a brand new play." But I got the feeling as I watched the production that what he really meant to say was "a brand new play - by me."

For Kuntz tarts up Genet with many of his own tricks - there's a lot of processed sexual sugar and (of course) plush stuffed animals on this Balcony, along with all manner of cutesy "perversity."  In one long sequence, a deadpan dominatrix smashes eggs over every inch of a hot young dude in a snug, yolk-yellow speedo.  Later we get a dance by a "furry" in what looks like "beaver" drag. (Uh-huh.)  These extended fantasies have scant foundation in the finished text (although Kuntz points to early sketches of the play as justification for his directorial antics - of course Genet rewrote those early versions, but never mind).  But a few bits are at first diverting, and at any rate the production boasts a dazzling level of design and technical bravura (the production team included Cristina Todesco, set; Jeff Adelberg, lights; Gail Astrid Buckley, costumes; Jeff Maynard, video; and David Reiffel, sound, all of them working at the top of their respective forms).  Kuntz is playing here with many more toys than he's ever been able to deploy in one of his own plays - and is clearly having the time of his life.

All this would be fine, of course, if we were, too. But we're not; gradually The Balcony proved a bore, despite all the fresh, nubile flesh on display.  And it wasn't hard to tell why.  Kuntz is a talented playwright in his own right, but basically he's a paranoid hedonist - while Genet is a kind of existential sadist.  If Kuntz is about moral escape, then Genet is about moral contradiction - but contradiction as vise, as trap.  As the seeming co-authors of this production, they basically talk past each other.

And the distance between them plays out right through the production concept. Kuntz re-imagines Genet's notorious bordello, where customers play at power figures like judges and bishops, as some sort of new-media sound-stage/panopticon (at top) - which has been brilliantly realized by the designers.   So brilliantly, in fact, that at times the technical cues alone hold our attention.  And the TV studio, and pop in general, is Kuntz's home territory; the mix of glee and dread with which he regards them is effectively his artistic signature.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth

Aimee Rose Ranger in Dogg's Hamlet
I'm late with my thoughts on Whistler in the Dark's double bill of Tom Stoppard's Dogg's Hamlet and Cahoot's Macbeth, which has been "occupying" the BCA Black Box (in repertory with Imaginary Beast's Macbett) the last few weeks. In fact I think there's only one show left, today - so you still have a few minutes to catch it - which you should.

Perhaps I've been dragging my feet because the Whistlers are always telling me they're looking forward to what I'm going to say about their current show, good or bad.  And I kind of half-believe them.  I've always thought they were smart; now (oddly enough) they think I'm smart, too!  And there's so much to unpack in Dogg's and Cahoot's!  It's so tiring.  Luckily, I hear they've been getting good houses, so they didn't really need the Hub Review for publicity; after five years of reviews from fans like me (at one of their shows I was literally the only person in the audience), they have finally been "discovered" by the print and radio critics as a "brand new company!"  Uh-huh; whatever; it's still a good thing.

And duty calls, so here goes nothing (I can't disappoint the Whistlers, can I?). Dogg and Cahoot's are basically an intertwined meditation on Wittgenstein and rebellion.  The great Austrian philosopher, of course, is one of the towering intellectual figures of the twentieth century - despite a very slim published output; and one of his obsessions was the relationship between mental representation, the world itself (if you will), and the mechanics of language.  Dogg's Hamlet was conceived when Stoppard came upon one of the master's discussions in which he posited that separate gangs of workmen who spoke different languages could quite easily cooperate as long as words like "plank" and "slab" had a consistent (and serendipitous) linguistic correlation for both groups.  For instance, if in one language, "plank" meant, well, "plank," but in the correlated language it meant "Next!," the men could easily get on with their work, yelling their monosyllabic instructions to each other, unaware that the mental representations in their respective heads were actually completely different.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Not-so-simple gifts

Whitney V. Hunter in Angel Reapers.
Angel Reapers, the new meditation on the Shakers by choreographer Martha Clarke, playwright Alfred Uhry, and music director Arthur Solari (through this weekend at ArtsEmerson), opens with a transcendent theatrical coup: a religious community gathers onstage (men and women separate but facing each other), and then gently begins to giggle.  The giggles turn to laughter, then guffaws, as something like pure, pointless, child-like joy briefly tingles in the air; and then, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, the community, now a congregation, launches seamlessly into a hymn.  Joy; music; God.  The equation is as simple as a Shaker chair.

This proves to be only the first of many such magical moments conjured by Clarke's choreography (which only occasionally aligns with the Shakers' distinctive dances), all of which are supported by exquisite singing (impeccably arranged and conducted by Solari).

But it's probably the last time we connect with the sense of pure joy many of us associate with the Shakers; again and again, Angel Reapers proffers not only their simple gifts, but complex metaphors regarding the underside of their celibate existence - all conveyed via a nearly perfect meld of movement and music.

The string on which these jewels are strung, however, is only just adequate to hold them together; playwright Uhry's contribution proves so slight and episodic that we feel a deeper potential moving in the material than has so far been unlocked (and we often need the program to figure out who's who).  We can make out a rough story line in the performance - a couple falls in love, and are forced to leave the sect; meanwhile Shaker founder Mother Ann Lee (the luminous Birgitt Huppuch) emerges as the central figure in other vignettes, many of them fraught with conflict. For while spiritual ecstasy is encouraged by this pale, pure matriarch, natural desires are denied; tensions in the community thus inevitably rise, the sect comes to depend on the destitute and the orphaned (along with hired hands), and critics and apostates attack on every side - even as a strange sense of deep perversity (the men begin to dance naked in the woods!) gradually pervades the community's shared sense of innocence.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Macbeth remixed

Nate Gundy as "Banco" in Macbett.  Photo: Nancy lasBarrone.

We may not have seen an actual production of Macbeth in, well, years, but two of the play's derivatives have been on the boards this season - first the Verdi version, from Boston Lyric Opera, and now Ionesco's absurdist Macbett, from Imaginary Beasts at the BCA (through this weekend).

Although to be honest, Ionesco doesn't so much derive from his Shakespearean source as attack it; at the bottom of the Bard's arguably-darkest tragedy, Ionesco still perceives an essentially naive, romantic illusion regarding personal moral dimension - which he ruthlessly dismantles.  In Macbett, the hero's royal victim, Duncan, is himself a slime bag, and half-mad to boot (and the incoming heir to the throne seems just just as bad).  Indeed, everyone in the play is corrupt, or will soon be corrupted.  Power is the only morality, while ideas like "destiny" are just a cheap trap for the gullible (Ionesco's "witches" are merely tricksters- indeed, maybe they're only Missus Macbett in disguise!).  Thus "tragedy," at least as Shakespeare defined it, does not, and cannot, exist.

Now I'm not going to argue any of these ideas in the abstract - for in the end, Ionesco is only re-iterating a point that the ravages of the twentieth century seem to have already  made for him.  But I will argue, however, that the playwright doesn't seem able to sustain this point through two acts of a satire which feels quite a bit longer than its source.  Indeed, Macbeth towers over Macbett, which rambles, and gets a bit repetitive and convoluted, and yet doesn't achieve anything like the depth that Beckett conjured through the (seemingly similar) repetitions of Waiting for Godot.  Instead, despite a few inspired episodes, you can slowly feel the theatrical equivalent of the Law of Diminishing Returns kicking in for Ionesco, even as he gropes for a dramaturgical exit. So maybe there's something to be said for naive, romantic illusion -  at least in this example of the Theatre of the Absurd, the joke in the end seems to be on the audience.

Which isn't to say that the current, clever production from Imaginary Beasts doesn't have its compensations.  There are two particularly strong performances here, from fringe stalwarts Joey Pelletier (as Duncan) and Scott Sweatt (as Macbett), that are probably the best things either actor has done in some time (even if both get a little shouty - in the BCA Black Box we're only five feet away, guys).  Pelletier brings a sharp, sallow wit to Duncan's sleazy shenanigans, while Sweatt becomes a compellingly perverse Macbett once he has tasted power; indeed, his gleeful kissing of the corrupting crown is one of the most disturbing things I've seen onstage in some time.

The rest of the cast is strong, but not quite as distinctive - although intriguing turns come from Nate Gundy (above) and Kiki Samko.  In an Imaginary Beasts show, however, actor intention and achievement are always a complicated thing to parse, because the troupe's signature style of movement and imagery, devised by director Matthew Woods, often takes center stage.  Here, this is sometimes a blessing, but also occasionally a curse - for while it's true Ionesco is sometimes imagistic, in Macbett, well, not so much; here the dramatic mode is more often blunt, even brutal, simplicity.  And so Woods' signature style of evocative (yet inevitably artificial) movement can feel a little forced.

Still, the director does score several visual coups - the first appearance of the cast in body bags, and the transformation of the Macbetts into a life-size Punch and Judy, were both particularly apt, and the physical production, which seems balanced between a British pantomime and a Kurosawa movie, is filled with striking touches (like Macbett's samurai-by-way-of-Princess-Padme make-up) that stick with you well after the final curtain.  Students of Ionesco - or simply students of intelligent, exploratory theatre - will find much to admire in this stimulating production of a flawed, but intriguing, play.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

It's once again time for high art to meet sports porn in . . .

What do you want from me, it's football season!
People sometimes ask me, "Why do you always have to post dirty pictures of hot guys (that's Vince Ramos above, btw) with the Hubbie Awards?  I'm like totally embarrassed to tell my mother about my award!" To which I can only answer, "If you have to ask about the dirty pictures of the hot guys on the Hub Review, then you haven't been paying attention."  And honey, there's nothing on this blog that your mother doesn't already know.

Now it has been a while since the last edition of the Hubbies, and my attention has been somewhat divided of late between the music, art and dance scenes, so I'm afraid there have been achievements in the theatre this fall that will go un-recorded here.  But that's no reason not to celebrate what has been achieved and can be recorded, is it?  True, the season has been up and down so far, but we've been lucky to have experienced two world-class visiting productions, Candide at the Huntington, and The Speaker's Progress at ArtsEmerson - although I'm afraid we've also been subjected to a pretty high level of pseudo-intellectual dross (from the usual suspects - attended by the usual cheers from ditto).  But let's not think about that now!  Let's remember instead that the New Rep seems to have survived Kate Warner's disappointing tenure, and that the fringe is bubbling along with more energy than ever - they're getting more organized, and every now and then, the print critics actually deign to write about them!

Which are good enough reasons, I think, to tell ourselves that the glass is half full, not half empty. And what better way to do that than to look back at the best acting, singing, direction and design from the past few months?

So without further ado - and in no particular order -

Geoff Packard and members of the ensemble in Candide.

Best Ensembles

Candide - Geoff Packard, Lauren Molina, Larry Yando, Cheryl Stern, Erik Lochtefeld, Jesse Perez, Timothy John Smith, McCaela Donovan, Tom Aulino, Spencer Curnutt, Alexander Elisa, Rebecca Finnegan, Evan Harrington, Abby Mueller, Jeff Parker, Emma Rosenthal, Joey Stone, Tempe Thomas, Travis Turner, Tom Hamlett and Shonna McEachern, directed by Mary Zimmerman, Huntington Theatre.

Clybourne Park - Timothy Crowe, Tommy Dickie, Mia Ellis, Mauro Hantman, Anne Scurria, Rachael Warren, Joe Wilson, Jr., directed by Brian Mertes, Trinity Rep.

The Speaker's Progress - Sulayman Al-Bassam, Amal Omran, Carole Abboud, Fayez Kazak, Nassar al Nassar, Faisal Al Ameeri, Nicolas Daniel, Nowar Yousef, directed by Sulayman Al-Bassam, ArtsEmerson.

Trout Stanley - Becky Webber, Kathryn Lynch, Sean George, directed by Louise Richards, Exquisite Corps.

Fayez Kazak in Speaker's Progress
Best Performances in a Drama

Alycia Sacco - Arcadia, Bad Habit Productions.

Gabriel Kuttner - Love Song, Orfeo Group.

Mal Malme - The T Plays, Mill 6 Collaborative.

Beth Wittig, Christina Pumariega - The Persian Quarter, Merrimack Rep.

Joey Pelletier, Scott Sweatt - Macbett, Imaginary Beasts.

Nate Gundy, Aimee Rose Ranger - Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth, Whistler in the Dark.

Fred Sullivan, Angela Brazil - His Girl Friday, Trinity Rep.

Liz Hayes - Collected Stories, New Rep.

Amelia Broome, Robert Walsh - Next Fall, SpeakEasy Stage.

Gordon Clapp - This Verse Business, Merrimack Rep.


Best Performances in a Musical

Lisa O'Hare, Hayden Tee, Sarah deLima - My Fair Lady, North Shore Music Theatre.

Aimee Doherty, Leigh Barrett - And the World Goes 'Round, New Repertory Theatre.

Kate Fisher - The King and I, North Shore Music Theatre.

Philip Boykin, Bryonha Marie Parham, Natasha Yvette Williams - Porgy and Bess, A.R.T.


Till next time!
Best Design

Dan Ostling (set), Mara Blumenfeld (costumes), Timothy J. Gerckens (lighting) - Candide, Huntington Theatre.

Sam Collins (production) - The Speaker's Progress, ArtsEmerson.

Campbell Baird (set) - The Persian Quarter, Merrimack Rep.

PJ Strachman (lighting) - Cahoot's Macbeth, Whistler in the Dark.

Cristina Todesco (set) - Love Song, Orfeo Group.


Best Direction

Mary Zimmerman - Candide, Huntington Theatre.

Sulayman Al-Bassam - The Speaker's Progress, ArtsEmerson.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Doin' the time warp in outer space


Earth | Time Lapse View from Space, Fly Over | NASA, ISS from Michael König on Vimeo.

Long-time Hub Review readers know we are all about the time lapse. And this one is a beauty, stitched together by Michael König from 18 different separate time-lapse sequences photographed from the International Space Station. The soundtrack is by Jan Jelinek. Enjoy!

Friday, November 11, 2011

A fair (and foul) Macbeth

Carter Scott parties down as Lady Macbeth.

When I ponder the Boston Lyric Opera's new production of Verdi's Macbeth (through this Sunday at the Schubert), I'm inevitably reminded of a line from the play itself: a production so foul and so fair I have not seen.

For on the one hand, in purely musical terms, this may be BLO's strongest work yet. The cast is remarkable in vocal terms (as usual), with the leads boasting satisfyingly big Verdi voices, and the chorus (as always) in superb shape. What's new this time around is that the sounds from the pit are just as striking as those from the stage: new Music Director David Angus has settled into his role and begun to work his magic, and the orchestra has responded with a bold, grandly modeled sound that's new at the BLO.

But on the other hand (and alas, there is one), stage director David Schweizer, who delivered a brilliant Emperor of Atlantis just last spring, has styled the opera as a black, Brechtian comedy, and I'm afraid Macbeth just doesn't work that way.   I can understand, however, how he imagined it might have: the combination of bel canto arias and the Macbeths' deadly intrigue lends Verdi's early hit a certain cognitive dissonance to modern ears, and what's more, the composer (and his librettists, Francesco Maria Piave and Andrea Maffei) have transformed the Bard's grotesque trio of witches into a proletarian mob (who, in a nod to their Shakespearean source, often sing in three-part harmony).

The resulting amalgam of nineteenth-century populism and Shakespeare's brutal existentialism is an uneasy one, I admit.  And even though Schweizer has restyled Verdi's vox populi as a kind of Brecht-by-way-of-Les-Miz mob, his concept might have worked, I think, if he had not also recast Lady Macbeth as a villainess nearly comic in her calculations, and her husband as more nebbish than warrior (at least until the final scenes).  These two aren't just puppets in the hands of historical (rather than mystical) fate; they're also too often cartoonish tin-pot dictators; a Mr. and Mrs. Arturo Ui lost on the Scottish moors.  Unfortunately, however, the drama of Macbeth depends entirely on the moral stakes for this pair - after all, it's guilt that drives Lady Macbeth mad (why she loses it in this production remains a mystery).  To be blunt, we have to have some sympathy for the play's murderous heroes (which Shakespeare works overtime to ensure, against all odds); otherwise, the rise and fall of their regime can't grip us.

Still, there are those voices - and that music.  This isn't, however, Verdi at his maturity; in Macbeth, he is expanding on bel canto, but doesn't quite transform it as he would just a few years later in works like Il trovatore and La traviata.  Still, there's considerable interest in the arias, particularly Lady M's, which dominate the first act and which leap unexpectedly to the top of the soprano range (perhaps in a bid to intimate the singer's inner instability).  Carter Scott - at left with Daniel Sutin - generally pulled these off well, I thought, despite a few scrapes here and there (they shouldn't, actually, sound technically secure anyway, that's the point), and elsewhere Scott boasted a big, plush instrument redolent with a vibrato that might have been a bit much elsewhere but worked for Verdi.  As I explained, dramatically I didn't agree with her performance - but I don't really blame her for that, as you can find on the Web evidence that she can do far better (there's a Youtube of her mad scene from another production that's quite riveting).

Meanwhile, as her murderous husband, Daniel Sutin deployed a complex and richly resonant baritone, but his doomed diffidence didn't work until close to the end of the opera (he should actually be a warrior whose reckless barbarity Lady M. is trying to unleash).  Elsewhere in the cast, Darren K. Stokes acquitted himself well vocally as a somewhat stolid Banquo (below), while tenor Richard Crawley briefly stopped the show with Macduff's big aria.

As I stated earlier, the chorus was likewise in fine shape vocally - and a few of Schweizer's (or perhaps designer John Conklin's) gambits, such as the hoisting of yet another royal body bag over the action, were chillingly effective.  But the crowds onstage were sometimes a distraction from the stripped-down action of the drama, and the mob's hollow-eyed puppetmaster act slowly wore thin.  I can understand how BLO thought, after the brilliant success of Atlantis, that Schweizer's sardonic sensibility might have pulled together the disparate elements of Macbeth. But the gallantly gonzo fatalism of Atlantis - which never tries to seriously style its Hitler factotum as a tragic hero - is actually a world away from Shakespeare's aesthetic stance.  And thus, while Verdi fans may be happy to drink in David Angus's accomplished take on the score, I can't really hail this Macbeth.

Banquo and Duncan return from the dead in Macbeth.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Telling Melville's tale (of a whale)

Conor Lovett in Moby Dick.

One of my favorite stories about my stint writing for the Globe revolves around the time I tried to work a ref to Moby Dick into my review of a stage version of The Old Man and the Sea. I remember my editor was quite put out by the whole idea. "Why do you always have to show off about the big books you've read that nobody else has?" she wanted to know, an edge of irritation rising in her voice.  When I countered that hey, I thought quite a few people had actually read Moby Dick - I read it in high school, after all - I could sense her rolling her eyes (even over the phone). "People only say they've read it," she snapped. "They haven't really!"

Now that may be true of most Globe readers, I suppose.  But looking back on that exchange, I smile when I think of Globe reviewer Don Aucoin's peculiar predicament when faced with the new one-man adaptation of Moby Dick by the Gare St. Lazare Players playing at ArtsEmerson through the weekend.  He must, I think, perforce, mention the book - how could he not?  But oddly enough, it strikes me his appreciation of the show will be enhanced if, like my own Globe editor years ago, he hasn't actually gotten through the novel.  Indeed, you'll certainly enjoy this production much more if you haven't encountered Herman Melville's literary leviathan than if you have.

Which isn't to say this performance isn't remarkable in some ways.  Actor Conor Lovett (who has already starred in a one-man show based on Beckett's Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, believe it or not!) manages an intriguingly low-key and diffident rendering of the text that does hold (if not quite grip) your sympathies in its direct simplicity.  (His stance intrigues, perhaps, because his Ishmael seems to be asking us what his strange experiences can possibly mean.)

And Lovett and his wife (and director) Judy Hegarty Lovett have arguably succeeded in distilling the narrative of Melville's novel down to its inevitable essentials; indeed, I was sometimes surprised by how swiftly Melville dispatched events that loomed far larger in my memory (such as the death, or rather the final disappearance, of Ahab).  I even went back to check a few passages after the show, thinking "It had to have been longer than that!"  But every time I discovered that Melville's text - which the Lovetts  seem to have edited but rarely amended - was indeed just as terse as what had been delivered in performance.

So in short, the Lovetts have boiled the gigantic Moby Dick down to the skeleton of its story - which is rendered, sometimes in the softest tones, on basically a bare stage.  For sheer theatrical daring, they deserve our respect and praise.

Only Moby Dick isn't just a story.  It's an allegory.  And more than that - it's a kind of overstuffed encyclopedia of seafaring (and human) oddity, with its curious chapter-long asides on such topics as "The Whale as a Dish" and "Ambergris."  And to be honest, the novel's willful, wandering weirdness, its very difficulty, even its stretches of boredom, begin to work on you as you read it, just as the same strategies work a similar magic in lengthy classics like Ulysses and Tristram Shandy and Don Quixote.  Yes, all these books are too long.  Yet via their very discursiveness they open up a huge, meaningful space in your mind as few other art forms can.  (In theatre, only Shakespeare - and maybe Chekhov - can really compete.)

Rockwell Kent's famous vision of Moby Dick.
Indeed, I wound up with so much affection for Moby Dick that I took the famous Random House edition that I read (with terrific illustrations by Rockwell Kent, like the one at left) from my father's library upon his death. In fact I'm leafing through it again right now, musing on how some passing frustration may actually be necessary to apprehending a truly titanic vision.

And I'm also noticing all the things that Mr. and Mrs. Lovett cut out that perhaps they shouldn't have.  It's almost funny, I admit, how much blubber you can carve from this literary leviathan before you hit narrative bone.  But at the same time, surely something basic to the story is lost when you leave out Queequeg's embrace of Ishmael in bed - or when you drop entirely Father Mapple's famous sermon on the fate of Jonah.  Even the unforgettable last glimpse of the sinking Pequod - which mysteriously drags a passing sea-hawk down into the deep - has gone missing.  To be blunt, the Lovetts have shorn Moby Dick of both its homo-erotic undercurrents and its full spiritual dimensions.

And then there's the unfortunate fact that of Melville's wide cast of characters, Lovett only truly fleshes out Ahab (which he does quite hauntingly at times, aided enormously by the eerie playing of violinist Caoimhin O'Raghallaigh).  Beyond Ahab, however, few characters make much of an impression; Ishmael himself is a bit blurry, and Queequeg and especially Starbuck are sketches - Stubb and Flask aren't even that - and minor, but key, figures like Fedallah are never really drawn at all.

To be fair, Lovett sometimes captures the queer, stoic comedy of the novel, and he conveys Ahab's tortured intensity and craziness, too (no small feat).  And he demonstrates that he and his wife were quite right to realize Melville's sternly gothic prose could hold the stage all by itself, and even raise a few goose bumps.  But in the end, theirs is a Moby Dick in miniature (it could be Samuel Beckett's Moby Dick).  Only Melville's vision was not a miniature; it was an enormity.  So it was hard for me not to feel as I left the theatre that folks who had only seen this production, but not read the novel - well, they still don't know Dick.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Busking with Aszure Barton

Pretty but a little vacant: Andrew Murdock in Busk.


Becoming a true artist requires talent - obviously.

But it also requires a topic, too.  A theme.

And while choreographer Aszure Barton clearly has the first of these requirements in spades, after her debut concert at Celebrity Series last weekend, I'm not sure she has the second.  (In fact I kind of doubt it.)

Which isn't to say that there aren't pleasures to be had from her work, or from her company, Aszure and Artists, which is almost overstuffed with talent and ability; that much was clear from their dazzling, fearless performance.  They even have a style - a jazzy virtuosity built around casual, everyday moves that suddenly speed up into exaggerated motifs from break dance or modern, or even ballet.  It's a fluid mix that affords these talented and impeccably trained dancers the chance to say anything they might want to say.

But . . . do they have anything to say?  I was left in the dark about that.  In fact, I have no idea at all what the first of the two dances on Barton's program, Blue Soup, was about.  It purported to be a mash-up of several of her earlier pieces - so I hoped for some sense of development to be evident in the work, along with perhaps a statement of pre-occupying themes, or even (this would have been nice) a sense of a dawning self-consciousness.  In short, this was Barton's chance at an artistic introduction, and even a bit of biography.

Instead, I got zip.  Well, I got soup.  I mean it's a charming dance, a jauntily off-hand mix of pin-point solos and unison dances.  The performers are clothed in loose, but fashionable, blue suits; they saunter about confidently, with a happy what-the-hell air (sometimes their hands are in their pockets) in between bursts of sudden "choreography."  They know they're hot, and so, to be fair, are many of their moves.

Especially in the solos, you can feel a fleet, light-footed grace in Barton's pastiche of styles.  But literally nothing develops, despite the dancers' confidence.  There's no structure, and not even any links between the various episodes - which never achieve anything like a rhythm.  And occasionally strange things happen for no reason, like the moment when everyone suddenly yells "AMERICA!"  When the dance is over you clap in appreciation, but only think to yourself,  "Well, that was nice."  And then you can't think of anything else to think.

The second half of the program, Busk, is a little bit better - it's still episodic, but the "scenes" all share a common theme. Barton has said her title is drawn from the Spanish "buscar" - "to search" - rather than the familiar rite of street busking; nevertheless, she opens the dance with a solo from an obvious busker (Barton herself), in a black hoodie and white gloves, who ends up trying to work the audience from the edge of the stage.  After this seeming "overture," the piece stretches out into a fluid set of variations on that commercially seductive situation, all set to a rollicking, gypsy-tinged score.  We meet a mime, and an acrobat, and a lady contortionist (Emily Oldak); somebody even rides through on a unicycle.  The dancers take turns as performer and audience, and there's also a dark-clad chorus that sweeps through the "street" occasionally, perhaps a gaggle of monks or priests (I suppose they're buskers too, aren't they!).  Dancers shimmy and swivel, pop and leap and even do back flips; a modern twist will morph into a balletic turn, which then collapses into a somersault down a set of stairs. Sometimes the performers are on their toes, then are suddenly back down on their heels.  The only constant is that every scene and solo is a montage of references; Barton samples and samples, and then samples some more.  And it's all gorgeous and sexy - with Andrew Murdock (above) and Ben Wardell probably the stand-outs in what's a rivetingly beautiful company.

But at the end of the piece, Barton enters again - and strips herself "naked" (well, down to a bra and panties), then slowly "crawls" off-stage.  To some viewers, this amounted to a statement; and actually, I thought it was a statement, too - only one whose content troubled me.  For Busk could easily be read as a kind of confession from someone who knew only too well how to seduce a crowd - but also knew that said seduction would lead nowhere; the busk itself was its own be-all and end-all.

Indeed, thanks to her minute-by-minute choreographic command, Ms. Barton has indeed busked much of the dance establishment (she's a protégée of none other than Mikhail Baryshnikov himself).  But I'm afraid I'm going to be a hold-out on this particular street corner.  I mean should a dance, however virtuosic, be no more than a busk?  I have no doubt at all that once Ms. Barton finds her true themes, she will immediately be a dance-maker to reckon with.  But I think I'll hold off on the "serious artist" accolades until that happens.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The keys to taking the stairs



This is a really cute idea - and yet sadly, some people still took the escalator. Which only goes to show you - something.  Oh, well - always gotta remember the glass is also half full, I suppose!

Boston Early Music Festival


The Boston Early Music Festival had promised "fireworks" at its concert of Handel and Vivaldi last Saturday, which featured French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky and the Cleveland-based ensemble Apollo's Fire. But even though I had already proclaimed Jaroussky "the greatest countertenor in the world" (based on his performance last summer at BEMF in Niobe) I admit I was still surprised by just how high and dazzling those fireworks turned out to be.  Indeed, I think this was perhaps the event of the season, and certainly one of those concerts I'm going to remember the rest of my life.

I clearly wasn't alone in my assessment of Jaroussky - Emmanuel Church was packed to the rafters for the concert.  And I was delighted to discover that Apollo's Fire, led by the charming Jeannette Sorrell, more than lived up to its advance billing as one of the country's best period bands.  The ensemble perhaps has no clearly distinguishing interpretive profile, but it has a simply wonderful sense of - well, ensemble; Sorrell drew from her players a consistently rich and subtle sound in two Vivaldi concerti as well as her own newly-minted concerto drawn from the composer's trio sonata "La Follia." The highlights of the playing - probably the moving "Larghetto e spiritoso" of the Op. 3, No. 8 concerto, and the rising force of "La Follia" - did reveal a star among the players in lead violinist Olivier Brault, who at times seemed to almost co-conduct with Ms. Sorrell.  Something tells me we'll be hearing more from Mr. Brault in his own solo showcase eventually.

Wonderful as Apollo's Fire turned out to be, they themselves seemed somewhat awed by Jaroussky (who for his part didn't swan about like some diva, but was utterly deferential to the other artists on the stage).  He was perhaps in even finer voice than he was last summer - or perhaps Niobe simply didn't offer an opportunity for the display of quite everything he can do.  For the arias he had chosen here often lofted into coloratura territory, where most countertenors fear to tread, but where by now Jaroussky knows he sounds like an angel.  He simply seems to have it all - a meltingly pure tone, exquisitely nimble ornamentation, utter dynamic control (he can glide from a cry to a whisper in an instant), and a heartfelt touch that never seems to desert him; for all his seeming flamboyance, Jaroussky never seems to be showboating; he simply pushes the music as far as it can go.

Early numbers, such as "Agitato da fire tempeste" from Handel's Oreste, flared with coloratura fire, but  I found myself still most moved by Jaroussky's limpid renderings of lament, such as "Ho perso il caro ben" from Handel's Parnasso in Festa and the softer-than-soft "Potessero i sospir miei" from Imeneo.



I've never heard either of those operas in full, and these performances made me long to. Still, the "argument" of the concert, if you will, was that Vivaldi's operas, which have long languished in obscurity, deserve the same revival that Handel's have enjoyed in the past quarter-century or so.  And judging from the vocal marvels Jaroussky unveiled here, I'm inclined (at least at first blush) to agree.

The lyrical flights of "Se mai senti spirati sul volto" from Catone in Utica, which are meant to evoke the flutter of a melancholy breeze (you can listen to Jaroussky sing it with another ensemble above), were utterly transporting, while the yearning vocal line of "Vedrò con mio diletto" (from Giustino) - set to a hushed pizzicato accompaniment from Apollo's Fire - was all but heart-breaking. There were even more riches in the (three) encores - although perhaps the last, a lush rendering of "Ombra mai fu" from Xerxes, was the highlight. By that time, however, the crowd was almost hoarse from cheering and stamping its feet. I've heard through back channels that Jaroussky greatly enjoyed his experience in Niobe, and certainly he has found sympathetic, kindred spirits in Apollo's Fire. Could another large project be in the offing - perhaps even of one of Vivaldi's lost operas? Let's all hope so.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Boston Ballet's Romeo and Juliet

Misa Kuranaga and Pavel Gurevitch in Romeo and Juliet.  Photo(s): Rosalie O'Connor

We're awash in "translated" Shakespeare right now - we've seen at least five operas and ballets based on the Bard in the past few months, and there are more on the way. Few will surpass the John Cranko/Sergei Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet, however, which runs through this weekend at the Opera House in a rich and rewarding production from Boston Ballet.  Prokofiev's score is itself a wonder; it's one of the few story-ballet scores that are of serious musical interest - which is all the more striking because it's not just a series of divertissements, but is crammed with narrative and emotional detail.  And Cranko's choreography is justly celebrated for matching it toe-to-toe, if you will, in the plot department, while also brilliantly evoking its doomy mood; this is a Romeo and Juliet in which the mutual hatred of the Capulets and the Montagues operates as implacable curse (their final reconciliation is cut), and the deaths of the principals seem inevitable from the start.  Indeed, together Cranko and Prokofiev lift the story ballet to the level of tragedy; and fans of the Bard (as well as ballet) will want to catch the production because it offers a rare chance to see onstage what postmodern theatre productions of R&J usually cheat us of - rousing, convincing fights and dances, and a passionate vision of the physical grace of youth.

Which is what keeps this version, despite its grim undertow, always full of life (and love).  And Boston Ballet knows just how to do it up right (we've seen this production before, and just a few years ago - but I was happy to drink it all in again).  Susan Benson's opulent costumes and set (dominated by a looming central arch) tint the Renaissance with a shadow of the Middle Ages, and the painterly glow of Christopher Dennis's lighting seems to capture several different times of day and night.  Meanwhile, down in the pit, Jonathan McPhee delivered a generally gripping accompaniment (particularly strong where the building, dissonant chords which finally collapse in a deathly crash), although there were a few scrapes from both the strings and the horns at the top of their respective ranges.

Still, the Ballet Orchestra seemed to always be propelling the action, and indeed, the flow of the big crowd scenes are where Cranko's nearly cinematic choreographic sense is most in evidence. In this Verona, the corps is shaped and massed into a constantly engaging vision of a village on the move, and details "pop" in the background just when they should (when Tybalt is cut down, for instance, we immediately notice a horrified servant dashing off to tell the Capulets).  Interestingly, Cranko keeps the communal dances within a fairly circumscribed set of steps - it's when Romeo and Juliet are alone that he strikes out in creative ways to convey both the elation and the danger of their situation.  (The lovers leap into a series of strikingly original lifts in their first pas de deux - they're head over heels, after all - but as the walls of Verona close in around them, they also begin to drag each other down, literally.)

Luckily for us, the Ballet now has a deep enough bench of talent to convey both aspects of Cranko's vision.  On opening night, Nelson Madrigal took the role of Romeo - a part that with his ripe good looks he was born to play, and which by now he knows inside and out.  He still has a little trouble with his big double tours, but everything else is there, and emotionally the performance is beautifully transparent; he dashes about with a palpable romantic glow.  The big question in my mind about the production, frankly, was how Misa Kuranaga - always a technical marvel - would fare in the demanding dramatic role of Juliet.  And the answer is that she sails through it, convincingly conveying a specific personality through her impeccable technique.  By the finale, she has broken your heart. (I know that's a cliché, but sometimes clichés, like dreams, come true.)

Paulo Arrais as Mercutio.
There were more great performances around this central pair, however - in fact the evening was brimming with memorable turns.  Yury Yanowsky was once again an icily commanding Tybalt, who held the stage with a frighteningly bitter charisma.  Meanwhile Sabi Varga offered a surprisingly sympathetic turn as Paris, while Tai Jimenez stared down the crowd as an imposing Lady Capulet, and Boyko Dossev made a small miracle of the brief role of Friar Lawrence.  In the background of the crowd scenes, I also couldn't help but notice a convincing cameo from Paul Craig as a doomed Capulet, while Adiarys Almeida glittered later as a lightly sensual gypsy. (We already knew Almeida, like Kuranaga, could dance; now we know she can act, too).

But probably the big news of the night was Paulo Arrais's galvanic turn as Mercutio; this young dancer stole scene after scene from Madrigal - just as Mercutio should. But the surprise was not merely the happy wit and sexual fire Arrais brought to his early dances, but the poignant depth of his extended death scene.  I confess I always watch the Ballet's productions like a hawk for a sense of the ongoing development of its upcoming dancers. And the news from Romeo and Juliet is that Misa Kuranaga is now the Ballet's newest leading lady, and Paulo Arrais its freshest star.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Last chance and a new horizon at Peabody Essex

Albert Bierstadt, Donner Lake from the Summit

I can't get to everything, I tell myself. Still, when I haven't gotten around to writing about an exquisite show like Painting the American Vision at the Peabody Essex Museum, I give myself a few psychological kicks. So I wanted to throw in a quick word about the exhibit to readers - this is its very last day, but if you have the afternoon free, hop in the car and get up to Salem to take it in. You'll be glad you did.

Painting is an import, basically, from the New-York Historical Society (and drawn entirely from that Society's famous collection).  Its focus is the Hudson River School, although its landscapes range far beyond those of that lovely valley, or the East Coast in general.  And frankly, the exhibit's not really a clearly curated view of the movement, anyway.  It's impressionistic, organized "thematically," and includes a fascinating (but odd) set of paintings by Thomas Cole on the rise and fall of "Empire" that are placed in some classical-fantasy setting unusual for the School.  And the "first" (Thomas Cole, Asher Brown Durand, etc.) and "second" generations (Frederich Church, Albert Bierstadt, John Frederick Kensett, etc.) of the movement aren't carefully delineated, either.

But you don't really care.  The show follows a roughly historical timeline, with many dazzling landscapes drawn from sites all over the globe (and even beneath it, in one interior view of Kentucky's Mammoth Cave).  The exhibit culminates in Bierstadt's great Donner Lake from the Summit (at top) and the sublimely strange Cayambe, a kind of hyper-realistic South American zoological-topological fantasy, from Church (below).

Frederic Church, Cayambe

While you're at Painting the American Vision, you should step next door to check out the brilliant Man Ray and Lee Miller show in the adjacent gallery (which has only a month left in its run).  And you should also savor some wonderful news - the Peabody Essex has just announced it has raised some $550 million toward an overall endowment campaign of $650 million - a number that out-strips even the MFA's fabled $504 million campaign for the creation of its new American wing.  I adore this museum (as does Greg Cook of the New England Journal of Aesthetic Research, with whom I often converse on the visual arts), so as you can imagine, I'm pleased as punch.

Some $300 million of that total will go to an expansion and renovation of the museum - the remaining $350 million will go to the endowment, which will vault the Peabody Essex into the company of the top 10 museums in the country in terms of financial resources.  (It will also allow about half of PEM's annual operating expenses to come from earned income on that money.)

And while I have no confirmation of this whatsoever, I'm going to go ahead and state a hunch that part of that expansion will go to permanently housing the wonderful collection of Dutch art owned by Eijk and Rose-Marie van Otterloo (who are on the PEM Board), which we were dazzled by a few months ago. Back then, I wondered aloud where that world-class collection would end up; now I think I know. Or at least I hope I know.  We'll try to find out more in the coming weeks.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Frost-bitten at Merrimack

Gordon Clapp as "Robert Frost"
It's easy to be seduced, I think, by A.M. Dolan's This Verse Business (at the Merrimack Rep through November 13). And particularly easy to begin to imagine that it's something it's not.

What it is, is this: a slight but genuinely - indeed, often deeply - affecting entertainment, stitched together from the poems of the late, great Robert Frost along with utterances from the many recitations the poet gave on stages throughout New England (and elsewhere) in the last years of his life.

It is not, however, anything like a biography.  Nor is it about Robert Frost, the person.  It is instead about "Robert Frost" the persona.  It is the re-creation of a self-performance by a raconteur very carefully crafting a personality to match his poetry.  It tends to make audience members say, "You know - he was just the way I thought he'd be!"  Yes.  Exactly.

We've seen this kind of thing before, of course - Hal Holbrook and Julie Harris pulled the same trick with Mark Twain and Emily Dickinson, respectively, years ago.  This Verse Business, however, strikes me as a bit more complex than either of those two one-man (or -woman) warhorses.  For "Mark Twain" the personality was always obviously a theatrical construction (even his name was fake!), and as for the Belle of Amherst - well, she's a complete historical cipher, isn't she.

But Robert Frost floats somewhere between these two biographical poles.  In fact the actual personality within the famous persona - the flinty, self-reliant Yankee farmer with a warm heart but dark places in his soul - has become a bone of contention between competing biographers.  His personal failures - and there were many - have now been extensively picked over by various chroniclers; one even went so far as to claim the poet was an egotistical "monster."  Needless to say, revisions and re-revisions of that condemnation have occupied the academy ever since.

The man himself,  just before his first success.
For my part, I find it easy to imagine that Frost (like most of us) was neither quite as appealing as he would have liked to appear, nor as terrible as his most avid critics would like us to imagine.  I merely point out that This Verse Business only gives us half that argument - Frost's half.  But to many, that's more than enough, because the production includes a generous sample of the poems themselves, read in full (of course most are short as sonnets - indeed, some are sonnets). And the persona that Frost learned to perform them in does map well to their surface as well as their depths (he might have made a good playwright. frankly; he has certainly done most of A.M. Dolan's work for him).  In a way, as we listen, we realize we don't want to know more about Frost; we're happy to revisit what he himself felt was universal about his experience, rather than what was petty or particular.

And luckily, it's clear actor Gordon Clapp (familiar from his role on NYPD Blue) and director Gus Kaikkonen share the same attitude.  Their vision of Frost may be a forgiving one (like his own), but it's still gently mature, and alive to the shadows lurking in almost all the poems.  Which come to subtle life in Clapp's thoughtful, un-showy, fully-inhabited presentations.  The echo of the death wish beneath the reverie of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening;" the dissatisfied acquiescence to balance that undergirds "Mending Wall;" they're here, as is the haunting drama of "Death of the Hired Man," perhaps the evening's most piercing sequence, in which Clapp's performance reaches its height.  There are other familiar pleasures - as well as some unexpected ones.  I wasn't familiar with one of Frost's last, great poems, "Never Again Would the Bird's Song Be the Same,"a touchingly romantic elegy to Eve (and by extension his own lost wife Elinor) - so its inclusion here was a wonderful, if poignant, surprise.

But then I confess it's hard for me to pretend I don't love the chestnuts, too.  And Clapp's thoughtful interpretations unpretentiously drew out what perhaps is most precious about Frost's deceptively simple odes: the sense that despite their carefully calibrated meters and rhymes, they were nevertheless minted whole, perhaps from the stony earth of New England itself.  I did have a few caveats about the production, here and there - chiefly that the evocation of Frost's farmhouse by Kaikkonen was far too clean and quaint.  Something both more severe and weather-beaten would have been more apropos.  But that couldn't sour me on what in the end was a lovely experience.  Anyone who cares about this great poet - or his work - will want to catch this memorable performance.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Epic theatre as epic fail; or - does size matter?

Welcome to the dollhouse, Nora!  Photos: Richard Termine
I don't like lectures much.  I avoid Suze Orman and Deepak Chopra like the plague, and I remember my mind always tended to drift back when I was in class in college.

Which may be why Mabou Mines' DollHouse (currently at ArtsEmerson) grated on my ears more irritatingly than nails on chalkboard.  For it's one very long lecture (two hours and forty-five minutes worth!) from  the Professor Emeritus of Postmodern Theatre himself, Lee Breuer, who "deconstructs" Ibsen's A Dollhouse so thoroughly - indeed, all but relentlessly - that he might as well be center stage at a blackboard, circling things, and drawing arrows from Point A to Point B. Indeed, the production really should be subtitled "Lee Breuer Explains It All For You."

Now I admit - some people loved being in class back in college.  And some people like "deconstructing" things more than they like experiencing them.  Not for them the thrills of theatrical illusion, the seductions of identification and catharsis!  No, some people prefer taking a car apart to driving one.  They'd rather dissect a horse than ride it.

Bu then some people enjoy talking to insurance salesmen! And filling out tax returns! I actually think those are the kind of people who might enjoy DollHouse - my guess is that if you think of yourself as bohemian but are actually utterly bourgeois - or if you have a thick, pedantic streak right down the middle of your personality (as many critics do, which perhaps explains the applause for this long-touring production) then this could be the show for you.

Although I have to report that, judging from the audience at ArtsEmerson, most theatre-goers are not that kind of person. The thin house on Wednesday night was often restive, and the crowd shrank noticeably after intermission.  (The people behind me left well before that, declaring loudly to anyone who would listen, "Will this never END?")  I myself had to run out, grab a snack, and knock back a few drinks to face the second half, and I almost didn't return at all - partly because my buddy suddenly quailed once we admitted to ourselves that intermission was probably over.  "I'm not going back there!" he said to me from behind his beer.  "And you can't make me!!"

Trooper that I am, I trudged back across the street alone and ducked back into the theatre.  But you know - the drinks helped!  So my advice is - come drunk.  Or better yet, come at intermission (and drunk).

Because trust me, that makes all of Breuer's spoon-fed metaphors a whole lot easier to swallow.  In case you haven't heard, the production's central gambit is that the female characters are played by tall women, while the oppressive men are played by little people.  I know, that sounds stupid - but wait!  It's actually really complicated and stuff!  Take Nora, for instance (if you don't know who I'm talking about, read the plot summary on Wikipedia, or the review in the Globe).  She's played by the towering Maude Mitchell - but she speaks in a breathy little doll's voice (which is often hard to hear - the size of the Cutler Majestic dwarfs everybody in DollHouse).  So - do you get it?  She's big AND she's small.  Mitchell looks like a giantess on the tiny set - she has to crawl through the door - but various psychological visions loom over her (all female, btw), and at one point she's played by a little person too!  And her children are sometimes dolls, but sometimes they're little people as well.  And the toy piano over on stage left doubles for a big keyboard that looks like it's built right into the stage.  Get it?  The whole stage is a piano on which Ibsen is playing cheesy nineteenth-century music, beneath whore/opera house drapes and a cheap chandelier.  Get it?  Get it?  Get it?

Oh, Jesus Christ.  Breuer doesn't trust us to "get it" all by ourselves even for a minute; he can't let a single moment breathe; this isn't a production, it's a non-stop harangue. And a crude one at that - the text is being "deconstructed" with a box of crayolas.  And if you think that sounds like fun in a slummy kind of way, believe me, the relentless air-quotes rob the antics of their power as satire.  Laughter depends on surprise, after all, but there are no surprises here; everything is pre-determined; it's a phony paean to "freedom" in which no one and nothing is in any way free.  And God forbid Lee Breuer should ever have an original or controversial idea about Ibsen!  What really makes DollHouse such deadly theatre is not that its director's perceptions are "wrong" - indeed, they amount to a standard-issue interpretation of A Dollhouse - it's that all they're all clichés.  And when Breuer "complicates" his clichés, they just become, well, complicated clichés.

No, please - don't do it! For all our sakes!

Somewhere you can tell the director knows this, because his production becomes more desperate as it grinds on.  Gimmick is piled on gimmick, and "shock" on "shock"; what was already meta goes meta all over again.  Banners drop from the flies; strobe lights flicker; the actors throw furniture at each other; ghouls stride through on stilts; blizzards of snow blow onto the stage; dwarves brandish strap-ons; and it all has no theatrical impact whatsoever.  I know - politically, you're being pounded with a hammer; but theatrically, your mind remains untouched -  indeed, I spent some time going over my grocery list,  roused only when the actors started to strip down, when I began praying to myself "Nooo . . . please God, don't let them go all the way!"  (Sometimes they don't, but be warned, sometimes they do.)

I know the objection has often been raised to this production that the little people in its cast are being exploited by Breuer and Mabou Mines.  Only I didn't mind that, really.  I mean they are being exploited, rather obviously, and the objectification is sometimes quite creepy. But they've agreed to appear this way, and they seem to believe in the project, so it's really nobody's business, I suppose.  The idea seems to be that they are not being held up as literal grotesques, as they might once have been in some horrible sideshow, but instead are being presented as grotesque metaphors.  Okay, guys - whatever!  In the old days, theatre depended on the self-exposure of its characters for dramatic impact; today, it depends on the self-exposure of its actors. So it's your call.  For the record, several of these performers transcend their casting, particularly Kristopher Medina, Joe Gnoffo, and Hannah Kritzeck; I'd be very interested to see them in a show that didn't exploit their physical appearance (I know, I know, for highbrow, not lowbrow, effects; big deal!).  But as our theatre is constructed - or deconstructed! - now, that's unfortunately unlikely.

I felt basically the same way about the production's star, Maude Mitchell - she, too, was betraying her obvious talent, and was knee-deep in self-exploitation.  Indeed, for the first three-quarters of the show, she delivered the most obnoxious performance by a great actress I've ever seen.  Her "living doll" act was a direct contradiction of Ibsen's development of Nora; it was the opposite of "acting;" and besides, it was just boring as hell.

But wait; let's take a time out to discuss epic theatre, shall we - for Mabou Mines basically represents the downtown dregs of that Brechtian mode - and how epic theatre can become an epic fail, as it does here.  The style, which depends on maintaining emotional distance in the audience, is meant to thwart simplistic identification with the characters and situations it treats, the better to nurture intellectual, rather than emotional, engagement.  (And it can still work; a brilliant example was The Speaker's Progress a few weeks ago.)

Alas, what many Brechtians (including Brecht himself) often allowed epic theatre to devolve into was a simplistic identification with a political, rather than emotional, stance; it became the melodrama of the left.  And that's part of what's so wrong with DollHouse.  It's pretentious and crass because it imagines that its lamely rendered feminist posture counts as enlightenment, when of course these days it's simply the lingua franca of its audience.  And can a true radical preach only to the choir?  (Especially at such monotonous length?)

I often wish the culture could remember that the original "A Doll's House" was actually titled A Dollhouse - the change in that title reflects an unfortunate distortion in our perception of the text; Ibsen was positing an existential, rather than a feminist, critique of two people (Nora and her husband, Torvald). This is what makes the play map poorly to epic theatre - Ibsen's interested in Nora's inner transformation, her consciousness, her "soul," and we need to identify with her to access that artistic material - a process which is neither dated nor inherently melodramatic, btw. In fact, in its emphasis on interiority and the flouting of accepted political norms, A Dollhouse represents the antithesis of melodrama (and the antithesis of epic theatre, too). Indeed, it's hard not to feel that if he were alive today, old Henrik would have in his sights the dominion of Lee Breuer - who is all too obviously playing a manipulative off-stage Torvald to Mitchell's Nora.

Like much conceptual theatre, it gets better at the last minute - the whole show was basically a preamble to this installation.
But to be fair to old Lee, I'll admit he does have one great idea, at the very finish of this tedious extravaganza. In the final moments, Mitchell's Nora doesn't slam an actual door but instead leaves the stage, to strip down in a box and have a good cry with the audience; and a backstage curtain rises to reveal another audience, of doll-size Noras and Torvalds, watching from their own tiny boxes. It's a great, multi-valent conceptual stroke - even if the nudity feels a bit, well, melodramatic (Mitchell's head is shaved, too, like a concentration camp survivor's), and the segue into lip-synching to actual arias (another nod to the nineteenth century, I guess!) feels forced. Still, the overall effect is resonant - you could even argue that it validates the rest of the production (if it had been shortened to a brisk, bitter skit, that is).  But it's important to remember that this image is not about the play itself, or its characters, but rather about their subsequent effect on society - a more valid object for the epic-theatre treatment, I think. Indeed, we sense in these last moments that only now are we reaching appropriate material for the Mabou Mines method. But at the same time, we're grateful the whole dreary shebang is over. As is the production itself; this is the end of the road for it; these are the farewell performances of its years-long tour. And over all, I'd have to say - good riddance.