Monday, December 31, 2012

Blood spray on my popcorn! or Quentin off-leash! (Part1)

I knew early on in Django Unchained that I wasn't going to be able to take it seriously - even though according to A.O. Scott, it's "a troubling and important movie about slavery and racism."  (HA!)  You see, right at the top there's this title card telling us that Quentin Tarantino's latest flick/fleshlight is set in "1858 - two years before the Civil War."

Two years before the Civil War?  Really?  You're sure about that - two?

Now we were only maybe five seconds into the film proper, but already I was thinking that maybe someone who wanted to make "a troubling and important movie about slavery and racism" might, you know, have fact-checked when the fucking Civil War started.

But then again, it turned out Quentin was actually just setting the proper tone.  Because his movie had nothing to do with history, it turned out. I mean not real live history. Not the history that African-Americans have endured in the United States of America.  Not that.

No, it's about movie history, of course.  (Is there any other kind for Quentin?)  And you know, if he can win World War II all by himself (as he did in his last opus) what does it matter when the "actual" Civil War occurred? Tarantino's a cinematic god, goddamnit. He may look like Jay Leno's grandma on meth, but hey - respect the genius, know what I'm sayin'?

Likewise, does it matter that the "mandingo fights" central to the plot of Django Unchained never really occurred - at least not according to those fusty old, you know, history-people? I mean mandingo fights were in a movie - Mandingo, in fact - and hell, that's good enough for Wesley Morris! Oh, and wait - you're saying the Ku Klux Klan (which also appears, sort of, below) didn't exist until Reconstruction?  What the fuck does that matter, asshole?  THE KLAN IS IN A MOVIE - BIRTH OF A NATION - SO TAKE THAT MOTHERFUCKER!!  Seriously, what are we talking about here?

How sad is Les Miz? Very very VERY sad!

One nice New Yawk family reacts.  They've been to funerals that weren't so sad!!!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The rest of the best of 2012

To continue my survey of the best of the year, I've once more singled out those local productions that I'd happily have squeezed into my top 10, if only there was room.  So in no particular order, here are the Top 20 of 2012 -

Hamlet - The Shakespeare's Globe production (above) of this warhorse (which cantered through ArtsEmerson) hardly counted as a full account of Hamlet; but then it had clearly been trimmed to the dimensions of what you might have seen at the play's premiere, before any scholarly exegesis had built up around the text.  Thus the actors didn't realize they were in the central classic of the Western canon,  and so their performances were swift, funny, a bit hammy, and always wicked-smart - and pitched to the crowd, not the critics.  Buoyed by a zippy lead performance from Michael Benz, this production did something unusual for Hamlet - it charmed.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom - The first of a trio of quality productions from the Huntington, this moving version of August Wilson's breakout play showcased a breakout performance from local actor Jason Bowen (right).  And the rest of the sterling cast - despite a few questionable flourishes by director Liesl Tommy - reminded us again and again of Wilson's greatness.  As the production wrapped the Huntington's long commitment to this playwright's "Century Cycle," there was also a bittersweet edge to its final bow.

The Luck of the Irish - Kristen Greenidge's evocation of the lingering effects of Boston apartheid was a landmark, if only because it was the first play staged by a major company to cover this central fact of life in the Athens of America (somehow everybody else missed it!). Greenidge's text proved bumpy here and there, but the strong cast at the Huntington put it over, and at her best the playwright turned a harrowing mirror on our hometown's cruel codes of class as well as race - and served notice that yes, Boston theatre can actually be about Boston.

Good People - Once more the Huntington turned its sights on questions of race and class in the Hub (what are they thinking?), and delivered a bittersweet valentine to the good people of Southie in David Lindsay-Abaire's Broadway hit.  More polished than Luck, its power was somewhat muted by a key miscasting; but homegirls Karen MacDonald and Nancy E. Carroll were peerless in their evocation of the Southie sisterhood.

Art - The New Rep is always at its best when it's at its most intimate.  I was surprised, therefore, that the company presented Yasmina Reza's cerebral comedy of manners on their sweeping mainstage - but luckily Antonio Ocampo-Guzman's production still had the subtle appeal you'd expect in their downstairs space.  And the cast - local stalwarts Doug Lockwood, Robert Walsh, and Robert Pemberton - were all at the top of their respective games.

Guys and Dolls - The North Shore Music Theatre produced a big, bold, satisfying version (above) of this enduring classic last fall.  No new interpretation, no experimentation - just Frank Loesser served straight up, no chaser.  Which is just how we like it.

The Voice of the Turtle - Merrimack Rep has long been committed to reviving small-scale American classics, and the results have been reliably strong. This one was exquisite. You may have heard of Voice of the Turtle as one of the longest-running productions in Broadway history; this gently luminous version, directed by Carl Forsman, made the reasons for that success quietly clear.

Fen - Whistler in the Dark found its way through Caryl Churchill's strange bog of a play, in which past and present mix in a dark meditation on personal freedom in a world circumscribed by history. Director Meg Taintor coaxed a surprising level of subtlety from a stable of Whistler's best talent in this haunting production.

Polaroid Stories - The fringe came together (in this joint effort from Heart&Dagger, Happy Medium, and Boston Actors' Theater) to make the most of Naomi Iizuka's mean-streets version of The Metamorphoses (I know, Ovid again - what's up with that?).  Under the joint direction of Joey Pelletier and Elise Weiner Wulff, an enormous cast of fringe players gave their most committed performances to date in a production of astonishing maturity.

Floyd Collins - The other big news on the fringe was the rise of Moonbox Productions, which made a splash with their second production, Adam Guettel's early musical Floyd Collins.  The earnest confidence and high quality of the show put Moonbox on the map, and did the same for its star, Phil Tayler (left), who demonstrated astonishing versatility across the season in productions of Avenue Q and Of Mice and Men.

Well, that makes a full twenty, which means it's a wrap for 2012.  But who knows - perhaps I will see one of the best productions of 2013 in just a week or two!

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The best of Boston theatre in 2012

Well, what can I say . . . 2012 wasn't the end of the world.  So that was disappointing!

On the upside, it did prove a solid year for local theatre and performance art.  There were no big game-changers over the course of the past twelve months, various trends in the local scene simply continued . . . But a surprising number of sterling shows surfaced nonetheless - many of them at the Huntington, which by now has moved so far ahead of the local pack that it's in a class by itself (even as the ART, its former rival, was all but entirely eclipsed in intellectual terms by ArtsEmerson). There were also a clutch of stunning visiting productions, even as our larger theatres (again the Huntington and ArtsEmerson) began to showcase local talent more and more - and for the first time, I think, the fringe proved more artistically fertile than our mid-sized houses.

The great gap in the season (as usual) was its lack of engagement with our fraught political times. Theatre, which should be our most political art, is generally now our least political art.  I'm not sure what to do about that; but while I think about it, here are ten bouquets presented to those who created my best theatrical memories from the past year:

The  Andersen Project - easily the most intriguing and intellectually challenging work of the year, Robert Lepage's touring production was also among the most ravishing shows the Hub has ever seen (above).  In essence, Lepage has taken the pretentious kind of tableau vivant that we used to endure from the likes of Robert Wilson and turned it into actual drama - his cascades of visuals build with the depth and rhythm of a great text; indeed, The Andersen Project was probably the best new play of 2012.

War Horse - the global phenomenon came to Boston in a worthy touring model that obliterated any memory of the misbegotten Spielberg movie, and reminded people again of what theatre and theatre alone can do.  Unforgettable.

Private Lives and Betrayal -  The Huntington presented a half-dozen shows this year that would have made it onto the ten-best list of many a previous season (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Private Lives, Good People, Betrayal, and Our Town, for the record, with Luck of the Irish also a worthy contender).  Of these, I felt three had a slight edge - noting that two of them, Private Lives and Betrayal, shared a director, Maria Aitken.  Ms. Aitken specializes in plays with central roles she has played herself (in an earlier season she gave us Educating Rita, another of her starring vehicles); which I think makes her a kind of living argument for the ongoing relevance of the actor-director.

Our Town (above) - David Cromer finally brought his famously innovative staging of the familiar classic to the Huntington this winter - with a largely-local cast - and the results were both illuminating and devastating.  Indeed, I think in future it will be hard to imagine Our Town without Cromer's brilliant re-imagining of its final act. (There may still be a few tickets available, btw, as the production was extended through January).

Avenue Q - The Lyric struck gold with their take on this millennial stage perennial.  Director Spiro Veloudos had just the right comic sensibility for the material, the set was all but perfect, and the cast, anchored by Erica Spyres, John Ambrosino, and Phil Tayler, was just right.  No wonder it became one of the biggest hits in this theatre's history.

Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde - The fringe company Bad Habit Productions proved its award-winning staging of Arcadia was no fluke with a startlingly subtle version of this Moisés Kaufman historical pastiche.  Nothing really "new" here, just the finest large ensemble of the year, under the delicately firm direction of Liz Fenstermaker.

Tales from Ovid - Whistler in the Dark once more took to the air in its classic production of Ted Hughes' "translation" of Ovid - this time on the larger stage of ArtsEmerson, to wide acclaim and packed houses.  (Now all they need to do is tour this baby.)  It capped a solid year for this leading light of the fringe, which also presented a memorable production of Caryl Churchill's Fen last spring.

The Full Monty - It's unorthodox to include a student production in a 10-Best list, I know, but I simply couldn't ignore this infectiously energetic production (above) from the Boston Conservatory musical theatre program.  As directed by Laura Marie Duncan (who had been in the cast of the Broadway version, and clearly knew this show inside and out), it was simply the best musical I saw this year.

Daddy Long Legs - And the second best musical I saw was this charming entry from Merrimack Rep, illuminated by the delightful Megan McGinnis, and directed to simple perfection by the famous John Caird.  I make no claims for it as "art," but as an evening out it was pure delight.

Well, that's ten, right there - but wait, there's more; I'll continue with the 2012 "Top Twenty" in a later post.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Peter Jackson digs himself a hole with The Hobbit

Artist and subject seem as one, but are actually often at odds.

The famous subtitle of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit is There and Back Again.  And a major problem with Peter Jackson's outsized film version of Tolkien's modest tale is that even though its subtitle has been adjusted (to An Unexpected Journey), we do indeed feel we've already been there and back again.

What I mean by "there," however, is not actually the mythical realm of Middle-earth, which first found form in The Hobbit, but rather the narrative events that occur there - the very stuff of Tolkien's story.  Gruff wizards, lonely mountains, magic rings, rescues by eagles - we've seen everything in The Hobbit before, in The Lord of the Rings - which of course was Tolkien's vast, later extrapolation of the earlier book's budding motifs.

The trouble for Jackson is that we saw the grander version of these tropes first - which makes The Hobbit not just a prequel but also a sequel; and in the logic of the postmodern film market, a sequel has to be an even bigger extravaganza than its inspiration.  So the possible strategy of positioning The Hobbit as a sly young slip of a thing, a sweet, palate-cleansing cinematic dessert (that was perhaps originally an appetizer!) was always a long shot.

Hence our lack of surprise at the announcement that The Hobbit would be expanded into a trilogy, just like LOTR (even though its source is only about a third of the length of that epic), using elements from the appendices of The Return of the King, along with bits of Tolkien's vast back-story to the whole shebang, The Silmarillion.  And the first installment of this rather overstuffed portmanteau-movie has now arrived, clocking in at 2 hours and 49 minutes - which means that if the remaining two are of an equal length, and form a continuous narrative with LOTR (which seems to be Jackson's aim), the entire opus may stretch to a full 18 hours or more, surely making it the longest epic Hollywood has ever produced.

I guess that's some sort of claim on immortality for Jackson, who is no doubt aware that his talents have only reached full flower in his treatments of Tolkien.  (Indeed, to be fair, LOTR counted as some kind of miracle - perhaps the only film phenomenon of the past two decades that could really hold up its head among the highest pop achievements of the past.)  And for the record, I actually believe Jackson's protestations that profit was not the driving force in his inflation of this cinematic balloon - or at least I can see that breaking up his script into three separate movies isn't what really went wrong with The Hobbit.

For it's true that the book (which isn't really as short as people seem to remember it being) does fall pretty neatly into thirds, and An Unexpected Journey, give or take an added climax of two, does wrap at an appropriate juncture (I predict that the next installment, The Desolation of Smaug, will close with, or just before, that titular dragon's demise - with the climax of the film being the "attack on Dol Guldur,"  interpolated from Tolkien's appendices - leaving the book's "Battle of the Five Armies" as the finale of the third).

Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) tries to flee the bloat of The Hobbit.
So even if the almighty dollar did determine the structure of The Hobbit, Jackson could have chosen to work up a trio of tight, gripping movies for the desired triple play at the box office. No, the bloat that almost wrecks An Unexpected Journey is essentially artistic, and basically all the director's fault.  Rather than produce a thrilling two-hour-twenty-minute epic, he has chosen instead to indulge his every fanboy impulse, larding the action with an extra half hour of battle after battle and chase after chase. Jackson imagines, like so many directors before him, that his audience has endless patience with video-gamish, can-I-top-this-yes-I-can conflagrations and cascades of pseudo-cliffhangers in which nothing is really at stake.  And apparently there was no one watching Jackson who could say, "Hold; enough!"; indeed, sitting through The Hobbit feels like watching the current assumptions of pop culture attack its actual pleasures like a pack of wargs and orcs.

Yes, I know, I know, Jackson has only acted like a kid in a candy store - but I'm not a kid anymore, and too much candy can make you a little sick to your stomach.  I will say that what may be most intriguing (or perhaps most telling) about The Hobbit is the degree to which Jackson's script collaborators have narratively supported his compulsions.  Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (with some input from Guillermo del Toro, who for a while was slated to helm the film) have doggedly drummed up daddy issues for Thorin Oakenshield (why do all Hollywood movies now devolve into The Parent Trap?) to support a few added showdowns, and have generally whipped up standard-issue script-committee justifications for the rest of Jackson's embroidery. But this only leaves the impression of two attentive mothers picking up after their wayward son; their work is all scaffolding and no actual story.

What makes these gaps so poignant is that there is still much magic in The Hobbit, despite everything.  A friend once described Peter Jackson to me as 'the love child of Ray Harryhausen and David Lean,' and when Lean takes over - intermittently - An Unexpected Journey suddenly glows with the kind of imaginative fire that Spielberg and his ilk lost long ago.  There's a marvelous sequence here, for instance, in which we get a glimpse of a wraith-like Sauron (in the digitally altered form of Benedict Cumberbatch, whose actual name is pure Tolkienese); and the scenes with Radagast the Brown (conjured from a few narrative scraps in the book) are witty and weird (due in no small part to Sylvester McCoy's eccentric performance).  Needless to say, Andy Serkis is as brilliant as ever as Gollum (at left) - his iconic riddle-game with Bilbo is everything it should be; and the rest of the cast is fine (although I don't think Elijah Wood or Ian Holm needs to worry about Martin Freeman).

What's more, the depth of the film's design and its intense craftsmanship are if anything at even at a higher level than was apparent in LOTR. Jackson and his creative team pile on detail after detail; Middle-earth is perhaps even more richly imagined here than most of us could imagine.  And despite its many debts to the digital, the film is also rich in a sense of actual landscape, and it's studded with such poetic marvels as the play of moonlight through a waterfall. I also had little problem with the controversial 48 fps frame rate; some shots look almost hyper-real, I suppose, but in general I found the results seductive. To be honest, these many moments are almost enough to draw me back to the cinema for another look - almost.  Perhaps I should just view much of the movie as opportunities for popcorn breaks.  Or perhaps An Unexpected Journey will find its most congenial home on my computer (rather than my local cinema), when I can digitally alter its run time, if not its frame rate, and skip to just those parts where Jackson's  magical mojo is kindled.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Still hanging on the telephone

Photo: Robert Lorino
The New Rep has a tradition of turning over their downstairs space to Boston's best performers, in pieces that sometimes amount to little more than vehicles - like the recent Chesapeake - but which still offer our local actors (or more often actresses) to show the community just what they can do.

Fully Committed (through Dec. 30) is perhaps the first time, however, that the New Rep has showcased a performance that originated elsewhere.  As I recall, it's more than two years since the versatile Gabriel Kuttner (at left) first performed the role of "Sam," the hapless actor manning the phones in Becky Mode's acid sketch of the reservation list at a chic Manhattan eatery (the now-forgotten Bouley, where Mode worked in the 90's). Kuttner won an IRNE for that performance - which included not only his take on Sam, but more than 30 different callers, with more than 30 different accents; so his turn at the New Rep counts as something of a victory lap.

And it's still an amazing round-the-world tour, with the voices popping in from Wisconsin all the way to Tokyo.  And Kuttner not only renders all these accents with amazing accuracy; he captures the speakers' tone and presence as well - perhaps even their psyches.  It's an astonishingly nimble tour-de-force, in which Kuttner dazzles not only with his acting chops and timing, but astonishes with a voice that may be the most flexible and resonant in Boston.

I have only one complaint with Kuttner (and it's the one I had regarding his previous version, too) -  Sam's own arc remains a bit flat, even though before he learns to develop his "sense of entitlement," and work those phones for all they're worth, he sinks to the bottom of the restaurant's own pecking order, and ends up cleaning the toilet. Kuttner has wisely made Sam a low-key, even-keeled kind of guy (to throw into higher relief the bullies trying to claw their way into Bouley), but this doesn't mean he isn't on a personal roller coaster through much of Fully Committed, and as yet, under the direction of Bridget Kathleen O'Leary, Kuttner isn't giving us either Sam's highest highs or lowest lows.

But this is easy to forget whenever Kuttner launches into another vocal cameo, whether it be the cockney accent of a chef who sounds like Michael Caine at the bottom of a sewer, or the anxious treble of Naomi Campbell's personal assistant, or the gentle twang of a brother who unconsciously echoes his father (whom we've also heard).  In the end, I think what makes Fully Committed so dramatically full is Kuttner's complete commitment to that kind of telling detail.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas from the Hub Review

It's Christmas, so we're taking the day off, and hope you are, too. Happy Holidays from the Hub Review!

After a whirlwind of holiday-season reviewing, we feel we've earned a few silent nights!  But as of today most shows have closed, and little will be opening till after New Year's.

Don't worry, though - we still have things to say.  We even have one more review to post for December, of Fully Committed at the New Rep, which closes this weekend.

And we'll be back over the next few days with a round-up of the best in Boston theatre from the past year, as well as a return to our thoughts on race on local stagings, an essay on Peter Jackson's The Hobbit, and perhaps even another round of Hubbie Awards.

So stay tuned!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Hub Review guide to sex, death, and the Christmas movie

Looking for a Christmas movie, but you've already had your annual helpings of It's A Wonderful Life,  A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas?

Don't worry - there IS hope. In the spirit of the Hub Review's popular Guide to a Highbrow Halloween, here are several great movies that, while perhaps not "Christmas movies," are nevertheless all set on Christmas, and seem to have something to say about the holiday season. So what's not to like? Enjoy!

Brazil - How, in 1985, did Terry Gilliam manage to predict the millennium - terrorists, Bush administration, and all?  I'm not sure, but Brazil probably remains somewhat apropos to the age of Obama, alas, with its drones and school shootings.  And yes, it's set at Christmas time - indeed, poor Mr. Buttle is ripped from his home by a black ops team just as his family finishes reading A Christmas Carol (above).

The Miracle of Morgan's Creek - Betty Hutton parties down with some soldiers and comes home pregnant in perhaps the most daring of Preston Sturges's comedies.  If you think that premise sounds crude, think again: as usual, Sturges teases from the hard facts of life a sweet, rueful delight.  Betty Hutton, and the wonderful Eddie Bracken, are both terrific (see above), and William Demarest is reliably furious throughout.  And yes, it all wraps up on Christmas.

 The Apartment - What's more Christmassy than pimping for the boss and attempting suicide?  Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, and especially Fred MacMurray - all in perhaps their best roles ever - still rock Billy Wilder's dark romance.  Above, the cynically rendered office Christmas party, as Jack Lemmon tries on a clownish "Junior Executive Model."

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg - A Christmas present by any reckoning, this durably charming movie is deeply romantic in a very Gallic way, which means that after long stretches of wild artifice (the singing! the color schemes!) it closes with a heartbreakingly bittersweet scene on - you guessed it, Christmas Eve.  PLUS it stars Catherine Deneuve (and the now forgotten, but utterly adorable, Nino Castelnuovo).  The scene above climaxes with Michel Legrand's famous theme - and the tryst by which love eventually undoes itself. Merry Christmas.

Decalogue III - Krzysztof Kieślowski's ten-part television drama The Decalogue remains one of the greatest achievements of late-20th-century film.  (And it may be the most profound spiritual achievement in film, period.)  Each episode ponders, or perhaps questions, one of the ten commandments, in vignettes loosely linked by the repeated appearance of a single, silent character, played by Artur Barciś.  The third installment is one of the more obscure, but also one of the most poignant.

The Hudsucker Proxy - Okay, technically this movie is set on New Year's Eve, but that's close enough to Christmas to make it on the list!  I admit that, like most Coen Bros. movies, Hudsucker begins to feel like a loose assortment of mannerisms mixed with brilliant set pieces rather than a coherent story, but several sequences are riveting nonetheless, the whole thing has a strange, post-Capra-esque romantic appeal, and the production design is at the highest level the brothers ever achieved.  The stunning suicide of Mr. Hudsucker (the great Charles Durning, who just passed away himself) is above.

Eyes Wide Shut - Stanley Kubrick put the XXX in Xmas with this haunting meditation on sex, marriage, and - yes - death, all set at Christmas!  The first half is far better than the second (the orgy sequence, set in the house that would later serve as Downton Abbey, remains amazing; uncensored version here, if you must), but be sure not to miss Alan Cumming in a bizarrely fey performance near the finale - and the ending itself, set while Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise Christmas shop (and encounter most of the symbols from the movie along the way) is superb.  Misunderstood and pilloried on its first release, EWS has slowly earned props as the damaged masterpiece it really is.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Handel and Haydn goes back to Bach

Chorusmaster John Finney.
I don't know why this should be so, but somehow it's always a surprise to encounter the sheer joy dancing through so much of the sacred music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The oboes d'amore all but giggle and jig, for instance, through much of the great master's Christmas Oratorio, a suite of six cantatas (one for each feast day) written for the holiday season of 1734 (and divvied up, or doubled up, between the two most prominent churches in Liepzig).

"Shout for joy, exult, rise up, glorify the day!" the oboes exort us - as the chorus does - and at the Handel and Haydn performances last weekend (of half the work, Cantatas 1, 2 & 6) it was hard, I think, for the full house to resist the temptation to rise from their respective seats and cut a few capers in the aisles.

Of course, though a masterpiece, the Christmas Oratorio isn't quite what we'd call "original."  It's well known that Bach picked his own pocket for much of it, and sampled a few favorite hymns by others as well (the haunting melody to what you may know as "O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded" raises its mournful head more than once).  Needless to say, however, the master's new settings are sophisticated and wonderful, and successfully braid material from mostly secular sources to new, and deeply moving, sacred effect.

At Handel and Haydn, long-time chorusmaster John Finney conducted with just the right interpretive balance between faith and joy - although technically, to be honest, the performance was sometimes a little out of focus.  The ensemble between the various oboes (d'amore and da caccia) bubbling through the piece was superb at its best  - which was often - but sometimes seemed on the verge of slipping out of synch (at least on opening night).  Meanwhile the natural trumpets sounded wonderful, however, as they had earlier this season in Messiah (thanks to Jesse Levine, Paul Perfetti and Vincent Monaco), and in the second cantata there was also a sublime solo on transverse flute from Wendy Rolfe.

The chorale was likewise in fine form in the choruses (as always) - but this time around was tapped for the solo roles as well.  And some of these performances proved variable - a few chorus members aren't entirely comfortable in the spotlight, or project a rather flat stage presence.  Others, of course, have been front and center before, and it shows - there was lovely and dramatic singing, for instance, on hand from soprano Brenna Wells and alto Mary Gerbi, and the reliable Bradford Gleim's bass proved as rich and resonant as ever.

Newer faces, however, were clustered toward the end of the concert - and perhaps took the vocal honors. We heard only briefly from bass Thomas Dawkins, but this was enough to make me prick up my ears - more, please. And then there was the stunning Sonja DuToit Tengblad, whose secure, gleaming soprano all but riveted the audience.  Last (and possibly best) came young Jonas Budris, whose tenor only seemed to grow in power as it soared, and who brought the entire concert to a compelling close.

Which only reminded me that I'm not sure I've ever heard the whole cycle in one place at one time - it's another part of our great choral legacy that doesn't receive its due in terms of professional performance.  Indeed, I think this is the first time Handel and Haydn has sung any of it in something like five years, even though the packed house at Jordan Hall suggested there's an audience out there eager to experience it.  So let's hope we don't have to wait that long to hear the rest.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Moonbox shines on

Phil Tayler and Harry McEnerny before their best laid schemes go awry.  Photo: Craig Bailey
Moonbox Productions first rose over the fringe two years ago, I believe; I didn't catch their first productions, but was struck by the quality of their remarkable Floyd Collins last spring.  Now they're back, with Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, in a moving version (through this weekend at the BCA) that can't quite disguise some of the playwright's clumsy dramaturgy, but still mines (thanks to accomplished lead performances) the deep veins of feeling that have made this text a cultural touchstone.

Surely you know the sad story, of quick-witted George and slow-witted Lennie, drifters bound at the hip in Depression-era California, who wander a lonely landscape as hired hands. Their hardscrabble lives are made all the harder by the frequent scrapes Lennie gets into; a gentle giant who doesn't know his own strength, his only dream is to stroke soft things (rabbits, those eponymous mice) - it's when his attention is drawn by a woman's dress or hair that he finds himself in trouble.

If your heart beats a little faster at this homophilic (as opposed to homo-erotic) daydream, then you're already on Steinbeck's wavelength.  To my mind, however, the author's adoration of all things brotherly almost borders on the neurotic: his only female character lacks even a name (she's simply "Curley's Wife"), and her sex appeal is constantly rebuffed with hilarious lines like "You git away from us honest God-fearin' menfolk, you slutty no-good tramp!" Given the clear criticism of racism in this text, Steinbeck's predilection for sexism comes off as more than a little bizarre.

Still, the bond between George and Lennie, who would be lost without one another, has touched legions of high-school hearts for a reason; in its very crudeness it seems to tap into something primal, and rising actors Phil Tayler and Harry McEnerny make the many contradictions of this odd couple seem natural, even inevitable.  The charismatic Tayler is smart enough to make George not entirely sympathetic; sometimes bitter, even cruel, he's a smaller man than Lennie both physically and emotionally. Yet Tayler also convincingly communicates George's love for, as well as his exasperation with, his partner's simplicity; it's a remarkable, and remarkably sustained, performance - the third this year from this young actor. As Lennie, Harry McEnerny is if anything even more committed; he projects his character's mental deficits, and particularly his pain, with heart-breaking honesty and transparent technique.

There's also strong work from the reliable Erica Spyres as that good-for-nothin' so-and-so who inadvertently brings about Lennie's (and her own) doom; meanwhile Ed Peed and Calvin Braxton (as the lone black ranch hand, who is the target of constant prejudice) likewise find their own poignant moments.  The rest of the cast is able, but less experienced, and in their scenes director Allison Olivia Choat has less luck disguising the naïveté of Steinbeck's playwriting.

I've heard that the author actually conceived Of Mice and Men as a kind of "novel-play;" he consciously attempted to construct his book from dialogue which could be translated directly to the stage.  But somehow this slim volume has yielded an almost three-hour drama, in which the relentlessly earnest atmosphere can begin to drag - partly because beyond a potent conjuring of the loneliness of the human condition, Steinbeck just doesn't have that much to work with beyond foreshadowing and thematic repetition.  Trimmed of a good half hour, this could be a stunning work of theatre.  As it is, the shine of the acting at Moonbox still makes much of it compelling.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Speak, Memories

Adrianne Krstansky and Michael John Ciszewski revel in the holiday memories.  Photo: Andrew Brilliant.

The traditional "Christmas show" has loosened its grip (somewhat) on the Boston theatre scene of late; these days A Christmas Carol can find itself rubbing shoulders against the astringent likes of Ch'inglish.  And the "Christmas show" itself has begun to, well, diversify into a holiday platter of alternative offerings.  Last year, for instance, the New Rep rolled out a sturdy version of Jean Shepherd's A Christmas Story, and this year they have mounted a double bill of two classic tales by Truman Capote, "The Thanksgiving Visitor" and "A Christmas Memory," under the joint rubric of Holiday Memories.

Together they make for a perfectly fine Christmas show, although the New Rep only taps into a modicum of the poignant whimsy that originally made these classics - well, classics.  Capote's memoirs revolve around his relationship, as an essentially abandoned child, with his elderly, but child-like, maiden aunt (or cousin?), "Miss Sook."  The stories are like dispatches from a lost, private world of shared gentleness (and shared weakness); little happens in them (Sook and Truman, or "Buddy," gather ingredients for fruitcakes, or invite guests over for Thanksgiving dinner), but much is made clear about their little corner of the world (Monroeville, Alabama, in the 30's - a milieu which also cradled Harper Lee, who grew up to write To Kill a Mockingbird, in which Capote figures as a character).

What distinguishes both stories, of course, is Capote's inimitable voice, and the resonant perfection with which his small-scaled prose matches his small-scaled (but gimlet-eyed) perspective.  Here, for instance, is one familiar stretch from his description of Miss Sook:

I am seven; she is sixty-something, We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together—well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other's best friend. She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880's, when she was still a child. She is still a child.

It seems so sweet, simple and direct, this poetic reverie - but it's also pregnant with a sophisticated self-awareness that oscillates between the child-like and the adult.  (Like Miss Sook, Truman Capote was a bit of both).  Detail after detail falls into place like gems in a diamond setting (Miss Sook's eyes, for instance, are "sherry-colored and timid"); the prose itself gives the slight story a quiet, unforgettable drama.

So perhaps unsurprisingly, whenever that original prose is quoted in Russell Vandenbroucke's adaptation, Holiday Memories suddenly resonates.  Elsewhere, however, director Michael Hammond sometimes bulldozes the delicate atmosphere with a rambunctiousness that doesn't really feel true to Capote's tone.  As you can see above, his Truman and Miss Sook are prone to triumphant "YESS!" gestures, as well as other presentational quirks.  Both actors - New Rep mainstay Adrianne Krstansky, and newcomer Michael John Ciszewski - are appealing talents, however, so they generally make the material work on Hammond's broad terms, if not Capote's subtle ones.  They're aided by a charming memory-attic of a set by Jon Savage, and a series of funny turns by supporting players Jesse Hinson and Elizabeth Anne Rimar, who pitch the antics of the outside world at about the right level of farce (against which Truman and Miss Sook's world should cut a delicate contrast).

Still, the production does tap into the nostalgia - and sometimes the moral vision - that suffuse both stories.  Perhaps its finest moment occurs at the climax of Capote's Thanksgiving memory (rather than his better-known Christmas vignette).  Here the author's gentle but devastating statement regarding "deliberate cruelty" had all the force one could wish for - which, in the end, made Holiday Memories memorable.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Newtown tragedy

Like everyone, over the last few days I have been trying to make sense of the horror visited on the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.  Of course there is no sense to be made of it, nor is there any real comfort to be found for those whose lives it changed forever.

But as I read of the young victims (and those who valiantly tried to protect them) being laid to rest this week, I was reminded of this brief but beautiful poem on the deaths of innocents, by a great American poet:

On the Death of Friends in Childhood

Donald Justice

We shall not ever meet them bearded in heaven,

Nor sunning themselves among the bald of hell;

If anywhere, in the deserted schoolyard at twilight,

Forming a ring, perhaps, or joining hands

In games whose very names we have forgotten.

Come, memory, let us seek them there in the shadows.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The How and the Why, but not the What or the Wherefore

Anne Scurria and Barrie Kreinik discuss the how and the why down at Trinity. Photo: Mark Turek

First the good news: in scientific terms, The How and the Why, at Trinity Rep through December 30, is the best "science play" I've ever seen.  Usually this genre, despite its best intentions, actually soft-pedals its science, dumbs down its debates, and slides in woozy "Evolution for Dummies" or "Tao of Physics" asides. It woos the dimmer bulbs from the humanities with the tease that because of quantum mechanics, we can't really know what happened in the past.  Or - in the most dreaded sub-type of the genre, the Lady Scientist Play - it conjures dreams or hallucinations, or even wrinkles in time, which bring lady explorers back from the great beyond in pith helmets, or gripping test tubes - stuff like that, you know the drill.

But God bless her, playwright Sarah Treem is having none of it.  Her lady scientists scorn pith helmets, and they aren't prone to fits of anxiety over their ability - or will power.  And they talk, unapologetically, in terms of hard-nosed hypotheses.  They debate.  They argue.  Even more exciting - they make scientific sense!  Your professor in Comp Lit may not be able to follow their conversations, but I think you will, because Treem has done her homework, and smartly stitched together - from the real-life theses of several leading female researchers - a viable, up-to-the-minute debate on puzzling questions of evolutionary biology.  The dialectic unfolds before us just as (well pretty much as) real research might, with surprises and disappointments to go with the flashes of insight.  If you're looking for the drama of science, look no further.  Treem nails it.

What's more, she also accurately treats the lingering question of sexism in science.  Yes, it's still there - I work in science now, and I recognize most of the dilemmas and situations the playwright conjures here.  The game may no longer be rigged against women - but they have their resentful enemies all the same.  (They always will.) And the questions that Treem ponders - Why do women menstruate? Why do they go through menopause? - are precisely those issues that play into the gender wars, and make immature men (and there are a lot of those in science) squeamish and defensive.

So far, so good.  But when it comes to the human drama of The How and the Why - well, I'm afraid here Treem comes up short.  And for reasons that are ironic, and a little sad - for it turns out the very political perspective that seems to have inspired her play has also undone it to some degree.  Indeed, Treem's political feelings seem to have cut her off from the emotional heart of her drama.  To be blunt, feminism has both inspired her to write a great play, and also prevented her from writing it.

I know - ouch.  But let me explain.  Treem has instinctively given her two protagonists primal, and related, roles: one is a mother, the other a daughter: in fact they are mother and daughter.  Only Mom gave her baby up for adoption years ago, so we are watching an awkward re-union, in which aspiring scientist Rachel (Barrie Kreinik) shows up on the doorstep of successful researcher Zelda (Anne Scurria) to ask her advice on her groundbreaking theory of menses - even as  she is riven by the knowledge that scientific ambition is precisely what made her mother abandon her all those years ago (and Mom makes no bones about it).

Yes, it's quite a set-up.  Maternal abandonment is one of the great dramatic themes, and here it tees up an ingenious dramatic conflict. But Treem won't actually go near that conflict dramatically - because, we slowly realize, if  Rachel accuses Zelda of abandonment, the playwright fears the primal emotions unleashed might upset her play's feminist applecart.  The buried conflict between these two women thus haunts their every exchange, but never finds its voice.  And since the characters' respective griefs can never be aired, there can be no real healing between them, or even any resolution to their relationship.

True, the playwright does hint at the emotional bottom line here and there (in the second act, poor Rachel gets abandoned again) but then backtracks, and papers over the emotional void with various distractions - a boyfriend who may or not have contributed to Rachel's thesis, or the men who undercut Zelda's career, or what have you.  The play ends up a smart survey of possible variations on sexist themes - or, viewed another way, a static series of distractions and dead ends, studded with breakdowns and panic attacks that seem to have no real object.

Which is really too bad, because feminism does need to thrash this stuff out.  Somehow I think the movement can survive one play - indeed, it might be strengthened for airing these issues onstage. And what kind of playwright sets up a dramatic situation but then refuses to actually dramatize it?  Not a very brave one, I'm afraid I have to say.

And of course the two talented actresses down at Trinity are left hamstrung by all this.  Barrie Kreinik bares the brunt of it as Rachel, who comes off as whiny and unlikable because her own genuine pain never surfaces; Anne Scurria has the more playable part, but I kind of winced when the playwright gave poor Zelda a battle with cancer to whip up some cheap last-act sentiment for her; wouldn't the anguished perception of the loss of her daughter's love have been enough?

On the other hand, there is all that sophisticated scientific debate to enjoy - and Shana Gozansky's direction generally did a good job of dodging the gaps in the script.  But Tilly Grimes' sets had a strange edge; she seemed to want to impress us with the coldness of Zelda's office, but it didn't look like the cave of any successful academic I've ever seen, and it certainly didn't limn her obvious humanist side (fittingly, she's a fan of Edna St. Vincent Millay).  The set for the bar in which the two women meet in the second act was even more bizarre: a vast void populated by two lonely stools and a table.  Was this a comment on the vacuum at the core of the play?  Or a nod toward the loneliness of the two protagonists?  I wasn't entirely sure, and I wasn't sure the sets actually worked as metaphors; but I did get the impression that the designer understood a few things about this play that maybe the playwright didn't.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A few thoughts on three sentences

Many observers (often self-interested observers) have bemoaned the "decline" in theatre criticism seen over recent years - and have simultaneously decried the resulting rise in theatre blogs and web criticism. Indeed, in Boston the Herald has all but ended its theatre coverage, and the Phoenix - which is supposedly more committed to the arts than the rest of the local press - recently reduced (again) the word count of its reviews.

With those thoughts in mind, and a few spare moments this morning, I decided to post a comparison of five local reviewers above, along an axis of word count for a randomly-selected, but generally considered "important," production, Ch'inglish at the Lyric Stage.  Now this is just one set of reviews for one production, I know - but my gut is the comparison you see above would probably hold true for most Boston shows and their critical response.

Of course word count is no proxy for quality - but arguably it's a rough proxy for depth, or at least comprehensiveness.  It's hard to imagine a 375-word review deeply considering a production's performances or direction, much less its design.  And indeed, the 375-word review noted above discusses the play and its plot for 287 words, so only 88 words (actually, three sentences) are focused on the production itself.  The 635-word review keeps to something like the same ratio - the production rates 212 words of comment - a comparatively lavish 8 sentences.

What's probably most noteworthy about the chart above, however, is that the web writers clock in at greater length than the print writers do.  Indeed, the two web scribes with experience under the old print dispensation, myself and the editor of the Arts Fuse, perhaps almost instinctively delivered the most criticism.  Again, of course, quantity is no substitute for quality; although I don't think either author's standards have fallen (at least not for their own work).  Indeed, my standards have certainly risen since I left the Globe; and just as certainly, much of the commentary I have been able to publish here would never have made it onto that daily's tightly circumscribed pages.

So there you have a few notes toward a different perspective on the "decline" of criticism.  Has it really declined in general?  Perhaps all you can definitely say is that print criticism has declined. Sometimes to just three sentences.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Messiah returns at Boston Baroque

Robinson Pyle sounds off on natural trumpet. Photo: Julian Bullitt.

One returns to the Boston Baroque version of Messiah as one returns to an old friend; you already know precisely the way it's going to delight you. (And, perhaps, the way it's going to get on your nerves.)  It has now been decades since artistic director Martin Pearlman pioneered the light, dancing tempi which made his intimately entertaining, essentially secular approach to Handel's masterpiece so revolutionary.  But now that his ideas have taken the whole period music movement by storm, his Messiah has, in a way, become a victim of its own success.  Other choruses have incorporated Pearlman's brilliant innovations, and extended them into larger statements while keeping his buoyant feel; so (as I've mentioned before) what once felt revolutionary now feels familiar.

This is the way of things, of course, and I'm happy to hear this wonderful oratorio again (and again and again) in any form.  As I've often said, Messiah is one of the great Western documents, like Hamlet, or the late quartets, or Starry Night at MOMA (which actually may be the perfect illustration for the adoration of the shepherds, if you ask me).  You return to it as a touchstone, to remind you what it means to be human.

So I think of the Boston Baroque Messiah as a touchstone, too.  Pearlman clearly hasn't changed his mind on any of the big issues (and neither have I); these days he concentrates on the details instead.  And he still understands the drama of Handel's instrumentation better than anyone; his Messiah is not only a dance, but an exquisite soundtrack.  Yes, Pearlman tends to take some things too fast, so the chorus's diction isn't always pinpoint, and vocal colors don't always ripen as they might.  But no one quite conjures the flutter of the angel's wings above the shepherds in Part I as he does - and he also succeeds in giving the latter half of Part II a sense of arc, and his lilting take on "The trumpet shall sound" remains sweetly glorious (thanks in no small part to the great Robinson Pyle on natural trumpet, at top).  To be honest, familiar as it is, Pearlman's Messiah is still often magical.

But alas, while I can usually praise his soloists as well his conducting, this year's model proved a mixed bag in that department.  The sunny soprano Mary Wilson, a beloved regular at Boston Baroque, for some reason wobbled early on in her upper register, and tenor John McVeigh, who proved a bit light for his role in general, aimed for a top note at one point and missed it entirely. Meanwhile alto Ann McMahon deployed a rich middle register and a memorable dignity (and she looked smashing), but her reserve seemed to hold her back from full emotional commitment, and she had to speak-sing the bottom notes of the role.

There were a few issues in the orchestra as well, at least on opening night.  When Pearlman took to the harpsichord, you sometimes could feel it in the coherence of the ensemble, and I couldn't help but notice that one of the violins slid slightly out of tune in Part II (a pitstop for re-tuning solved that, thank goodness).  The net effect of these small slips, any one of which was understandable, was that the performance often felt slightly out of focus.

The good news was that baritone Andrew Garland, who last impressed in Partenope, made an even bigger splash here, with a stern power and a sense of rhetorical drama that I personally feel is just right for Messiah (and which tipped the whole evening from the salon to the pulpit).  Pearlman has one of the most reliable eyes in the city for rising talent; here's hoping Mr. Garland remains a fixture in his vocal stable.

Certainly the fan base of this Messiah isn't going anywhere; Jordan Hall was packed for this performance, and the crowd roared its approval at the close.  And just btw, even though Messiah season is winding down, you can join these loyal admirers, and savor two of Mr. Pearlman's vocal favorites - local star David Kravitz and rising light  Courtney Huffman - at Boston Baroque's upcoming New Year's Day concerts, which if you don't know are among the most delightful classical events in the city; not only ravishing, but also often a hoot.  (These will sell out, though, so don't delay.)

Friday, December 14, 2012

East sleeps with West at the Lyric

Barlow Adamson and Celeste Oliva in Chinglish.  Photos: Mark S. Howard.

It's amusing (to me, at any rate) that so many critics have misinterpreted David Henry Hwang's Ch'inglish, which is itself a play about misinterpretation - on the surface, that is. But ah, there's the rub; at its core, Hwang's text is about something else entirely: like his best-known script, M. Butterfly, it's about the chasm between public and private identity, and how negotiation of that gap is always fraught, particularly for the lonely self forced to wear two faces.

Of course, as with Butterfly (and much of Hwang's work), that conflict comes in a clever, politically-correct wrapper: once more this playwright pirouettes around the long cultural negotiation between "East" and "West" (or specifically, China and the U.S.).  As Hwang was born in L.A. of Chinese parents, you can understand his addiction to this particular gambit - and it always gets him past the multicultural police, of course; but it does mean his work has been persistently misinterpreted.

With Ch'inglish, that misunderstanding runs right from the top of the critical pyramid (Ben Brantley, in the New York Times) to the many local responses to the current, solid production at the Lyric Stage (through Dec. 23).  The trouble is that, you know, as Charlie Chan might say, Ben Brantley - he no review so good.  Brantley seems to have been both dazzled and disgruntled by the layer of translation jokes that Hwang (who always has one eye on the box office) has sprinkled copiously over his show.  And the gaffes that bedevil the lead character, an American businessman on the make in the provincial capital of Guiyang, are distractingly funny (in the fast-and furious supertitles, for instance, we discover that "I love you" in Mandarin is easily garbled into "Frogs like to pee!").

But Hwang never really looks very far into the conceptual canyons between Mandarin and English (which I know a bit about these days, as I'm often editing scientific research by Asians).  As a playwright, he's just not all that interested in the "lost-in-translation" box-office bait he has strung over his text (perhaps because he doesn't even speak Mandarin himself).

Unexpected fans of Enron.
What he is intrigued by is the parallel mis-understandings (of both "self" and "other") by his leads, Daniel Cavanaugh (Barlow Adamson), an Ohio signage entrepreneur ( a kind of semiotician, no less!), and Xi Yan (Celeste Oliva), a government official with whom he tangles  - in more ways than one - in Guiyang.

Both parties, of course, entertain received ideas about the other - Cavanaugh, for instance, has drunk and digested all the Wall Street Journal Kool-aid about China: to him it's a land where the law means nothing, and relationships mean everything.  Needless to say, however, Hwang drolly reveals that the same could be said about America - indeed, Daniel's past includes a stint at Enron, the vast McKinsey-driven boondoggle that stayed afloat twice as long as it should have because of its network of Republican connections.  (Tellingly, it's only when the Chinese learn this fact about Daniel, and then see him as a "high-roller" in a celebrity scandal with which they can relate, that they want to do business with him.)

Meanwhile, on the Chinese side of the mirror, Xi Yang has begun to pine for Daniel because, poignantly, he has 'an honest face,' apparently unlike those around her (if only he did!).  So their tryst has its tragic side - particularly when we learn that it is doomed for an intriguingly Chinese reason: an untranslatable concept - perhaps roughly corresponding to "sacrifice-commitment" - which Xi Yang feels for the public role of the husband she is privately betraying.

You can sense in that strange twist of double-identity the very essence of Hwang's constant theme - although to be fair, he renders it somewhat schematically here; he's often in a hurry to get to his next joke, and he's prone to odd stylistic jumps and bumps (not always smoothly negotiated by Lyric director Larry Coen) that sometimes blur the focus of his play.

Still, there's more to Ch'inglish than to most New York hits, and it's generally well-served by the Lyric production, which showcases several local actors - mostly Asian - who have had little chance to flourish on the Boston theatre scene (where the diversity discussions don't always include too much diversity).  Director Coen goes more for laughs than character (as he usually does), but fortunately he has cast the extraordinary Celeste Oliva, who has long been hidden away in Shear Madness, as Xi Yan; and she all but single-handedly deepens what could otherwise play as farce into something much more haunting.  And amazingly, although she admitted in a talkback that she is not Chinese, like most of the cast she carries off large swaths of dialogue in (to these ears) credible Mandarin. Alas, as her American paramour, the amiable Barlow Adamson, who has been so reliable elsewhere, isn't nearly in her league; he seems to have no idea how to complicate the superficial American boyishness of his hero.  But frankly, Ms. Oliva acts enough for both of them.

Elsewhere, the performances tend to be broad but clever: Tiffany Chen scores as a blithely blunt translator, while Michael Tow and Chen Tang make strong impressions as members of the Party who don't always toe the party line.   And there's another find on the edge of the production - Alexander Platt does a deft (if not quite complex enough) turn as a British "consultant" who like everyone else is hardly what he seems to be. With his lightly diabolical air, and a smoother than smooth way with Oxbridge chatter, Mr. Platt is a natural for Shaw or any number of other playwrights.  Let's hope we hear from him, the talented Ms. Oliva, and all their co-stars sometime soon - in any language.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The scoop on Our Town: yes, it is unforgettable, and yes, it will sell out completely

Therese Plaehn, David Cromer, and Derrick Trumbly in Our Town.  Photo: T. Charles Erickson.
This is just an early warning to fans of the Hub Review regarding the Huntington's re-mounting of David Cromer's celebrated version of Thornton Wilder's Our Town:

Yes, you do want to see it, and yes, it will sell out completely (even though the run has already been extended).  Indeed, since seating is fairly limited in the Roberts Studio Theatre, expect this to be the hottest ticket in town once the reviews drop.

As for my review - well, this one's tricky, as Cromer's production depends on a specific coup de théâtre in the haunting last act that pulls together (with heartbreaking force) a concept that until then slightly mystified at least a few folks in the audience.  I don't believe the impact of this coup completely depends on its surprise - I guessed at its essence, and it still floored me - but I think epiphanies usually work best when they're unexpected, don't you?

Either way, Cromer's gambit is unforgettable, and while it violates Wilder's stage directions, it's actually utterly in consonance with his themes. Indeed, I think it will be hard to imagine Our Town in future without this masterstroke; it will become a touchstone of the play's performance history.

All I'll say is that it reminds you that Wilder's deepest theme is something like "Life is not a rehearsal."  To be honest, perhaps not everyone in the (mostly local) cast was equally at ease with the production concept on opening night - but certainly local lights Nael Nacer, Marianna Bassham, Alex Pollock, and Paul Farwell excelled.

And it's worth noting that director Cromer, in one more meta-theatrical flourish, is himself in the cast, as the Stage Manager (a role the author himself sometimes played, as at left, in Wellesley in 1950) - but only through December 30.

The bottom line is simply that this Our Town is unforgettable.  Beyond that, mum's the word.

The best. Christmas music video. Ever.

Or at least it's definitely in the top five!  Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters sing White Christmas. Animation by Joshua Held.  Just try not to sing along.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Emerson Quartet declines to say good-bye

Eugene Drucker, David Finckel, Lawrence Dutton and Philip Setzer - the Emerson String Quartet.

The Emerson String Quartet has a devoted Boston following, but their recent Celebrity Series concert (their 20th, not that anyone's counting) sold out, I think, for a more poignant reason: cellist David Finckel (second from left, above) recently announced he would be departing the group, so this would be the last local appearance of a beloved ensemble that had endured for over thirty years.

But the Emersons are far more devoted to philosophy than sentiment, and share a quietly cooperative ethos (Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer often trade off as first violin), so Finckel's farewell was left unmarked in Jordan Hall last weekend (even though his replacement, Paul Watkins, has already been announced).  Of course given the quartet's namesake - whose system of thought is all about transcending the flux of the world through a self-aware practice - I knew any acknowledgement of Finckel's departure would be understated.  Still, I did think it would be there - Finckel's farewell isn't quite like Setzer replacing Drucker as lead - and so I have to say its lack struck a curious note of aloof diffidence.  Which, come to think of it, has every now and then haunted the ensemble's performances, too.

Curiouser still, the program felt slightly themeless, even though it all hailed from the later days of the romantic movement (and the encore hailed from the moment it transmuted itself into modernism).  The opening choice, Dvorak's Quartet No. 9 in D Minor, seemed to slightly misfire - its sprightliness (it features a polka rather than a minuet) isn't really the Emerson's strong suit (you don't turn to them for a chuckle).  But the surprisingly rich Adagio at the work's center came off quite well, and there was likewise much to admire in the Schumann quartet (in A Major, Op. 41) that followed - particularly the surging "sighs" of the second movement.  Like much of Schumann, this quartet begins to drift a bit, but it comes to a rousing, almost manic, close, which the Emersons essayed with fervor.

The second half of the concert was entirely given over to Brahms' sprawling Quartet in A minor (Op. 51, no. 2), which always gleamed with an assured sense of ensemble - even in its thickest textures - but perhaps only intermittently caught fire.  Most of those moments actually came from Lawrence Dutton on viola, but the entire ensemble did shine in the wonderful Andante moderato - thirty years together have made a subtly balanced musical unity almost automatic for these four men - and once more the finale was truly arresting.

The crowd roared for an encore - perhaps even a solo from Finckel? But what we got instead was a curiosity - the gnomic, otherworldly third movement of Webern's Five Movements for String Quartet, a work so brief (thirteen measures) and so self-consciously distilled that it all but defies interpretation at a first hearing.  It's also all but emblematic of the moment that the Viennese school over-thought itself into musical gnosis (which perhaps highlighted again the Emersons' essential introspection).  Of course, if you believe - as they apparently do - that Webern epitomizes "everything romanticism was leading to," then the choice probably resonated.

But I don't.  So I just waved David Finckel good-bye by myself.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Messiah at Handel and Haydn Society

Our annual Messiah season kicked off in a major way last weekend with the Handel and Haydn version, which in many ways reached a new artistic peak for that venerable organization.  This year H&H engaged a world-class interpreter of Handel, Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin, as a soloist - and she delivered and then some; indeed, her reading of the soprano arias probably counts as the most subtly expressive I've ever heard.  It turns out that Ms. Gauvin isn't quite as powerful throughout her gorgeous range as I'd hoped (the projection of a voice is one thing that's particularly hard to gauge from recordings); but this slight gap amounted only to the difference between being enchanted and ravished. And I was utterly enchanted; Handel holds the soprano back until his setting of those lovely verses from Luke in which the angels bring good tidings of great joy, and Ms. Gauvin did, in this scene, seem all but angelic.  My vote is to have her back every year.

As longtime Hub Review readers know, Ms. Gauvin's presence largely filled a persistent gap at Handel and Haydn, where the salient artistic problem usually revolves around finding soloists who can hold their own against a chorus which is now so consistently terrific that it may count as the most reliable musical organization in the city.  And they were at the top of their game (as usual) through the length of Messiah - perfect intonation and crisp diction in rich, vibrant timbres - the works; this is the Rolls Royce of Boston chorales.

By now I've reviewed close to half a dozen Messiahs from artistic director Harry Christophers; as I recall, it was the first of these, back in 2007, during H&H's search for a new director, that made me go, "Wow- this is their guy!" (so you can imagine how pleased I was when they agreed).  And I'd say his basic approach to this masterpiece hasn't varied much.  Although every year he tinkers with this or that, the Christophers Messiah is reliably a piece of heartfelt eloquence, a passionate flower of the Anglican tradition that all but glows with emotion.  It is grand without being gaudy, light but still measured, and floating rhetorically in a spiritual space in which church and state can humanely overlap.  In the end, Christophers understands that Messiah is a poem, indeed a kind of valedictory, assembled mosaic-like from lines (and sometimes snippets) from centuries of sacred writing that delineate the transformation of the Jewish idea of an anointed savior into the Christian concept of a divine redeemer.

Now whether you believe in the Christian idea of God Incarnate or not (I don't), it's hard not to be moved by the power of Handel's (and librettist Charles Jennens') grandly detailed conception.  And somehow Christophers manages to channel their sense of spiritual grace for a secular age; his Messiah seems to revel in its roots, its connectedness to the best of a glorious tradition.  (Perhaps that's why the H&H crowd still instinctively stands for the "Hallelujah Chorus.")

Of course - the Christophers version has its quirks, chief among them the repeated presence of a countertenor in the alto role.  This year's model was Daniel Taylor, who I admit did boast a hauntingly mournful middle range.  But we got quite enough of that color, and its attendant dolor, in "He was despised and rejected," (which this year Christophers took at a crawl), and elsewhere Taylor seemed unable to modulate into the hopefulness of "Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened," much less the joy of "O Death, where is thy sting?"

Luckily, the other soloists offered more variety.  Tenor James Gilchrist had an eccentric way with Handelian melisma, to be sure, but he had a surprising power at his command, and something like Old-Testament thunder in such recitatives as "All they that see Him laugh Him to scorn." And then suddenly, with "Thy rebuke hath broken His heart" Gilchrist was indeed, heartbreaking.  Almost as good was Sumner Thompson, a local favorite of mine, who isn't quite a bass, but who nevertheless could summon a stern, old-school authority, as well as an unexpectedly poignant lyricism in the aria that I feel is the most beautiful in the whole oratorio, "The trumpet shall sound."

The trumpets do sound, of course, from all over Symphony Hall in the H&H version, and as played by Jesse Levine and Paul Perfetti, they were glorious this year.  The winds were once again on point as well, and the strings their familiar agile selves; meanwhile the reliable John Grimes brought his usual rolling flair to the timpani.  It was another grand and memorable edition in what has become a 194-year tradition at Handel and Haydn.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Chanticleer's polyphonic Christmas presents

The men of Chanticleer

An entire week has gone by since Chanticleer visited Celebrity Series, but I've been too distracted by shows with short runs to get around to throwing a few critical bouquets their way.

Of course critiquing Chanticleer is a bit oxymoronic - there's not much to critique; since the group's founding in San Francisco some thirty-five (!) years ago, it has slowly taken the world by storm, and now all but rules the male-chorus roost.  And for once, the mainstream take on the group has been accurate: it is an "orchestra of voices" - for Chanticleer's greatest achievement is its consistently gorgeous (and startlingly accurate) vocal polyphony.

What's polyphony?  It's a style of choral writing in which independent melodic lines weave against one another to form a ravishingly rich musical texture (polyphony reached its greatest pitch in the sacred music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, which together form the core of Chanticleer's repertoire).  A polyphonic work should open as slowly and hypnotically as a flower  - and needless to say, a truly radiant bloom requires every petal be perfectly placed (a highly daunting vocal task).  And this is where Chanticleer is pretty much peerless.  The timbres of its members's voices are not only exquisitely matched to this material, but also to each other, and their intonation is stunningly secure, particularly given that in some of the works sung Friday night, just about every single member was carrying his own vocal line a cappella.  (Although it's when they swoop from soprano to bass lines and back that your jaw really drops.)

Actually, maybe there was a wobble or two in the opening plainsong (done beneath atmospheric lighting that briefly transformed Jordan Hall into the nave of a cathedral).  But once Chanticleer reached the familiar Veni, veni, Emmanuel, their singing had coalesced into a transporting, multi-foliate vocal rose. I confess I often felt leaps of emotion throughout the first half of the program, thanks to the intensity of its musical and spiritual rapture.  Certainly highlights were gorgeous renderings of Gabrieli's polychoral (that's when two mini-choruses face off) Angelus pastores ait, and Cristóbal de Morales' Pastores dicite, for which the group was arranged in a kind of Christmas star (Chanticleer's blocking is always intriguing, and sometimes - particularly when they move contrapuntally, while singing - produces startling sonic effects).

The group also excels at musical scholarship - this concert amounted to a fascinating tour of the length and  breadth of sacred vocal music, extending from perhaps 800 A.D. to the twentieth century, and covering more than one Christian church (there are a couple of them, you know).  We heard a thrilling version of Poulenc's ecstatic O magnum mysterium, for instance - and in an intriguing thematic gambit, the singers segued from Arvo Pärt's "O Adonai" from Sieben Magnificat Antiphonen to the 14th-century O Virgo splendens, effectively shifting from a masculine conception of the divine to a feminine one.

Should I bring up the group's apparent sexual orientation now?  I think I should. Of course I doubt everyone in this chorus is gay, but clearly that's their core identity.  Are you shocked?  You shouldn't be - honey, gay men have always run sacred music; the only question is whether they're in the closet or not. Being 'out,' of course, isn't perhaps an entirely unalloyed advantage - Chanticleer does sometimes beam with an amusing gay vanity that isn't quite what Christ had in mind, whatever Andrew Sullivan may think (but of course only because vanity itself isn't what Christ had in mind).

In other ways, however, questions of sexual identity do lead to intriguing juxtapositions in the group's repertoire, like the one cited above.  In brief, when Chanticleer shifts on a dime from "O Adonai" ("O, Father") to "O Virgo splendens" (basically, "O, Mother"), they are making a rather poignant statement that resonates, I think, from the Vatican to the Castro.  Not that they don't cover much of the rest of the globe (and many of its languages) in their selections.  I'd never heard any of Alexander Gretchaninoff's work from the Russian Orthodox tradition, but the throaty Svéte tihiy made me hungry for more.  There was also a lovely sampling from the English hymnal in the sweetly lilting Allelulya: A nyewe work.  And of course the Germans held their own, with gorgeous renderings of Prateorius and others; a suite of versions of In dulci jubilo (you may know it as "Good Christian Men, Rejoice") proved a swift, entertaining history lesson which concluded with a complex setting from Bach himself.

As you can tell, there were almost too many riches to catalogue in the concert's stunning first half.  Alas, after intermission the group turned to more popular carols, many of which date from after the nineteenth century, when Christmas music basically fell off a cliff (sorry, there's really nothing you can do with the likes of "Silent Night," not that Chanticleer didn't try).  Still, even here there were a few gems: "A Christmas Carol" from Charles Ives proved touchingly direct (and very un-Ives-like), and the traditional French carol, Il est né le divin enfant, made a lovely impression.  And you know, after so much transcendent musicianship, I was happy to sit through "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" and a "Star of Wonder" medley.  After all - it's Christmas.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The magic of Mummenschanz at 40

Your inner child is closer than you think - in fact, no further than the nearest Mummenschanz show, which actually is playing through this Sunday at the Schubert Theatre (thanks to Celebrity Series).

The venerable Swiss troupe is celebrating its 40th anniversary - hence the title of their current tour, "40 Years," which draws on the best of four decades' worth of imagination, observation, and inspiration.  (The show features founder Floriana Frassetto, who I believe has appeared in every Mummenschanz performance ever, and is still going strong, as well as newer hands Philipp Egli, Pitero Montandon and Raffaella Mattioli.) As always, the show is silent - even though it's not exactly mime - and as always, it's composed of a handful of mummers, concealed in a good deal of fabric and foam, or a bit of wire and paper, and a large helping of whimsical resourcefulness.  Mummenschanz was always about transplanting mummery into the bright colors and forms of post-modern pop, so it's no surprise that beneath their mod veneer, there's something timeless kicking around in their routines; the human body always haunts even their biggest, boldest costumes and conceits - and thus so does humanity itself (in both the ideal, universal sense, and the flawed, fleshy sense, too).

So Mummenschanz is cute, but never "cute" - while always playful (literally - they're fond of volleyball with the audience) they're rarely sentimental.  Bouncing, joyful, gentle, humane - yes; but also wry, sometimes sardonic - and occasionally even sweetly bawdy.  When one character whose head is a plug meets another whose face is a socket, you're pretty sure what's going to happen next (and the kids think it's a riot; in fact throughout the show, some little kid somewhere was always chuckling in a delighted, tickled-pink sort of way).  There are a few life lessons to be found in all the fun, though. Another sketch opens up into a droll little essay on vanity; and even after a passionate kiss, couples sometimes drift apart; and the sparkly little fish under the sea get eaten by bigger fish (bye-bye Nemo!).  Life's like that.

But frankly I think what's most striking about Mummenschanz at forty is their combination of faith and humility.  Even though they're often encased in orange slinkys or giant, rolling sponges, they never lose sight of what it means to be human - how that's an awkward, vulnerable, vexed, and bemusing position.  And thus how important it is to stay silly.  What's more, they still believe that economy can be as transporting on the stage as excess; all Mummenschanz needs is a strip of wire (and maybe a spotlight) to conjure a character. And you know what? They're right about that.  There are wonders here, built from nothing - schools of shining fish, and a giant, thrashing squid, and a ballerina looking for her head, and floating scraps of paper that fold into human faces, and much, much more.  Indeed, by the end of this evening, the small, quiet scale of the Mummenschanz magic begins to feel like something very large indeed - and something definitely to be treasured.