Saturday, March 31, 2012

Meanwhile, on stage only till tomorrow . . .

I'd love to argue more over The Andersen Project, but I'm afraid I have to run now to TOMÁŠ KUBÍNEK: CERTIFIED LUNATIC & MASTER OF THE IMPOSSIBLE (above), which is the other show at ArtsEmerson, and only plays until tomorrow (April Fools' Day, appropriately enough). I won't get around to reviewing it till after it has closed - but in the meantime, isn't that image review enough?

Larry disagrees!

Fans of critical bickering may enjoy this.  After my poke at Larry Stark's "What's a real play, Tom?? Please enlighten us!!" note in my review of The Play About the Baby, I got this email from the proprietor of The Theatre Mirror this morning:

"A self-indulgent send-up of the French"?
To Tom Garvey

I just had a magnificent theatrical experience! I saw a short one-act play that couldn't exist without inspired projected effects that interacted with live action, that told an involving story about people involved in a compelling situation of high emotional seriousness.

No, I don't mean "The Andersen Project" --- I saw that Last night, when you were somewhere else in the Cutler Majestic thrilling to it a second time; and, frankly, I was bored at that cute and self-indulgent send-up of the French that looked to me an irrelevant slice-of-quaint-life --- sort of "This American Life" with pictures.
No, I'm talking about an actual PLAY called "On Ego" by Mick Gordon and Paul Broks that the Science Fiction Theatre Company is doing at The Factory Theatre. I think, unlike the expensive spread, it really fulfilled your dictum that "A 'play' in the traditional sense is something that has a premise, a theme, a rising action that develops that theme, compelling characters, a climax or conclusion (or an anti-climax) . . ."
But then, what do I know about Real Plays?
"On Ego" starts with a fascinating little lecture defining the brain as a pound or so of firing neurons, within which there is no "soul" in control; "the brain is a story-telling mechanism, and the story it tells is --- You." So, if one could scan and totally duplicate every single atom in your body, that duplicate would contain your every memory and idea --- it would BE you. If some day (This is The SCIENCE FICTION THEATER Company, remember) all a person's atoms could be scanned and the information sent somewhere and re-constituted, the result at the end would be identical to the person --- so the original could be -- whoosh! -- destroyed, because two "people" can't live the same life, can they?
But what if, by an anomalous malfunction, it wasn't?
Now complicate that premise with another, simpler problem: the hero's wife has a "butterfly tumor" in her own brain that gradually interferes with her life and memory and, since it's unoperable, will kill her.
Eric McGowan and Alissa Cordiero play that pair of genuinely star-crossed lovers, with Chuck Schwager as her father and the operator of the teleportation machinery. Brian McCarthy provides fascinating ever-changing projected abstract backgrounds, and effects involving pictures (or in some cases live-action shots?) of actors, with live actors interacting with them. Dan Grund directed. I think they all did a stunning job of making this English play come to life this side of the Atlantic .
Oh, and one irrelevant note: I'm told the seat I sat in at the Cutler last night would cost anyone else $79.00; the Scioence Fiction Theater Company will charge you only $20.00 --- but hurry, because as of tonight half the seats in The Factory are already taken; apparently I can't say the same of the show at the Cutler.
Love,
===Anon. (a k a larry stark)
NOTE:
To check on Tom Garvey's differing opinions, Click HERE and scroll down.

"On Ego" (30 March - 15 April)


To which I replied:

Well, maybe I can make it to the Factory Theater tonight, I'll have to see. But, you know, you do play on a kind of tilted playing board with this type of jibe; you know as well as I do that I'm not about to trash a small production if it doesn't work out, or even say the sort of snide things you've said about "The Andersen Project." Which I note, btw, you haven't actually reviewed - nor have you offered any analysis here of what you liked about "On Ego;" meanwhile I'm still mulling over the complexity over what I think you've mistakenly imagined is an "irrelevant slice-of-quaint-life" and a "self-indulgent send-up of the French." (??) Oh, and by the way - do I take it then that you DO know what "a real play" is, after all? Thanks for your note, Tom

Friday, March 30, 2012

Tales from Andersen, Part 1

The opera house as staging ground for the mind - Yves Jacques in The Andersen Project

You don't usually think of Hans Christian Andersen as a pre-eminent poet of modernity; but in the visionary The Andersen Project (at ArtsEmerson through this weekend only) the celebrated writer/director Robert LePage convinces you that Andersen was precisely that.

At the same time, LePage convinces you that he himself is among the most sophisticated creators of theatre alive.  For The Andersen Project only re-affirms what The Far Side of the Moon suggested some years ago: LePage stands apart (if not alone!) in his stunning ability to synthesize from the implements of technology theatrical forms which can hold their own against traditional standards.

I think this is important to emphasize.  If you've been scared away from LePage by the likes of Robert Wilson, or the many "performance artists" who have basically wandered into the theatre from the more pretentious realms of music and the visual arts - don't be.  Don't be.  LePage is a man of the theatre; he understands, even loves, its conventions. Plus he's literate, and understands literature - moreover, he understands that theatre is one form of literature that must live and breathe in real time.  He never tries to intimidate you into suffering through some boring form of stilted surrealism or flat conceptualism; he's a dramatic thinker, not a visual thinker who's pretending the stage can conform to the aesthetics of the canvas; so with LePage, you're never stuck staring at Admiral Perry floating in snow while Philip Glass drones away on the soundtrack for what feels like hours.

No, Robert LePage makes plays.  Real plays.  Plays that in their thematic sophistication and density can stand up to Churchill and Barker; which is to say they are richer and more challenging than anything being written by the younger generation of playwrights working today.  The difference is that LePage's "texts" (and yes, they are texts) are largely visual.



Which creates intriguing challenges for his critics.  Take a typical LePage scenario - I'll choose one from The Andersen Project: the script's hero, Frédéric (the amazing Yves Jacques), is traveling from Copenhagen to Paris on a bullet train (see opening of video below); he seems to be floating before us, onstage and yet "on screen,"as a filmed image of passing scenery surrounds him, hurtling away from us to a vanishing point.  This technical trick is in itself quite resonant, pressing on us Frédéric's civilized alienation, his essential solitude, his lack of precise location - even as his cell phone signal falters and fails.  Bored, he samples a drug he left absent-mindedly in his pocket - is it ecstasy?  The train goes faster and faster; his visual cortex begins to fire in different colors; the druggy haze of modernity deepens.  He had talked of stopping at a club in Hamburg, and suddenly the bullet train morphs INTO the club - but is he actually there, or only dreaming of being there?  It doesn't matter; he dances crazily to what was once the thunder of the train, but is now the thunder of the beat.  And behind him, a laser display mimics precisely the hurtling scenery, spraying out then tunneling backward to a single vanishing point.  Two solitary "ecstasies" of modern life merge into one even as we watch.

The drug of modernity takes over.

You absorb all this just as you would the subtext of dialogue (and at something like the same pace); by this point, you've already picked up LePage's ideas and themes, even though his characters never discuss them explicitly - and so you're primed to fit visual references into the expanding structure of his overall statement just as you might similarly track muttered asides in Chekhov or Shakespeare; this is like watching your average, pretentiously stumbling performance artist suddenly sprint ahead into something like visual iambic pentameter.  And if you think I'm over-reaching by mentioning the names I just referenced - well, perhaps I am, but not by all that much.  I'm still chewing on The Andersen Project (after seeing it twice), and I think I've yet to fully limn the amazing lattice of connections and resonances that LePage has designed.

In fact I confess I'm a little daunted by the task of parsing this show; I've glanced at local reviews by the likes of Bill Marx and Don Aucoin, but neither managed to put over the full complexity of LePage's achievement, with its double set of twins, and their related mirrors and doppelgängers, as well as the multiple narratives snaking around them, and in and out of each other - even as cinema and theatre (aesthetic doppelgängers right there) duke it out in formal terms before our startled eyes.   And I'm sure you're wondering by now - what has all this got to do with Danny Kaye?  Sigh.  This is what makes me feel a little sorry for artists today - even when they do achieve greatness, there's hardly any one left to pay the proper kind of attention.  But attention must be paid, as someone once said.  So I promise to return tomorrow with a fuller accounting of LePage's "Tales from Andersen."

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Play about Edward Albee

Funeral games in The Play About the Baby.

Hub Review readers by now are aware that I have a strong preference for what I like to call (to the consternation of critics who can't imagine what I could possibly mean by this term!) "real plays."  But what is a "real" play, you may ask?  Well, sometimes it's best defined by example; drama may be like porn - you just know it when you see it.  And for a good example of the form (drama, not porn), you can check out Edward Albee's The Play About the Baby, which is playing in a solid production by Exquisite Corps at the BCA through this weekend.

In brief, The Play About the Baby is a real (though perhaps minor) play - or rather a real meta-play: it's essentially Albee's meditation on the dramatic material that he has been mining throughout his dramatic career.  So I suppose it might best be titled The Play About The Play About the Baby.  Or perhaps even The Play About Edward Albee (although unlike such misadventures as The Man With Three Arms, The Play About the Baby treats only the author's thematic, rather than personal, obsessions.)

And what precisely has Edward Albee been obsessed with in his writing life?  Well, this gay adopted son of a childless couple (in which the wife/mother was notoriously caustic) has, perhaps inevitably, been obsessed with the existential problem of sterility. Albee has generally been fascinated by characters - often couples (The Lady from DubuqueA Delicate Balance, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) for whom the usual modes of creating "meaning" (and avoiding the spectre of death) via family life and reproduction have been relentlessly stripped away.  Indeed, that very stripping generally constitutes the central action of the playwright's dramas - which often end with the question What remains? once his characters have admitted that children offer only illusory hopes, that all faiths are inevitably false, and that every form of optimism is essentially empty.

In The Play About the Baby, this development has been abstracted to its essence.  In a kind of open, featureless theatrical space, we meet Boy and Girl, seeming newlyweds who are besotted with each other, and who have just produced an (offstage) infant.   For a time, this sweet, slightly stupid Adam and Eve happily frolic in their erotic Eden, in which everything seems possible (and in which Albee slyly insinuates their innocent perversity - Boy likes to suckle at Girl's breast right along with Baby).

They are soon stalked, however, by the vaguely menacing Man and Woman, voices of weary, sardonic experience who might be gypsies, or salespeople, or - well, perhaps some unnamable, universal threat to innocence.  Then again, maybe they're just actors ("I love this speech!" one of them coos about his own lines).

But whatever and whoever they are, we eventually gather that Man and Woman are after the baby - and soon enough, the infant has disappeared.  But has it been killed?  Kidnapped?  It doesn't seem to matter.  Instead, what comes next is an extended meditation on grief - and a painfully cold consideration of just how humanity deals with the deprivations of life.   The cruelty of Man and Woman is so motive-less and strange that it defies analysis - so, the mysterious pair suggest, did Baby ever really exist?  (We heard, but never saw, him or her.)  Boy and Girl at first resist, but then begin to toy, with these new ways of making sense of the world.  But are they simply engaging in mind games, attempting to find solace in a new form of brutal illusion? Or does the only true path to emotional awakening lead through this kind of pain?

These are the kinds of questions that have always floated through Albee's cruelly stylish canon, and they've rarely been voiced quite as crisply as they are here (clearly the playwright is one of his own best critics).  And Exquisite Corps does put over the chilly, darkly funny essence of the play, although the best performances by far come from the smart, sexy (and mighty buff) Zachary Eisenstadt, and especially the lovely, touchingly tentative Lynn R. Guerra, as the existentially star-crossed Boy and Girl.  Meanwhile, as their tormentors, Man and Woman, the accomplished Bob Mussett and and Janelle Mills are certainly diverting, and nail many of their laughs; but they lack that vulpine sense of cloaked malice that makes an Albee villain truly unforgettable - and neither conjures either the poisoned glamour or the incipient sense of unstable identity that I think the playwright is after (this may partly be due to a few subtle errors in tone by the director, Adrienne Boris).  Thus Mussett and Mills come off less as forces of fate than as, well, pretty good actors doing a pretty good job with some weird material. Even with a slightly subdued Man and Woman, however, there's a kind of fierce pleasure to be found here - both in Albee's patented harshness, and, thanks to Eisenstadt and Guerra, in the final, grudging pathos he ultimately conjures for his lost innocents.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

La Donna Musicale's stunning discovery

The performers of La Donna Musicale. Photo: Meiqian He.

It's unusual that a musical "discovery" really counts as one; many "lost masterpieces," once revealed, turn out to have gorgeous moments, yes, but also enough flaws to make you understand why they slowly slid from public view.  "Why hasn't anyone played this for three hundred years??" the publicity for this or that rediscovered opera or oratorio usually asks in disbelief; but an hour or two into the work in question, you usually feel you have a pretty good idea why it has been gathering dust for centuries.

But last weekend, after hearing a single performance from La Donna Musicale - which is devoted to forgotten female composers - I couldn't help but feel that Camilla de Rossi's The Prodigal Son was something different. This isn't just women's-studies fodder; it really is a discovery; it's simply a wonderful oratorio - Handelesque, yes, but in a voice, and from a perspective, that feels somehow individual (and in some deep way female, which is important).  We know very little (almost nothing) about de Rossi, other than that much of her work was commissioned by Joseph I of Austria, and that her signature included the appellation Romana (denoting Roman descent).  There are four extant oratorios bearing her name, along with a small clutch of cantatas and other works.  Perhaps The Prodigal Son is her one masterpiece - perhaps; but if not, there's a small treasure trove of great music out there just waiting to be brought into the repertory.  And my gut is that Ms. (Miss?  Mrs.?) de Rossi (Romana) will eventually be seen as deserving her own niche in the pantheon of Western music.

It's easy to believe that sexism is behind de Rossi's obscurity, but frankly, thoughts of political injustice quickly fade before works like this one; the music's just too good, it's all you end up thinking about.  That and the unique emotional perspective that the composer (and probable librettist) brings to the familiar parable from Luke (Rembrandt's peerless vision of the prodigal's return, at left).

For de Rossi, the parable is clearly about a family dynamic rather than the personal journey of a wandering scion; indeed, she only lightly treats the prodigal's misadventures, lavishing far more attention on his father, brother, and mother - who it's worth noting goes unmentioned in Luke, but is deeply considered by de Rossi. What's more, the prodigal's brother, voiced by a soprano, is clearly conceived as a kind of Diana/Artemis figure - which gives a mysteriously fresh, trans-gendered edge to the story, and makes one ponder de Rossi's own biography with some sympathy; after all, she wandered far from home, didn't she - yet always kept that home as part of her signature.

It would be a mistake, I suppose, to make large claims about de Rossi's style based on a single work - but what is noteworthy I think about Prodigal Son is its plethora of highly singable melody, and the surprising formal flexibility - almost looseness - of its structure; you were never quite sure what might be coming next in musical terms, but somehow a consistent underlying tone gave the whole piece a subtle sense of unity.

The performance from La Donna Musicale was, I'm afraid, a little less unified - though always adequate, and at its best peerless.  As de Rossi's mournful mother, the widely-admired Julianne Baird effortlessly took center stage - the oratorio almost seemed to be about her - and was consistently superb in both her exquisitely rich singing and poignant emotional presence; I'm desperately hoping Boston will see Ms. Baird again, and soon. I was also taken with newcomers Pablo Bustos, who brought a light but sweetly expressive tenor to the role of the prodigal's father, and soprano Kimberly Moller, who though a bit shrill at her top, sang with clean, confident control - thus effortlessly communicating the self-command (and, eventually, rising anger) of the prodigal's brother.  Alas, the one gap in the vocal ensemble was the Prodigal himself, Gerrod Pagenkopf, whom I've admired elsewhere, but who seemed here to struggle with the low end of the role, and whose dramatic performance leaned more toward pique than impetuous yearning for liberty.  Meanwhile the instrumentalists, though conducted with spirit by director Laury Gutiérrez, and playing with suitable passion, struggled with tuning issues, particularly in the first half of the program (re-tunings at intermission, and later in the second act, mostly corrected the problem).  Despite these occasional missteps, however, I was still impressed with La Donna Musicale - as I was very impressed with their programming.  Who knows what other great works by forgotten female composers may be out there?  We're lucky to have ensembles like La Donna Musicale out there digging for them.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Just in case you thought your kids weren't racists . . .

You normally don't think of Twitter as a hotbed of racism, but tweets in response to the hit movie The Hunger Games have revealed an ugly underside to the twitterverse.  It seems many young audience members were shocked, shocked to discover that characters they'd identified with on paper (without, apparently, reading along too carefully - the characters' races are mentioned in the text) were not, actually, the blonde, blue-eyed Aryans of their dreams.

Sigh.  These kinds of tweets, from these kinds of twits, do make you wonder about the true nature of many millennials, and whether "education" can ever reach them.

For part of what's interesting about The Hunger Games - beyond the fact that it's a blatant rip-off of Battle Royale (how 'bout some Asian heroes, tweeters of America?) is how relentlessly P.C. it is.  Yet racism has somehow enveloped it anyhow - it was willfully misread by its audience (and not only in private, either - there have been reports of shocked responses occurring at the theatre, during the movie).

I'm not sure what this means, and I'm not sure what it means for the earnest, heavy hand of political correctness that bears down on much of our entertainment culture.  For it seems that in private, kids are turning into racists all on their own - but does that mean the P.C. police should have more power, or less?

For can anything reach these types?  Alas, these tweets suggest a situation in which many millennials bow and scrape to anti-racism in public, but in the pseudo-privacy of Twitter, reveal another sort of behavior, and a very different attitude.  Which means, I'm afraid, that there's a kind of a sick comedy to many of these tweets.  I do wonder, for instance - is there some connection in the brain between racism and poor spelling?  And I do love that "Awkward moment" tweet - oh my God, a black character!  Awk-ward!  Apparently so - but awkward for whom, and why?

Monday, March 26, 2012

Sins of forgiveness in St. John the Divine in Iowa


Various folks had mentioned to me that I should check out Lyralen Kaye's St. John the Divine in Iowa, the latest from Another Country Productions - so I made it to one of the final performances last weekend (I promise to someday catch up, reviewing-wise, so I'll be writing about shows that are still on the boards!).  And I understood why people had found the script appealing - Kaye has written (and given herself the starring role in, btw, at left) a gently probing comedy about the inevitable confrontations between current gay lifestyle and traditional religious and moral norms - even when (actually, especially when) the avatars of those norms are eager to embrace diversity, and shed the prejudices that have long defined their roles.

To be specific, playwright Kaye has conjured one Reverend Alex, a liberal Episcopal minister out in the sticks of Iowa, who is eager to guide her flock toward the open embrace of gay marriage (currently, of course, only one facet of an ongoing rift that threatens to split the Episcopal communion apart, and which is also still a political flash point in Iowa).  Sweetly contented with her own open-mindedness, Reverend Alex suddenly finds this issue playing out quite close to home when her daughter Sarah (Caitlin Berger) arrives on the doorstep with a pierced, punkette girlfriend (Meghan Rice) in tow, confident that Mom will prove her spiritual and political mettle by marrying them right then and there.

The audience is quite a bit less surprised by this "shock" than Revered Alex is - but rest assured, Kaye does have a few tricks up her dramaturgical sleeve.  The intriguing thing about her script, in fact, is the way it calmly turns the tables on audience expectations.  For it turns out that Sarah's beloved - also, perhaps significantly, named Alex - wants a marriage, but doesn't want monogamy; she instead has a vision of connubial bliss in which Sarah will always "come first" for her, but only as first among many.  This is, of course, only an accurate reflection of how many gay people expect their marriages to work - but can Reverend Alex honestly consecrate such a union within her faith?  Stated more generally - can homosexuals (like, say, oh, Andrew Sullivan) with no intention of maintaining monogamy, honestly ask to be married within a Christian - or Jewish, or Muslim - framework?

The answer, of course, is no, I'm afraid - not if that faith is to continue to mean anything (whatever Andrew Sullivan may say) - and Kaye does eventually deliver that answer, although so apologetically that sometimes I found myself wishing she'd show a little more confrontational spine.  Indeed, I was generally frustrated by the way the playwright so neatly set up an incendiary double conflict - the naive moral narcissism of many gay idealists vs. the unreasoning prejudice of many "Christians" - but then proceeded to douse the ensuing flames with a copious flood of irony, "understanding," and forgiveness.  I mean, we would sneer at a straight dude explaining to his minister that he expected to be able to sleep around on his future wife; so why should we sympathize with a lesbian making the same demand?  Indeed, it occurred to me on occasion that deep within St. John the Divine in Iowa, there was a riotous black comedy of gay manners waiting to be born.  (Or perhaps a drama about a true crisis of faith for Reverend Alex - which never seemed to materialize.)

But then I'm not sure we've yet seen a real satire of millennial gay manners, have we - by which I do not mean some campy, tongue-in-cheek travesty, but rather an honestly pointed satire.  Which led me to ponder how politically pandering the contemporary theatre, which is far too often paralyzed around modes of victimization, has really become.  Pleas for tolerance such as To Kill a Mockingbird, or Boston Children's Theatre's recent Reflections of a Rock Lobster, should always be on the boards, of course, but among us grown-ups, must  the same style remain the be-all and end-all of the art form?  Watching Kaye's drama, I wondered whether it would even be politically possible for a playwright today to shake down the various illusions surrounding gay marriage without bringing down a chorus of disapproval (the pretensions of straight marriage are regularly fisked on stage, but gay marriage is generally given a complete pass).  The interesting thing about St. John the Divine in Iowa, however, is that it started out as a screenplay - which perhaps explains how Kaye dared to raise these issues at all.  Indeed, with that knowledge in mind, I often found myself missing the edge the material might well have had if it had actually been produced for, say, cable TV rathe than the stage.

Which is all very strange, isn't it?  That television should often have more political edge than the theatre?  Still, I suppose St. John the Divine in Iowa counts as some kind of start for our moribund little art form, even if the conversion from screen to stage yields some inevitably rough dramatic carpentry (the conflicts at Alex's church, which we imagine would require scenes of some scope, are inevitably given short shrift here, which leads to a sometimes episodic, bumpy structure).  Still, director Julia Short draws subtle, committed work from Kaye and really her entire cast - even from Joan Mejia, the gentle dude who wanders through now and then as Jesus (an impossible role if ever there was one).   I suppose if I were a bit more like Him, I'd see only the strengths, and forgive entirely the gaps, in St. John the Divine in Iowa.  But then you know I'm never one to deny the devil his due.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The theatrical event of the spring season is The Andersen Project at ArtsEmerson



Don't wait for my review, that won't happen for a few days. But get tickets to Robert LePage's The Andersen Project (video above, with LePage himself performing), which plays this week only at ArtsEmerson.  It is one of the events of the year, like Candide and The Speaker's Progress, and actor Yves Jacques's performance is one of the performances of the year - fluent, intelligent, utterly committed, exquisitely humane.  And he is surrounded by one of LePage's most successful attempts at evoking his vision of "living cinema," in which actors and puppets pass easily back and forth, as if in a kind of dream, between "theatrical" and "cinematic" space.  Though perhaps less focused than this artist's The Far Side of the Moon - which played at the A.R.T. what seems like an artistic age ago - The Andersen Project is studded with far more haunting images, the most ravishing of which I'm tempted to call unforgettable.  And there is one central sequence - a simple retelling of Andersen's fairy tale "The Shadow" - which in its stagecraft feels like simple perfection.  A must-see.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Getting beyond narcissism at Heart and Dagger

It looks like more fun than it really is.

After enduring Next to Narcissism - oops, I meant Next to Normal! - at SpeakEasy Stage, I was in the mood (altered or otherwise) for a good production of Crave, playwright Sarah Kane's primal scream from the bottom of the well of her notorious psychological torment (the playwright committed suicide after scratching out only a handful of ever-more-disturbing plays). I admit Crave is definitely not a good time - but it's authentic; you can hear in it the voice of a soul rather than a shill; unlike Next to Normal, it's not unhappy-housewife bait, much less some shrink-wrapped tablet of theatrical psychopharmacology.  Crave is for those who crave, as they say, "the real thing."

And I got at least a taste of it, if not a full dose, in this production from Heart and Dagger, which I caught at the end of its run last weekend.  It was paired with a new work, Beyond the Light, by an old buddy of mine, Joey Pelletier; which aimed to, as H&D's web site puts it, "crash the party with abstract dance theater."  Hmmm.  "Abstract dance theater." Okay, I kind of get what Joey and H&D are all about - if Oberon wasn't run by evil people, it would be a lot like Heart & Dagger - but I'm not sure I get what they mean (or rather I'm not sure that they get what they mean) by "abstract dance theater."  In practice, at least in Beyond the Light, this seemed to add up to - "Some scenes are going to be dialogue-based, and others are going to be dance-based, and don't ask us why, okay?"

And actually, that's mostly okay - I mean, I never argue with young people in their underwear, and if Heart and Dagger sounds kind of pretentious, trust me, somehow they're really not.  And I do want to say to all the Hearts and Daggers - you definitely look super sexy and dangerous, and I'm totally jealous!!  Whether or not Beyond the Light truly limned the depths of its topic - a junkie/hustler's near-death experience (actually, maybe he died, I'm not completely sure) . . . well, is that really so important, all things considered?  Joey - who wrote as well as directed - has a talent for dialogue (I've seen his other work); and judging from this, he has some choreographic chops, too.  The chief problem with Beyond, it seemed, was that its various bits and pieces didn't seem to hang together, and sometimes H&D's sense of sexual camp undermined the supposed "edge" of the material.  Another problem loomed in the production's lead; hunky Jesse Wood is certainly easy on the eyes, and definitely has some talent - but he only lights up when he's got frisky physical business to execute; he's obviously a happy, healthy dude goofing around with his weird friends in their fishnets rather than some junkie circling the drain.

Oh, well.  Crave at first looked as if it might prove more coherent - director Melanie Garber had a few staging tricks up her sleeve which helped tie together the play's fractured narrative (like its author's psyche, the very text of Crave is shattered into shards).  Chief among these was the clever gambit by which the script's various "voices" tore bandages off a central figure (an appropriately tormented Abigal Matzeder), exposing more and more psychological "nakedness" as the play progressed.  But alas, the success of Crave depends on capturing a certain psychological tone - a mix of yearning and self-disgust, perhaps even self-hatred - that's all but unique in dramatic literature; the "protagonist" of Crave is so far gone from mistreatment and insecurity that she has learned to crave even abuse (at least it's human contact).  And I'm afraid of Garber's quartet of performers, only Michael Underhill was able to maintain this disturbing emotional valence.  Mr. Underhill was last seen cavorting convincingly in Humpty Dumpty at Imaginary Beasts; that kind of range leaves the inevitable impression that he is one of the young actors to watch on Boston's fringe.

Friday, March 23, 2012

To and from the mailbox

Yesterday's post on Next to Normal brought some (not entirely unexpected) e-mail, though no comments.  Chief among these missives was the following from fellow IRNE critic Larry Stark, of the Theater Mirror:

Tom, what’s “A Play”???  You’ve fallen into a habit of dismissing shows with “But, of course, it’s not a play,” as though you and I knew what wasn’t there.

Well, frankly, I can’t see what you insist isn’t there.

So tell me:  What’s “a play”?


I was, of course, happy to oblige, and immediately sent Larry the following reply:

Right, I'm saying that a lot these days, because somebody has to - we're not seeing many "real" plays these days, just market-developed facsimiles of plays. A "play" in the traditional sense is something that has a premise, a theme, a rising action that develops that theme, compelling characters, a climax or conclusion (or an anti-climax) . . . this isn't exactly controversial. We just ignore these traditional tent-poles of theatrical experience more and more often as we're fed instead what are essentially pieces of marketing designed to draw various audiences. What's missing from recent non-plays? Well, often it's action - "Bakersfield Mist" and "Recent Tragic Events" lacked any genuine rising action - to be fair, "Recent Tragic Events" DID develop its themes, but via a lecture format. "Ameriville" and "Captors" fell into the same trap; they were staged lectures (one of these was far more entertaining than the other, but still). Sometimes, though, new "plays" lack everything - "Next to Normal" was just a nonsensical car crash, and "Before I Leave You" hopped around from theme to theme with nearly every scene; it seemed to be starting over and over again as we watched.

If you're seeing developed themes and rising action in these pieces, fill me in: what are they? I know these pieces have marketing hooks: depression! Katrina! Aging! "What is art?" Etc., etc. And don't think I'm not happy to see innovation on stage - I am; still, I'm also aware that most so-called "innovation" isn't really innovation at all (playing around with formal elements sans any thematic payoff is NOT innovation, for example - it's more like masturbation).

But I'm always happy to argue this further. Do you mind if I post this on the blog?


(Larry replied he was happy to see it posted.)

Meanwhile I received another note, from someone whom I think would prefer not to be named, but who said something that I found interesting in regards to Next to Normal:

I didn't know it was possible to (rightfully) indict a subculture and a society through the review of a musical. The whole thing rang true. I didn't see this production, but my experience with the cast recording lines up . . . It's a frustrating state of affairs, all this empty writing and empty showmanship. Additionally frustrating is that all the posturing comes with this implied sense of superiority and sophistication, which marginalizes works that try to offer something nourishing . . .

What can I say?   Stay tuned . . .

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Next to Normal at SpeakEasy Stage

Diana (Kerry A. Dowling) ponders her private cast of characters.

While I was watching Next to Normal (at Speakeasy Stage through April 15), I unexpectedly found myself reminded over and over again of the essay On Bullshit, by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt (below), that was published during the Bush administration.  Remember it?  If you didn't read it then, you definitely should now.  Wikipedia sums up the little black book's argument thus:

Frankfurt defines a theory of bullshit, defining the concept and analyzing its applications . . . Bullshit can either be true or false but bullshitters aim primarily to impress and persuade their audiences, and in general are unconcerned with the truth or falsehood of their statements (it is because of this that Frankfurt concedes that "the bullshitter is faking things", but that "this does not necessarily mean he gets them wrong"). 


While liars need to know the truth to better conceal it, bullshitters, interested solely in advancing their own agendas, have no use for the truth. Thus, Frankfurt claims, "...bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are."

And you know, I can't help it - that paragraph just seems to sum up for me the apparent attitudes of the makers of Next to Normal.  You can tell they have no real interest in their putative themes (mental illness and psychopharmacology) because they relentlessly distort and twist the salient facts about the topic to suit their need for cheap sentimental effects.   And they have no real interest in creating music to match  the rawness of the pain they pretend they're illuminating, either - the score of Next to Normal is another mediocre entry (rippling, vulnerable arpeggios and all) in the growing genre of gay-pop/rock-musical-whatever-the-hell-this-stuff is.  Seriously, what can we call this weird hybrid?  "Show 'rock'"? "Broadway 'pop'"?  I have no idea - all I know is, while posing as the kind of music that used to pride itself on authenticity, it is entirely inauthentic.  Yup, I'd say there's no argument; the perpetrators of Next to Normal just want to impress an audience, and persuade it that their ersatz musical is fabulous.  In a word, they're bullshitters.

I know, I know; by now everybody at SpeakEasy, and all the people who have listened to the Next to Normal CD long enough to convince themselves it's great, are jumping up and down and calling for my blood.  So rest assured, I don't mean that this production is a piece of you-know-what; far from it!  Minute to minute, Next to Normal is almost too carefully considered and crafted, and SpeakEasy Stage, as usual, has done the show up to the nines; everything about it has been buffed to a high sheen - which, I admit, has its own kind of entertainment value, like the glossy vacuum of Glee.  This show is hardly a piece of you-know-what; it is instead a dazzling, top-of-the-line piece of - well, what Dr. Frankfurt said!

And I admit this makes it unremarkable; indeed, there has for years been a rising tide of bullshit in the American theatre.  When Frankfurt wrote his book, people took his diatribe as a veiled jab at George W. Bush, and his administration's reckless disregard for the truth [the essay was far older, just btw].  But something about Bush's mendacity and general moral turpitude somehow seeped into the cultural groundwater anyhow; bullshit became our new baseline, even for people who hated the Republicans and everything they stood for.  It has slowly come clear that if you're not at least partly bullshitting your audience, the culture just can't take you seriously anymore.

Needless to say, theatrical artists have complied with this new cultural directive (some have done so kicking and screaming, but just about everyone has gone along).  Indeed, directors like Diane Paulus now sniff openly at integrity and moral value in the theatre; plays shouldn't be seen as "good for you, like vitamins," Ms. P. recently snorted to an interviewer.   (She may have been briefly slowed down by Stephen Sondheim over Porgy and Bess, but she knows full well that in a few years Sondheim will be history, and no one else has the power to stop her.) But then I can't pretend Paulus is an outlier; she's our most consummate bullshit artist, certainly, but then the vast majority of new plays I've seen in the past few years have been bullshit to varying degrees; Red, Bakersfield Mist, anything recent by Paula Vogel, and everything by Sarah Ruhl or Jordan Harrison, Captors, Before I Leave You, Three Pianos, Next Fall - they've all been bullshit, more or less.  They're not crafted to reflect the way we live now, or to hold the mirror up to nature, much less challenge us with some brave new vision or a call to arms (this is what makes Mike Daisey a liar, btw, but not actually a bullshitter).  In fact they generally tiptoe around the actual controversies of our day, and are designed to fill a certain cultural space, to triangulate between an audience's prejudices and received attitudes, and then simulate a theatrical experience in a canned, controlled fashion, with a callous disregard for integrity, honesty, or even any connection to actual life.  This is what we see more often than not at the "theatre" today.  We see bullshit. It's the new normal.

So back to Next to Normal, which as you've gleaned by now I feel is artistically dishonest in just about every way it is possible for a musical to be artistically dishonest.  (Indeed, I can almost admire its purity.) Take, for instance, its portrayal of mental illness - a topical theme, you'd think, if ever there was one!  Librettist Brian Yorkey posits a tormented heroine, unhappy suburban mom Diana (Kerry A. Dowling) whom he first presents as bipolar - we see some manic episodes, but at the same time Diana claims to be severely depressed.  Is she experiencing one of those occasionally-observed "mixed episodes"?  Perhaps.  But wait - the symptom merry-go-round is only just gearing up.   (SPOILER ALERT.)  We eventually discover that Diana is not only bipolar, but also delusional (she believes a child that died in infancy is still alive, sixteen years later) and even is experiencing constant hallucinations (she sees and hears the kid, too - only not as a baby but as the teen-ager she imagines he would have become - we've been seeing him too, btw, and at first imagined he was a character, rather than one of those imaginary friends from thirtysomething).

For Diana, life is a tango with her psychopharmacologist. Photo(s) Craig Bailey/Perspective Photos.
Okay.  You can make an excuse for each separate part of this diagnosis, but as an operative disorder it makes little sense - and the idea that Diana could be depending on Prozac and Wellbutrin, with apparently no talk therapy or seeming support, when she has been enduring something like a full-bore psychotic break for some sixteen years is, well, kind of ridiculous.  What's even more ridiculous is the way her horrifying family is portrayed - they know full well that Mom is hallucinating as she careens around the bipolar roller coaster, yet they whine if she doesn't make lunch or pick them up after school, and hubby couldn't be happier as long as he gets his daily roll in the hay.

But wait, it gets better.  Diana endures shock treatment (which is, actually, once more an accepted treatment for severe depression that is unresponsive to medication), and for a while Yorkey is on somewhat more solid ground, as his plot begins to revolve around whether or not Diana will remember her earlier delusions (there's controversy over how often memory loss results from electro-convulsive therapy).  But once her symptoms have returned (oh no!) Yorkey has his heroine decide that she is damaged in her "soul," not her "mind," and so she quits treatment entirely - and even walks out on her family.

And in a word - WRONG (or rather: Bullshit!!).  This is absolutely the worst thing a person with mixed bipolar disorder (much less Diana's laundry list of symptoms) could ever do.  To be blunt, if someone like Diana dropped out of her treatment program, and abandoned all forms of social support, she would most likely be babbling on the street, or even dead, within weeks.  Yet Next to Normal presents this virtual suicide as a brave new day for Diana, even as Yorkey's book guides her husband toward (you guessed it!) psychopharmacology.  Right.  I guess he saw how well it worked for his wife. Seriously, this musical makes no sense whatsoever, and in its moronic rock-anthem romance, it's creepy and kind of dangerous.  I mean, there is certainly a valid satire to be made (by someone else!) of the claims of psychopharmacology; but please, people with any kind of emotional disorder - do not see this musical, much less ponder its message!

And just btw, on a purely artistic level, Next to Normal is rather obviously (and cynically) stitched together from various known quantities - it's one part Ordinary People to two parts The Who's Tommy.  The lyrics are sometimes clever, I admit - but they're not actually great lyrics, that is to say they lack that inner poetry that sparks melodic response. And Tom Kitt's score is, if anything, even more derivative than the book.  People have been claiming this music counts as a break-through - but how, I wonder?  (Because it shifts from derivative keyboard arpeggios to derivate guitar hooks?)  There have already been plenty of solid rock musicals - a short list would include Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and his Amazing Etc., Grease, The Who's Tommy, and maybe American Idiot (I haven't seen it, but I remember the album was good).  It's worth noting that most of these are actually staged cantatas (or even oratorios) rather than organic musicals; rock seems to sit mostly easily in the album format, around which dramatic structures can be contrived (hence that other, even more popular genre, the "jukebox musical").  Working the other way, from the stage to the rock score, seems to be problematic - but frankly, Next to Normal is no milestone in that ongoing endeavor.  And can just a few of our middle-aged (or older) critics finally admit that rock is no longer culturally ascendant, and so is essentially a nostalgic musical mode, just like the best of Tin Pan Alley?  I'd appreciate it.

Anyway, when I said earlier that this production was a strong one - well, maybe I was bullshitting a little bit there myself; I actually don't think this represents SpeakEasy at its best.  The physical production is striking, thanks to Seághan McKay's slick projections, Jeff Adelberg's smoothly shifting lighting, and Eric Levenson's sleek set - and the band sounds tight under Nicholas James Connell's direction.  But some cast members, such as Michael Tacconi (who plays the ghostly son) are often pushed to the edge of their range (and Tacconi doesn't really have the requisite charisma to operate as a deadly psychological siren, either).  Likewise Christopher Chew is a bit bland as Diana's clueless hubby, as is Michael Levesque as her daughter's stoner boyfriend.  Elsewhere the news is better: as said daughter, newcomer Sarah Drake is probably the stand-out of the cast (and she gets one of the best of the so-so songs), while Chris Caron does have fun as the comically sinister psychopharmacologist.   Meanwhile, as the tormented Diana, Kerry A. Dowling offers a subtle and sympathetic characterization (and she's certainly up to the role's vocal challenges) - but Dowling is basically miscast, as she's naturally a hearty, healthy presence, and so can't summon much in the way of tortured mojo to cover the script's contrivances (as Alice Ripley reportedly did on Broadway).  Still, Dowling's the real thing, and without her, I sometimes felt this production would have amounted to next to nothing.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Sock it to me, baby

Aimee Rose Ranger and Alejandro Simoes ponder their twin fates.  Photo: Chris McKenzie
In the past I've described Whistler in the Dark as the one company in town devoted to theatre for thinking people.  But you know - sometimes I think they think too much.

Take their current offering, Craig Wright's Recent Tragic Events (at the Factory Theatre through this weekend); it claims to be a meditation on the meaning of 9/11.  But really it's a free-form discourse on questions of free will and determinism, the possibility that randomness may not actually exist, and the impossibility of moral action in a universe where ultimate outcomes are unknown - whew!  After all that, the fate of the twin towers is almost an afterthought.  Don't get me wrong - the script is fun in a way, and Lord knows it's clever; when you find yourself watching a sock puppet argue that it has free will (and doing a pretty convincing job of it, too), you know you're hanging with the smartest of the smart set.  In fact I'd probably rate Recent Tragic Events right up there with the best late-night dorm-room debates I've ever heard - and believe me, I've heard more than a few.

But how would I rate it as a play? Ooo, sorry, but here I have to point out that discussions of metaphysics (via meta-theatre) only rarely work as drama, and yeah, as the script doesn't come with its own bong and bowl of munchies, I might have preferred a tight little conflict, and attendant resolution, to Wright's extended exegesis of his notes from Philosophy 101.

Still, Wright is witty, and so are the Whistlers; Recent Events may fall flat when it tries to turn Tragic, but as a breezy sitcom for the Mensa crowd, it definitely has its moments.  And maybe that's partly the idea; against all seeming aesthetic odds, this playwright has styled his 9/11 tribute as a self-conscious comedy; even though his central character, Waverly (Aimee Rose Ranger) is waiting to learn whether her twin sister has perished in one of the twin towers, she still embarks on a blind date with sweet, awkward Andrew (Alejandro Simoes), who has wandered in straight out of Friends, along with two "wacky" next-door neighbors, wild man Ron (Nathaniel Gundy) and his mute muse Nancy (Meg Taintor, who's usually directing this intrepid little band).  Oh, I forgot - they're eventually joined by Joyce Carol Oates, who is played by a sock puppet worn by Nancy (who suddenly finds her voice as Joyce).  Oh wait one more thing - this Joyce Carol Oates isn't THE Joyce Carol Oates, the puppet informs us - that is, she's not the prolific author of Because It is Bitter, and Because It is My Heart, and many other novels and works of prose.   Although this Joyce Carol Oates, she proudly informs us, did write precisely the same series of books as that other Joyce Carol Oates.

Got that?  She's a special type of twin who is somehow identical in metaphysical appearance to her counterpart without, actually, sharing the same identity.  As we ponder that conundrum, however, we may remember that Waverly is also a twin - and that she's waiting to hear of her twin sister's fate in one of the, yes, twin towers.  Indeed, the entire play is floating in a kind of "twinned" narrative space - after all, it might end in the news that Waverly's sister is safe, OR that she has died; hence, Recent Tragic Events could be read as either a situation comedy OR as a situation tragedy. And call me crazy, but I also couldn't help but wonder at Wright's intents by choosing that odd name "Waverly" for his lead - is he referring to the famous Young "double slit experiment," in which electrons only decide whether to behave as a wave or a particle once they know they're being observed?  Is Recent Tragic Events perhaps best described as one long wave (or Waverly) function, poised to collapse into a single outcome?

Ok - by now I know only the eggheads are still reading.  But actually, there's still more in the way of speculative metaphysics to unpack here.  Indeed, Wright all but piles on the conundrums and paradoxes.  We are told by the stage manager, for instance, that the plot of the first act is to be decided by a coin toss - that is, by pure chance!  Only wait - at intermission we learn that she isn't a "real" stage manager at all (Ha!) and that the outcome of the coin toss didn't matter; the play is entirely scripted, and nothing in it has actually been random.  (OR HAS IT?  Discuss!!!).  To be fair, the extended argument over free will which ensues is probably the most gripping stretch of writing in the script; Joyce Carol Oates does her darned-est (sorry!) to convince our skeptical Friends that free will must exist, because without it, our actions, our lives, and even huge events like 9/11, can have no real meaning.

Pondering 9/11 from a distance - Thomas Hoepker's famous photograph.
But - well, to be frank, while I appreciated the meta-theatrical metaphors by which Wright conjured the conundrums surrounding the issue of free will, I can't pretend that Recent Tragic Events really gets far as an intellectual treatise; it certainly doesn't break any new ground in this particular philosophical debate, and it never grapples with the sophisticated arguments that have been developed to defend a limited sense of free will (a set of contentions generally referred to as compatibilism).  Now it's a lot to expect a play to be convincing as philosophical argument - yet if it's not a very satisfactory play either, well .  . .

Actually, it occurs to me that these issues are linked - indeed, I often asked myself, as I watched Recent Tragic Events - is the stage an appropriate arena for pure metaphysical speculation, of the kind Wright wants to dabble in here?  I'd argue no - and note that the playwright can't, or won't, give his Joyce Carol Oates sock puppet any real compatibilist zingers in her battle with his champions of determinism; perhaps because a few well-placed barbs would deflate his whole premise; they'd shut the play down.  For ironically enough, determinist argument is secretly (and, I think, naively) dependent on a shared belief in free will, of some stripe or other - for otherwise, how could the proponents  of determinism have developed their arguments, and moreover, how could anyone be convinced by them?  Simply wanting to argue, wanting to convince someone else of something, is an impossibility if you truly believe that you and they have no free will; such actions require at least some degree of freedom to have any meaning.  In short, if we have no freedom, then why are we at a play by Craig Wright, and why should we listen to him?  Theatre is all about freedom and its limits; it's essentially a concrete metaphor for compatibilism.  Show a man onstage in chains, and another with a gun, and you could never convince an audience that they enjoyed the same degree of freedom (much less no comparative freedom at all!).

Thus one quickly senses the basic problem with Recent Tragic Events - Wright is playing a kind of philosophical three-card monte throughout it.  He should be developing some sort of dramatic action to illuminate whatever freedom his characters can enjoy even while experiencing "the inevitable" - but instead, he doodles around the borders of his non-action with a lot of borrowed metaphysical concepts.  Oh well, he's not the first smart over-aged undergraduate to get drunk on this kind of thing, I suppose, and he has certainly been lucky in the cast at Whistler.  Nathaniel Gundy is the hilarious stand-out as the zen-gonzo Ron (adding to a growing gallery of memorable portraits from this actor, btw), but Meg Taintor also makes a memorably mischievous impression as Joyce Carol Oates, and Alejandro Simoes more than holds his own with a subtly-drawn performance in what is a truly thankless role.  Alas, only Aimee Rose Ranger - one of the most reliable actresses on the fringe - flounders a bit as Waverly.  It's not that she has suddenly lost her talent - in fact, in a way she's undone by her own actressy instincts.  We can tell that she can tell the role is underwritten, that it's really more symbol than character - and this kind of throws her.  Meanwhile director Bridget Kathleen O'Leary has once more held to her usual subtle standards - but I did sometimes wonder whether in her staging, or the production design, she hadn't missed some slightly surreal edge that I think Wright may have been groping for in his tone.  But then perhaps in some other "twin" of this production, out there in the infinite metaphysical continuum, some other Bridget Kathleen O'Leary has caught some other Craig Wright's elusive tone quite perfectly. (And some twin of Thomas Garvey has penned a rave.)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

I know, I know, I have to write about Mike Daisey, and the ongoing battle between levels of "truthiness"

But I also have a lot of reviews to plow through.  (Unlike many other bloggers, I actually go to the theatre and review it!)  As you may have picked up from my comments around the 'sphere, however, I'm somewhat in sympathy with Daisey, and certainly in sympathy with his cause, and I'm skeptical of people like Ira Glass calling foul, when the entire "verbatim theatre" field has been rife with exaggeration and prevarication from the beginning.

Still, it's worth noting that now people are popping out of the woodwork with the goods on earlier Daisey pieces, such as 21 Dog Years, his supposed "memoir" of his years working at Amazon.  Here's an interesting blog post from one of Daisey's co-workers calling the piece "truthy," at best.  For instance, in an interview about the show, Daisey made the following claim:

Seattle Weekly: How much did you really deal with Jeff [Bezos, CEO of Amazon], and have you heard anything from former co-workers about his reaction to the show?

Daisey: I saw Jeff all the time, almost every day.

I worked like 100 meters from Daisey, and saw Bezos maybe three times in as many years. Like I said: truthy . . . In the context of an interview, "I saw Jeff all the time is a lie, plain and simple.
"


Daisey in mid-fib on Bill Maher.

But the blogger adds:

But if Daisey said the same thing on stage as part of “21 Dog Years”, I wouldn’t have objected. I guess I agree with Daisey when he says that the tools of theater are different than the tools of journalism . . . After all, no one thought that all of the workplace events recounted by David Sedaris in “Santaland Dairies” were literally true, and that story was everywhere. Heck, it had even appeared on everyone’s favorite radio show, “This American Life”.

I think what is opening up for me about this whole episode is the intriguingly naive way in which the culture has come to worship first-person authenticity - even though over and over again, we see the supposedly "authentic" biographies we've invested in come crashing down around us as mosaics of half-truths and outright lies. What does this say about us? Why are we locked in this trust/distrust tango with the authorial voice?

Meanwhile, Gawker has laid down a snarky challenge - anybody want to fact-check The Last Cargo Cult?

Monday, March 19, 2012

The new page view widget

It has come to my attention that various um, "non-fans" of the blog have been claiming that my readership can't be what I say it is - i.e., between 800-1000 viewers on days I post, and roughly half that on days I don't. So I thought I'd post the Blogger page views widget over on the right, just to shut down debate. (Sorry there's not a daily version, but I think you can do the math.) Of course it's still not a huge audience - but it's one of the larger high culture blog readerships around, I think - particularly for blogs by a single writer, with a single point of view; I recall that when the Globe's "Exhibitionist" blog was still active, Geoff Edgers noted that he only got about 500 hits for a local story, and I'm doing about twice that. At any rate, we're hoping the audience continues to grow, so please - keep reading!

"When did all the college students become alcoholics?"

That's what the nice lady on the Green line asked me as we stepped onto the incoming B Line train on Saturday night, after what seemed like a half-hour wait, during which time a parade of inebriated BC and BU students had tottered past us like a zombie march.  But I think we'd really bonded when a cab had pulled up next to the stop, and a drunken (if cute) young lout - who was crammed in the back seat with two other drunk, cute, young louts - began to harangue us.

"Hey.  HE-EYYY.  Yeah you, hey - hey lady? Lady??? Oh you're not gonna look at me?  You're not gonna  - Hey you, the guy in the gloves!  Yeah, you!  Hey, nice gloves, man.  Do you - do you believe in freedom for Palestine? Because - I do.  I do!!!  (Laughter.)  I'm sorry.  I love you all.  How much did you pay for those gloves?  'Cause my hands are fucking freezing.  I mean - hey peace out, glove man.  Love is the answer, dude!  I - yeah.  Is this -?  Are you - ? Freedom for Palestine! WHOOO-HOOOO!"

Thank God red lights eventually turn green. But during this seeming audition for the next Judd Apatow flick, it did occur to me that if only drunken college students did not imagine they were amusing, their public drunkenness would not be quite so obnoxious.  If they would only lie silently in sodden squalor, their hair greasy, their breath foul, but their mouths shut, like the fratboys slouched in a pile on the steps of the Green Line car were, I suppose St. Patrick's Day would be at least tolerable.

Of course I should note that said Green Line car smelled like a rolling aquarium filled with Jose Cuervo.  But then it had just come from Boston College - so what did I expect?  When I began working in the financial district some years ago, I was surprised at how on Fridays the Boston College graduates all came in late, or didn't show up at all.  It was finally explained to me that at BC, students could arrange their schedules to avoid Friday classes, so as one graduate put it, "We all began drinking on Thursday night." I pointed out to the young lady who shared these facts that she and her friends were not, actually, students at Boston College any longer, but to this she simply shrugged, and then I suppose tweeted to her hung-over pals something about how judgmental I was.

Now don't get me wrong; when I was in college, I got drunk at parties, too.  I'm sure I staggered across campus to my dorm room once or twice.  But no one I knew (although admittedly I went to a school, MIT, where you actually had to study) wandered about in a state of public intoxication for hours, much less most of the weekend, not even on St. Patrick's Day.  But this is now considered a normal state of affairs; the annual squalid spectacle in Southie has by now spread across the the landscape, and smaller-scaled re-enactments of it are a staple of city life - believe me I know, on weekend nights I'm often on the Green Line, that cattle car between the stockyards of BC and the meat markets downtown.  So by now I know all the tricks - the Aquafina bottles filled with vodka, the Dunkin Donuts cups brimming with Jack, I've even see jiggly jello shots shared from a little cooler.

Although I really shouldn't single out BC, I suppose; frat boys at my alma mater actually killed a freshman with alcohol, after all, back in the nineties.  And Kenmore Station, which was teeming with college kids from all over, resembled a scene from The Walking Dead; a pale young lady with a black eye and green cloverleaves bobbing from her head slowly crept along the wall, as another rubbed her ankles, having taken off her eight-inch whore heels after an apparent tumble.  A young man had a long vomit stain on his shirt, which I'm sure he'd done his best to rub off (thank you!) before hitting the next stop on his "crawl"; meanwhile another one, grinning from ear to ear, was listlessly brandishing a metal rod he had torn off a gate; his squinty, red eyes told you he was stoned as well as drunk.  Looking at them all, I did wonder just how jammed local AA meetings would become over the next decade or so.  I also wondered how this sad state of affairs came about.  Virginia Woolf once opined that human nature "changed on or about December 1910."  So when did this transition occur - and how?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Bakersfield Mist at the New Rep

An authentic Jackson Pollock, Lavender Mist

Bakersfield Mist, the new play by Stephen Sachs, currently in a "rolling" national premiere at the New Rep, is a long meditation on a single painting - a canvas which is possibly a newfound Jackson Pollock, or possibly just a piece of junk from a tag sale. Sachs has based his script on a the strange-but-true story of one Teri Horton (here "Maude Gutman"), a former long-haul truck driver who "bought the ugliest painting she could find" at a tag sale, only to discover a mysterious fingerprint on it that matched those of, yes, you-know-who.  The painting's general look and size likewise made the Pollock connection at least a possibility, and  Teri's long quest to have her artwork authenticated (and so instantly become worth tens of millions of dollars) is detailed in the amusing movie "Who the Fuck is Jackson Pollock?" (reportedly Teri's first response to hearing of her purchase's possible provenance).

Now, I don't know whether Ms. Horton (at left, with her painting) has "the real thing" or not - although from a cursory glance, her painting looks a good deal more convincing than the obviously phony "Matter Pollocks," which actually had a showing at Boston College a few years back, and fooled several local critics (at the Arts Fuse and elsewhere) before being debunked by paint analysis.

I was vociferous in my opposition to the Matter Pollocks, of course, but I think I'll hang back on the authenticity of Teri's acquisition, even if I have my doubts; the painting's no worse than a few Pollocks (indeed, some feel it's suspiciously similar to one in particular, No. 5, 1948, although a different painting, Lavender Mist, is referenced in the play's title).  And if Horton does become a zillionaire, she has probably earned it, one way or another.  Still, Ms. Horton - I think it's worth noting - has had some association with a well-known art forger (an issue which this play succinctly deletes), and those supposed fingerprints on her painting have come under skeptical scrutiny; I'd say the question of her acquisition's authenticity is at best still an open one.

The issue that occupies me as a drama critic, however, does parallel the play's theme; in brief -

Is Bakersfield Mist a "real" play?

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Choreographic All-American

Dancers Travis Walker, Ashley Werhun, and John Michael Schert.
Trey McIntyre has found - or rather created - an intriguing choreographic niche.  Working with his eponymous Trey McIntyre Project, a small, dedicated, highly skilled group of dancers out in Boise, Idaho (of all places!) he has built a national following for a vision that may be sourced in classical technique, but plays out as a variant of smart, twenty-something chic - with, amusingly enough, a sturdy, all-American edge.  Even though there's a distinctly homo-erotic, Calvin-Klein-esque undertow to much of his imagery (above).  That's right: homo-erotic, all-American dance.  I know.  The funny thing is - it works.

Or at least it works when McIntyre keeps close to his classical roots, and his indisputable talent for quicksilver steps creates a dazzlingly gymnastic hybrid of ballet and pop.  Oddly, though, when he tries to follow Paul Taylor into jazzier, funkier idioms, his invention flags a bit, and his symbolism gets a bit pretentious and obscure.  Even in these pieces, though, you can always just look at the boys.  Not that the girls aren't lovely.  They are!  But those boys.  Whew.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Uh, just before Ira Glass throws Mike Daisey under the bus - please note that Mike Daisey "lied" about things that are true

I'd like to point out this note from Rob Schmitz, one of Daisey's interrogators:

What makes this [This American Life's actions] a little complicated is that the things Daisey lied about seeing are things that have actually happened in China: Workers making Apple products have been poisoned by Hexane. Apple’s own audits show (PDF) the company has caught underage workers at a handful of its suppliers. These things are rare, but together, they form an easy-to-understand narrative about Apple.

Hmmmm. So Daisey "lied" about things that are actually true.  I wouldn't say it's time to buy your next iPhone yet.

Developing: This American Life backs away from Mike Daisey, says he "lied" about visits to Apple/Foxconn factories; Daisey admits to "fabricating characters," but stands by his work

This American Life has suddenly announced that it is withdrawing its piece on Mike Daisey's The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, and will "devote its entire program this weekend to detailing the errors" in their previous story.  Full press release below:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE / FRIDAY MARCH 16

This American Life Retracts Story
Says It Can’t Vouch for the Truth of Mike Daisey’s Monologue about Apple in China

This American Life and American Public Media’s Marketplace will reveal that a story first broadcast in January on This American Life contained numerous fabrications.

This American Life will devote its entire program this weekend to detailing the errors in the story, which was an excerpt of Mike Daisey’s critically acclaimed one-man show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” In it, Daisey tells how he visited a factory owned by Foxconn that manufactures iPhones and iPads in Shenzhen China. He has performed the monologue in theaters around the country; it’s currently at the Public Theater in New York. Tonight’s This American Life program will include a segment from Marketplace’s Rob Schmitz, and interviews with Daisey himself. Marketplace will feature a shorter version of Schmitz’s report earlier in the evening.

What's up this weekend


Even though I haven't quite caught up with my reviewing, the forced cultural march continues this weekend. I hope to finally pen an assessment of Bakersfield Mist on Saturday, and my considerations of Recent Tragic Events and Next to Normal should be forthcoming after that. At the same time, however, I will be checking out the Trey McIntyre Project (taking off, above) at the ICA tonight, followed by Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, one of August Wilson's best, at the Huntington on Saturday (if the power's on).  I will also be hearing a re-discovery, Camilla de Rossi's The Prodigal Son, by La Donna Musicale, and may be able to squeeze in one extra fringe show as well.

Looking for Ameriville

"The Universes" perform Ameriville.

Ameriville, by the Universes (Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, Gamal A. Chasten, and William Ruiz A.K.A. "Ninja," above) at ArtsEmerson through this weekend, is the kind of show you want to like - partly, I admit, because you feel you should like it.  As directed and developed by Chay Yew (of Chicago's Victory Gardens), Ameriville returns to the scene of a recent political crime - the shrugging off of the flooding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina - and attempts to conjure from that shameful failure a vision of an America that might actually be able to hang together in a crisis, even when it's people of color who are being victimized.  Yeah, imagine that - a nation that truly worked like a village, i.e., like "Ameriville."

And the resulting mix of rap, hip hop, gospel, rock and the spoken word is often rousing, and occasionally affecting; but while you can't fault its message, Ameriville only intermittently connects with the audience.  The performers aren't the problem - all are powerhouses (although the stand-out is probably Ms. Ruiz-Sapp - whose wails waft to the rafters with an edge of genuine pain, even when she's beaming with an incandescent smile).  No, it's really the material itself which still needs refinement and focus; Yew's text floats between poignant and satiric vignettes at will, and they tend sometimes to blend together; and to be honest, occasionally the performers' diction gets blurry, and we're no longer sure where we "are" in the show.

And then there's the simple fact that a real response to the problem of re-building New Orleans probably requires more dramatic structure, more literal dialogue; an impressionistic musical palette simply can't tell the whole story, even if it's delivered with a stomp.  History, politics, and by now deeply-engrained economic structures are all in play here.  Indeed, New Orleans probably stands as a literal symbol for the politics of the American underclass: one of the few true "melting pots" in the country, it's mostly built below sea level (a neat metaphor right there), and so despite being a font of American music, drama, and culture, it's perennially in harm's way, a Southern belle whose existence absolutely depends on the kindness of strangers (not to mention the elements).

And I think it's worth noting that the exodus from the city before the flood only exacerbated its problems - but Ameriville doesn't have much to say about that (and tellingly, we notice that nobody ever talks about getting organized after the disaster); nor does Yew spend much time dramatically connecting the aftermath of the deluge to the various larger political claims he wants to make (even though I agree with those claims, they'd be all the more powerful for not being so obviously assumed).

Still, in the show's specific, personal vignettes, the performers land their punches with a wallop; it's then that the levees of outrage break, and a flood of tears seems to pour forth before us.  It's hard not to wince, for instance, when a dazed resident asks anyone who will listen whether or not they've seen his mama;  more powerful still is the moment when a servicewoman returns to find her home has been destroyed, and that the nation she has pledged to defend with her life doesn't really give a damn.  It's at such clinch moments, when America's indifference to its victims crashes into its habitual exploitation of them, that Ameriville suddenly sings.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Hub Review tries its hand at honest food blogging!

It was only a matter of time, I suppose.  In case you've missed it, the familiar ethical issues surrounding blogging have just raised their collectively ugly head again - only this time around food blogging. The Globe recently called foul on a group that calls itself "The Boston Brunchers," a crowd of seemingly perpetually-squealing "foodies" who organize free lunches for themselves at local restaurants and caterers, and then tweet and blog about how great everything tasted.

Needless to say, the Brunchers have been shocked, shocked to discover that people might view their cozy little arrangement a bit skeptically.  One blogger, "The Passionate Foodie" even outed the Globe's writer as having shared an ethically-suspect wine junket with him - and kudos to "Passionate," btw, for  the following harumph: "I am deeply offended that anyone would think I would compromise my integrity for such a meager amount [of money]." I really like that - I suppose higher-pay-outs would be another story?

To be fair, the Brunchies occasionally do post a negative post or tweet - but my brief survey of their output revealed their assessments of these free brunch bits yielded overwhelmingly positive brunch bytes.  Yeah, this is a pretty classic case of what used to be called "logrolling."  And the best part of it is, the dishonesty is so democratic!  Half these brunchers have no credentials as critics, or even writers - they're just self-described "foodies" who show up for the event.  Still, is anyone being fooled?  Everyone knows the "reviews" you read on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere are bullshit (and the pans are as suspect as the raves, frankly), so where's the harm?

Boston Lyric Opera's The Barber of Seville

Jonathan Beyer and Steven Condy in The Barber of Seville.  Photos: Eric Antoniou

People are always asking me, "What should I see right now?" And I'm always happy to answer: what you should see right now is The Barber of Seville at Boston Lyric Opera - a big, blooming bel canto extravaganza that you can only catch through Sunday.  This is Rossini as it was meant to be heard and seen - with ripe voices, bold colors, a high musical finish, and a frisky sense of fun.  Premiering just weeks after the brooding chamber opera The Lighthouse (itself a triumph in its own way), Barber offers proof positive that BLO, always Boston's leading opera company, is now ready to step up to the plate as its only opera company, with an artistic reach that convincingly stretches from the esoteric to the populist and back.  Although all that aside, this Barber is just a great night out - and trust me, we won't hear bel canto like this, with voices like these, for some time to come (or at least not until BLO returns to the genre).

If this sound like I'm purring, well I am - this is the kind of production you can sink into confidently; it's a big plush easy chair of memorable melody (you already know the whole overture, in fact) and rollicking comedy.  I suppose you could sniff at the fact that this is a "traditional" rendering, and nobody involved is trying to subvert Rossini's sturdy commedia structure with some intellectual agenda or other, to prove they went to Columbia or Harvard.  But what can I say?  If that's the way you think, well, you know where you can go (and it ain't Columbia or Harvard, much less the opera house!).  I know, I know, people want to drag into Barber something of the complexities of The Marriage of Figaro, the second play in the Beaumarchais trilogy which, of course, inspired Mozart's revolutionary opera of the same name.  But I'm afraid that wider intellectual dimension isn't really to be found in Rossini's source - and me, I'll take this composer straight, with his sunny melodies, lusty sense of romance, and yes, weakness for slapstick, any day.

The slapstick's about to start!  Pass it on!
From the start, frankly, I knew this production was in clover; even as the pleasingly rambunctious stage business began, conductor David Angus was drawing a rich, elegant sound from the pit.  Likewise the drops and costumes, by Allen Moyer and James Scott respectively, appropriately evolved from a warm romantic realism to a sense of heightened satiric sketch (as the pratfalls piled up around the characters), and stage director Doug Varone proved he knew just how to shift that balance, too - even if his inventiveness flagged slightly before the final act was over, we didn't really mind by then.

And the voices!  As was the case with Agrippina last spring (another big, bold comedy - BLO has a feel for this kind thing), the world-class warbling just keeps coming in The Barber of Seville.  As the eponymous hairdresser himself,  Jonathan Beyer deployed a rich, resonant baritone that seemed warmed from below with sun, and he beamed with just the right mix of lustiness and fey wit, too.  Believe it or not, however, he may have been slightly out-classed by Sarah Coburn's Rosina, and Steven Condy's Dr. Bartolo.  Coburn's flexible mezzo (as is often done, the role was transposed up slightly from its original range) is dazzlingly pure, and she has startling reserves of power; plus she, too, is no comic slouch.  The comedy laurels, however, have to go to Condy, who as Rosina's would-be suitor/captor expertly teased both our ridicule and sympathy in about equal measure; and as an added bonus, his deep baritone is tinted with an intriguingly dark, individual color.  Indeed, the only (slight) vocal gap among the leads lay in tenor John Tessier's turn as Count Almaviva.  Tessier has a flexible lyric tenor, with a radiant bloom in the middle of its range; but it's perhaps slightly too light for what it has to accomplish here, and Tessier was showing signs of strain by the finale; which is too bad, because he looks just right, and has a sweet way with romantic comedy to boot.

But then he had stiff competition from what amounted to a talented squad of hammy farceurs, including the memorable Judith Christin, whose bug-eyed servant drew laughs every time she entered.  Alas, local bass David Cushing (with Christin, above) eschewed his big aria as Basilio, the music master, as he was suffering from a head cold on opening night (just like, ironically enough, his character supposedly is) - although honestly, he managed pretty well in his ensembles.  The chorus, which we only heard from occasionally, was likewise in strong form - there was a palpable sense from everyone onstage, in fact, that this was a production to be proud of; somehow they all knew they were giving The Barber of Seville a classic cut.

John Tessier and Sarah Coburn are finally wed, with a little help from the infantry.