Friday, January 27, 2012

Change of Seasons

Violinist Aisslinn Nosky
Last weekend's Handel and Haydn concerts may have been devoted to The Four Seasons, but there was only one major change of musical season during the program - the shift from one sensibility (Harry Christophers') to another (violinist Aisslinn Nosky's) that occurred after intermission, when the concert moved from several pieces by Handel, Corelli and John Christian Bach to Vivaldi's famously seasonal quartet of concerti.

The first half was a small miracle; the second half - well, it was interesting, and I don't mean that in a pejorative sense.  It was interesting; Handel and Haydn seemed determined to deliver something that was definitely not your father's Four Seasons - and so swung for the bleachers in all kinds of ways; whether the resulting performance cohered or not I'd say is an open question; but I was certainly held the whole time.

But first, the luminous half, when the stripped-down orchestra delivered one ravishing reading after another.  Christophers had his string section play standing up, the better to conjure the buoyancy of dance, but always kept the resulting rhythmic power under delicate, attentive control.   The pieces rocked, most definitely, but were also colored with a mature sophistication.  Handel's Overture to "Agrippina," for instance - which we just heard a year ago at Boston Lyric Opera, on modern instruments - here sounded far more evocative than it had then; its majesty seemed almost wounded, and shot through with melancholy; it seemed to be calling to us from some lost, ancient age (which it was).

Likewise the performances of two of Corelli's concerti (both from Op. 6, Nos. 3 and 4) were gorgeously rendered, utterly transparent and always exquisitely detailed.  In contrast, J.C. Bach's forceful Symphony in G minor felt like a whirlwind - the tumbling first movement was so powerful, in fact, it drew a round of spontaneous applause at its finish.

The same energy powered The Four Seasons, but this time felt unfettered by any sense of shaping control.  Nosky is a marvel, and obviously a showman (her magenta 'do and tuxedo-tails tell you as much), but Christophers here seemed to simply hand over the artistic reins to her much of the time, and I'm afraid she doesn't yet know how to build an interpretation from her instincts.  They're great, daredevil instincts, to be sure; this was a Four Seasons which was unafraid to revel in the work's dissonance, and in which Vivaldi's summery suspensions (as well as Nosky's own rather meandering cadenzas) sometimes seemed to hang in the air like a blazing haze.  Likewise the more rollicking sections were sped up to a gallop and beyond - indeed, sometimes Nosky made promises of speed she couldn't quite keep, at least not with perfect intonation.  And everywhere she and the other players threw themselves into their bowing with full-body abandon; I have expected Nosky to smash her instrument over somebody's head at the climax of "Winter."

So I'll say this much - this was one of the most "extreme" version of The Four Seasons I've ever encountered.  But the same artistic questions dogged this performance as sank the shenanigans of Red Priest up on the North Shore this summer: gonzo alone doesn't amount to an interpretation.  To be fair, Nosky wasn't just pursuing technical glory - she was pushing individual musical ideas to their limits; this wasn't just Red Priest-style show-boating.  And perhaps The Four Seasons only suffered in comparison with the luminous playing that had immediately preceded it.  But then Harry Christophers is just a little more seasoned, isn't he (sorry).  Give Nosky time, and I think we can expect wonders from her, too.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Memories of underdevelopment

Photo by Paul Marotta

This season ArtsEmerson has explicitly stated that some of its presentations have been in a state of development.  I'm not sure that's the official line on Robbie McCauley's one-woman show Sugar (which plays through this weekend), but it probably should be.  The talented Ms. McCauley's meditation on her long involvement with the title topic, through her affliction with diabetes (and its entwinement with race, life, and art) certainly has its moments - largely because McCauley (above), who carved out a distinguished career in theatre and dance before joining the Emerson faculty, has lived a life rich in moments large and small, and she's practically a perfect theatrical raconteur - warm yet wry,with a low-key, skeptical dignity.

But so far her piece has yet to coalesce into the kind of political and personal statement that it could be, and we often feel that gap.  Yes, you read that right - the Hub Review has found a script in which race should figure more prominently than it currently does.  (Somewhere, pigs are on the wing through the frozen caverns of Hell.)

It's not that the perceptive Ms McCauley doesn't appreciate the breadth and depth of her theme; she does.  Sugar, as she puts it, is "complicated." And so are our politics, and inevitably, our commitment to health care for everyone. McCauley explicitly acknowledges that sugar's deadly shadow, diabetes, exacts a disproportionate toll among communities of color largely because a different kind of sweetness - the sick sweetness of racist feeling, and the politics that flow from it - allows it to. She may have lived through a civil rights revolution, but she knows only too well that entrenched modes of privilege have a way of surviving changes in the legal code.

Indeed, the actress herself is a piercing example of the terrible price this quiet plague can exact from a human being (she lost the lead in the premiere of For Colored Girls . . . due to diabetic exhaustion, and so missed her chance at a Tony; only later was she able to join the second Broadway cast).  The trouble is that in the retelling of her struggle against the bad hands and missed chances that American life dealt her, the personal rarely ramifies into the political.  As the episodes of her story unfold, we nod along in sympathy, but are somehow rarely moved to outrage or action.

Of course in some ways McCauley is wise to keep her focus tight, on the specifics of her own life; she triumphed over her disease, after all; she played on Broadway, knew everyone and everything in her heyday in New York, and is now enjoying a whole new late-life career when, as she puts it, according to the statistics, "I shouldn't even be here."  Still, the disease has taken its toll, and her performance is perhaps at its most memorable when she's most forthright about facing down the shame that in some quarters still hovers over this condition and its impact; she's honest about the disease's debilitating sexual effects, for instance, and even calmly gives herself an insulin shot on stage, because, of course, dignity should always be accorded the body and its natural needs.

But how to interweave that personal empowerment into the larger political picture?  This is where Ms. McCauley seems at loose ends.  Her personal imagery holds us - ironically enough, particularly her reminiscences of Southern home cooking - and her story is compelling.  How and when will it become everyone's story?  I'm not sure - but there are already moments in which you can feel the full scope of her theme moving beneath her performance.  Near the close of the show, she lifts a huge pack of sugar cane onto her back, and, stooped over from the effort, makes her way determinedly across the stage.  And for a moment, race, history, culture, and even economics seem to be woven together into an inspired metaphor.  With a few more moments like that one, Sugar could be one long theatrical (and political) high.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The "I" of the beholder

Photo by Andrew Brilliant.

We're having our Yasmina Reza moment in Boston right now: this week you can catch the Huntington's production of God of Carnage, or the Polanski film version (just Carnage), OR an earlier Reza opus, ART, which has just opened at the New Rep (through February 5).

The surprise is that the New Rep production may be the best of the lot, and it would be too bad if it got lost in the Reza shuffle.  Not that it's perfect - its opening section lacks drive - but Antonio Ocampo-Guzman's production slowly builds into an intriguing meditation on Reza's actual theme in ART (which the Huntington mostly misses in God of Carnage): in a nutshell, how much of our identities, and our relationships, are a matter of projection.

But first a note on the playwright.  Reza has for some time occupied a strange place in the gender-theatre wars, for her career has contradicted the chorus of complaint from many female playwrights that the Broadway deck was stacked against them.  For while Theresa Rebeck and Sarah Ruhl have indeed had trouble launching a genuine hit on the Great White Way, Reza has gotten rich off the two smashes now playing in the Hub (which were actually global, not just Broadway, successes).  Now she's completely bankable - one of the few bankable female playwright alive.

The explanation from the Rebeck camp for Reza's career arc was that her work was too funny, too lightweight, and too commercial.  And it's certainly funny, that much is true.  The rest of the feminist snark against her is looking harder to justify, I think.  I'm not sure where I rate Reza quite yet - but she's certainly far more interesting than Rebeck or Ruhl; simply put, she has been successful while they have not because her plays are quite a bit better than theirs.

It helps of course that Reza is unusual among female playwrights in being able to write men so convincingly, and through little if any judgmental political screen; even though the men of ART and God of Carnage are pretty epicene by Amurrican standards, they seem as masculine as Mamet might have written them. But Reza does not seem to share the politics of the new-play-development club in general - and politics has always been what the scuffles over her career have been about.  I'm not sure precisely where Reza lands on the political spectrum, but certainly she casts a cold eye on the platitudes of Paula Vogel and her acolytes.  That's largely what Carnage is concerned with.  ART is about something else - something that's a little hard to formulate, actually, which may be why the play often seems to morph in style and focus before our eyes.

You're probably heard the set-up: Serge (Robert Walsh), a yuppie with inclinations toward the artistic, has purchased a white-on-white painting for an outrageous sum; to be fair to him, he seems genuinely taken with the thing.  But when he unveils it to his friends, they're shocked - and best-buddy Marc (Robert Pemberton) is offended, really: the monochrome canvas (there are actually two shades of white on it, for whatever that's worth)  seems to sum up for him everything he finds vapid and pretentious about contemporary art and the art market.  The trouble is that there's something vapid and pretentious about Marc, too - and as for peacemaker Yvan (Doug Lockwood), his constant desire to take both sides in every debate only barely conceals the fact that in his personal life he's basically an emotional doormat.

By now you may have already guessed that Reza's real theme isn't the outrageousness of the art scene at all; the white canvas at the center of ART is clearly what Hitchcock would have called a MacGuffin.  No, it's the problem of interpretation in general that Reza has in her sights, and as this trio of opposed personalities battle out their differences over contemporary painting, we realize she has subtly posited the disturbing notion that they themselves are as blank as the tabula rasa they're debating.  They see in each other only what they want to see - just as Serge does with his monochrome - which means that their friendship, their past history, even the meaning of their lives, are all built on the shifting sands of vanity.  Which also means even their conflicts must prove evanescent; this trio sometimes comes to blows (in a moment that's currently under-developed, btw), and sometimes seems to be about to betray their most basic commitments to each other; and yet everything eventually blows over.  Now you see something in the painting; but now you don't.

At the New Rep, after a slow start, Ocampo-Guzman's cast charts this ebb and flow with admirable skill.  I felt Doug Lockwood (an acquaintance of mine, btw) was the stand-out as the sweetly blundering, vaguely contemptible Yvan; his long monologue of helpless, hapless complaint was a nearly-perfect aria of pained, pathetic nebbishness.  Meanwhile, as Serge and Marc, Walsh and Pemberton were superficially just as good, with Pemberton's glittering contempt icily mirroring Serge's suavely earnest self-regard.  But the note I'd give these two is that the motor of the drama is actually submerged for much of the play in their complicated relationship (Yvan is merely a fellow-traveler) - a bond which, in classic Gallic style, is rooted in vanity as much as it is in affection, and which is at least as competitive as it is needy.  If the initial parries and thrusts of these two are to grip us, somehow that dynamic must be moving forcefully beneath the surface of the lines from the very start.  Once open hostilities have broken out, however, both actors are in clover, and this ART feels like anything but a white-on-white blank.  The tasteful setting, which could have concealed a sharper twist of satire, is by Justin Townsend; the accurate costumes are by Gail Astrid Buckley; and Christopher Hampton's translation is strong enough to blithely survive a slew of contemporary French high-cult references.

Just one general note in closing: after Artistic Director Kate Warner's abrupt departure last spring, I thought this would prove a rocky season at the New Rep; but instead it seems like a new kind of identity may at last be emerging at this mid-size stalwart - and my gut is that it may be due to the coalescing of a new directorial circle around the theatre.  Subtler direction, more thoughtful performances, and a sense of keen character observation have reigned in Collected Stories, Three Viewings, and now ART; and as artistic identities go, I wouldn't say that's a bad one.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Call of the mild

Photo(s): Megan Moore
Period music is all the rage in classical circles; indeed, these days it's often in the engagement with the past that we feel serious music's most thoughtful connections with the present.

In the theatre, however, the "period piece" is still frowned upon (for reasons that I feel are intellectually naïve). Yet there's a small scene devoted to this kind of thing nonetheless, and one of its exemplars is director Carl Forsman, artistic director of New York's Keen Theatre Company, who luckily for us has a relationship with Lowell's Merrimack Rep.

According to Forsman, his artistic focus is on "sincere theatre;" he aims to "make earnestness sophisticated," with an emphasis on "candor, vulnerability, and optimism."  You understand then why he must so often perforce turn to the past for material, and why in effect what he does is period performance.  Indeed, his plays are almost always drawn from the American stage of more than fifty years ago - he generally favors domestic dramas and comedies of manners.  And generally they've proved to be fantastic.

It helps that Forsman is a subtle and superb director - one of the most reliable in America, I'd argue.  That he is in principle non-radical, of course, is in itself a radical statement these days; his consistent elucidation of decades-old bourgeois conventions reminds us with embarrassing honesty that today's "edgy" entertainments are themselves only another set of bourgeois conventions - and that we perhaps can feel the form and pressure of our own age in their mirror as well as we can in our own.

And frankly, the comparison is not always flattering.  Take John van Druten's The Voice of the Turtle, which Forsman is reviving right now at Merrimack Rep (through next weekend).  On the one hand, it's a slender three-hander, a vehicle for a trio of skilled actors to exploit the unconscious yearnings of a certain period (that is, the war-weary years of the mid-forties).  To those who feel this makes the piece permanently dated, I'd only point out that Forsman usually chooses pieces that share an intriguing quality; they are about the degrees of freedom an individual may have within an existing set of mores.  It's amusing to realize that today we may be more often beset by "type" on stage than we were half a century ago; the politically-correct in particular are always trumpeting this or that character or situation as emblematic of class, race, or political beliefs; their texts are too often structured as symbolic political drama.

But Forsman's favored craftsmen of the past are rarely so doctrinaire, and indeed, The Voice of the Turtle turns entirely on its characters' engagement with public sexual and social mores while they are engaged with each other in a cocoon of isolation.  It takes place in a Manhattan apartment that feels like a nook of mysterious solitude - its slightly enchanted quality is heightened by Bill Clarke's intriguing set, which is done up precisely as it might have been sixty years ago, that is in streamlined, slightly-artificial pastels, with a storybook model city twinkling outside its window (and an elegant period curtain that rises and falls before it like the hand of Time).  A quiet sense of self-aware artifice pervades the acting, too - the performers all exude a sophisticated sense of personality balanced somewhere between dueling public and private identities (this kind of behavior was a staple of 40's movies, too).

But if the atmosphere of the piece is rich, the story is admittedly slim; it's essentially a finely-scaled fantasy about a lonely soldier and a pretty girl finding love while he's on leave.  And Van Druten has to work a little hard, frankly, to fill out his essentially conflict-free frame with more than two hours' worth of traffic on the stage.  But if his complications are sometimes a bit forced, they're also delicately rendered, and with a literate craftsmanship that's imbued with a knowing sense of grace.  So perhaps it's also no surprise that Voice of the Turtle ran on Broadway for years - although what's most striking about it today is the way it clearly reflects the forgiving set of sexual mores that prevailed during wartime.  Here, as in movies like On the Town, nice girls are allowed to make whoopee with soldiers on leave and still be considered "nice."  Indeed,  they can even admit they like sex - although the all-American Sally (Hanley Smith) wonders to her partying girlfriend Olive (Megan Byrne) whether after two affairs she could be considered "promiscuous" yet (both ponder this at top left).

This question is rendered so innocently it's sweet, but you can feel real anxieties floating behind it.  In wartime, sexual mores aren't the only social codes that are suspended, after all, and you can feel beneath all the characters' chatter about great times at the Stage Door Canteen not only the looming tragedy of the war but also a sense of creeping alienation, of life gone adrift at home.  Sally herself has been bruised by love already, and so has decided to swear off sex until she's 30, at least.

Enter Bill (William Connell), who I think you will be not be shocked to discover eventually triumphs over this obstacle to their intimacy.  But you may be shocked to realize that the inevitable unfolds in a way that never feels manipulative or cheap, and that Bill is portrayed as far more romantic than Sally.  And really, what can you say to a handsome soldier who can quote Milton?  (Besides "yes," I mean?)

Even if you're immune to the charms of this kind of drama, I think you may appreciate the obvious technique of the trio of actors at Merrimack.  All three manage the neat trick of projecting heartfelt performances through what is essentially a self-conscious screen of period convention; Hanley Smith makes the perfect 40's ingénue while still surprising us with her honest freshness, and William Connell hints at believable reserves of worldliness and rue beneath the facade of his smoothly handsome G.I.; meanwhile Megan Byrne nails her laughs in period style, but never pushes Olive too far into caricature.  I suppose a cynic might say that The Voice of the Turtle in the end is just a "date play."  But to some, of course, that may count as high praise (I think it still operates as a pretty effective "date play," by the way).  And even a cynic I think would have to admit, at least while watching this production at Merrimack, that they don't make date plays like they used to.

Monday, January 23, 2012

IRNE deadlines!

This is just a note to apologize for some tardiness in reviewing - I know, the shows are backed up behind me like Boeings at Logan.  But I also have to get out my IRNE nomination form (which is already a little bit late), and that always takes much longer than I think it's going to.

And yes, that was the official declaration that I'm back on the IRNEs.  It's a long story, some day I'll tell you all about it, etc.  But for now, all I'll say is that it's good to know that the "I" in IRNE still stands for "Independent."

So . . . looking forward to the awards?  I am.  And I promise this week I will also review Merrimack's Voice of the Turtle, the New Rep's ART, Handel and Haydn's Four Seasons, Whistler in the Dark's Fen, and ArtsEmerson's Sugar.

Oh, I also saw Polanski's Carnage, will try to fit something about that in, too.

Later, Tom

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Have you been to Symphony LATEly?

The show's about to start at Symphony Hall!

Last night at Symphony Hall (I was there for Handel and Haydn's excitingly quirky take on The Four Seasons, you should go on Sunday) the audience once more sat through the usual Symphony drill: after the first movement (here, the first piece, an overture), there was a long pause, during which a large crowd of late-comers trooped to their seats.

The conductor, Harry Christophers, looked decidedly pained during this interlude; but I'm so used to this kind of thing by now at Symphony that I hardly notice it.  Still, isn't it odd?

Theatre and dance aren't that way - people show up on time for those (a little late, perhaps, but then Symphony doesn't start at the crack of 8 pm either). Okay, symphonic structure generally guarantees there will be a break about 15 minutes in - but honestly, the classical crowd elsewhere doesn't take nearly as much advantage of this as the Symphony crowd does.

No, this happens much more than it does anywhere else at the corner of Mass Ave. and Huntington.

Is it . . . the building?  The location?  The fairly small number of restaurants right around it?  Those constraints would seem to operate for any number of other venues in the city.  Or is Symphony Hall located in some sort of aesthetic Bermuda Triangle, where the normal rules of time and space don't apply?

Perhaps it's some kind of unspoken, Brahmin-philistine tradition?  The BSO's audience is widely perceived as monied and well, devoted to "excellence" in the corporate sense, but less devoted to the integrity of musical performance per se; Beethoven can bloody well wait till they get there.  And has the BSO's long indulgence of this attitude led to the expectation that people now think, "Well, I can be late, it's at Symphony Hall"?

I don't know.  It is a puzzlement.  "One of the three greatest halls in the world - and that's why we're showing up late."  But then Boston is full of these kinds of contradictions, isn't it.  Someday somebody ought to pull them together into one of those funny little books they sell by the cash register.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A rhyme for all reasons

The Imaginary Beasts bring the British panto to American shores.
Local impresario Matthew Woods has been producing his "pantos" (that's short for "pantomime," although "pantos" are far from silent) up on the North Shore for years, but Boston is only now getting a taste of his whimsical take on this cherished British tradition in The Half-Baked and Hard-to-Swallow History of Humpty Dumpty, or One Egg is Enough, which Woods's Imaginary Beasts are presenting at the BCA through February 4.

What is a panto, you may ask?  And should you see one?  Well, the answer to the second question is definitely "Yes - particularly if you own, or are renting, children from ages 4 to 7, or even older if they still believe in Santa."  The answer to the first query is a little more complicated.  A "panto" is an exuberantly foolish piece of nonsense in which much of what you'd find in American vaudeville or even burlesque is benignly applied to glosses on fairy tales and Mother Goose.  Think commedia crossed with Lewis Carroll and you've got roughly the idea.

But a panto obeys its own unique set of dramatic rules - which you get the impression Mr. Woods is quite devoted to (although he's happy enough to update his routines with the likes of Lady Gaga).  The dialogue is mostly rhymed couplets à la Ms. Goose, for instance, and gender is always reversed for specific roles: the male heroes are played by women, the dowagers by men.  There are also standard call-and-response sequences which must appear, and which give pantos much of their structure and shape.  These include the hallowed 'Oh no, it isn't/Oh yes it IS" smack-down, lots of booing and hissing for the villains, the occasional sympathetic "A-wwww!" for the hero, and especially the delicious "Look out behind you!!!" whenever big spiders, wizards, dragons, etc., approach on tip-toe from the wings.

Now I have no idea why this odd formula works as well as it does; but you should know that the kids at last Saturday's matinee were transfixed by this silly soufflé for something like two-and-a-half-hours.  And I mean riveted. Hypnotized.  Quiet as mice, saucer-eyed, waiting patiently for their cues, understanding in some deep way that here at last was a piece of theatre pitched at precisely their level, with no extraneous civics lessons besides the old ones about loyalty, honesty and pluck.

The adults were maybe a little less absorbed, to be honest. A panto is supposed to be a shaggy-dog story, but this one struck me as shaggy indeed; a good twenty minutes could be trimmed.  But frankly, that's not what any of the six-year-olds in attendance would have said; I fully believe the kids in that crowd could have watched the show for another hour.  And I can't pretend I didn't have a pretty good time. Indeed, I was simply happy to be introduced to a new platoon of lively, game young actors who approached all this square silliness with the utmost seriousness; the entire cast was strong, but I was particularly struck by newcomers Mauro Canepa, Denise Drago, Sam Eckmann, Derek Fraser, Molly Kimmerling, Christopher Nourse, Jesse Wood and Jill Rogati, who made a daringly weird, but eventually endearing, Humpty Dumpty.  Woods himself stole scene after scene, preening in a deliriously fey get-up as Old Icicle, who was determined to bring down a permanent winter upon us all. But then everyone got a great get-up in this show: Woods' secret weapon is costumer Cotton Talbot-Minkin, who once again produced a fleet of delightfully fanciful ensembles that seemed to channel both Maxfield Parrish and Arthur Rackham.  The whole thing was endearing and sweet, and you can't go wrong with bringing the kids, trust me.  My guess is that Woods's pantos may quickly become a new Hub tradition; why not be there at the start of it?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Painting, but not priming, the town Red

See this?  Mark Rothko rarely did this.
Local reviewers have called John Logan's Red (at SpeakEasy Stage through Feb. 4) "a great work of art," "a masterpiece," and "a play of ideas" that's "intellectually and emotionally riveting."

What's usually meant by such phrases, of course, is that the show in question is either a vehicle or a lecture. So it's no surprise that Red is a little of both - but at least  Logan's two-hander about Mark Rothko is a pretty solid vehicle, and a fairly diverting lecture - the playwright has compiled a (somewhat inaccurate) set of Art History notes for people who didn't take that course in college but like to pretend they did - and then transliterated it into a smoothly convincing facsimile of dialogue between Rothko and an assistant who's basically an amalgam of everybody else in the artist's life.

In other words, Logan has done a great service to cocktail party hostesses everywhere.

Still, the play is hardly a masterpiece or a great work of art.  Please, don't be ridiculous.  It is, instead, a simulation of same for people who can't tell the difference between craft and art.

But does that difference matter anymore?  Probably not.  Certainly a lot of people these days think it doesn't; sometimes it seems I'm the only person left alive who does.  (But then it's my blog, isn't it.)  I am intrigued, however, by the SpeakEasy production in a certain meta-cultural way.

Let me explain.  The play itself is clearly a commercial construct with pretensions to discuss Big Ideas; which is fair enough; move over, A Man for All Seasons! Broadway has always trafficked in this kind of thing.  Still, a funny conceptual wrinkle arises when you apply tried-and-true Broadway formulae to the central topic in Red, which I take to be the rejection of the commodification of art.

That's right; this is a commodity that attacks other commodities.  And that's interesting, isn't it.  I mean it's one thing to make a boulevard hit out of the six wives of Henry VIII; it's something else again to make commercial hay out of non-commercialism. For if you were to do that, shouldn't you of necessity find yourself staring into a vortex of mirrors reflecting nothing but themselves, kind of like Charles Isherwood and Ben Brantley in conversation?

For make no mistake: Red is thoroughly a commercial commodity, and a good one; you can feel in its cadences a certain pride in how carefully a machine-tooled product it really is (Logan is a highly-paid Hollywood screenwriter for a reason).  It works, it holds you; its beats all land with a crisp little snap.  If you're utterly ignorant of Rothko, you may find yourself saying "Wow, I never thought of that!," or something along those lines, and then, yes, remembering to talk about Rothko at your next cocktail party.

But somehow Logan never gets around to pointing out that this kind of thing, and those kinds of goals, are precisely the kind of thing its subject, Mark Rothko, would have despised - and in fact does despise, repeatedly and at length, over the course of Red.  In short, this play is its own target. It's one long sneer at itself. The script's climax even revolves around Rothko's rejection of commercialism (when he refuses a commission from creepy old Philip Johnson to supply some fabulous décor for the Four Seasons).  And most of the dialogue (it's highbrow banter, really) revolves around splenetic denunciations of the marketable, the sellable, the bankable, the populist and the popular.

And yet Logan tossed all this off between screenplays for Rango and Star Trek: Nemesis.

You see the problem?  In what possible cultural frame can something like Red exist?

We're in such a frame, of course (obviously), which makes the question kind of piquant, I suppose.
And I have to admit that a theatre production - even one of Shakespeare or Beckett - has to be marketed somehow.  You gotta have a gimmick.  You gotta get those butts in seats, which means explaining arty stuff in a way that the critics can understand it.

Yet in the case of Red, the age-old conflict between moral luster and filthy lucre extends right down into the script itself, into questions of form vs. content, and the juxtaposition seems particularly jarring and bald.  Perhaps as a result, the original production, from the Donmar Warehouse (which I caught in New York) seemed almost over-concerned with tip-toeing around the internal contradiction at the heart of the text.  Most of its theatrical effects were subdued, even muted, in an attempt to conceal the basic hamminess of the set-up - and lead actor Alfred Molina insinuated a kind of magisterial mystery into his impersonation of Rothko.  You got the impression the production's conceit was that a deep experience, with its own integrity, could be accessible through the play without being necessarily compromised by the play. Red itself didn't aspire to the depth of Rothko's work - it was simply pointing you toward that work.

Okay.  This didn't completely convince me, but it was okay.  The SpeakEasy production, however, is solid ham through and through, and ups the commercial ante on the script in every possible way - only in a mode of innocent superficiality, I have to admit; you almost wonder if director David R. Gammons and his team realize that they're doing Red: The Musical!, only without any songs. Star Thomas Derrah turns Rothko into a bitchy diva, and as his assistant "Ken," Karl Baker Olson only seems to exist to lob his many star serves back over the conversational net.  Meanwhile director Gammons studs the show with grandiose, "great-man" lighting effects and moments of amusingly solemn stillness (below), even as a doom-y soundtrack cranks up repeatedly with multiplex-style emotional cues. Thus, even as Rothko rants about Nietzche, and the birth of tragedy, and death, we feel we're constantly being massaged by attendants; it's kind of like having a catharsis at a spa.

Hmmm . . . maybe it needs more . . . red . . .
Of course insofar as Red gets a few people to ponder question of recent artistic history, I suppose it ain't all bad.  Although playwright Logan certainly plays fast and loose with certain salient facts.  As I recall the Nietzche-Birth-of-Tragedy theory was first applied to the phase of Rothko's art before the famous "multiforms" (you know, the less successful, less famous stuff). And a central sequence showing Rothko and his assistant "priming" a canvas (at top) is a little sketchy as biography, for as is rather well known, Rothko often didn't do that, which is why so many of his canvases are in such poor shape today.  (And well before Warhol, there were suspicions that Rothko was sometimes using latex paint bought at the hardware store - you know, where Dionysos and Apollo like to shop.)  Of course maybe, as my partner joked, Logan was just being "discreet" about all that - for after all, sloppy craftsmen don't make good tragic heroes.

But Logan is "discreet" about other things, too.  As I mentioned, the climax of the play revolves around Rothko's famous Four Seasons commission from architect Philip Johnson.  But Logan deletes any reference to Johnson's notorious anti-Semitism and fascist sympathies. For make no mistake, the Harvard GSD grad was the genuine article: Johnson used his family money to organize a fascist party in the U.S., thrilled in person to Hitler's Nuremberg rallies, penned a rave for Mein Kampf, and even traipsed after the Nazi army into Poland, writing that watching Warsaw burn was "a stirring spectacle." Always as practical as he had to be, Johnson later sublimated his fascist sympathies into the strict regimentation of German modern architecture - but he remained notorious for anti-Semitic remarks and jokes for much of his life.

Over to Rothko, the Jewish abstract expressionist!  But Rothko's relationship to his Jewishness is a little complicated; born in Russia (as Marcus Rothkowitz), his family dodged the pogroms while he was a child - so perhaps it's no surprise that later, alarmed by the rise of fascism in the U.S. (thanks in part to Philip Johnson!) he shortened his name, at his own admission, to elide his Jewish heritage. Logan nods to this episode, but effectively distorts it, which is a little odd. And the very idea of the Jewish Rothko working for a crypto-Nazi like Johnson is ripe with dramatic irony - the relationship must have been seething, and surely Johnson's reputation played a part in Rothko's ultimate rejection of the Four Seasons offer; but Logan daintily pirouettes around the whole topic.

And why?  Perhaps because Johnson was gay (like this playwright)?  I'm not going to speculate about that, but I think it's worth noting that the rift between Rothko and the artists who "killed off" Abstract Expressionism - which Logan likewise treats at length - also roughly aligned with sexual preference, and once again Logan doesn't mention it; Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg were all gay or bisexual, as were other leading lights in the rising pop and conceptual New York scene.  The doomed, phallo-centric nobility of Rothko, the macho Pollock, and their expressionist ilk was losing cultural traction, and Rothko knew it.  The attitudes that would eventually lead to organizations like, well, SpeakEasy Stage, were already in the ascendant.

Which makes it all the weirder that the SpeakEasy production is so gay - I mean, not only are most of the guys associated with the show gay, but the whole production (perhaps inevitably?) feels vaguely operatic and slightly camp.  Karl Baker Olson's assistant arrives seemingly dressed for a SpeakEasy audition in art-nerd attire, and Derrah's Rothko lounges with a smoking cigarette when he isn't prowling the stage like Margo Channing, hungry for Eve Harrington's blood.  There's a deep irony here, I think, that SpeakEasy may not even be aware of; for the company itself is hardly focused on tragedy (please, don't mention Next Fall); The Divine Sister and Xanadu are more its metier. If Rothko's positions became popular again, to put it bluntly, SpeakEasy would be sunk.

So, what can I say except - the irony is really piling up around this show!  We have a Hollywood hack writing a valentine to a doomed Abstract Expressionist - only notice he feels the story is more appropriate to the stage than the screen, because . . . well because the stage still has some tattered intellectual prestige, some artsy je ne sais quoi - at least as seen from L.A., I guess.  (And what better way to boost your profile with Martin Scorsese - for whom Logan wrote Hugo - than to dabble with the stage?)  Yet it lands in the lap of . . . SpeakEasy.  Hmmm.

So when Logan lambastes the "younger generation" (I guess that means you, millennials!) for not aspiring to the heights of genuine art, you have to wonder what he thinks of his own career.  (Or what his ideas of the theatre are really worth.)  Or is Red meant as a kind of melancholy shrug rather than a faux call to arms, an almost-fond farewell not only to heterosexual hegemony, but also to a dead mode of integrity that everybody hopes stays dead?  Is that why the critics love it - because it is so obviously not what it claims to be?  Oh, I don't know, and I don't care.  The whole thing is really just too silly.  For God's sake bring on Xanadu.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Okay, you thought Charles Isherwood was a crazy queen? You forgot about Hilton Als!

I've already deconstructed Charles Isherwood's review of Lydia Diamond's Stickfly - do I really have to do the same thing for the New Yorker's equally-erratic theatre queen, Hilton Als?  I suppose I should, but frankly, I'm not sure I can - Als' truly bizarre pan of this smart, funny, complicated play simply defies description.  His post on the New Yorker's "Culture Desk" is a critical (and maybe psychological) car crash of epic proportions; indeed, I'm not sure I've read a paroxysm quite this incoherently breathless since Kael saw Brando naked in Last Tango in Paris - Al seems to have been undone mentally in some deep way by Diamond's play.  He rants that Stickfly "panders to black audiences" by "revering whitey" while simultaneously "putting down whitey"!!  Uh-huh.  And trust me, that's not the half of it.

It's almost weird what this play is doing to New York, isn't it.  Who could have guessed it would prove this radical?  The spectacle of a big, well-made drama, written by a black woman, about a black experience of wealth and power that exists largely independent of white experience seems to have driven the town's critics, white and black, completely nuts.  What gives?  I wish I knew; but let me think about it some more, and I'll get back to you.  (In the meantime, see the play; up here in Boston we showered it with awards for a reason.)

Vanya on Winnisimmet Street

I wish I could say the current Apollinaire Theatre production of Uncle Vanya was truly great, rather than just pretty good; it's the kind of production that you root for, because the play is a challenge for a small company, and this version is unpretentious, straightforward, and at the finish quite moving. Director Danielle Fauteux Jacques has also had the clever idea of staging the production all over her theatre's 1906 home (it was built only a decade after Uncle Vanya was written, on Winnisimmet Street in Chelsea). Fauteux Jacques has done this kind of thing before - she quite effectively staged The Seagull all over a nearby park a few years ago.  And it's intriguing how well the technique works for Chekhov; somehow it carries the playwright's vaunted naturalism right through the "fourth wall" and into our laps; after all, the setting is now literally "real," and we're no longer a theatre audience but seemingly flies on the walls of an estate in the Russian provinces a hundred years ago.  Indeed, you somehow feel a little frisson when the door to the Apollinaire "set" opens, and you can see other corridors and rooms beyond it (through which gunshots sometimes echo from points unknown, but hardly "offstage").  The drama fittingly plays out in smaller and smaller spaces, too - so that as the characters' lives close in on them, so do the walls.

If only I could praise the acting as much as I can the concept!  But I wasn't taken with too many of the performances in this Vanya, I'm afraid.  It has gotten a lot of attention from the press because local luminary John Kuntz (above, with Marissa Rae Roberts) has been cast in the title role, but he's basically wrong for it (though with a beard he looks right enough), and despite an earnest effort, only taps into the character's anger rather than his fresh disappointment or romantic, free-thinking nature.  Thus Kuntz is pretty much over-shadowed by newcomer Ronald Lacey, whose defeated whimsy isn't quite right for Astrov either, but who consistently intrigues you anyway.  (Watch out for this guy, I think we'll hear more from him.)  I also liked Ann Carpenter's gruff Nanny and found Anne Marie Shea amusingly pretentious as Vanya's mother.  And local casting honcho Kevin Fennessey was fine, but not distinctive, as Telegin. Meanwhile Erin Eva Butcher came through at the last second (with real tears) as Sonya, but till then didn't always seem connected to her character; likewise Marissa Rae Roberts, who made a quite lovely Elena, took the character's self-described boredom far too much to heart - she was just sleepy, rather than a sleeping mermaid. Elsewhere the production felt either a little flat or a little shouty - and perhaps most problematically of all, you never believed anybody in it was truly in love with anybody else.

Still, the despair of the last scene came over - and I think the outlines of Chekhov's vision were discernible here and there (despite an up-and-down translation from Craig Lucas).  At least I could tell the audience - perhaps thanks to the Vanya on 42nd Street effect - left talking over the play's issues, with that look on their faces people get when they suddenly realize there's a whole world out there beyond cable, movies, and video games.  And maybe that should be good enough for any critic.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Hello, God? It's me, Carnage

Christy Pusz gets in touch with God.  Photo: T. Clark Erickson.
There's a telling moment in Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage (at the Huntington through Feb. 5) in which Alan, an alpha-male asshole if ever there was one, admits his pet-name for his wife Annette is "Woof-Woof."

That's right.  Annette is a pet literally - in fact, she's Alan's dog.

Actually, to get really specific about it - she's his bitch.

I know - cold.  But that's the kind of nasty chill that should run through this cynical four-hander, which charts the descent of four seemingly-civilized adults into a childish orgy of destruction.  Reza's set-up couldn't be simpler: the parents of two children who have tangled on the playground meet to mediate the resulting claims of injury (one kid - Alan's, of course - has actually knocked out two of the other kid's teeth).  We know minutes into the first scene, however, that the veneer of sophisticated parlay these two couples have been trained to deploy with each other will soon be torn away, and that "the god of carnage" (as Alan puts it) will inevitably declare total war across the designer furniture and vases of tulips "just shipped in today" from that peaceable kingdom, the Netherlands.

At the Huntington, however, the cold edge of Reza's schema feels slightly blunted, which is too bad, because honestly, without razor-sharp execution, the glibness of her theme begins to weigh on the repetitive action, and her (admirably) unlikable characters become a tad tiresome even as her tone starts to curdle.  It's not that this production falls apart - it's snarkily enjoyable for the most part, and certainly counts as a big step up from the likes of Captors and Before I Leave You.  But it's never quite as much mean-spirited fun as you want it to be, and that's because director Daniel Goldstein hasn't really nailed his casting - and that's because he hasn't really understood his play.

And that's because Goldstein seems to imagine (as many reviewers have) that this is merely a superficial satire of haute bourgeois manners.  Which, yes, it is; this particular God has only dark secrets, not deep ones.  But Reza's targets are far more varied than is at first apparent; like Ben Jonson, she's a kind of monomaniac who stretches a single theme over the entire world.  The only real interest in her play, in fact, lies in the way it works its gimmick ("Surprise!  The God of Carnage!") through a strikingly wide variety of permutations.  First we get the expected couple-on-couple coup d'etat; but Reza then unfurls a whole panoply of battle royales: we get gender-on-gender, conservative-on-liberal, and husband-on-wife; even (metaphorically) gay-on-straight (and top-on-bottom!).  Enemies morph into allies, but then switch back again - soon these yuppies are all but dashing back and forth across the battle lines.  And Reza goes global, too, balancing cynical exploitation of a pharmaceutical scandal with self-serving concerns over starvation in Darfur (discussed over tasty clafoutis); by the finale, we're surprised the tulips haven't taken sides.   Thus the script is rather like that paper-fortune-teller game kids used to play (appropriately enough) on the playground; Reza keeps folding and unfolding her basic quartet into different combinations, but an angry id pops out every time, erupting from the characters like so much projectile vomit (yes, be warned).

Limning all the tiny fissures that will crack open into all those open conflicts, however, requires very precise casting, and a very agile set of farceurs (for in the end this is a farce, based on anger, or maybe disgust, rather than sex).  We have to feel in our bones precisely how these husbands and wives are oppressing each other, as well as how they're oppressing the world at large - and how they both deny that; and then we need a team of actors who can physically deliver a mounting sense of chaos with glittering precision.

And there's just enough imprecision in this casting, and just a few too many mis-steps in the acting, for the Huntington version to not quite gleam as it should.  We sense immediately, for instance, that Brooks Ashmanskas (Alan) and Christy Pusz (Annette) are gifted  physical comedians (well, we already knew that in the case of Ashmankas, but don't worry, he's quite disciplined here) -  and, alas, that Johanna Day and Stephen Bogardus, as their antagonists, Veronica and Michael, are not.  Strangely, however, it's Day who gives the best, most carefully-thought-through performance; if there were just a slightly-sharper comic twist to her wounded, pseudo-concerned presence, Day would be in clover (as it is, she carries the show anyway).  In an intriguing contrast, Pusz and Ashmanskas are physically far wittier, and all but beam with satiric energy, giving everything they do a delicious spin; but their relationship just doesn't have the sexist (dare I say Gallic?) cast that it should have (which is to say I think Annette should be sickened for reasons beyond Veronica's hypocritical clafoutis).  The slight class differences between the two couples are likewise not precisely defined (no, they're not exactly on the same level, and they got where they are in very different ways), and Stephen Bogardus's rather weakly acted Michael simply isn't as whipped as he should at first appear (sorry, that's Reza's intent), so his later explosion into Neanderthalism doesn't have the sense of release required to make us laugh.  In short, these couples should orbit each other like ironic mirrors - and so far, they don't.

Taken together, such gaps mean the show feels muzzled somehow, and so we get a little bored, and begin to ponder the other gods that govern human nature, in addition to that of carnage (like the god of porcelain, whom the characters occasionally worship).  Reza does nod to such deities here and there, it's true; in fact, perhaps the play's most touching moment occurs when loutish, "honest" Alan, abashed at last, silently begins to pick up after himself for the first time.  If only Reza had ventured a little further down these thematic by-roads, she might have written a major play, instead of what amounts to a smart little circus act.  Which may explain the production's color scheme; Dane Laffrey's yellow atrium seems meant as a wicked ref to Parisian moderne (Reza's original text was in French, and premiered in Paris), but alas, this doesn't map to the Cobble Hill, Brooklyn neighborhood-amalgam that Christopher Hampton's apt translation conjures.  But then director Goldstein's productions rarely look good; another reason why I left wondering whether the Huntington should be in a hurry to invite him back.  With so much of this show almost in place, I think you have to look in his direction to explain why in the end this God isn't quite divine.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Superior cast, not-so superior Donuts

Will LeBow and Omar Robinson plot their next move against Starbucks.  Photo by Mark S. Howard.

The Lyric Stage definitely has a superior cast to serve up Superior Donuts; they just don't have a superior play (I know, I'm sorry - you've heard, or are going to hear, a variation on that line in just about every review of this show you read).  BUT, Tracy Letts's follow-up to his expansively caustic August: Osage County is, I admit, a bit like a donut itself (and I think the author knows it): it's sugar-coated, warm and kinda sticky, and you're happy to gobble it up even though you know it has no nutritional value.

Indeed, the sticky-sweet Donuts sticks out of Letts's oeuvre like - well, like a Dunkin' honey-dipped on a bed of sour grapes; for this author's past work has reliably charted the dark side of American life - from the paranoia of Bug to the internecine generational warfare of Osage County.  Donuts, however, taps into the self-forgiving mood of the "social conscience" sitcoms of the 70s - and then crosses it with a big fat kiss laid on the working-class melting pot of Chicago.  Which all works pretty well, for the most part, until you begin to sense that Letts himself is uncomfortable with the Good Times vibe he has crafted (in fact he seems more troubled by it than we are).  So he interlards his punchlines with sudden appearances by gangsters and goons, and a subplot about bookies that you never quite believe, and a few awkward swipes at big themes (racial tension, the Vietnam War).  Thus Superior Donuts slowly morphs into Pulp Fiction Meets Chico and the Man, with a Special Guest Appearance by Langston Hughes; in attempting a play with issues, Letts ends up with a play with issues.  But hey, he gives pretty good Tarantino, and definitely could handle an episode of Chico, so scene by scene, the playwright keeps you fairly happy - as long as you don't think about the whole play all at once, you're good.

I realize that wasn't exactly high praise.  But then I'm guessing, or hoping, that this has just been an experiment for Letts - or maybe (as I suspect) it's an older, less-polished play that he dusted off once Osage made him so marketable.  Either way, the dialogue is generally tight, and there's a poignant undercurrent of feeling to some of the action - and that's all good actors need, really, to keep the theatrical ball rolling.  And luckily the Lyric has rounded up a surprisingly strong cast - maybe their best large ensemble since Nicholas Nickleby, in fact (even the bit parts pop nicely).

At the center of Donuts is Will LeBow's Arthur Przybyszewski (this is Chicago, remember), proprietor of, yes, "Superior Donuts," and a gentle, pony-tailed boomer lost in creeping despair and self-blame - so lost he can't even manage to connect with a nice lady cop who has her eye on him (Karen MacDonald).  Arthur is given a shove in her direction, however, by Inspiring Young Person Franco Wicks (Omar Robinson), a "self-starter" who thinks he can revive Arthur's fading business and maybe even fight back against Starbucks with natural ingredients and poetry readings.  When he's not being inspiring, btw, Franco is busy writing the Great American Novel (which, come to think of it, is also pretty inspiring), but he's also got a gambling debt trailing him, and two nasty thugs along with it.

As I said, there aren't too many surprises in this plot, although there are some head-scratchers - including a sudden fist-fight that seems to emerge from nowhere.  Or rather it emerges from Arthur's back-story, which Letts mostly divulges in awkward monologues (with Arthur literally haloed in a spotlight).  The brilliant LeBow delivers an exquisitely subtle performance, but he hasn't figured out how to make this dynamic work, and I'm afraid director Spiro Veloudos hasn't been much help.  Still, moment to moment, LeBow charms.  And luckily he is playing against the radiant Omar Robinson, who caught my eye in Twelfth Night a month or two ago, and here easily steals scenes from some of the sharpest pros in town.  Again, I wouldn't say he actually limns the neediness - or maybe instability - that must be moving inside his character (otherwise how has Franco's crushing debt materialized?), but his easy star power makes it easy to forget that.

But then again, almost every performance in this show is a fine turn unto itself; the supporting cast - Steven Barkhimer, De'Lon Grant, Beth Gotha, Christopher James Webb, Zachary Eisenstat and Steven James DeMarco, all bring welcome detail, believable accents, and an admirable level of craft to their roles (which sometimes only amount to a line or two).  It seemed to me that only Karen MacDonald, surprisingly enough, didn't quite find her feet; she's appealing but a little forced, as if she didn't trust that we were getting it.  Or perhaps she's simply itching to make the part more than it really is.  Elsewhere, however, everything was appropriately scaled; the nicely detailed set was by Matthew Whiton, and the accurate costumes by Mallory Frers.  With all this talent on the stage, you often wished that Tracy Letts had fried up something more substantial, something that could stick to your ribs; but even if Superior Donuts (like its namesake) is mostly sugar and hot air, I admit it's pretty sweet going down.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The littlest Corsaire

Four-year-old Alexei Orohovsky watched Ali's variation from Le Corsaire on Youtube, and then came up with his own version at his summer dance intensive. Enjoy! (And watch out for this kid in a few years!)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Great War and the Iraq War

As has oft been noted, pop charts the national mood much the same way an analysand's chatter inevitably betrays his or her buried fears and desires.

So I wonder - what should we make of our new love affair with World War I?

Right now on TV the big news is Downton Abbey, the best soap opera on the tube in years (I admit I'm a fan), and meanwhile, in the multiplexes, Steven Spielberg's War Horse is cantering across the big screen - even as its far-superior stage incarnation is still packing them in on Broadway.

Just a coincidence?  I'm not so sure, because I'm one of those who believe in the pop subconscious.  For the past few years, for instance, pop has been all but screaming at the top of its lungs, "WE'RE TORTURERS! AND WE LOVE IT!" even as in our political debates we either denied or elided this fact (or slowly, but defiantly, admitted it).   Indeed, perhaps partly due to all those official denials, pop torture spiraled into a whole labyrinth of fetishes and sub-specialties.  There was the psycho who literally tore people apart for their own good (Saw).  There was the serial killer who only tortured other serial killers (Dexter).   There was the torturer who re-wrote history!  (Inglorious Basterds.)  The torturers who did it for sport (Hostel).  And the torturer who saved the world in 24 hours!  Etc., etc., etc.

There was just never the American who tortured the innocent man.

(And so deserved to be tortured himself?)

But be that as it may, you can almost feel the cultural ground shifting beneath our feet a bit at the present moment.  Corpse and torture porn, and the vengefulness they fed, feel tired; you can almost hear the zeitgeist rattling its chains - and of course we've just left Iraq, which immediately began to totter.  So perhaps it's no surprise that the great waste of the Great War is suddenly on the Broadway stage, as well as screens both large and small.

But are we really admitting to ourselves, in a back-handed way, that our Middle East adventures have been just as tragic a mistake as World War I?  Well - it's possible, I suppose.  Certainly that's what Downton Abbey is hinting at right now - the start of its second season revolved around the ironies and injustices of the draft in Britain in 1916.  Indeed, sometimes screenwriter Julian Fellowes seemed to be pushing parallels to the present day a little too explicitly - just as wealthy Americans balanced the Iraq War on the backs of the lower classes, who had few other options than to enlist, so in the Great War the aristocrats ensconced in the safety of country houses schemed and pressured the local officials for military exemptions for their servants and favorites.  Actual war always throws class war into high relief, if you have your eyes open.  And as for the rest of it (overextended empires, corrupt diplomacy, collapsing economies) - doesn't it all sound too familiar?

This kind of piquant comment is refreshing to see, of course - even if it's far too little, and far too late.  And of course it's British comment, not American. Which reminded me of something else that's sad about American pop - we never allow ourselves any serious contemplation of class differences on TV (and thus perhaps we crave them in representations of the past!). A series like Downton Abbey would be unthinkable in America, even on cable - and even though a very close parallel would be possible in, say, a Manhattan co-op.  There's a doorman there, after all, and of course a janitor, and many maids and nannies and au pairs tending the privileged few who reside within its walls.  You could do an American Upstairs, Downstairs in the Hamptons, or on Beacon Hill, or in Kennebunkport or any number of other American enclaves.

And yet it never occurs to us to produce such a show.  We don't even really allow ourselves to ponder it.  Part of the reason, of course, is that in America, the class structure is complicated by race.  Another part of that reason is our insistent self-delusion that we're not a class-bound society at all (when recent social studies have shown that actually, we're more class-bound than the rest of the developed world).  It also goes without saying, of course, that anyone who is a conscious social climber in America is violating our most sacred pop trope - that one about "authenticity" - and so cannot serve as a hero or heroine. And then there's our weird modern neurosis about money in general.  In most of the great Victorian novels, money is the motor of the plot; read a little Trollope, in fact, and you get a great sense of the practical economics of his age.  But in America - and really in modern culture in general, high and low -  money is generally either demonized or ignored.  And you could certainly never figure out how an American household runs economically from reading a modern novel!  Can you think of a successful popular novel or movie in the last generation that has been driven by economic concerns, as half of Dickens and all of Trollope and much of Eliot is?  If you can, email me!

But in the meantime, I'll be watching Downton Abbey.  Yes, I know it's sentimentalized, and it's certainly a soap opera - and yet in other ways, compared to the rest of what's on TV, it's so oddly realistic.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Okay, we used to think J. Holtham was evil, but now we feel bad because we realize he's just dumb

J. Holtham, just to prove he's not really dedicated to smearing people's reputations and stifling discussion the way everyone thinks he is, has now gone and made himself look stupid as well as mean-spirited.  (That wag!!) In a  post today over at the Parabasis, he posits that  . . . well, he seems to be saying that debating whether various cultures are more or less attracted to traditional theatre is like denying marriage rights to gay people.

I'm not kidding, he actually says that.  I'm not sure that comparison even counts as "apples and oranges," frankly.  It's more like apples and . . . what?  Root vegetables?  Flying sheep?

Okay, so when attempting a parallel, Holtham wound up with a non sequitur.  But the funny thing is . . . a lot of gay people are NOT, in fact, attracted to traditional marriage!  So . . . not only is his "devil's-advocate" comparison utterly flawed - it also would seem to lead to the contradiction of the conclusion he imagines he's supporting in the case of theatre.


Yeah, right. Who knew the mean girls were so dumb?  The man is a dunce, pure and simple.

Oh I'm sorry - was that rude?  But I mean, it's not like I called him a racist . . .

How do the Boston boys stay so civil? And why are the Parabasis boys so evil?

The recent, nasty brouhaha over at Tom Loughlin's "A Poor Player" reminded me again of one of the ironies of the blogosphere - that it's often riven by immature battle-royales between horrid little high-school-style cliques.  The usual reprobates were behind this particular imbroglio, I think - none other than Isaac Butler and J. Holtham of the blog "Parabasis," the "mean girls" of the theatrical blogosphere, who have banded together against me in the past, and who seem to think that somehow they run the Internet cafeteria; they're always denouncing people and insisting that so-and-so can't sit at their table, etc. (As if anyone wanted to sit at their table - I know they're both over-privileged types with connections, so a lot of people make nice, but seriously, there's a limit.)

Holtham, it seems, has finally accepted the fact that he is not a talented playwright; Butler keeps resisting the same verdict on his directing ability; meanwhile, both have slowly become cartoons of the kind of politically-correct mandarin so widely scorned by stand-ups and late-night TV.  Which, you know, would be okay if they weren't so bureaucratically-minded, mean-spirited, and basically censorious.  Their campaign against poor Tom Loughlin - whom I've read off and on for years, and who believe me, is no racist - to my mind only makes them look desperate.  And perhaps they should be desperate; I mean, what have they got left but race and racism?

Meanwhile, of course, the Boston bloggers - me, Art, and Ian - seem somehow to always get along, even though I'm sure we disagree quite strongly on various political issues.  Indeed, we make jokes at each other's expense and in general enjoy each other's company.  I don't know if this is because we actually bump into each other, and so know each other as human beings, or not (I certainly doubt that compromises our camaraderie).  I imagine the fact that we all are clever enough to read in each other's writing our varied, but mutual, intelligence and good nature, also helps us maintain our relative harmony.

Which leads me to the deeper problem with Parabasis - I simply can tell that those two writers are not generous of nature or spirit; their mutual flattery is so unctuous and all-encompassing as to be unconscious, and their political (and class) conformity is so explicit it's suffocating.  The latest evidence of this is their treatment of Loughlin - it is impossible to have been reading this writer for the past few years and imagine that he is a racist.  Do you hear me? IMPOSSIBLE.  So to pretend that he is, frankly, is obviously the coldest kind of self-aggrandizing, ideological calculation - which is, of course, typical of Parabasis.

I'll go a little further - I can't think of the last time I met a racist who was devoted to the theatre.  Seriously.  Do I know any racists in the theatre?  Okay, maybe there are some covert ones, maybe - but why would they stick around?  I mean, would Hitler take a job in a kibbutz?  Get real, guys.  When the Parabasis Boys start circling in their vulture-like way, and begin insinuating such things about somebody who has devoted his or her life to this declining, but delightful, and eternally progressive, art form - think twice.  And then think three times.  Because trust me, you are most likely being played by two of the most obnoxious, and obvious, operators on the Internet.

Boston Baroque rings in the New Year

Photo by Kayan Szymczak for the Boston Globe.

I'm terribly late with this review, and I feel especially guilty because the concert in question was delightful, as Boston Baroque's annual double-gala on New Year's (both Day and Eve) always is. But then the intense crush in the lobby at Sanders Theatre last Monday was proof positive these folks don't need good reviews to get out the word about this tradition anymore, everyone knows it's the place to be for classical music fans on January 1.

Don't imagine, however, that just because a crowd is largely blue-haired that things can't get rough; honestly, I can remember crowds at the Rat back in the day that were more polite than the one that elbowed its way into Sanders Theatre that afternoon. Then again, folks knew the concert was being broadcast live on WCRB, so it had to begin on a dime (if you were listening, however, don't think that what you heard had the tenor of a tea party - well, maybe it did if you're thinking of the NEW tea party!).

At any rate, the WCRB recording didn't get much in the way of things musically, even if it did slightly muddle the usual intimate atmosphere that Boston Baroque conjures with its audience (at its New Year concerts in particular).  Emcee Cathy Fuller made a gently fulsome, if slightly blank, hostess, and Pearlman came off as slightly diffident in his radio patter, perhaps - but then he is a bit diffident, isn't he; indeed, as I listened to him I suddenly felt a strange sense of correspondence between his vocal presentation and the way he thinks musically.  Not a direct correspondence, actually - rather an inverted one; I wondered if Pearlman's swift, graceful tempi were actually the final goal of a careful consideration that can manifest itself in his speech as hesitancy.  But be that as it may, the broadcast in general felt like a sweet moment of triumph for this local light, who certainly deserves accolades for his dedication to Boston Baroque (and before that Banchetto Musicale, yes I'm that old) over the past decades.

After the introductions, the concert got off to a clean, rousing start with a gleaming rendition of a Corelli Concerto Grosso (Op. 6, No. 10), which might have almost stood as typification of Boston Baroque style: dancing, even sparkling, with some depth but not too much.  The ensemble here, and throughout the concert, was focused and responsive, even luminous; the players knew they were on the spot before perhaps their largest audience ever, and they gave it their best.

These New Year's Day concerts are always distinguished by little eccentricities, musical "features," and in-jokes, and this time around the crowd got a taste of two now-obscure instruments, the triple harp and sopranino recorder.  A triple harp deploys three sets of strings to cover the notes that in modern harps are handled by pedal-work - thus performing on it is a special technical challenge; but beyond that, like many period works, it has its own hauntingly delicate timbre: it seems to be literally speaking to us from several centuries ago.  Pearlman chose to showcase it with a great piece, Handel's Harp Concerto in B-flat (which more people know from its translation to the pipe organ).  Harpist Barbara Poeschl-Edrich played with clarity (no small feat!), and an exquisite sense of musical architecture, though perhaps a bit dryly, I thought (but then a truly singing line is the trick with this instrument).

Next came an even greater musical monument - Bach's famous Double Violin Concerto.  Here, perhaps, was where one could most argue with the brisk Boston Baroque manner - not because of its speed, I suppose (were violinists Christina Day Martinson and Julie Leven really that much faster than other performers I've heard?  I'm not sure) but rather for the fact that a certain expressiveness or lyricism seemed to be lost in the players' attack.  Again, you can argue about the level of lyricism appropriate to Bach - I just left wanting more, especially from the gorgeous Largo, and I know these ladies can supply it.

The program wrapped with two less rich, but still dazzling, offerings from Vivaldi.  The first, his Concerto in A minor for Sopranino Recorder, proved bewitching, and featured a diving, dazzling turn from virtuoso Aldo Abrau (who I swear must have an extra lung) on what Pearlman aptly called "the hummingbird of recorders."  Next came crowd favorite Mary Wilson, who wrapped her glowing soprano (if not her best diction) around Vivaldi's curious motet "Nulla in mundo pax sincera" ("In the world there is no genuine peace,") which disconcertingly delivers a melancholy lyric in an uplifting musical setting, and crowns it with truly sublime "Alleluia!"

There's always a little extra surprise at the end of these concerts, and this time it turned out to be a period-instrument rendering of "Glitter and Be Gay," from Bernstein's Candide, with Wilson beaming center stage as Cunegonde.  Maybe I'm just drunk on Candide these days, but I thought the instrumentation sounded fabulous (and Pearlman conducted with spirit), which made me think that an entirely-period-instrument version of the whole show could be quite intriguing (how about it, Mary Zimmerman?).  And Wilson had a fine time with the schizophrenic laughter-and-tears, sympathy-now-satire mode of the lyrics, and of course her voice has a richness you rarely hear on the musical-theatre stage.  It was a final triumphant touch to what was a truly gay and glittering soirée.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Mike Daisey, "When the Clock Strikes"

"A piece of shit, wonderfully executed."

You can't help but admire Mike Daisey when you're watching him - even when, as was the case this New Year's Eve in Boston, he has nothing coherent to say, and has tied up his performance in a narrative knot (and knows it).

Or should I say that's especially when you can't help but admire him?  For it's precisely at such times (i.e., when he's spinning his wheels) that Daisey's technique is at its most obvious, and also its most impeccable: when his voice is soaring into a carefully punctuated bellow, then swooping into a whisper for no apparent reason - that's when you ooh and aah internally over his physical control. When the arms are at one moment swinging like mallets, then the next, slipping through the air as sinuously as an odalisque's - it's only then that you realize this sumo-sized guy, whose eyes glitter with madness, and who is forever beading out in sweat because he's so aquiver with indignation, is actually enacting a kind of self-conscious ballet for your benefit; with utter focus and relentless discipline, he is sculpting an evanescent (indeed invisible) dramatic sculpture - a virtual persona - for your contemplation and edification.

And the fact that whatever he's doing, it counts as a still life, is intrinsic to the weird pull of his theatrical presence.  Daisey's affect is all outrage unleashed, and yet he's absolutely and completely tethered, rooted to the spot behind the bland table that serves as pedestal for his notes.  And around him there is no set, no context, nothing - indeed, at the Huntington here in Boston, the fact that the beginnings of the set for God of Carnage were in place behind him led to a ten-minute diatribe about that particular play ("A piece of SHIT, but wonderfully executed!").  Daisey was clearly unsettled by the presence of a theatrical frame - perhaps because he's aware that his caged rage operates best in a vacuum; it can't, and shouldn't, get any dramatic traction; the "fourth wall" must be sealed around him like shrink wrap, so that he floats before us like a bitter genie pickled in his own rhetorical bottle.

This is what makes so many folks giggle at his expectorations; Daisey's harangues, though precisely targeted, and delivered with Old-Testament-level authority, are nevertheless so clearly helpless that their intensity tickles us, the same way that the doomed monomania of a cartoon character does.  Only beneath this superficial response, I think there lurks a somewhat deeper resonance: the impotence of Daisey's anger maps to a new sense of social incapacitation in the zeitgeist.  For there's no shared culture anymore to channel the fury of a funny scold like him; Daisey's wicked riffs can't land, can't have any effect on their targets.  Like the guy left hanging by tech support, and the smartphone user who can't access an app, Daisey is dangling, cut off by the grid from personal efficacy.  And politically, things may be even worse;  he can scream shame on any number of social and cultural miscreants all he wants, but shame no longer exists.  Hence the essential stasis of his show.  And the sense that within our lubricated social shells, we're much like him.

I admit that all this came to mind, however, because the text of his Boston show, "When the Clock Strikes" - a loose meditation on the general lousiness of New Year's Eve - was intermittently amusing, but so meandering as to have been almost maddening (if I'd been paying close attention to it, that is).  It was, I suppose, a tour of sorts of his psyche, as Daisey tilted at his usual windmills - capitalism is sucking/has sucked your soul, but you are a hopeless hypocrite anyway (just like me!),  and then this other WEIRD thing happened, did I tell you about my wife and the Nazi - oh maybe not, but you're a puritan anyway (or are you a marauding drunk?), which is funny because right now I am basically jerking off into your mouth.  Har-de-har. I think he repeated that last bon mot twice - which really made me think the show should have been titled "A Taste of Mike Daisey."

There were certainly some punchy moments in this psychological mystery tour, but a mood of showbizzy hypocrisy pervaded it, too - Daisey's such a knowing observer of snobbery that the precision of his satire betrays an unspoken allegiance to its targets; after punching down Yasmina Reza, for instance, he sighed that "all pop culture and literature" is now about a handful of neighborhoods in Brooklyn.  Somehow I missed that - but then I'm an alcoholic puritan, right?  (At least I don't live in Connecticut, though!)

Oh, well, as I said, it was the performance that made the show - Daisey admitted as much himself, quipping that, like Yasmina Reza, he might well be presenting "a piece of shit, but wonderfully executed."  (Just as he likewise shouted that he was a hypocrite - you often sense in Daisey the nervous desire to pre-empt any and all critique.)  At any rate, if you'd like to check the performance out for yourself, you can - Daisey has posted the audio on his website.  I think even from an MP3 you can appreciate the hypnotic, almost-musical cadence of his delivery - and perceive that with better material, he could put on quite a show.  I've been hoping for some time that a local presenter (like ArtsEmerson, hint hint) might bring his monologue on Steve Jobs to Boston - if any town needs to see that, it's this one; and "When the Clock Strikes," if it did nothing else, made me hunger for that opportunity all the more.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Now I'm not going to say I told you so . . . but it seems Sarah Ruhl has come home to roost . . .

I admit I'm mightily amused by the revulsion so many critics have suddenly evinced at the House that Ruhl Built (of string, no less). Whimsy? Quirk? A structureless narrative free-for-all? Suddenly everyone's realizing that this amounts to one big artistic dead end. The poster boy for the new sentiment seems to be the Village Voice's Michael Feingold, who in a recent, much-discussed pan of Molly Smith Metzler's Close Up Space lamented thusly:

I'm sad, but not from Seasonal Affective Disorder. The fall season ended with Manhattan Theatre Club's opening Molly Smith Metzler's Close Up Space, a work neatly encapsulating everything new plays do that has been making me sad for months. I bear Metzler no ill will. As with too many other recent plays, hers has some distinct virtues, but its faults outnumber them so heavily as to make theatergoing burdensome: Instead of engaging creatively with the event onstage, you expend all your energy looking for little things within it to like in compensation for its generally dismaying nature.

I can't blame Metzler for repeating the pattern. Like all playwrights, she wants to get produced. Naturally, she has turned out the sort of play our would-be serious theaters increasingly tend to produce. They, too, strive to imitate previous successes; everybody's following the Ruhls. The result, in Close Up Space, is a viscous mixture of sitcom and after-school special. It opens with patent absurdity, in an ostensibly naturalistic context, and ends in a glop of would-be tragic ironies. Reality, heightened or everyday, is the one thing it virtually never touches.

You know, I'm glad (of course) that people like Feingold are finally seeing the light about millennial playwriting, but . . . honestly, where have they all been the past five years? Couldn't they have seen this coming? I certainly did.  From way up here in the provinces!  [Correction!  I have been informed that Feingold, like me, has been critical of Ruhl from the start.  I have to start reading him more.  But for the rest of you New York peeps, however, this post still goes!  And you should start listening to Michael Feingold!]

Monday, January 2, 2012

Words to live by

If you're looking for New Year's resolutions, here are a few suggestions.  Woody Guthrie's, from 1942 (below) are all classics - particularly "Stay glad," "Dance better," and "Love everybody," not to mention "Beat fascism" and "Wash teeth, if any."

In retrospect

I'm still in cheerleader mode - only this time for myself.

It's going to be a slow week, so I thought to myself - what about filling up some space in the blogosphere with a self-retrospective, a "Best of the Hub Review," to go with my other annual "best of" lists?

 And you know, I'm just conceited enough that I thought this was a really great idea.

Especially since 2011 was a busy one for the Hub Review in terms of sheer polemic, which almost none of the other cultural blogs engage in.  So I've mostly narrowed my "Best Of" focus to those essays which had a particularly political edge during the past year.  I've kept it to roughly ten - well, to almost ten rubrics, as you'll see; some of my longer pieces, particularly my extensive consideration of His Girl Friday and Porgy and Bess (in the context of the racial politics of vintage theatre), were linked into something like one continuous article.  So without further ado -

The Best of 2011

I'm well-known as just about the only long-form cultural blogger in existence, and 2011 saw me at my most long-winded in a linked, four-part (and almost 8,000-word) consideration of what constitutes a valid approach to racism in classic theatrical texts - via a comparison of the ART's exploitive Porgy and Bess to Trinity Rep's honorable update of His Girl Friday.  I also pondered why, exactly, the print press is so hypocritically eager to condemn racism in some works, while ignoring it in others.  (Indeed, if you only read the print reviews, you might never have realized this cultural debate was playing itself out on-stage in New England - I think I'm the only person in the region who bothered to compare the two productions.)  The series culminated in the critique of Clybourne Park that the Guardian deemed "brilliant" (thank you, Guardian - I now have a whole cohort of steady readers from the UK):

Two contrasting tales of racism and renovation

Hot off The Front Page

Paulus, Parks, and Porgy

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

I also penned a double essay around the tenth anniversary of 9/11, and the questions it raised about America and what I christened "9/11 pop" (although in retrospect, "9/11 porn" might have been the better handle):

Which one is the real America?

Seen from a distance . . . Notes on 9/11 pop

I likewise devoted a fair amount of space on the blog to the crack-down on Occupy Boston - which I often visited this fall - which led to these widely-read pieces:

Thoughts on the phony progressive politics of the theatre

Scenes from an Occupation

So, Mumbles has lost my vote

Elsewhere, I mused on the slow death of cultural discussion on the web  -

Welcome to the blogosphere

And wrote about the practice of theatre criticism itself quite a bit, as I weathered a sustained attack from several theatres (and then launched my own against Charles Isherwood of the New York Times.) Salvos from that period include:

The case for creative destruction, etc.

More thoughts from Larry

Larry's open letter to the A.R.T.

And, of course, I can't honestly review this tumultuous year without including my own attack on those who sought my expulsion from the IRNE Awards:

The Shawn & Kati Show

Meanwhile, on the lighter side, there were my frustrated polemics against another theatre critic, Charles Isherwood:

You know, maybe Chuck does kind of suck


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

Don't worry, we're near the end! Looking way back, very early in the year I penned the following plea for a "Martin Luther King" prize devoted to plays about race right here in Boston.  (Within a few weeks, intriguingly enough, the Huntington announced it would be producing just such a play, Kirsten Greenidge's The Luck of the Irish):

The Martin Luther King Prize - how about it?

And finally (fast forwarding to just a few weeks ago) one article that led to a number of positive emails and comments was my re-consideration of the Frank Capra classic, It's a Wonderful Life:

It's a wonderful life, but a lousy market economy

Whew; I think that's enough self-congratulation for now - not that there isn't even more great writing on the Hub Review. Hopefully I'll be able to keep up something like the same standard in 2012, so by all means - keep reading!