Saturday, December 31, 2011

What to do on First Night

Yes, the last night of the year has once more rolled around - only in these parts we call it "First Night" rather than "Last Night" (perhaps for obvious reasons).  And once more hordes of revelers (even more than usual, I'd guess, as the weather's not too bad) with noisemakers that would have tried the patience of the newly-reformed Grinch will be swarming the streets of Boston till past midnight.

BUT this year I will again be among them, trying not to feel too Grinch-y as I make my way among the crowds.  And if you decide to join me (along with several hundred thousand other Bostonians), you may be wondering - what should you see?

Well, here's my short list - Mike Daisey is making a rare appearance in these parts at the Huntington at 9:30 pm.  This is one of those controversial shows where for a little extra cash you can nab a premium seat, but there still should be room for everybody (the usual First Night button costs just $18).  Not far away, in Symphony Hall, gospel and soul great Mavis Staples will be holding forth in Symphony Hall at 9 pm.  Meanwhile Suzanne Vega will be taking the stage at Jordan Hall at precisely the same time.  So expect crowds over in the Huntington area.

Elsewhere, a few other events stand out (note - most of these will be either highly popular, or are limiting First Night attendance to the first 100 in line, so plan accordingly):  The Central Square Theater is offering free admission for button-wearers to Arabian Nights, which I listed as one of the best shows of 2011.  You can't do better than this for kids who are into storytelling (although fair warning, it's a little long for the youngest).  Meanwhile downtown the Boston Ballet is once more shaking up The Nutcracker for its final bow at 7:30 pm at the Opera House; this loosey-goosey, what-the-hell version was a hoot last year, so I'm sorry to be missing it.  For those with a classical-music bent, over at Emmanuel Church at 8:30 pm, Opera Boston is staging Mozart's very first (one-act) opera, Bastien und Bastienne, which I've seen before and can attest is a charmer (and suitable for children, at least those who are within a few years of Mozart's age when he wrote it - i.e., twelve).  And finally, over in a ballroom at the Hynes Convention, you should definitely check out local great Sean Fielder and the Boston Tap Company as they dazzle you with their fleet footwork at 9:30 pm - and even devise a dance challenge!

And don't forget that Boston Baroque is once more offering its own charming New Year's tradition - concerts featuring Bach, Corelli, Vivaldi and Handel at Sanders Theatre both tonight and tomorrow (a "First Day" celebration).  These concerts are always packed, and always delightful - one of the highlights of the classical music season.  If there are still tickets available, don't miss it.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Best Boston Productions of 2011

Candide at the Huntington

2011.  To be perfectly honest - it wasn't all that great a year (and I'm not talking about just the weather).  In 2010, my "best of" list ran to 20 productions.  This year - well, I've got a solid top 10, with maybe 7 more honorable mentions - but after that the pickings get slim.  This is partly due to the fact that many of our mid-size houses, like SpeakEasy and New Rep (neither of which saw an easy year in the back office), seemed to be struggling against a pretty-good-but-not-great glass ceiling in terms of artistic quality.  And of course the ART remained a vast, revenue-driven wasteland, as I assume it will remain for the remaining years of Diane Paulus's contract (that is if it's not extended!).  We just have to get on with the culture without Harvard, I suppose.

On the plus side, however, the best productions of 2011 were the best we've seen in years - we saw one re-thinking of a classic-that-never-quite-came-together that seemed to work out every "problem" this famously troubled musical was ever diagnosed with.  And we saw the Arab Spring reflected in an up-to-the-minute production of Shakespeare that seemed to embody everything classical and political theatre should be.   These moments were absolutely thrilling - if they were the only highlights of the year, 2011 would still have been a year to remember.

Beyond those twin peaks of achievement (both basically imported, I think it's worth mentioning) there was a wealth of great musical productions this year - some familiar, some obscure,  some that amounted to radical re-thinkings, and at least one that was a precise historical reproduction.  And for the first time ever, I felt a company engage with questions of race in classic theatre in a productive way - no, not at Company One, but instead down at Trinity Rep, which mounted a renovation of His Girl Friday that had been cleverly cleansed (by John Guare) of its reactionary politics, as well as a brilliantly-acted production of Bruce Norris's Clybourne Park, a script which wasn't quite up to the standard of the production devoted to it.  Which, as I think more about it, probably counts as a trend this year; I can't recall a new script I've seen recently that was compromised by the acting of its presentation - instead, I saw a lot of troubled plays elevated and energized by first-rate performances (although sometimes, as with Lynn Nottage's Ruined, even a first-rate cast couldn't quite lift a second-rate play into the Hub Review pantheon).

Elsewhere in the list you'll find productions by both the local and the Polish fringe, a bit of British frat-boy Shakespeare, and at least one new play by a prickly local author who once spent several installments of his blog ridiculing yours truly.  But then stranger things have happened.  So without further do, on to the best of 2011 -

The Top 10

Candide - Huntington Theatre

Mary Zimmerman's adaptation of Candide (above) may well prove to be the production of the decade - it was up there with the likes of the original Nicholas Nickleby, or the current hit War Horse - that is to say, among the greatest theatre productions I've ever seen.   It was practically perfect in every way: great cast, great direction, great design - it was all there.  What was most startling was how director/adaptor Zimmerman, by discarding the various books that had been devised for the show over the years, and going back to Voltaire's original book, was able to weave a perfect theatrical frame for this legendary score, which included not only some of Leonard Bernstein's greatest music, but lyrics by the likes of Stephen Sondheim, Lillian Hellman, and Richard Wilbur (some of them devised for a series of revivals). Thus it's not too much to claim the production was the culmination of over fifty years of theatrical effort; and the show's seeming inability to find a berth in New York provided yet another testament to how far quality standards have slipped in the Big Apple.

The Speaker's Progress
The Speaker's Progress - SABAB Theatre at Arts Emerson

It isn't often you realize you're watching the local debut of a global theatrical talent.  But that's what happened this fall, when Sulayman al-Bassam took the stage in his own  adaptation of Twelfth Night at ArtsEmerson. What ensued was an evening of challenging theatrical and political magic, enacted by a cast imbued with a superbly casual mastery of their craft.  Watching The Speaker's Progress, you could feel its political subtext shifting minute-to-minute, just as its creators must have felt as they developed its text during the Arab Spring.  I left the show with an undeniable feeling that the brilliant al-Bassam might be a theatrical conjurer on the level of Peter Brook.  But alas, from the reviews it was clear that our local elites - which generally under-covered, or misunderstood, the show - are going to have a little trouble with a democratic Arab consciousness emerging on our cultural stage.  So stay tuned for more on that front!

The Cripple of Inishmaan  - Druid Theatre at Arts Emerson

A number of highly-praised ArtsEmerson offerings proved either slightly disappointing (The Merchant of Venice, Angel Reapers) or downright disastrous (Dollhouse).  In between these high-concept misfires, however, you might have caught this brilliant production by the Druid Theatre (where Martin McDonagh got his start) which polished every facet of this cold little gem from that famously misanthropic author to a gleaming finish.  And for good measure, nestled in the midst of the pitch-perfect cast was our own Nancy E. Carroll  - so who could complain?

Clybourne Park - Trinity Rep

Bruce Norris's acidic Pulitzer Prize-winner turned out to be a recycled mix of Albee and Chappelle's Show (believe it or not) - but the cast at Trinity, under the subtle direction of Brian Mertes, proved so strong that they put the used goods over anyway.  Unfortunately you could still tell that there was little new here, save a concept that it seemed the author hoped might, all by itself, conjure something coherent out of received hip attitudes.  And its success represents yet another troubling example of the falling standards of the print critics - while the Trinity production, by way of contrast, represented yet another case of actors staving off the collective realization that our playwrights are rarely holding up their end of the dramatic bargain these days.

Oklahoma! - Reagle Music Theatre

Reagle proudly claims that it presents classic Broadway in its original form - and with this production of Oklahoma! it more than made good on that promise.  The physical production was drawn from a University of North Carolina research project which all but replicated the original costumes and sets; a long-time associate of choreographer Agnes de Mille was brought in to set her dances on the Reagle company; and top-notch Broadway talent was signed to sing the delightful score.  The results were unforgettable.

The Most Happy Fella - Gloucester Stage

The summer stage up in Gloucester isn't known for its musicals - but Eric Engel's remarkable production of The Most Happy Fella might have begun to change people's minds about that.  It didn't hurt that the musical itself is a lost treasure - a cornucopia of ravishing melody from one of Broadway's legends, Frank Loesser.  But Engel's nuanced chamber production - which featured many of our best local voices - seemed both perfectly scaled to the Gloucester space, and surprisingly true to Loesser's lyrical vision.

The Hotel Nepenthe

The Hotel Nepenthe - Actors' Shakespeare Project

Local luminary John Kuntz's best work in some time, this spooky mood piece toed an ever-shifting line between menace, mystery, and world-weary bemusement.  Under the direction of David R. Gammons, Kuntz himself led a sterling cast in a Twilight-Zone-style ramble over multiple pasts, presents and futures; the vignettes were individually tightly plotted, but only loosely connected - which somehow gave Kuntz just enough structure and just enough freedom, it seems, to hang onto his morbid focus without losing his wry sense of humor.

Caesarean Section - Teatr Czar at Charlestown Working Theater

Evocative.  Raw.  Haunting.  In this strangely compelling, often wordless mix of theatre and music, Poland's Teatr Czar seemed to revive before our eyes the exploratory spirit of Grotowski and his kindred spirits - and won another small coup for the scrappy, reliably-challenging Charlestown Working Theater.

Arabian Nights - Nora Theatre and Underground Railway Theater

The two resident companies at the Central Square Theater combined their talents for this new adaptation of the traditional tales by Dominic Cooke, and came up with a mesmerizing winner.  Designed by muralist David Fichter in splashy, saturated colors, and directed by Daniel Gidron with an eye to both comedy and suspense, this production was so strong you wished it could last a thousand nights and then some.

Dogg's Hamlet/Cahoot's Macbeth - Whistler in the Dark

After a number of daring but not-quite-fully-realized productions, Whistler was back in form with this double bill from Stoppard (and finally began to get some serious attention from the print critics, too).  Smart performances and sharp (if lean) production design together made clear all the clever ramifications of "Dogg," the anarchic language the author invented to embody political (and generational) struggle. As long as Whistler is around, theatre for thinking people will still be found in Boston.

Living Together
And Seven More Honorable Mentions

His Girl Friday - Trinity Rep

This bright, broad re-invention of the classic movie (and its source, The Front Page) didn't have quite the razor-sharp ensemble that cut through Clybourne Park.  Yet it still managed to provide an object lesson in how to approach the vexed question of racist attitudes in vintage texts.

Living Together - Gloucester Stage

The second part of Alan Ayckbourn's Norman Conquests, featuring the same superb cast that lit up Table Manners, left everyone praying the same terrific team would be back next summer to pull off the final installment of the trilogy.

Comedy of Errors - Propeller at Huntington Theatre

Propeller's central gimmick - all-male Shakespeare, just as it was first performed - proved much less interesting than anticipated.  But their gonzo, frat-boy antics, groundling sexual obsessions, and (literally) bare-assed bravado definitely made for a lot of comedy, even if their conception of the Bard is basically in error.

The Exceptionals - Merrimack Rep

A disturbing social trend.  A calm, cool perspective on it.  If playwright Bob Clyman didn't quite seal the deal in his sly, sardonic take on what looks increasingly like modern eugenics, then Charles Towers's polished production almost convinced you he had.

The King and I and My Fair Lady - North Shore Music Theatre

Both these charming productions, like Oklahoma! (and in a way Candide), were a balm to those of us who love musical theatre as it was meant to be.  But alas, while both showcased divine leading ladies, and talented supporting casts, both were slightly compromised by adequate, but not glittering, turns from their marquee-name male stars.  Sigh. They were still intensely pleasurable, believe me.  And someday the North Shore will find a male TV star who can sing as well as dance - and then, watch out!

Three Viewings - New Rep

This occasionally smug but always damned clever trio of monologues (all set in a mortuary!) was elevated and electrified (like so much of this season) by its acting - particularly a stellar turn from local light Adrianne Krstansky.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Tweeting the cultural apocalypse now - right now

I know, I know. As is its wont, the Globe has once again attacked the performing arts in the name of "saving" them. It's hardly news that journalists are closet culture-haters, I suppose - or maybe it's just that they're so mad about having journalism destroyed by digital media that they're hungry to see other noble endeavors meet the same fate. Who knows!  All I know is that the Globe's drumbeat of insinuations, dire predictions, and demands for dumbing-down is by now a wearily predictable rhetorical river which I suppose no one can stop.  Someday, when the entire world is a scorched, post-cultural virtual environment inhabited by fans of the Patriots and Coldplay, the Globe will finally shut up about how Shakespeare and Beethoven must die.  But something tells me not till then.

Ironically, however, this latest salvo has been met by a wall of pure rage from - yes, Facebook and the twitter-verse.  So much rage, in fact, that you wonder just how pitched this battle might eventually become, given the teensy-weensy amount of evidence reporter Beth Teitell has amassed to support her supposed thesis.  What Beth actually says is that a few productions of "Sesame Street" and "Avenue Q" will allow "tweet seats."  (Read: puppet shows with juvenile audiences will allow tweeting.)  Marketing directors in Worcester and Central Square are also talking about it.  (Only think about it, Central Square - do you really want to be thought of as "the other Worcester"?)  Beth also has found four other productions across the country that have allowed "twits" to do their thing.

Oh my God, it's already over!!  Theatre's sacred space is about to be raped by a horde of tweets!  Ha ha - only kidding.  Firstly - just because somebody is sitting in a "tweet seat," that doesn't mean you can't kick them in the balls and knock their fucking teeth out.  Remember that.  Seriously - would a jury convict you of anything?  I think not.  [As you may guess, the "tweet seats," should they exist, had better be far away from me.]

As for the rest of Beth's article, it's all about how marketing directors are trying to encourage tweeting at intermission.  Wow - what a cool idea!!!  Is that actually already happening?  Who knew!!  Can a rocket car that runs on soda be far off?

In the meantime, as I posted on Art's site, there is this melancholy undertow to these discussions, a tide which whispers that yes, my friends, we are witnessing the fall of Western civilization.  Don't kid yourselves - it's over.  The post-human is on its way - technology all but mandates it.  After all, culture can't exist for people who are more interested in tweeting than they are in their own lives.

But hey, sunsets can be beautiful, right?  I'd rather have Shakespeare and Beethoven be forgotten than have them half-listened to by an audience that's more interested in tweeting about them.  Sometimes I wonder what it will be like when the last symphony orchestra goes bankrupt, when the last Vermeer is stolen, when the last guy who understands Shakespeare dies, when the whole world is like some lost chapter of Fahrenheit 451.  But frankly, I'm hoping I don't live that long.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

One last Hubbies hit for 2011 . . .

I know, I know, it has only been a little more than a month since the last Hubbie Awards. But I have seen some pretty good shows since then!  And I felt it was conceptually cleaner to wrap up the 2011 Hubbies for individual performances, etc., before I move on to my "Best of 2011" blow-out later this week - just so I don't miss anybody (although I always do).

And so, with a virtual drum roll . . .

Best Individual Performances

Michael Cristofer - Captors, Huntington Theatre

Grant Wallace - The Balcony, Boston Conservatory

Jeffery Roberson, Paula Plum - The Divine Sister, SpeakEasy Stage

Sirena Abalian - The Nutcracker, Stoneham Theatre

Stacey Fischer, Andrew Cekala - A Christmas Story, New Rep

Michael Forden Walker, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Actors' Shakespeare Project

Best Ensembles

Adrianne Krstansky, Christine Power, Joel Colodner, directed by Jim Petosa - Three Viewings, New Rep

Ramona Lisa Alexander, Paige Clark, Alexander Cook, Evelyn Howe, Elbert Joseph, Ahmad Maksoud, Ibrahim Miari, Vincent E. Siders, Debra Wise, directed by Daniel Gidron - Arabian Nights, Nora Theatre and Underground Railway Theater

Arabian Nights at Central Square Theater

Best Design

Cristina Todesco (set), Jeff Adelberg (lighting), Gail Astrid Buckley (costumes), Jeff Maynard (video) and David Reiffel (sound) - The Balcony, Boston Conservatory

David Fichter (scenic and puppet design), Will Cabell (puppetmaster), Leslie Held (costumes), Karen Perlow (lighting), Kareem Roustom (music and sound) - Arabian Nights, Nora Theatre and Underground Railway Theater

Best Direction

Jim Petosa - Three Viewings, New Rep

Daniel Gidron - Arabian Nights, Nora Theatre and Underground Railway Theatre

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Wife swap

Ruby Rose Fox, Bill Barclay, and Gabriel Kuttner in various disguises.  Photo(s): Stratton McCrady
Part of the Actors' Shakespeare Project gestalt is the idea that they're always on the run, searching for a found space to evoke, or match in some idiosyncratic way, the play they're putting on.  This is an interesting conceptual challenge - but for once, they have kind of scored with The Merry Wives of Windsor, which they're doing at Jimmy Tingle's in Davis Square (through Jan. 1), with Budweiser pennants festooning the stage, and swinging saloon doors for set pieces.  We're slumming, the set design telegraphs, but then so was Shakespeare when he wrote this play.

And fair enough - Shakespeare probably was slumming when he wrote this play; legend has it that Merry Wives was scripted in just a fortnight, at Queen Elizabeth's command that the Bard present "Falstaff in love." And I certainly agree with the consensus that the results are the weakest play in the canon (so it's good to have a legend like that one to explain its existence). Built around a watered-down version of Falstaff (probably because Elizabeth's edict contradicted everything the character stood for) and devised almost purely as an audience pleaser, Merry Wives in a way reveals Shakespeare at his most eager to please, as well as his workmanlike worst/best: he piles on the complications and plots-within-plots, as if to distract us from the lack of theme or development.  And thus, I admit, Wives is probably the one Shakespeare play that Diane Paulus is actually equipped to direct - it all but wags its tail at the audience and begs to be loved.  Still, this puppy is by the Bard true-bred - and so, inevitably, it has its fascinations.

Perhaps the first of these is the fact that, shocking as it may sound, Merry Wives of Windsor may be the most influential play Shakespeare ever wrote.  Why?  Because in it you find perhaps the first formulation of dinner-theatre and summer stock, as well as sitcom - the script even plays out as a series of episodes, and its wacky middle-class housewives pretty much bang out the template of frustration, exasperation and mock castration that has dominated domestic bourgeois comedy ever since.  And perhaps because it carved out this new niche in what had generally been a more anarchic and satiric comic tradition, Merry Wives is unusual in the canon in several ways: there is a wedding at the end of it, for example, but only one, and it's surrounded by a kind of mockery of the multi-couple nuptials that provide the finales of Shakespeare's courtship comedies (like Much Ado and Twelfth Night).

There's also hardly any nobility stalking the stage - except for Falstaff himself, who is, I suppose, only a knight errant, but who nevertheless represents something like the drunken dregs of the landed gentry in an emergent market-based economy.  Thus in the bustling suburb of Windsor, this lesser noble - who imagines his diminished status may still help him to a sexual conquest - is a laughing-stock, and the social structure of much of Shakespeare has been subtly up-ended.  Perhaps most surprisingly, despite seeming moments of misrule, and almost too much comic action, nobody in Windsor much changes - and nobody is ever actually cuckolded, or really gets much of a comeuppance, either; thus the social compact doesn't budge an inch, and nothing about the society detailed in the script is truly transformed. Indeed, after his final humiliation, Falstaff doesn't march off, swearing revenge like Malvolio, but merely laughs at his own gulling and joins the party at his own expense.

This diminution of Shakespeare's general aims is reflected in the diminished horizons of one his greatest creations: the Falstaff of Merry Wives is only an anorexic shadow of the overstuffed giant who dominates Henry IV,  Parts 1 & 2 (and who haunts Henry V). Shakespeare affords him only the occasional good line, and none of the shrewd, subversive insights that light up his earlier appearances in the canon (for truth be told, the suburbanites of Windsor should really be the victims of his wit, rather than vice versa).  This has led many a postmodern critic - most of whom are more enamored of Falstaff than, I think, Shakespeare was - to decry the play.

Richard Snee is tickled by merry wives Esme Allen and Marianna Bassham.

But intriguingly, real Shakespearean fire does occasionally flicker in The Merry Wives of Windsor - not around Falstaff, but rather in the lines of Master Ford, who is driven to a jealous monomania by the (all-in-fun) flirtations of his clever wife.  I'm not sure why, but I always feel something like the sketch of a Shakespearean self-portrait in this character.  Certainly, there are other jealous obsessives in the canon (Othello, Posthumus, Leontes), but there's a psychological (rather than poetic) edge to Ford's rantings that always reads to me as close to the famously elusive author's own voice.  Then again, perhaps it's the rustic, middle-class setting that gives this echo to the character's cadences; after all, the town of Windsor is not that far from Stratford-upon-Avon, as Shakespeare has ripped Falstaff from the Plantagenet era of Henry IV and plunked him down in the world of his own upbringing.  Does this mean, however, that in the fraught relationship of the Fords we can catch a glimpse of the marriage between Will and Anne Hathaway?  Maybe - but maybe not.  All I have is a hunch, but then I tend to trust my hunches.

Anyway - back to the Actors' Shakespeare Project. I've only seen Merry Wives three times before (it's not like I seek it out), but all those productions generally worked about as well as this one did. At ASP, under the direction of Steven Barkhimer, a general, vaguely gonzo, atmosphere of "actor's holiday" pervaded the goings-on - there was a good deal of double (and even triple) casting, which led to many punchy caricatures and ree-dee-culous Franch ak-sants - along with a sing-along chorus borrowed from Love's Labour's Lost - but perhaps not quite as much depth as the play can, indeed, afford.  I also wondered whether the double casting - particularly around the romantic sub-plot (the same actress played the ingénue as well as one of her suitors, while her other pursuers were both played by the same guy) scrambled the convoluted plot beyond recognition; my advice is, if you don't know the play, be sure to read the synopsis before going in. Still, even if you can't follow the plot, a lot of the hijinks are cute and clever - the show generally charts the arc of a smart-alecky college production.

But I'm afraid as Falstaff, local stage vet Richard Snee proved a disappointment - Snee's so confident that he sometimes phones things in, and I'm afraid he's too often on speed-dial here (although to be fair, he still wins the occasional laugh).  The wives themselves were quite a bit better - newcomer Esme Allen beamed like an Elizabethan-era Amy Poehler, while ASP stalwart Marianna Bassham made a smartly confident Mistress Ford.  Alas, she didn't quite limn her complex relationship with her husband as much as I've seen some actresses manage - an obvious missed opportunity, given that the reliable Michael Forden Walker gave Master Ford a surprisingly twisted intensity.  Meanwhile, around the edges of the production, there was droll, inventive work from Gabriel Kuttner and Bill Barclay.  But I also have to confess that I missed the hints of the green world that the Bard brings to his finale (here, the fairies of Windsor forest danced to disco); still, overall I enjoyed myself, off and on, which may be all you can really do with this particular play - although I hope someday to be proven wrong about that.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas from the Hub Review

We're up in the snowy woods of Maine, as we usually are at Christmas, with family and friends. So don't expect much blogging over the next day or so, as we'll be too busy eating and drinking.  And eating.  And drinking.  (Although I know I do owe you my thoughts on ASP's Merry Wives of Windsor!  If the egg-nog fog lifts today, I'll do  my best.)  In the meantime, enjoy a Christmas classic re-imagined for glass harmonica (above).  Next week I'll be sparring with my buddy Greg Cook on Dance/Draw at the ICA, and writing my series of year-end "Best Of" wrap-ups.  Till then - Merry Christmas everybody!

Friday, December 23, 2011

More polyphony for Christmas

The young singers of Stile Antico.

Last weekend I got a double whammy of medieval and Renaissance polyphony - I caught the chart-topping Stile Antico (above) at the Boston Early Music Festival the night after I heard Boston's own Blue Heron.

And, like a few other people, I found the contrast didn't flatter the better-known band.

This is my second encounter with the Stile Antico kids (sorry, they just seem so young and earnest) - and this was also the second time I left scratching my head after one of their concerts.  It's not that they aren't often quite good - they are, not to mention super-serious about sacred music and polyphony, and so awkwardly genteel that sometimes, during one of their tweedy "Ladies-and-gentlemen-might-I-beg-of-you-a-moment-of-your-time" interludes, I felt myself suppressing an affectionate giggle.

And yet, I have to say Stile Antico can be a little dull in long doses, even though one facet of their performances - the soprano line, handled mostly by two women who must be sisters  (they share a surname) - is almost too focused and powerful for the profile of the rest of the group.  (Which makes me wonder if couple-dom and other relationships figure in the rest of the line-up as much as vocal talent does - there's a faintly in-bred, college-campus air about these guys.)

Those sopranos - Helen and Kate Ashby (along with Rebecca Hickey) - may be the group's only clear artistic signature, but you can't deny they command attention: these ladies boast a combination of perfect pitch, pure tone, and pure power that I don't think I've heard anywhere else; listening to them, you do wonder whether this might be how the angels sound (and no doubt their intensity is what drew the attention of Sting, with whom Stile Antico has toured).  Still, these ladies inevitably, and repetitively, tip every piece in their own direction (there are some good voices among the tenors, but elsewhere things are variable) - and that's not really the idea behind polyphony.  Sorry, it's just not.

There was one great exception to this general rule in last Saturday's concert - Tallis's Videte miraculum, from his Christmas Mass, Missa Puer natus est, written for the crazily-Catholic Queen Mary, back in the days when England was schizophrenically swinging back and forth between the Anglican and Catholic churches.  For a Christmas mass, Puer natus est is a little melancholic (in one of those strange resonances between art and life, it was written when Queen Mary imagined she was pregnant - only she wasn't); but one of the great things about Tallis is the way his vocal works delineate gigantic sonic architectures - rather like the cathedrals in which they were often sung - and for once Stile Antico achieved a rare sense of balanced, detailed expansiveness.

Elsewhere, alas, things often slowed into a blurry trudge (the Anticans make all their artistic decisions collectively, so they rarely hit on a striking individual statement), broken by sudden, siren-like wake-up calls from the sopranos.  Sometimes even the transitions and transformations that the singers called attention to in their comments, like the shift from minor to major in Robert White's Magnificat, were a little hard to parse (subtlety is oft doomed in a collective).  And few of the pieces by Tallis's contemporary William Byrd made much of an impression, I thought - although Taverner's Audivi vocem de caelo was compellingly sung (by the women only, from the back of the church), and things suddenly picked up at the finish, with a truly ecstatic reading of John Sheppard's Verbum caro factum est (drawn from the opening of the Gospel of St. John).  And the encore, a motet by Tomás Luis de Victoria, was nearly as good.  It struck me that Stile Antico's true strength isn't actually polyphony at all; they seem to make their best impression with the single, simple power-chord.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A very medieval Christmas

Blue Heron in flight.  Photo by Liz Linder.

The overflow crowd at Blue Heron Choir's Christmas concert last Friday was more evidence (if you needed any) that medieval polyphony - particularly in sacred-music mode - is suddenly "hot."  Stile Antico has been touring with Sting, after all, and Alex Ross recently sang Blue Heron's praises in the New Yorker (interestingly, you could compare the two groups last weekend, when they were both warbling within a few hundred yards of each other in Harvard Square).

It's easy to understand, I think, why this ancient, church-bound style has found a new millennial audience.  For once polyphony has been stripped of its liturgical function, and transformed into concert music, it feels a bit like sung yoga: its color palette is comfortingly limited, and it's tonally simple (though its suspensions can be dissonant, this is more a function of naïveté than conscious design).  What's more, its rhythms are so meditative that its intertwined vocal lines seem to slip the reins of time itself, and expand like a sort of cloud into musical space.  To be honest, this is not music for the goal-oriented; the appeal of a great performance of polyphony lies in its precision, purity, and the clarity of its facets - so perhaps it's best not to think of it as sung yoga, I suppose, but rather as a form of vocal crystal.

The downside of this formula, of course, is that the style can feel repetitive, and when it gets fuzzy or loses its pulse, polyphony transmutes in a moment from diamond to rhinestone.  Blue Heron has been specializing in this stuff for years, however, so last weekend's concert of English late-medieval music generally steered clear of the cubic zirconia.  Some of the full-chorus pieces, alas, did slowly dissolve into an aural fog (I've heard the heavy reverb of the venue, First Congregational Church in Cambridge, work this reverse magic before).  But even a few of these - like the short Sanctus, Nowel syng we bothe al and som, and Nova, Nova at the end of the program - were exquisitely clean and vibrant as shaped by the capable, careful hands of director Scott Metcalfe.

Several of the small ensembles were meanwhile quite wonderful.  The heavenly melody of Hayl Mary, ful of grace remained palpable throughout its performance, and tenor Jason McStoots - one of the group's strongest voices, and a favorite of mine from other concerts - led a rousing all-male rendition of Leonel Power's Gloria.  The trios were often even better.  Pamela Dellal, Daniela Tošić, and Michael Barrett made something exquisite of Selden's Ecce, quod natura, while Tošić and Dellal shone again, with Gerrod Pagenkopf, in Nowel: Owt of your slepe aryse (also Selden).  Perhaps most bewitching was the gorgeous Ther is no rose of swych vertu, which featured Tošić, Barrett, and Paul Guttry, accompanied by Metcalfe on troubadour harp.

Blue Heron knows its way around a little stagecraft as well, I'm happy to report.  The vaults of First Congregational often went dark, to allow singing by candlelight, which added greatly to the haunting atmosphere of such familiar carols as Veni, veni, Emmanuel! And in general Metcalfe deployed his forces across the available space to striking effect. The printed program was also a pleasure, with lyrics in an intriguing mix of Middle English and Latin. As I'll discuss in tomorrow's review, Stile Antico could learn a trick or two from the home team, as they seem to know in their bones how this stuff should be done; indeed, Blue Heron in full flight is a wonder to behold.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Child's play

Barlow Adamson and Andrew Cekala dream of a Red Ryder bb gun.  Photo(s) by Andrew Brilliant.

I'm quite sure A Christmas Story (at the New Rep through December 24) is a nostalgia piece, but I'm not nearly as sure that it's a nostalgia piece about Christmas.  No, it seems more like an elegy for what its author, radio raconteur Jean Shepherd, at one point calls "kid-dom" (and what the rest of us would call "childhood") - that strange land, circumscribed by ineffectual, uncomprehending adults, yet essentially its own terra incognita, in which the young once scrambled by themselves, making their own small-scaled society with its treasures and terrors, and, of course, its own fun.  To watch this superficially cynical (but actually sweet) little fable about one lad's desperate attempt to talk Santa into bestowing a bb gun upon him on Christmas morning is to gaze through a mist of memory upon a lost world.

Think I'm kidding?  Ponder this: in A Christmas Story, the kids aren't wise-beyond-their-years, or technical whizzes; they don't crack jokes like Catskill comedians,  nor do they blog, or discuss their "personal brands" - and they certainly don't patronize their parents, much less attempt to "parent" their parents, because they're too spastic to function yet in the adult world.  They're kids as we used to imagine them, as we used to be able to admit they actually are: mostly average and often dopey, getting into trouble before they know it and making messes of things and generally almost shooting their eyes out - and always trying to scam the adult world even as they scan it for clues as to how things work.  And the adults gaze back at them almost as quizzically; in A Christmas Story, no parent would ever dream of being their kid's "best friend;" both generations think the other one is just plain weird.

In other words, A Christmas Story plays a lot like Jurassic Park; you half-expect a pterodactyl to flap through.  And stranger still, the parents actually PUNISH their children!  Physically!  Yet these episodes lead to no deep psychological trauma - and amazingly, no actual loss of love, either.  (Jean Shepherd was definitely not a psychologist, or he'd know that this is impossible.)  Perhaps most stunningly of all, while Shepherd's kids long for various toys and other material things, and are only too aware of the crummy reality of their lower-edge-of-the-middle-class condition, they also know how not to mind it, how to have a pretty good time anyway.  When little Ralphie, Shepherd's hero, doesn't get his "Red Ryder bb gun with a compass in the stock, and this thing that tells time," he's disappointed, sure, but not apoplectic.  When asked by his old man if he got what he wanted for Christmas, he answers "Almost," with a weary sense of philosophy, to which his old man simply answers, "Well, that's life."

And it is life - or life as we used to know it; a life in which we didn't pretend that our horizons were infinite, in which we were realistic about our limits and understood that love can only function within limits.  (Which is perhaps why Shepherd's evocation of familial affection is actually quite convincing.)  I can well imagine a millennial staring at this show as I might stare at a Martian, but to those of us of a certain age, it's kind of irresistible.  It reminds you of the way your parents loved you (and most of us were, indeed, loved), and of the way you loved them back.

Meanwhile, of course, Shepherd's sense of the tacky madness that infects American life is constantly expressed in hilarious detail.  Here we find once again the teachers obsessed with nice margins, the corny mail-order contests, the bumptious neighbors, the bunny pajamas and yes, the by-now-iconic lady's-leg lamp (above left).  (Shepherd's other great theme - the doomed rebellions of masculine urges against the feminine regime of the suburbs - is also often in evidence, as per Ralphie's humiliation below.)

Ralphie endures the Christmas generosity of the great-aunt who thinks he's a girl.

And the New Rep does well by Shepherd's vision.  Designer Dahlia Al-Habiel captures the hardscrabble of midwinter Indiana in a sprawling set, and if costumer Katherine O'Neill follows the familiar movie by updating the story's timeframe to the late 40's or so (Shepherd was born in 1921), well, that's okay because the jokes still work (and would continue to work into the 60's).  Translating a movie into a stage play requires fluid staging, and director Diego Arciniegas keeps things moving, while drawing from many of his actors performances that I actually preferred to the movie's (which I've always found a little broad and flat, aside from Darren McGavin). Barlow Adamson's energetic narrator, Stacey Fischer's sweet, sad, Mother, Margaret Ann Brady's frustrated schoolmarm ( and grizzled Christmas tree seller), and Gerard Slattery's caustic Santa Claus were all quite memorable.  And in the lead role of Ralphie, young Andrew Cekala handled himself with striking poise and genuine feeling.

Of the main ensemble, I'm afraid I was only slightly disappointed by Owen Doyle's "Old Man," (Ralphie's father).  I'm actually an old classmate of Mr. Doyle - so yes, I was reviewing him thirty years ago, back in college; he just can't get rid of me!  Owen is a talented guy, so I was surprised to find he hadn't yet relaxed into the role, and made the Old Man's frustrations and flare-ups (and humiliations) his own.  But technically the performance is all there.  And I would say that the kids are all as cute as can be, only the whole idea is that they aren't - so let's just say they're accurately rendered!  And if there are a few rough spots or missed beats in their scenes, that's okay, because you wouldn't want a highly polished production of A Christmas Story anyway, that would be a little creepy.  This particular Christmas memory may be all about how the holidays aren't what we pretend they are, but somehow it gets at their sincere essence just the same.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A magic carpet ride in Central Square

The giant rukh takes flight in Arabian Nights.

Arabian Nights, at the Central Square Theatre through December 31, isn't technically a Christmas show, I suppose (can you have a Muslim Christmas show?) - but it feels like a big fat Christmas present just the same.  No, it's not flawless, but Nights is nevertheless just about the best show in town - big and bursting with color and wonder, thanks to brilliant design, evocative puppets, and a tireless troupe of talented actors who once more breathe life into a 1,001 tales that are themselves more than a millennium old.

You probably know the most famous of these, but hardly all 1,001 - and there really are that many (in fact there are actually more), collected over hundreds of years by nameless scribes from lands stretching, it is believed, from Madagascar to India.  The record of these tales, and their framing in the haunting story of Sheherazade (or, as here, Shahrzād), counts as one of the great artistic achievements of mankind.

And I mean "great" as in both deep and enormous - we only get a taste of that sprawl here, however, in Dominic Cooke's smart, savvy adaptation of maybe a half-dozen tales, which range from the familiar ("Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves") to the kid-friendly ("How Abu Hassan Broke Wind").  Parents should note, however, that even in this abbreviated form, Arabian Nights runs a little long for the kindergarten set - and there are a few moments of cruelty and/or sexuality that might lead to awkward questions (these are folk tales, after all, from folk who were always honest about the human body).

As an introduction to the sheer pleasure of story-telling, however - a pleasure in short supply for kids these days, I think - the Arabian Nights simply cannot be beat, and adaptor Cooke has done a fine job of distilling the fascinating logic of their unfolding structures into dramatic form.  He has also nimbly tied one of the more obscure of them ("The Envious Sisters") to the frame-story of Scheherazade, which is here gently tweaked into an explicit feminist fable. (It's only a slight tweak, though - the tale of Scheherazade is a feminist fable, and again one of the great ones.)

Director Daniel Gidron always has a flair with tight, logical structures (he's a terrific farceur), but this time he has also conjured a steady flow of striking imagery to produce an often-mesmerizing production.  Gidron has been aided immensely, though, by designer David Fichter's iridescently-painted "magic carpet" on the stage floor (Fichter is one of the Central Square's secret weapons), and the many delightful puppets designed by Fichter with Will Cabell (including a full-scale rukh, at top), as well as sensuous costume designs by Leslie Held, evocative props by Talia Lefton, and imaginative lighting from Karen Perlow.  In short, the design is pretty much a dream, and the acting is generally just as good.  The entire ensemble is strong, and each gets his or her chance to shine, so I'll just name them all, in alphabetical order: Ramona Lisa Alexander, Paige Clark, Alexander Cook, Evelyn Howe, Elbert Joseph, Ahmad Maksoud, Ibrahim Miari, Vincent E. Siders, and Debra Wise.  It's also worth noting that there is a hearing-impaired actor in this company, who does just fine, thank you very much; and in a very nice and inclusive touch, near the close of this production it begins to shift into simultaneous sign as well as spoken language (after all, what is sign language but full-body story-telling?), which opens up a whole new topic for discussion with the kids.  This version (a co-production of the Nora Theatre and Underground Railway) only plays through New Year's, although if there's any artistic justice, it will be back for future runs; something tells me that Central Square has a classic on its hands.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

I know you're all tired of hearing this, but . . .

 . . .  I do want to point out that in the Times, Oskar Eustis of the Public Theater is quoted as saying:

" . . .if we’re ever in a situation where we’re holding up a major nonprofit stage for a year or two with a single show, you should complain to me.”

Okay, so . . . why is old Oskar so palsy-walsy with Diane Paulus, who has all but crippled the ART's second stage for the past three years with the imposition of The Donkey Show?  I mean, I can't think of any major work that has gone on at "Oberon" since the arrival of that pseudo-Shakespearean quadruped.

So Oskar: I'm officially complaining to you.  If you wouldn't do that kind of thing at your own theatre, why do you support people who do it at theirs?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Hard nut to crack

Mice rock!!!  And for their next trick - Sandinista!!
No one could claim that the Stoneham Theatre has played it safe this holiday season; their current Christmas show, in fact, is an edgy new take on The Nutcracker devised by the House Theatre of Chicago (which also came up with a Stoneham hit from a few years back, The Sparrow). So you can forget those familiar visions of sugar plums dancing in your head - this Nutcracker instead tries to touch on grim themes of loss and mourning, even as it simultaneously attempts to tap into the dark springs of fantasy that bubble from its source, E.T.A.Hoffman's "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King."

But if combining those contrasting modes sounds like a tall order to you - well, your theatrical instincts are quite good: this Nutcracker proves an odd, pointless misfire that thanks to its talented cast is sometimes mildly amusing, but doesn't really deliver on any of its artistic promises.  It's not particularly touching, or particularly scary, or particularly magical; most often it's just goofy, because it never coheres; and alas, it comes with a melody-free "rockin'" musical score that swings between Saved-by-the-Bell banality and flat-out plagiarism (one "dark" number is transparently the chord progression from "London Calling" - yes, by the Clash - only retrofitted with Christmas lyrics).

What's most perplexing about the House Theatre's script, however, is that it abandons its own most daring emotional gambit: in this contemporary version, Clara's brother Fritz is a young Marine struck down on Christmas Eve.  That tragedy dooms one holiday, of course - but must it doom the next?  Clara's bid to bring some sort of joy back to the Yuletide is a poignant one; and when her uncle Drosselmeyer presents her with a toy Nutcracker who looks just like her lost brother, we sense that some sort of unlikely Christmas catharsis may possibly be in the offing.

Only it turns out it's not, largely because the fantasy "Cavalier" that the Nutcracker traditionally turns into is a romantic figure, not a brotherly one; and the script never builds any kind of real relationship between Clara and Fritz, anyhow.  Thus the talented Sirena Abalian and Danny Bryck just don't have anything to play; their scenes together are blanks, still waiting to be filled in.  So you can forget about the "working through mourning" part of the script; even though the local rodents keep hissing all kinds of despairing lines at poor Clara about how Christmas is doooomed, she's simply impervious.  And as for the E.T.A. Hoffmann echoes - well, this version does dwell on the long struggle with the Mouse (here the Rat) King that I remember from the original story.  Only to be honest, this is material which is usually foreshortened because - well, because it's a little convoluted and repetitive.

Sigh.  Somehow I don't think this Nutcracker is going to crack the ranks of the holiday classics (although in a world that thinks Taylor Swift is an "artist," I suppose anything is possible).  I'm duty-bound, however, to report that the solid Stoneham cast gives it their best shot, and there's really not a weak performance in the show.  Director Caitlin Lowans has drawn uniformly strong work not only from the charmingly natural Miss Abalian and the sweetly mechanical Mr. Bryck, but also from the witty Meagan Hawkes, Mark Linehan, William Gardiner, Grant MacDermott, Alycia Sacco, and Nick Sulfaro (all these folks can sing, too).  Indeed, sometimes these troopers at times almost convince you they're working with real emotional material.  Meanwhile Christopher Ostrom contributes some appropriately spooky lighting (although alas, his set looks more appropriate to Alice in Wonderland), and Stoneham's live band sounds capable enough, although the composers of this mediocre score sound anything but.  And I'm afraid there's nothing like a lame Christmas song to make me let rip with the "bah, humbugs."

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Secular Messiah

Boston Baroque in action.

Once, a generation ago, Martin Pearlman was regarded as an ionoclast, and his vision of Handel's Messiah - performed on period instruments, with light, agile forces, and to tempos derived from dance - seemed revolutionary; indeed, Pearlman was in the vanguard of those who "took back" Handel from a century or more of grandiose Victorian encrustation.

By now, however, his ideas have proven so persuasive, and been so widely adopted, that perhaps they themselves are looking a little dated.  Period instruments are everywhere, and a dancing lilt is practically the norm in baroque performance; "early music" is now in its mature phase, and re-considerations, further investigations, and even partial refutations of some of its founding principles have taken over the cutting edge of the scene.

Thus Harry Christophers has constantly experimented with the oratorio over at Handel and Haydn, sometimes achieving dazzling new effects; but meanwhile, at Boston Baroque, Pearlman has merely tinkered here and there - usually in attempts to bring this or that sequence into ever-closer (but always in the end hypothetical) alignment with period practice.  He simply seems to have remained largely satisfied with what to many is now the "standard" early music reading of Handel's masterpiece.

And after all, I suppose, if it ain't baroque, why fix it?  (Har-de-har.)  Still, as I've listened to the "Pearlman version" over the years, more and more questions about its principles and assumptions have gathered in my mind.  The conductor has always insisted, for instance, that Messiah is not really "sacred music" at all; he often repeats the point that Handel never played the score in a church - it was designed for theatrical performance, indeed its own librettist described it as "a fine Entertainment."  The Pearlman version is essentially an entirely secular Messiah.

And this case sounds awfully convincing, I admit, until you begin to sense that Pearlman is playing a bit of historical sleight-of-hand in his argument.  For to be blunt, it's hard to buy Messiah as an eighteenth-century Jesus Christ Superstar for the simple reason that it never pushes back on its central myth (much less attempts any of the sly satire that Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber got away with).  Indeed, Messiah never (ever) critiques or questions its title subject; instead it blatantly operates as a straightforward, if amazingly deep and brilliant, evocation of the central tenet of Christianity.  It is not merely an exquisite "drama," (as Pearlman would have it) just as the tale of Abraham and Isaac is not merely a punchy short story; it is essentially a religious, or at least metaphysical, idea made musical flesh.  The fact that it played in commercial theatres hardly demonstrates that it's inherently secular - on the contrary, it instead implies that Christianity still so pervaded the culture in Handel's day that sacred music could be seen as part of the hit parade.

This hardly invalidates all of Pearlman's premises; but these kinds of thoughts make you wish he could continue to investigate the piece musically, to take a break now and then from his dancing, dotted meters and see where the piece might take him.  He has already thoroughly re-thought its style; now, one wishes he would turn the same level of insight to its content, and how that might be better reflected in its form.  For Messiah is not merely a dance, or a fine entertainment, any more than King Lear is just a show.  There is a grandeur and mystery to it that's not at all related to Victorian pomposity, true - but merely dispensing with that pomposity doesn't necessarily conjure its full dimensions.

Still, I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a pleasure to hear the Boston Baroque version every Christmas.  And last weekend, as ever, it was graceful, intimate and charming.  A bit rushed here and there (sometimes even in Christ's darkest hours).  But also often warm and luminous - and Boston Baroque does give Messiah a sense of dramatic arc that many other versions lack. "For unto us a child is born," for instance, remains almost a sprint in Part I, but Pearlman ties its dramatic thrust to the pieces that follow, so that we subconsciously perceive Handel's evocation of the Nativity as a single dramatic unit (ending with the famous encomium from Luke, "Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, good will towards men").  Pearlman pulls off a similar, but even subtler, trick, at the end of Part II, where he persuasively links the cry of "Hallelujah!" to the rising militarist metaphors of the preceding airs and choruses.

And Pearlman generally chooses his soloists well - or at least they usually form a fairly coherent group in  terms of style.  Last weekend, the standout of Messiah line-up - really, the concert's secret weapon - was the great Ava Pine, who is a wonderful actress as well as a terrific soprano, and who sang with glorious authority, particularly during her airs in Part I.  Tenor Keith Jameson was also in splendid voice, and sang with radiant emotional transparency.  Meanwhile baritone Andrew Garland projected a stern, commanding tone that served him well when he was singing about raging, or shaking; but alas, the sense of spiritual transcendence that undergirds "The trumpet shall sound" - one of the great arias for baritone in the repertory - seemed to elude him.  And I'm afraid alto Julia Mintzer was even more variable, largely because a good portion of the role lay below her "break" (the point at which a singer generally shifts from "head" to "chest" voice).  Thus Ms. Mintzer was often clearly negotiating her performance technically, which pulled focus from the fact that her tone above her break was often complex and compelling.

Meanwhile the Boston Baroque orchestra, as always, played with verve and grace.  Alas, this year trumpeter Robinson Pyle didn't quite equal his brilliant playing of "The trumpet shall sound" from last season - condensation within the horn muddied a few notes in the latter half of the aria (as often happens with natural horns).  But the audience gave him an ovation anyway - everyone knows the piece is a killer.  And if the chorus couldn't quite give us pinpoint diction or a wide palette of color at the speeds Pearlman sometimes favored, still they sang quite cohesively, with both passion and pure tone.  Which reminded me that in a way, the thoughtful re-enactment of a musical tradition can be its own kind of Christmas present.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

All you want for Christmas - and less!

The Reduced Shakespeare Company
Okay, folks, it's back to our regularly scheduled programming here at the Hub Review.  When I heard that the Reduced Shakespeare Company (you know, the guys who famously "abridged" the Bard) was coming to the Merrimack Rep with their Christmas show, I couldn't help but wonder, "Wow - has someone really figured out a way to abridge Christmas?"

Well, no such luck, I'm afraid.  The RSC's (yeah, it kind of reminds you of that other Shakespeare company, doesn't it) Ultimate Christmas Show doesn't really boast any of the whip-smart condensations that made The Complete Works such a hoot (like the British crown working its way down a football field in a mash-up of the history plays).  Instead, this time you get a quick shot of just about every tradition in the seasonal sprawl - from the Nativity to Dickens to the Nutcracker to Kwanzaa and Hanukkah - at random, without much in the way of witty insight connecting the dots.

The conceit for all this is that a blizzard has stranded the traveling "St. Everybody's Universalist Multicultural Interfaith Holiday Variety Show and Christmas Pageant." So the RSC is forced, like Judy and Mickey back in the day, to put on the show themselves. And if that set-up sounds a little tired, I also have to report that part of the joke is that the wit isn't actually all that fresh, either - you've heard many of these gags (or something like them) before; the fact that even our Christmas parodies are going meta is built right into the show.

Still, the energy of the RSC - Reed Martin, Austin Tichenor, and Matt Rippy (at right) - keeps the show moving, and gradually it wins you over.  These guys are willing to do anything for a laugh (warning: they not only cross-dress at will but also come out in their underwear) - but as they keep throwing comic spaghetti (and ornaments and holly) at the theatrical wall, some of it inevitably sticks.  And their sheer gonzo-goofiness is appealing, too - even when they willfully pursue "stoo-pid" ideas (I don't know why dressing the Three Wise Men up as the BeeGees is funny, for example, but slowly it becomes hilarious).

To my mind, the audience participation sequences were the jolliest - particularly the sing-along "Twelve Days of Christmas," in which people got to carol their own wish list (Ferraris and Maseratis were popular items up in Lowell).  And a few of the lines, like "I'm a Utilitarian; I believe in God when it's useful!" were up to the usual RSC standard.  I'm also happy to admit that the finale - in which the Nutcracker gets it in the pistachios - was well worth the wait. And for all the jabs at political correctness, rest assured, this is a naughty, but also very politically-correct, show.  And a sweet one, too.  Which is perfectly okay, to my mind; I mean, seriously, what's so funny about peace, love and understanding?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Should the gays be reviewing the blacks?, or: Is there too much swish to the Ish?

Charles Isherwood of the Times (at left) is back in the news, with a particularly clueless review of Lydia Diamond's Stick Fly, which has reached Broadway after taking several regional theatres by storm (in Boston, the show was so sold out that long lines of people waited patiently outside the Huntington every night in the hope that some ticket-holders would be no-shows).  To most observers (including yours truly), Stick Fly looked like the next August: Osage County; if not a commercial slam dunk, then a highly probable success.

Isherwood's pan has thrown a wrench into all those plans, of course (Stick Fly could overcome a negative Times review, but it's unlikely) - so it's no surprise the usual suspects have pointed out that he's white, and that Diamond is black.  So how could he understand her play?

The situation is a bit more complex than the blogosphere would like to admit, however, because what's most interesting about Diamond's drama is that it's about class first, and race second; in fact its (almost-) entirely African-American cast is monied and educated, so for the first time in American stage history (perhaps), Broadway audiences find themselves watching a 'well-made' play of upper bourgeois manners in which questions of race have been (to a large degree) transcended, while questions of class and privilege remain entrenched.

And you know, I hate to sound like a school-marm, but this is important; it makes Stick Fly a kind of milestone, whatever its various flaws - and yes, it does have some; it does tilt occasionally toward soap opera, I admit.  But seriously, only a fool could imagine it's not a good play - a solid entertainment that could appeal to a large, literate audience and leave them with big, tasty topics to chew on.  Sorry, but this is part of what Broadway is for (or should be for).

Still, "the Ish" is blind to the play's significance.  I'm not sure if it's because he's (very) white, however (of course I've been the object of that kind of accusation myself, so perhaps I'm too sensitive to it).

No, to me the issue with the Ish may be that he's just too gay.

Now I'm gay too, so let me explain.  Look carefully at the style of his takedown (and it's typical of many of his takedowns, btw).  He opens with one of his self-consciously "fabulous" wisecracks:

The daytime soaps are being bug-zapped from the networks one by one, disappearing into oblivion  after decades of reliably dishing out startling coincidences and staggering secrets.

Studded with gay cultural touchstones ("daytime soap," "dish"), the pan is already, from its opening line, a blend of several modes of post-modern pop - the Ish confidently mixes a certain mode of trashy taste (stereotypically beloved by women) with a dash of patronizing lit-crit savvy, as well as a shot of naughty gay "oh-you-know-you-love-it" knowingness.  This is a familiar formula, but the Ish dishes it better than just about anyone.

You may sense immediately, however, that these tropes may not map to the concerns of the African-American haute bourgeoisie.  But the Ish seems tone-deaf to this issue; he doesn't realize he's a stranger in a strange land.  Indeed, the cultural sophistication of Diamond's dialogue and the fact that she's consciously taking on a "white" mainstream tradition seem to short-circuit whatever larger social perspectives linger in his brain. Thus he totters on through his column inches with one quip after another, like a drag queen on a bender staggering around a stripper pole:

Where to go for a sustaining dose of torrid, troubled romances and the occasional heated catfight? he wonders, and then ( just in case none of the ladies who lunch has answered, I guess) he lets us know: Lydia R. Diamond supplies enough simmering conflict, steamy romance and gasp-worthy revelations to satisfy just about anyone suffering withdrawal symptoms from the merciless soap slaughter that’s taken place over the last couple of years.

Now seriously - "gasp-worthy revelations?"  "Steamy romance?" "Soap slaughter?" Oh, snap!!  Now I know his reviewing style has always operated in some strange cultural nexus between Babe Paley, Charles Busch, Harold Bloom, and that lady who buys romance paperbacks at the airport, but isn't this a bit much? Okay, Isherwood loves his trash (and his porn - his magnum opus, about porn bottom Joey Stefano, at left), yet he simultaneously seems to imagine that anything less astringent than Beckett is basically fodder for Days of Our Lives.  I'm sorry, but something about that just doesn't work.

And you have to wonder - does he never come up for air? Because the soap-addicted gay tropes just keep on coming:  "daddy issues" . . . "a Tyler Perry melodrama" . . . "sitcommy and slack" . . . Isherwood does eventually pick up on the issues of class that pervade this "melodrama" (I'd call it a "drama"), but even here he seems to imagine that Diamond is stumbling on these things unintentionally (perhaps because he is - the Ish never seems to realize that his ironic embrace of "trash" is really just another form of class-bound snobbery).

Now the New York production may be far weaker than the well-acted version I saw in Boston last year; it's possible, but I kind of doubt it.  I think it's far more likely that the Ish simply latched on to the admittedly sudsy tone of one or two of Diamond's sub-plots, and then worked backwards from them in his usual gay-cookie-cutter-style to a condescending dismissal. The upshot, however, is that he seems to be ridiculing the African-American upper class as well as Diamond; to him, a straightforward drama about its success and complicated mores is little more than a soap opera.

And to be blunt, I don't think a straight white man would make the same mistake (they're too cautious these days!). And it's not too much of a stretch to imagine that gay tunnel vision is what makes Adam Rapp a mystery to the Ish as well; the gays don't much "get" damaged straight boys either. (In fact there are a lot of things the gays don't get; no, that doesn't make me "self-hating," it just means I appreciate the strengths and the limits of my own tribe.)

So whats the solution? No, not a witch hunt against other white, or other gay, reviewers. But it's time for the Times to hire a second second-stringer. Past time, probably. And it's time for Charles Isherwood to turn off the porn, get off the couch, and start to learn a little more about the big, wide, changing world around him, and the Broadway play's place within that world.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

So, Mumbles has lost my vote

Out of the donut shop and into the street: Menino's minions during the raid.  Photo by Rachel L. Brody.

If last night was for getting drunk on the possibilities, today is for facing the sober reality.  As you probably know by now, the Boston Police moved in this morning at 5 AM with an overwhelming force and cleared Dewey Square of Occupy Boston, being careful to limit and block media access and public awareness of the action in every way possible.   You can make donations for legal counsel, etc., here.

So the dream is over, dear friends, but you know, as somebody once said, we just have to carry on. There's a General Assembly tonight at 7 pm on Boston Common.  Mayor Menino may not want us to take back our country, but it's still possible, remember that.  This dream may be over, but another can take its place.  The struggle is not over; it's never over.

Before the police state moved in.  Photo by People's Open Graphics.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Scenes from an Occupation

Photo by Occupy Boston
Last night it was easy to get drunk on the possibilities.

I got to Occupy Boston late - about 11:30 pm, only half an hour before Mayor Menino's "deadline" for the evacuation of Dewey Square (and after having promised the partner unit I was NOT going to get arrested, no matter what, even though I'd been watching all the civil disobedience training on the live feed).

When I arrived, the camp felt slightly schizophrenic - near Summer Street, a brass band was playing, drums were pounding, and people were defiantly dancing; in the camp itself, many tents were down (particularly the expensive ones); and up on Assembly Hill, the mood was serious - though hardly grim. People were debating when the police might arrive, and what the most unbreakable positions were for forming human chains.  Those who were less sure of their commitment to spending the night in a holding cell were being exhorted to cross the street, and take positions in the park before the Federal Reserve.   And the media was everywhere, not asking any questions or gathering any actual data, of course, but instead clasping their earpieces and intoning their insipid impressions into their cameras and klieg lights.  Altogether there were several hundred - maybe a thousand - people on the scene.  Every now and then, the human mic announced "Four minutes to midnight!" or "Three minutes to midnight!"  Overhead, helicopters circled  - two drifting so close to each other they seemed to be kissing in the dark.

Midnight finally arrived - and there was a strange sense of suspended expectancy in the nippy air.  One young woman cried out - echoed by the human mic - "Whatever happens - I want you all to know - that I love you!"  (For a moment, everyone shouted "I LOVE YOU!")  Later the human mic instructed us "Look at the person next to you!  That person is a hero!  Give them a hug!"  (People hugged.)  A circle of chaplains stopped praying and began to sing.  The brass band - led by Emerson's John Bell  (I also saw actor Danny Bryck earlier) - began marching along Atlantic Avenue, playing standards like "When the Saints Come Marchin' In" and just generally raising hell. The vibe was a valiant one; we were going to go down laughing.

But the police continued to not arrive - so the mood began to shift toward relief, and a cautious optimism.  The locus of the crowd moved from Assembly Hill to the curbs of Atlantic Ave, holding up signs and waving to passing cars.  Along the edge of the encampment, the brass band suddenly launched into "Here Comes the Bride," and I pressed forward to find an actual, impromptu marriage in progress - by one of the chaplains - between a pretty girl and her bearded, beaming groom.  They'd brought their vows, which the human mic recited, including a joyful "I DO!" at the end, and then the band gave Mendelssohn's "Wedding March" their best shot as the couple vanished into the crowd amid cheers.  The chaplain shrugged.  "They had their license with them!" she laughed happily.  "So why not?"

Back on Atlantic Avenue, by now folks were over the curb, and a chant had begun: "Out of the camp and into the streets!"  The crowd took all the lanes but one - and then suddenly took that one too.  As flashes popped, a gaggle of young people lay down in the middle of the street, staring up with their best "I'm not goin' ANYWHERE" faces as people cheered.

I thought this might be the beginning of the expected stand-off - that perhaps Menino had simply guessed that eventually in their triumph the occupiers would go too far.  But instead the small police presence wearily retreated, and began waving the stalled traffic back onto Summer Street.  In a few moments, the street had been closed, dozens of more kids were on the pavement, and the mood had become uproarious.  People  scrawled slogans and drew peace signs on the white traffic stripes of Atlantic Ave.  The drummers moved in, and the crowd began dancing in the street as many chanted "Together we're unstoppable/another world is possible!"

The media looked stunned; this wasn't the story they were expecting to cover.  Panicking, they began to dog the police offers ("Attention media: Please do not rush the police!" one impish protester intoned through a bullhorn.)  The police assured them, however, that there were no plans to remove the encampment that night - a message which slowly filtered out to everybody.

That, of course, doesn't mean the struggle is over, or that anyone has "won" anything.  Indeed, in a way the struggle hasn't even begun - Occupy Boston still doesn't have a plan for effective political action (no, shaking your fist at the Federal Reserve and peeing on its flowers doesn't count).

But the moment was still sweet.  And hopeful, yes, hopeful.  When I left the scene (I'm old, after all, I can't stay out all night, my joints will lock) the kids were still dancing, knowing they weren't going to jail after all.  Somebody had blown up a huge bouquet of balloons, and suddenly decided to free them from their tether.  They drifted up into the darkness, toward the waiting helicopters.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The livestream from Occupy Boston

Watch live streaming video from occupyboston at

Just because tonight it might get interesting.

PS You can contribute to the legal fund here.

Call or email Mayor Menino and tell him to stop threatening Occupy Boston

The mayor in Mussolini mode.
Mayor Menino has given the occupiers till midnight to clear out of Dewey Square. This is important. The number for the Mayor's office is 617-635-4500. The email is My message went as follows:

Dear Mayor Menino:

I am a long-time Boston resident and have always been a supporter of yours but I swear I will never vote for you again if you clear Dewey Square of Occupy Boston.

Instead of threatening the "occupiers," you should be engaging with them in an effort to develop an effective political action plan for their cause, so that eventually the physical occupation itself will be irrelevant.

Suppressing what is essentially a valid protest of a society's inequities only and always ensures that said protest will return in a more violent form.

I urge you to reconsider your ultimatum.


Thomas Garvey

PS - If you care about the future of your country, it would be a good idea to go down to Dewey Square tonight.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Messiah at Handel and Haydn Society

Jesse Levine plays like an angel.  Photo(s): Kyle T. Hemingway.
One of the sillier aspects of our age is the proliferation of pseudo-"rebellions" in the performing arts. As the populace behaves more and more like sheep in the political sphere, ironically enough, they seem to be aping revolutionaries at the theatre.  Sometimes I think there ought to be a word for this phenomenon (I nominate "fauxbellion") - or at least for its more irritating forms, like the new-fangled tendency not to stand during the "Hallelujah Chorus"of Handel's Messiah.  People who yawned at the invasion of Iraq seem, oddly enough, to take this issue close to heart.  Apparently they imagine being couch potatoes throughout the rousing climax to this fantastic oratorio counts as some sort of statement.

But to be blunt, you should stand during the "Hallelujah Chorus."  Not for George II, of course (who, legend has it, began the tradition, perhaps without realizing it).  And not for the Baby Jesus, either - at least not necessarily.

You should stand for Handel.  For artistic greatness.  For recognized artistic greatness, which it doesn't hurt to re-recognize once a year.

And you should stand for the Handel and Haydn Society chorus and orchestra, too, at least when they're in as fine a form as they were last weekend.  Artistic director Harry Christophers once more worked a kind of miracle with their combined forces, conjuring from many of the choruses huge, exquisitely balanced musical experiences that seemed to expand before your eyes like fields of stars.  This year's "For to us a Child is born," for example, was hands-down the greatest performance of this chestnut I've ever heard, ever (even from H&H), and hot on its heels were powerful renderings of the fugue "He trusted in God that He would deliver Him," and, of course, that famous chorus discussed at top.

Meanwhile the orchestra was (mostly) in just as splendid shape - new concert mistress Aisslin Nosky was missing (due to commitments entered into prior to signing with H&H), but the strings sounded just as transparent and robust as they had at their last outing, and on their first appearance (as the trumpets of the angels, up in the balconies of Symphony Hall, at top), the horns sounded wonderful, too - alas, later on, in the most exposed playing of the oratorio ("The trumpet shall sound") things got wobbly - which is always a risk when you're playing a "natural" horn (that is, one with no valves).

As for the soloists - well, as has sometimes happened before, they were a slight puzzlement.  Fine singers all, but rather a motley crew; I still don't understand what Christophers is going for in his line-ups for Messiah.  This time we got a bel canto soprano, the elegant Sarah Coburn, with a glowing bloom at the top of her range; but she didn't have the crispest diction when set against the pinpoint enunciations of the chorus (from her bio, it's clear she's used to singing in Italian).  And Coburn was paired with a countertenor, Lawrence Zazzo - who had an intriguing timbre and sang with mournful fire, but who, like most countertenors, scraped a bit on the low notes of the role.  Meanwhile Tom Randle, who is familiar from many previous H&H outings, seemed to take his time warming up - although his initial diffidence did give way to more assured power as the evening wore on.  Baritone Tyler Duncan, by way of contrast, was powerful from the start, and also boasted an intriguingly complex timbre - but he, too, dicted a bit slackly, mostly because he tended to drop away at the ends of his lines.

To be fair - all had fine moments, and all are interesting singers; it was just hard to see how they fit together as a set, as a statement.  That question only exists, though, because by now the orchestra and chorus have become so cohesive.  So someday, I'm sure (perhaps after years of tinkering), Christophers will find a dream quartet to match the accompanying musical forces he has tuned so finely.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

It's a Wonderful Life, but a lousy market economy

The brilliant "bank run" scene from Capra's classic.

I took last Saturday night "off," as it were, and let the performing arts fend for themselves - and instead  curled up at home before the TV.  And to my happy surprise, I found It's a Wonderful Life had begun its holiday rotation.

It's by now a commonplace, of course, that Shakespeare seems to map to every age; and maybe great films do, too.  For certainly Frank Capra's last masterpiece qualifies as great, and certainly in today's hard times it seems more resonant than ever.

Of course to some, the movie's sentimental message makes it a tough sell - and I won't make any apologies for the angels and twinkly stars that overlay much of Life; Capra lays it on pretty thick in spots. But I've often noticed that the movie's skeptics always miss the hard center beneath the sweet surface of what used to be called "Capra-corn."

For there's a worldly awareness at the bottom of Capra's vision that you won't find at the multiplex today - not even in the best from Spielberg or Pixar.  Indeed, Capra regularly trades in situations we just wouldn't tolerate in family entertainment anymore.  Consider that It's a Wonderful Life features (right off the top) a little boy who, playing with no supervision, almost drowns in a frozen pond - his brother saves him, but as a result loses his hearing in one ear.  This is disturbing enough, but then a drunken (and heart-broken) druggist boxes that boy on his injured ear until it bleeds (as he wails in pain); in Spielberg, retribution would be swift: such a character would quickly be eaten by a dinosaur or shark.   Yet in Capra's movie, it's natural that innocents are left unprotected, and suffer as a result - and that people who under some circumstances can be terribly cruel are also redeemable, and even perhaps basically gentle and good (that druggist, Mr. Gower, becomes one of the hero's closest friends).

In fact throughout It's a Wonderful Life a highly un-sentimental view of existence prevails, beneath the sweet fairy tale of angels getting their wings.  People cut ethical corners left and right (like George Bailey's handsome brother Harry, who leaves George stuck with the family building-and-loan), and are constantly tempted by the blandishments of money and sex (like Gloria Grahame's Violet, who's always on the edge of slipping from "bad girl" status to something worse).  Or they're simply weak, like George's Uncle Billy (the great Thomas Mitchell), who fumbles through life, making messes of things, then drinks to console himself.  The seemingly bucolic Bedford Falls is really no kind of utopia - something serious is always at stake there, and someone or something is always hanging in the moral  balance.

Of course the film constantly reminds us, too, that people can surprise you.  The callow Harry becomes a war hero - just as Mr. Gower turns out to be a saint - and even Violet thinks better of her ways.  The movie's conceit is that there's a kind of moral force field in town that keeps nudging people back on, or at least near to, the straight and narrow (and which draws its only real power from the sacrifices of people like George).  Thus no one in It's a Wonderful Life is precisely, or only, what they seem to be; they're always capable of far better, and far worse.

The dark side of Life - George in crisis.
Even the idealistic hero, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart, at left, in an iconic role), isn't really what he at first appears.  The townsfolk always seem delighted with him, but every time I see It's a Wonderful Life, I'm struck by how much anger and frustration are roiling around in Stewart's performance.  All George wants to do is escape from Bedford Falls, and he's often furious when over and over again, his moral duties and feelings frustrate that desire.

And yet in that very frustration, he nevertheless finds something - well, wonderful (and so do we).  Which leads me to something else intrinsic to the movie that you won't find at the multiplex: the admission that moral action demands sacrifice.  The sentimental, consumerist bromides of our own age insist you can become rich by being virtuous - which easily bleeds into the sleazier insinuation that riches operate as their own moral validation.  But Capra (pardon my French) calls bullshit on all that crap.  Morality has its rewards, the director tells us - and great ones - but they're not physical or financial.  George saves his brother only by losing half his hearing; and he and Mary only preserve the building and loan by giving up their honeymoon.  Being good will cost you something.

All this, of course, speaks of a kind of moral scope (and sense of everyday moral danger) that's all but lost to us today. And it's hard not to feel that this moral dimension is tied to something else that's more striking than ever about It's a Wonderful Life: the fact that it offers the most sophisticated view of economic life ever committed to American film.  Indeed, the famous "bank run" scene (at top) is so financially complex that - even though its developing situation is described quite accurately and explicitly as it unfolds - everyone I've ever spoken to about it essentially mis-remembers it (the Bailey Building & Loan isn't actually in any trouble, for instance, even though most people imagine that's the case - the crisis has been precipitated by a run on a bank down the street).

Some viewers have watched this scene and claimed that the moral points it scores are false, assuming that the Bailey Building and Loan must have been involved in the kind of high-risk mortgages that contributed to the Great Recession of 2008.  But of course nothing could be further from the truth.  First, as I stated earlier, the Bailey Building and Loan is presented as quite solvent (Uncle Billy only locks its doors because the local bank, in full melt-down, has demanded its liquid assets on short notice, so there's no cash in the till).  And we understand that while the Bailey collection policy has involved flexibility in hard times, its customers aren't deadbeats.  Indeed, George Bailey certainly hasn't off-loaded his debts in the derivatives market, because he knows his customers - and in hard times, their character has sometimes operated as their collateral.

All of this is alien to the economy of 2008, but wait - it gets "worse" (if you're a libertarian, that is): George Bailey bails out the Building and Loan (note that pun in his surname) by giving Ayn Rand the swift kick in the ass she deserves, and offering up his own assets - he and Mary's nest-egg for their honeymoon - to cover the day's cash demands.  He also makes a slew of promises and statements to his customers that are perfectly illegal, and he swings the entire deal without ever consulting his Board. The whole scene is a short course in how when the bottom falls out of a market, no amount of economic tinkering can fix it; only personal commitment can assuage the panic.  And thus George holds the building and loan together - but only by ignoring both his legal "responsibilities" and the mores of the free market.

Which is no surprise to anyone who has spent time in Real Life, as opposed to Second Life, and knows that the "invisible hand of the market" must always be guided from self-destruction by another invisible hand - that of the community.  But if the people like George Bailey who gave that guidance were to vanish, then there would be no salvation possible - and thus the film's final nightmare vision of the world as it would be without him.  The new main street of casinos, honky-tonks and pawn shops that George faces there plays today as amusingly hysterical - but is it so far from the truth?  Indeed, isn't that precisely what Massachusetts is turning into even as we speak?  To be blunt, to today's viewers, "Pottersville" is no hypothetical dystopia - indeed, it looks utterly familiar; it's a Las-Vegas vision many people promote every day with a straight face.  Only look at the faces you find there - this is when It's a Wonderful Life becomes far more frightening than its ultimate source, A Christmas Carol.  In the world as run by Ebeneezer Scrooge, Mr. Gower is humiliated and utterly abject - desperate and dazed, he even chuckles along with his own abuse; Ma Bailey runs her flophouse with a face like a hatchet and eyes like a vulture; and we see poor Violet, screaming at the top of her lungs, as she is thrown out into the street for lewd behavior.

Of course maybe all this seems more poignant now because we're so lost as a nation, so unable to even envision what we must do to prevail over our current crisis.  When It's a Wonderful Life was first enshrined on the nation's cable channels, the Reagan Republicans had only just begun to tear at the social fabric - and the movie's liberal platitudes had begun to sound quaint.  Now, of course, free market theory is triumphant, and so It's a Wonderful Life has quickly morphed from a corny Hallmark card to a sad memento of a paradise lost.  For there are no George Baileys left to save us from Mr. Potter, and we all live in Pottersville now.