Monday, April 30, 2012

The shame of 60 Minutes, how CBS hopes to profit from torture, and the people who love them

I winced throughout last night's horrifying edition of 60 Minutes, the geriatric television news magazine, in which correspondent Lesley Stahl granted a fawning interview to unconvicted war criminal Jose Rodriguez, one of the chief perpetrators of the Bush Adminstration's torture program after 9/11.

Rodriguez's lack of repentance for his crimes is not exactly news, of course - nor is the general pro-torture tilt of 60 Minutes.  So I wasn't surprised by the revolting tone of Stahl's questions - she joshed with the defiant old sadist, wondering aloud things like, "But golly, didn't the Nazis do things like this?' while generally treating the torture debate as if it were a kind of genial after-dinner conversation.

Of course Stahl was forced by the facts to leave obvious lacunae in her questioning - otherwise all "civility" would have collapsed, for Rodriguez's positions are hilariously self-contradictory: he destroyed whatever evidence might have exonerated him from charges of torture, for instance - because, of course, said evidence would have condemned, not exonerated, him.  Stahl daintily pirouetted around that.  His other jibes at the sober assessments by outside authorities of his bloody career ("Bullshit!" he exclaims at one point) were largely let stand; it was all a disgusting mockery of "investigative journalism."

Still, the only real news came at the end of the program - Rodriguez's book (for which the 60 Minutes appearance was really a kind of promotional appearance) is being published by - wait for it - Simon & Schuster - a division of CBS.  So all along, Lesley Stahl was essentially interviewing an employee of her own company - or rather, she was doing a puff piece on someone from whom her company hopes to reap a substantial profit (and to whom it has already no doubt paid a hefty advance).

Really, it's all just too sickening - and it's proof positive that the cancer Roger Ailes seeded at Fox News has already metastasized throughout the "legitimate" press.  Somehow this seems even lower than the New York Times's notorious cheerleading of the Iraq War (and yes, I once actually got paychecks from those people, I'm sorry to say). How anyone could at this point be proud of working for CBS News is simply beyond me.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Bonjour, Girl!

Ah, the pleasures of YouTube! So far over two million people have watched this spoof of Disney's Beauty and the Beast. I wonder why.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Spring Hubbies 2012

Yes, it's past time for another edition of the Hubbie Awards - and luckily I found just the piece of vintage soft core to serve as graphic accompaniment!  I know this has been a long time coming - people have been asking for it repeatedly - so without further ado:

Best New Play

The Luck of the Irish, by Kirsten Greenidge, Huntington Theatre, directed by Melia Bensussen

Best Productions and Ensembles

Superior Donuts, Lyric Stage - Omar Robinson, Will Lebow, Steven Barkhimer, De'Lon Grant, Beth Gotha, Christopher James Webb, Zachary Eisenstat and Steven James DeMarco, directed by Spiro Veloudos

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Huntington Theatre - Jason Bowen, Yvette Freeman, Charles Weldon, G. Valmont Thomas, Glenn Turner, Corey Allen, Joniece Abbott-Pratt, Thomas Derrah, Will LeBow, Timothy John Smith, directed by Liesl Tommy

Daddy Long Legs, Merrimack Rep - Meghan McGinnis, Robert Adelman Hancock, directed by John Caird

The Full Monty, Boston Conservatory  - Keith White, Stephen Markarian, Daniel Plimpton, Trevor Hennigan, Meryn Beckett, Andrew Horowitz, Shayne Kennon, Hayley Lovgren, Niki Sawyer, Corey Mosello, Margaret Lamb, John Krause, Avery Smith, Brad Reinking, Jessica Bare, Nathan Scott Hancock, Celia Hottenstein, Rachel Boelter, Kathleen LaMagna, Ryan Halsaver, Diego Klock-Perez, directed by Laura Marie Duncan

Art, New Rep - Robert Walsh, Robert Pemberton, Doug Lockwood, directed by Antonio Ocampo-Guzman

Fen, Whistler in the Dark - Aimee Rose Ranger, Jen O'Connor, Anna Waldron, Becca A. Lewis, Lorna Nogueira, Mac Young, directed by Meg Taintor

The Voice of the Turtle, Merrimack Rep - Hanley Smith, Megan Byrne, William Connell, directed by Carl Forsman

Can we see Bombshell without having to watch Smash?

I can't stand Theresa Rebeck's TV mini-hit Smash, which is unsurprising; I can't stand Theresa Rebeck, period. But the New Yorker - which I also often can't stand (I once threw up while reading Sasha Frere-Jacques, or whatever his name is) - recently made a point that has been nagging me, too, every time the partner unit has turned Smash on (yes, at home sometimes we're into cultural dumpster diving).

And that is that the numbers from the show's mythical Broadway musical Bombshell are consistently pretty good - actually, better than just about anything else I've heard from Broadway recently.  So, like the New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum - who rivals Wesley Morris for snark-to-flattery-in-nothing-flat - I've been wondering: can't we see Bombshell on Broadway without having to watch the rest of Smash?  Alas, the show has already been renewed, so I guess the answer is "no."  But I can dream, can't I?

Friday, April 27, 2012

Meet Hatsune Miku, pop star of the future - today

I had a chance to chat with visionary director Robert Lepage this past week, after a lecture he gave at MIT (he's currently in residence there, and has received the Institute's McDermott Award). During our chat - his cadences are a dead ringer for those of his theatrical alter ego, Yves Jacques, btw - he related a funny story. During a recent visit to Japan, he heard repeated mention of a hot new pop star, Hatsune Miku, who was very "into" holograms and projections. As he shares the same interests, Lepage often suggested that he meet with Miku, but was always told, "No, that would be far too complicated."

And here's why - she's not a person, but a "Vocaloid" produced by a software program from phonics spoken by a "real live" actress, Saki Fujita.  Her appearance was developed by manga artist Kei Garō; her eventual songs and projected presence were then devised by a company called Crypton Future Media (her name is a rough approximation of the phrase "First Sound Future" in Japanese).

She's not a hologram, btw, but rather a digital projection onto a thin film that's unnoticeable at audience distance - it's something like the "Pepper's Ghost" trick used in Disney's Haunted Mansion ride (you can make out the projection screen in the video's long shots).  She is, however, a pop sensation - it seems you can play with her at home, and have her sing your own songs; but she's also had major hits in Japan and has sold out her "live" concert appearances (above, in Tokyo).  Her appeal may prove brief, however; after a recent "farewell for now" concert, she has been on hiatus.

Now I'm not suggesting that digitally projected performers will be with us anytime soon - after all, the "Pepper's Ghost" technology has been around forever, and Hatsune Miku is really just projected anime.  Still, the acceptance of this as "performance" by a huge crowd of people is a little unnerving. If you thought audiences would automatically reject projections in favor of real actors - I'd say think again!

[Btw, it's interesting to think about Hatsune Miku as only the next phase of the song-assembly machine for the likes of Rihanna and Nicki Minaj that was recently detailed in the New Yorker.  Aren't many pop stars already "manufactured"?]

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Don't misunderestimate The Inspector

"I am not a crook!" - the political rogues' gallery of The Inspector. Photos: Erik Jacobs.
I know, I know - the words "opera" and "laugh riot" rarely meet in the same sentence.

But Boston Lyric Opera's The Inspector, the new work by composer John Musto and librettist Mark Campbell, might make you re-think all that.  This is simply one of the funniest shows of the year. Actually, it IS the funniest show of the year, period.  Boston Lyric Opera always knows how to throw a hearty comic punch (last year's Agrippina proved that), and they land so many this time around that I and my partner were practically on the floor at some points.

Of course if you think, as some local critics do, that an opera should be thought of as a concert in which the performers happen to walk around, then this kind of praise is almost a liability.  An opera shouldn't be just a good time, they insist; it shouldn't be a whip-smart satire of the Bush administration.  Lord, no - operas shouldn't be that!

Indeed, some people at opening night seemed to agree about that satire of the Bush administration (some of the most expensive seats were empty after intermission).  Perhaps more than any of the arts, opera depends for its funding on finance execs and white-shoe law partners (at least the "Log Cabin" partners, if you know what I mean) and I felt BLO was taking a big risk with the openly blue-state cast of Campbell's razor-sharp libretto (which was inspired by Gogol's ageless satire of small-town corruption, The Inspector General).  Technically Campbell has shifted the scene to Sicily (which allows for more bel canto) - and there were, indeed, a few broad, affectionate Italian jokes - but obviously the script was really set in the various South Texas, South Florida, and South Alaska burgs where numbskull Bush scions and Republican stooges are blighting the landscape in their "exile" from the White House.

So - if you're a Republican, beware this horrifying partisan screed!  But if you're a thoughtful person with a moral center, you are inevitably a Democrat, and so you should run out and buy a ticket immediately.  (Because the show only runs through this weekend.)

There is some bad news, though - John Musto's music isn't as challenging or as rich as it might be;  I can't refudiate that.  The score is certainly pretty, and even quite witty - in fact, it's almost too much of a sophisticated, Broadway-style pastiche; by the end of the first act, you might be forgiven for thinking the composer had set his sights on operetta rather than opera.  But fear not - from the start, the second act is far stronger musically (it opens with a melancholy trio for mandolin, accordion - and tuba!) as Campbell's text begins to limn the sad awareness of universal corruption that undergirds Gogol's  original scenario.  (So in the end, I think Musto should not be misunderestimated.)

The ruling class shows just how classy it is in The Inspector.
And it's in the second act that the performances, which have been funny throughout, begin to open up into something deeper, too.  Soprano Meredith Hansen sounds great as the Mayor's daughter (she's the one sweetheart trapped in this lousy town) - but it's her acting performance that is almost heart-breaking in its mix of comic smarts and tragic feeling; our best dramatic actresses couldn't do better.

Hansen is all but upstaged, however, by mezzo Victoria Livengood as her crass, calculating mama; Ms. Livengood is a world-class comic talent as well as a Met-level mezzo, and she expertly crosses Imelda Marcos with Carol Burnett to create an indelibly, almost brutally hilarious performance as, in her husband's words, "the shrewdest of shrews - who'd screw for new shoes."  In fact, I'll call this one right now - there will be no one, and nothing, funnier than Ms. Livengood on a Boston stage this year.  (And she's a terrific mezzo to boot.)

Although to be honest, this crowd is crowded with good singing and clever comic turns.  As the genially corrupt mayor of "Santa Schifezza," ("schifezza" is Italian for "filthy," btw) Jake Gardner (at top) knows just how to hang onto our sympathy by making his sleaze almost sweetly naive.  And from the moment Dorothy Byrne launches into an aria with a cigarette dangling from her mouth, you know she's something special, too (she's a Minister of Health who moonlights at the local funeral home!). But there are still more comic cameos sharper than the point of a satirist's quill: David Cushing all but beams stupidity as the torture-happy chief of police, who's "as dim-witted as he is sadistic," while Michelle Trainor nails the Montessori-addled educator who insists "Kids learn bestest when they teach theirselves!"

If you haven't noticed yet, there is a slight gap in the cast - as "Tancredi," the likably opportunistic Inspector General himself, Neil Ferreira is appealing, but hardly compelling, and the usually reliable David Kravitz sounded fine as his sidekick, but didn't seem to have found his comic groove by opening night.   But down in the pit, conductor David Angus did well by the clever fizz of the score, and stage director Leon Major always kept the production light on its feet.  You left the The Inspector thinking it may be no great contribution to the musical repertoire, but that it might open up a new angle on how we think about contemporary opera in general.  For why shouldn't up-to-minute, bare-knuckle satire be a commonplace on the operatic stage, particularly when it's as close to comic perfection as The Inspector?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

IRNE post-game analysis

As most of you know, this year marked my return to the IRNE Awards, which, as I like to say, are like sex; you never know what you're going to get, or how long it's going to take.  Usually (unlike sex) it takes longer than you'd like - although Monday night's awards were the shortest yet, believe it or not.  We're well aware, of course, that size matters at the IRNEs, but I think we feel a bit like Odysseus on this particular question - stuck between the Scylla of not recognizing everyone's achievement, and the Charybdis of boring everyone to tears. (You can read a full accounting of nominees and winners at Larry Stark's Theater Mirror, btw.)

Some of us also sense the rising importance of the occasion as a party for the community - particularly now that the annual Stage Source party seems to be on hiatus.  There's been some discussion of reducing the number of awards actually announced during the ceremony (but still awarding them, and handing them out beforehand, of course). This would deprive some folks of their "I'd like to thank the Academy" moment, I know, which is too bad - but maybe it compensates them with more time to be congratulated, network, and have an extra drink?  It's worth debating, I think.

I personally lean more toward the par-tay side of this argument; I'd like to see the ceremony reduced to an hour and a half, tops - that's about as long as I think you can ask people to keep quiet - and then maybe have a DJ take over!  I'd also argue that with a more festive atmosphere, we might attract even more out-of-town names than we managed to nab this year (playwright Stephen Karam and director Mary Zimmerman, along with members of the Candide cast and other luminaries, were on hand to pick up their awards personally, and they're very nice people to meet).

As for the awards themselves - as often happens, a few shows won big, and some worthy theatre companies were shut out, and I didn't agree with all those decisions.  We're always struggling with this issue, frankly; the rising number of nominees - which I support in principle, but feel has perhaps gone past a natural limit - has led to a situation where decisions are sometimes determined by a single vote.  But on the other hand - some shows should win big, I think, and why not by a single vote?  Another perennial question - how to best categorize the theatrical landscape?  Have some mid-size companies become so successful that they should be bumped up into the "large company" category?  Should we have more separate categories for fringe efforts (making the evening even longer)?  Rest assured, these are questions we constantly discuss.

A few more words about the new addition to the ceremony, the Hubbie Award - a cash sponsorship which I presented to actor Danny Bryck to develop his solo show on Occupy Boston, No Room for Wishing (which you should eventually be able to read more about, and even contribute to, on his website,  As I said, I hope to make this award a regular event, and incorporate direct artist sponsorship into the official IRNE culture eventually.  As of now, the sponsorship is still small ($1000), and it is basically coming from funds I've raised.  We'll continue to work on that as the year progresses; I hope to make at least one more cash Hubbie Award in 2011, and will probably begin incorporating advertising in the Hub Review, with revenues going toward this sponsorship (so if you see an ad here, click on it!).

My criteria for this award - in case you couldn't understand me in the crystal-clear acoustic of the Cyclorama on Monday! - are roughly the following: the money should go to artists, not institutions or programs; it should be awarded to help make possible the creation of a specific work of art - it shouldn't go to education, outreach, or any of the other worthy rubrics favored by other grants; and there should be no formal application process; like the MacArthur awards, the Hubbie should simply be an unexpected gift.

If you're worried, by the way, about this award compromising my, or other, votes on the IRNEs, rest assured that my fellow critics are aware that a Hubbie sponsorship means I am precluded from nominating, voting, or lobbying for the production in question come IRNE time.  That goes without saying; we can't have a revolving door of sponsorship and awards. When and if financial sponsorship becomes an official function of the general voting body, that will likewise mean that sponsored shows are ineligible for any votes.  (Somehow I think folks will take the cash anyway.)

Well, I think that's about it - aside from a quick thank you to everyone in the IRNE community (but especially to critic Beverly Creasey, who bears the brunt of the logistical work) for making the awards happen once again. And so - congratulations to all winners and nominees - and see you next year!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

One of the best time lapses yet

Perhaps the most gorgeous sequence ever from the International Space Station.

What you see over the course of the flight: :01 -- Stars over southern United States  :08 -- US west coast to Canada  :21 -- Central Europe to the Middle East  :36 -- Aurora Australis over the Indian Ocean  :54 -- Storms over Africa  1:08 -- Central United States  1:20 -- Midwest United States  1:33 -- United Kingdom to Baltic Sea  1:46 -- Moonset  1:55 -- Northern United States to Eastern Canada  2:12 -- Aurora Australis over the Indian Ocean  2:32 -- Comet Lovejoy  2:53 -- Aurora Borealis over Hudson Bay  3:06 -- United Kingdom to Central Europe.

The song on the soundtrack is Howard Blake's "Walking in the Air."

The lyrics:

More Monty at Stoneham

The guys try to take it all off at Stoneham.
I've become something of an expert on The Full Monty of late -  I got a chance to catch it again at the Stoneham Theatre, where it's playing through May 6.  Alas, this production isn't in quite the same league as the crackling version at Boston Conservatory a few weeks back - but it's still a big, friendly lug of a show, and if it lacks some of the Conservatory's energy, it compensates with a sense of grittier, lived-in wisdom.  It helps, of course, that everybody in this cast is the age they're supposed to be - which contributes, I think, to the show's deeper exploration of actual male insecurity, and a corresponding rise in audience sympathy for the crew of regular Buffalo guys who, after they're laid off from their jobs at the steel mill, turn to stripping to get by.

Although about that stripping - a note to all you eager voyeurs out there: if you're dreaming of seeing the full monty at Stoneham - well, be warned the light board operator at this nice suburban theatre has an itchy trigger finger, so the flash that's supposed to accompany "the flash," if you will, comes early -  you can't tell if you've gotten the full monty, or no monty at all.  Basically all you see here is some retina burn, which I guess counts as "hot" in its own way.

Margaret Ann Brady in full theft mode.
But this is still a fun show, even if it's kind of a tease.  Director Caitlin Lowans gives everything a loose, friendly vibe, although traffic isn't always managed smoothly on Christopher Ostrom's awkwardly-angled set (which also tends to crimp Ilyse Robbins' choreography).  So no, "flow" isn't what this show is all about, but it's studded with memorable moments from a savvy cast.

Margaret Ann Brady (left) simply walks off with her scenes as Jeanette, the retirement-home/show-biz refugee who becomes the guys' rehearsal pianist, thanks to some of the most skillfully hard-bitten under-playing I've seen in some time; but the boys do manage to wrestle the show back from her now and again.  Newcomer Michael Timothy Howell made a funny, sexy Jerry, the crew's ringleader -- although he never quite made me believe in his connection to his son, the very poised and endearing Colin Breslin. The most emotionally convincing turn in the production actually came from Corey Jackson as Jerry's best bud Dave, a big guy whose sheer size makes him nervous about taking it all off.  The rest of the guys had their moments too - David L. Jiles Jr. made a smart, forceful "Horse," and Steve Gagliastro was his usual winning self as the boss who'd gotten fired, too, while Nick Sulfaro and Andrew Oberstein hit all the right notes in the way-too-brief gay romance that blooms in the second act.

Elsewhere there was a crack turn from Amy Barker as Gagliastro's ballroom-dancing, clueless wife (although this lady usually gets quite a bit more choreography, guys), and the versatile David Costa was able to switch-hit from gay to straight without missing a beat in a few literally cheeky roles.  Of course pondered coldly - in the buff, if you will - The Full Monty still has some issues; it's a little too long, the second act gets repetitive, the score is good but not great - but these talented folks generally manage to cover the show's gaps the same way those fans used to cover Sally Rand - and with the same entertaining results.

Monday, April 23, 2012

See you at the IRNEs

Sorry for no post today, but preparations are underway for the annual IRNE Awards, tonight at 7:30 pm at the Cyclorama, in which the Independent Reviewers of New England honor their choices for the best of 2011 in just about every category you can imagine (new this year - puppetry!).

And yes, I'll be there - it's a long story, someday I'll tell you the whole thing - with a new surprise up my sleeve, too: the first "Hubbie Award" with a cash value. But I'll tell you all about that - and who's getting the check - after the ceremony.

Yes, I know - critics with money.  What a concept.  So stay tuned.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

A grand monument to tradition, done grandly (and traditionally)

Celeste Fraser and John Irvin as Blanche and her brother in Dialogues of the Carmelites.

Right now is a very good time for opera in the Hub.  I just got back from a truly hilarious operatic satire at Boston Lyric, The Inspector, which made for quite the contrast with Dialogues of the Carmelites, Francis Poulenc's intense investigation of the spiritual, which I caught on Thursday at the Boston University Opera Institute - in a solid, very moving version which plays through tomorrow afternoon.  Fans of Poulenc  (or simply fans of great opera - or great drama) won't want to miss this production.

Dialogues is by now established as one of the major operatic achievements of the twentieth century - even though at its premiere, Poulenc's relentlessly tonal music was widely razzed by the Schoenberg Politburo. Needless to say, the opera has survived the pseudo-intellectual fashions of its day -  but then most musical history of the twentieth century is slowly being re-written not as a tale of Schoenbergian revolution, but rather as a story of survival by tonal talents somehow enduring a long atonal winter.

But back to Poulenc, whose topic - faith leading to martyrdom in the face of the radical state - likewise had a reactionary cast to the zealots of modernism (particularly coming from a semi-closeted, haute bourgeois homosexual like Poulenc).  Now I'm not going to argue that question here; but it seems obvious at this point that the pathos of the opera's libretto, and the beauty of Poulenc's music, simply transcend the transient hobbyhorses of whatever revolutionaries we're saddled with at any particular historical moment.

The story is (roughly) a true one - the opera follows the travails of an order of Carmelite nuns in the provincial town of Compiègne as they struggle with their doubts in the face of death, and then face actual death itself, in the form of persecution from the French Revolutionary government.  After the sisters resisted the forced closure of their convent, they were imprisoned, and eventually guillotined - ironically enough, only days before the Reign of Terror collapsed.  The opera concludes with a world-famous coup de théâtre that's a brilliant musical statement, too: the nuns meet their deaths singing, marching offstage to have their voices silenced, one by one, by the descending scythe. We can't credit Poulenc, btw, for this inspired scene; the actual nuns did indeed die singing their vows back in 1794.  Nevertheless, it's one of the most gripping climaxes in all of opera - and at BU, director Sharon Daniels does it up right, wisely keeping the guillotine offstage (some productions have made the disastrous mistake of revealing it), and suppressing the melodrama of the moment to conjure an almost overwhelming sense of pathos.

Elsewhere, the dramatic work is a bit uneven.  Daniels again has done the right thing by sublimating the passions of the plot into the strictures of its text - the scenes feel like scripture, or perhaps, yes, Socratic dialogues.   But not all these young singers understand yet how to bring a suppressed emotional fire to bear on a scene, so some sequences are a bit stiff.

Others, however, are lucidly, even finely played, and the women's voices are generally strong - the men's, less so (there's often a lack of power here), although tenor John Irvin made a striking impression as the brother of Blanche de la Force, the novice whose perspective on the event Poulenc adopts.  As Blanche herself, Celeste Fraser is clearly a star in the making, with both a rich, warm soprano and a confident, intelligent stage presence.  Perhaps too confident -  I didn't quite believe in Blanche's timorousness at the opera's outset, and thus her journey from fearful recluse to calmly ardent martyr wasn't fully limned.  But Fraser was always impressive nonetheless, and there were other memorable turns from soprano Sonja Krenek as well as mezzos Lauren Ashleigh Lyles and Amanda Tarver.

Down in the pit, the instrumental results were likewise mixed, but generally rewarding.  Poulenc's music sounds rather like sacramental Debussy - and he eschews aria for exchanges that aren't quite duets, but again, feel like musical dialogues.  The original orchestration was famously lush, but at BU we got a reduced version, which was still ravishing enough.  Under the baton of William Lumpkin, most of the orchestra - particularly the strings - soared, but the horns were often garbled.  Oh, well; you can't have everything.  I also didn't care much for the fact that the text was sung in English rather than French (there are super-titles anyhow).  The appropriate set and costumes were by Eleanor Kahn and DeMara Cabrera, respectively; the evocative lighting by Yi-Chung Chen.  This traditional version of a monument to tradition makes a pretty strong case for the virtues of Poulenc - and of course the sisters of Compiègne.  If only those attitudes became more of a tradition around here!

Friday, April 20, 2012


Dirty words on the news! Admit it, you laughed.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Café Variations at ArtsEmerson

Melody Madarasz in Café Variations 

The music of George Gershwin is a good thing; a very good thing.  Which is a very good thing for director Anne Bogart, as it repeatedly saves her beautiful, baffling, Café Variations (at ArtsEmerson through the weekend) from a persistent threat of tedium.

What's baffling about this show, you may ask?  Why it was ever produced, frankly; there really is no show here.  Bogart has simply set various snatches of dialogue from playwright Charles L. Mee, Jr. - with whom she often collaborates as she works the college circuit with her theatre troupe, SITI - against a clutch of Gershwin standards, played in a giant period café.  And - ta-da! - she seems to think this means she has made some sort of statement.

If only. Mee's banter can be cute in its bitchy pique (at least in the wonderful performance from Ellen Lauren it can), but it doesn't add up to much, and it only relates to the rueful swoon of Gershwin in the most desultory way.  I admit there's also some sort of folderol going on here about variations in personality over the course of the evening (the characters come in three variants, labeled A, B, and C) - but this also didn't seem to add up to much, and in fact I found I really couldn't be bothered with following Bogart's bogus acrostic.  Because the whole thing was obviously a weightless monument to academic conceit.

But there is that Gershwin.  Some of the music here is recorded, but there are also performances on offer from a live band tucked behind a shimmery curtain on Neil Patel's gorgeously luxe set (below).  The arrangements by Rachel Grimes - particularly the wordless chorale drawn from "Embraceable You" -  are likewise to die for, as are the costumes (Caitlin Ward), lighting (Brian H. Scott), and sound (Stowe Wilson).  It all made me wonder - couldn't we just keep this design team and drop Bogart?

If we do, perhaps we can dodge in future the dodgy vocals that dot the show.  The Emerson kids do okay - although only Melody Madarasz, who caught my eye in Bat Boy a year ago, is a standout.  The actors from SITI, Bogart's troupe, are another story.  In a word, SITI can't sing - which is a problem, because singing Gershwin is far more difficult than it sounds.  I love a Gershwin tune, but I know it usually hovers between at least two keys, and so any vocal jump larger than a third can be perilous (that's why I only sing them in the shower).  And let's just say there are a number of awkward landings here - in fact, some of the SITI vocals may be the weakest I've ever heard in a professional venue.  And I wish I could say that the dancing made up for this, but it really didn't until the very end (again, SITI can't dance - but Emerson has at least one talented hoofer in Maximilian Sangerman).  So I guess you could say I left singing the set, and dancing the arrangements, and that's about it.  But at least Bogart and Mee can't take that away from me.

Like the music, the set is 'swonderful. Photos: Paul Marotta

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The best film you will see this year is Cats in Space

And here's the whole thing. Wesley Morris will be reviewing shortly.

The Temperamentals fails to make Hay

Do they look temperamental?  Not really.
Sigh.  I admire the Lyric Stage for taking chances on scripts with a political dimension - really I do - and I wish I could back that admiration with warmer reviews.  But I'm afraid these well-intentioned folks keep bumping into the unfortunate fact that - well, they're just not political people, and they don't know any political people, and they don't understand political people, either.

Which may be why in Jon Marans' The Temperamentals, they've  chosen a fascinating political subject but a very weak political script, whose obvious faults director Jeremy Johnson unintentionally underscores at every turn.  As a result, even the actors (some of the area's best) don't really connect here - and that's rare in Boston theatre.

But first, how to explain Marans' failure, given his play treats some of the most flaming queens in gay American history?  It is a puzzlement; how could such blazing characters have inspired such a wet blanket of a play?

Clearly the dramatist's (worthy) intent was to bring back to our cultural consciousness the pre-Stonewall struggles of the Mattachine Society, America's first political group with, yes, a homosexual agenda.  But Marans adopts precisely the wrong tone toward the Mattachines and their era.  He seems to imagine the knowing irony of our current parlance can somehow give us entrée to the paranoid birth of the gay nation; but I ask you - does that make any sense? Honestly - I don't think so.  Nevertheless, the cloak-and-dagger tactics of the Mattachines - their oaths of silence, their clandestine meetings - are here given the Spy-vs.-Spy treatment; guys in fedoras lurk in dark corners of the sleek set, taking career-destroying notes before vanishing into the night (to the tinklings of noir-style lounge music, no less).

From this stance of bemused detachment, you take it that everyone involved really should just have known how things would eventually turn out, and realized they were all being a wee bit silly!  But of course they didn't, and the bravery of the Mattachines really should not be underestimated - even if their secret society fizzled, and today their baby-steps toward gay identity look quaint (or sometimes plain weird).

I will admit that this play reminded me, however, of the political dimensions that gayness has lost as it has converted itself into a commercial niche in our ever-burgeoning consumer culture.  Simply being gay - or simply having sex (any sex)- used to have political and intellectual resonance; intimacy of the kind epitomized by, say, Winston and Julia in 1984, was thought to be of a different order of experience from the machinations of the market or the coercions of the police.  Sex was not a product but a truth, and thus a statement of individuality, even resistance.

So it's not surprising that the Mattachines resisted the political order in all kinds of ways - many were Communists, in fact, so their political lives were perhaps even more dangerous than their sex lives.  They were rebels, in the old sense of the term - frightened rebels, perhaps, but still rebels.  Indeed, Mattachine founder Harry Hay was a kind of scruffy radical drifter - a Stanford drop-out, a rancher obsessed with Native American culture, a Hollywood stunt rider and a folk singer and a devoted cross-dresser, Hay floated between the upper and lower classes as well as just about every facet of both the gay and straight experience -  he even married and fathered children, though he ended up (in one final, controversial stand) voicing support for NAMBLA, largely because he resisted gay assimilation into straight sexual norms as a matter of principle.

That NAMBLA stand, though, gives you a glimpse into Hay's eventual quandary, I think; resisting everything turned him into a kind of incoherent self-parody.  And anyway, resistance is so passé today; for what (beyond the obvious crimes of pedophilia) is there left to resist?  Winston and Julia's secret trysts were illegal  in 1984, but now Big Brother would be happy to rent them a room, and livestream their coupling, too. O'Brien has won without resorting to his rats - which may be why the real Harry Hay can't be found in a play that has supposedly been designed to honor him.

Harry Hay in the 90's.
But if you want to better appreciate the cultural contradiction at the core of  The Temperamentals, consider the photograph of Hay at left, in what he called his "Radical Faery" look (note the cowboy hat, the flowered skirt, AND the Native American beads).  Then check out the publicity photo for the Lyric production at top.  Do you sense a fundamental disconnect?  I do; a buttoned-down fashion statement  was anathema to Hay - it was instead the natural metier of Rudi Gernreich, his lover in the heyday of the Mattachines (prior to becoming Gernreich's ex, Hay had sex with Will Geer - yes, Grandpa Walton!). The elegantly pompous Gernreich was then a minor, though rising, fashion star in Hollywood - he'd go on to brief notoriety as a designer of topless looks in the 60's (before designing the campy jumpsuits of Space:1999 in the 70's) - and The Temperamentals roughly aligns with his long dalliance with Hay.

Now there's certainly a solid dramatic conflict to be found in the push-pull between Hay's burgeoning radicalism and Gernreich's conservative chic.  But playwright Marans seems unable to tap into this; indeed, I'm not sure he realizes it should be his real theme - it's too politically complicated!  Instead, Marans makes his play all Gernreich, and no Hay;  when he should be conjuring the closeted gay world's temptation to join Hay's brand of crazy, he instead encases everything in so much camp alienation that the motor of the Mattachine's short-lived success (and eventual collapse) never coughs to life.  Oh, well; Marans does at least nod to Hay's transvestitism (which was probably the safest of his many predilections).

Given this void at the heart of the drama, I suppose it's no shock that Jeremy Johnson's production wanders all over Sarah Lee Brown's stylish set without really going anywhere.  It briefly gets traction as a superficial history lesson (when the Mattachines win a court case involving entrapment).  But beyond that it simply has no heat, no drive.  As Hay, Will McGarrahan repeats the wry, knowing  performance he has perfected in his past few shows - and it's still amusing, it just has nothing to do with Harry Hay.  Meanwhile Nael Nacer takes Gernreich's Eurotrash cool so much to heart that he seems to be having an out-of-body experience; he nails his Viennese accent, and looks great in his designer duds, but he has no chemistry with McGarrahan, and in their love scenes you get the impression he's somehow manipulating his body from somewhere offstage.  As their associates in the Mattachines, Shelley Bolman and Steve Kidd strike a few sparks here and there, but hardly enough to build a fire under the damp material.  I left thinking that someday we'll see a great play, and a great production, devoted to Harry Hay and the Mattachines.  Maybe when Big Brother isn't watching.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

This is not what democracy looks like

This is what the Tea Party and the Boston Police look like!  A Boston police officer "pushes" by the neck an Occupy Boston protester identified by name ("Allie"), but not gender, during Occupy's demonstration against a Tea Party hate rally on Sunday.

There's currently an "investigation" underway, and the Boston Police are "scrutinizing" this photo.  But sometimes a picture is worth a thousand memos, isn't it.

(Of course maybe the officer just felt threatened by that very scary purple wig.)

Monday, April 16, 2012

Hobbit porn - oops, I mean "Game of Thrones" - comes to HBO!

Oh, man, rarely has SNL nailed it as it does here, with this wicked takedown of the new soft core hobbit porn series, HBO's Game of Thrones. I've just sat through the first few episodes of this, thanks to Netflix - and Christ on a bike; what can I say? I was never taken in by the fanboy praise (although I'll admit after watching this that maybe Isaac Butler isn't quite as gormless as I've always thought he was), but when even the Atlantic began to post breathless patter about this potboiler, I began to wonder; finally I decided I had to see it. Well, now I know, and whooooo boy! Power and titties and dragons, oh my! Who will gain the Iron Throne?? And more importantly - who'll be doing it doggie style on the Iron Throne???

Sheesh - I admit this wacky (if lumbering) mash-up of I, Claudius, The Lord of the Rings, and Debbie Does Dallas rarely has a dull moment - except when the dialogue cranks up. So my advice is: watch it with the sound off - it's a lot more fun; by now I've had the benefit of enough portentous adolescent wisdom to last a lifetime, and sometimes I thought if I heard "And what doth milord command of me?" one more time I might just barf. But bring on the double blow jobs and the child-murders and the incest (the villains commit both in the premiere episode alone - later on they kill an innocent dog!). This is "compulsively watchable" all right - fuck yeah!  And after we've all blown our wads, let's engage in a collaborative symposium on the parameters and significance of genre, shall we?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Wait, wait, don't edit me

I caught the Wang Theatre taping of NPR's "Wait, Wait . . . Don't Tell Me" show last week - mostly because the partner unit, an avid listener, wanted to go.  For my part, I'm amused by "Wait, Wait" - when I happen to hear it - but I'm hardly addicted.

Alas, "Partner's Night Out" turned out to be more of a favor than I anticipated; the taping was only intermittently entertaining - although it was interesting as a peek into the way "live" experience is shaped and massaged into NPR fare.

 Now I'm not so naïve as to imagine that "Wait, Wait" - or any other radio show - is anything like "live;" still, I was surprised to find that in the flesh, as it were, it was so often half-dead.  The taping ran nearly two hours (to generate a half-hour show), and this was with only a little re-tracing of steps and re-recording (maybe five or ten minutes worth?) at the very end.  Basically, the real live version of "Wait, Wait" is four times longer than the "live" version you hear at home.  There's three shows' worth of filler.

Not that there's anything wrong with that!  Still, while you're trapped in the Wang Theatre, waiting for the assembled comics to hit on the fresh topical bit that's going to make it on the air (and there were some funny jokes), you do feel that sense of persistently escaping theatrical oxygen that, well, is supposed to be anathema to live theatre (imagine a production in which every actual line is preceded by an "ummm" and two "bum" lines, and you get the idea).  My partner was less fazed by all this - he told me he'd once sat through a taping of a Hollywood sitcom that lasted four hours (that's like most of Götterdämmerung!), so he told me I was being too demanding.

Maybe.  But I couldn't forget  that the slick, witty host, Peter Sagal, turned out to have far less presence than his voice does (which is in and of itself kind of intriguing); sidekick Carl Kasell has more, but still, you wouldn't call him magnetic.  The comics likewise clearly had personae that might have cast some low-grade spell, but they were sitting down - behind a conference table! - so the whole thing felt like you were tapping your heels through a corporate retreat in which upper management, bizarrely enough, was full of liberals.  They really should have served coffee.

I may have been alone in this response, though; the people around me seemed to be participating in some virtual event for which my ticket didn't provide admittance.  The full house whooped and applauded with surprising enthusiasm, and responded almost gratefully to the Boston references threaded like bait through Sagal's monologue.  They weren't experiencing it "live,"  but rather "on the air;" in their minds, they were at a show that was going to happen sometime in the future - and they were on it!

In fact, it happened yesterday; I heard it again on the radio, condensed down by three quarters, with my partner.  We agreed the "live" show was nothing like the experience of the live show; not only had all the hesitations and boring bits been banished, but some sequences seemed slightly re-arranged, and audience responses were far quicker on the trigger; the laughs were roars, and the cues were like pounces.  It was quite strange having the actual experience of the show fresh in the memory while listening to its new "live" version - but the remodel was also somehow re-assuring in its subdued sense of control; everyone knew what they were doing every single minute; there was no room for risk, or human error.

I looked at my partner when it was finished; he was smiling.  "You know, it was a lot better than I remember it being," he said.


Saturday, April 14, 2012

Yes, Virginia, the BSO can still sound great - Esa-Pekka Salonen proves it

Salonen in action with Philharmonia.
I confess that after Missa Solemnis a few weeks back, followed by a good-but-not-great "German Requiem," I felt like giving up on the BSO. I also didn't feel much like writing about it; as with the A.R.T. and other entrenched artistic institutions, talking about their performances honestly always leads to an email-box full of outraged blowback from their silly partisans. But I wanted to catch Esa-Pekka Salonen's concert this weekend, first because I wanted to hear this conductor (at left) live, and second, because he is one of those classical music globe-trotters currently under consideration to take James Levine's vacant spot at the podium.

And judging from the performance last night, we'd be very lucky to lure Salonen here.  He has all of Levine's technical chops, that was clear from a program that included Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin, Stravinsky full score for The Firebird, and Salonen's own Violin Concerto - only he's so much better than Levine in so many ways!

Chief among these may be that he simply showed up for his concert.  (This also gives him a big leg up over other recent "auditioners"!)  Salonen has also already led a major metropolitan orchestra (the L.A. Philharmonic) to global prominence - his base is now the Philharmonia Orchestra in London; so he has a proven track record in cultural leadership.  And at 53, he is younger than Levine - and not just physically healthier, but actually intellectually younger; with Salonen, we wouldn't be stuck in some mid-twentieth-century debate over Schoenberg and Beethoven.  Up on the podium, Salonen also gives the sense of a more open and experimental presence (it helps that he's kind of cute, and looks a decade younger than his age). Moreover, Salonen simply conveys a sense of personality.  Let's be honest - even though I know this hurts - Levine was always a vacancy on stage, because his actual life was utterly closeted; what we got instead was his devotion to technical musical perfection, which was hardly the same thing.  In a way, Levine was a monument to a live unlived (and unloved, except at one remove);  in contrast Salonen seems quite alive, emotionally, politically, and sexually; with him, you feel the BSO might suddenly gain a conducting figurehead with a presence, a profile, like Handel and Haydn and Boston Baroque have always had.

It also probably helps that Salonen is more open to the modes of pop music - in something of the manner of Thomas Adès - than most classical music globe-trotters.  That was the impression left, anyway, by his Violin Concerto, which didn't, I admit,  entirely blow me away, although it certainly has its moments.  Its opening movement ("Mirage") is a kind of millennial variant on Ligeti - gorgeous with deep notes of dread - overlaid with frenzied figures from Glass; its following sections ("Pulse I" and "Pulse II") leaned even more heavily on Glass - buffed with a subtler version of that pop phenomenon's zen-pop sheen; its finale ("Adieu") proved a bit more interesting, and seems intended as a literal metaphor (as the entire piece does, in fact) for Salonen's departure from the modernist strictures of his youth.  It's a big, solid piece that wowed the BSO audience (as it was designed to wow the crowds at Disney Hall), but it's pretty derivative, and in the end Salonen seems to lack the intellectual rigor of Adès (another major presence at the L.A. Philharmonic, btw).  The Violin Concerto ends with a famously "surprising" chord that's out of the harmonic sequence provided so far; Salonen has said this represents the idea that something "new" is just around the corner.  Only why isn't the Concerto itself that "something new"?  (That is basically what's wrong with it.)

A Bakst design for The Firebird.
Okay, so he's not a great composer; his connection with the young peoples, though, is what the BSO management currently craves - and let's face it, they've always had more money than brains - and I think he has more integrity than, say, Diane Paulus, who represents the low end of this kind of thinking.

And - AND - he's just a terrific conductor (at least of Ravel and Stravinsky!).  The opening movement of Tombeau was sublime; the piece did lose a little rhythmic loft as it progressed - I think Salonen's tempi sometimes tend toward the contemplative; and perhaps the meaning of the finale was somewhat unfocused.  This was still a superb performance, though.  The BSO is a famously recalcitrant set of musicians - they generally only play well for people they want to play well for.  Clearly they want to play for Salonen, and it showed.

If anything, Stravinsky's complete music for The Firebird was even more ravishing.  I admit I'm a little fonder of the 1919 suite in the concert hall; without the actual ballet going on (which I wish the Boston Ballet would do!), the original score always seems to me a bit wandering, and half-abstracted.  Still, it's good to hear it again in full, and Salonen seemed to approach it with a sense of perspective grounded in an awareness of the career for which it proved a springboard.  And somehow the conductor found a structural sense to the piece's harmonics, too, despite its narrative discourse, and his sense of atmosphere and texture proved unsurpassed (texture may be his greatest talent, in fact, which is key to the mixed atmosphere of savagery and magical awe that defines The Firebird).  I admit I've never seen this piece fail - it's quite possibly the greatest ballet score in existence - but this performance was still a dazzler.

I should mention, too, that this very program was one of the better ones I remember from the BSO's recent history.  There were subtly pleasing thematic affinities here.  Ravel's elegy to Couperin paralleled mournful notes struck in Salonen's own farewell to modernism in his Violin Concerto - which tapped here and there into twentieth-century modes that grew from Stravinsky.  Beyond these historical connections there were sometimes pleasing sympathies - or oppositions - in tone and color; so I left thinking Salonen might lead the BSO out of its whole "greatest hits - plus Tan Dun!" mentality, too.  Sigh.  I'm not sure, really, why he would come to Boston - I mean, he's already done this before, hasn't he?  But we can dream, can't we?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Notes from the underground

Mark Linehan and Phil Tayler connect in Floyd Collins. Photos: Sharman Altshuler.
I went to Floyd Collins - the latest from Moonbox Productions, at the BCA through this weekend - somewhat skeptical of its prospects.   This early Adam Guettel show has a cult following, but it's known as a tricky endeavor, so I doubted a fledgling theatre troupe (Floyd is only the third show from Moonbox) had much hope of pulling it off.

But to my surprise, I left pleased - and a little suspicious.  Who's behind all this? I wanted to know. Theatre companies just don't get this strong quite this quickly!  Someone with expertise and pull is clearly behind Moonbox - and given Michael Maso's presence in the house on the day I attended, I'm guessing there's some Huntington connection here - but honestly, despite my enthusiasm for games of theatrical Clue, for all I know this was produced by Colonel Mustard (in the Conservatory).

And just in case you can't tell - this is a long, back-handed kind of compliment; Floyd Collins, though not perfect, is still one of the shows to see right now in town (and you only have till Sunday).   It's notable for two major reasons - its lead, Phil Tayler, provides one of the most effortlessly charismatic performances of the year (with supporting actor Matthew Zahnzinger only a few steps behind).  And the musical direction, by Dan Rodriguez, is superb (even given the constraints of the BCA Plaza Theater space).

Which is a good thing, because this is one of Adam Guettel's strongest scores; I might even argue that it's a bit better than his big hit, The Light in the Piazza, which for me kind of congeals over its course into self-conscious post-romantic schmaltz.  Floyd is self-conscious, too (and how); but believe it or not, the tension between Guettel's two sources here - roughly, Ravel (!) and the folk music of the Appalachians - proves surprisingly fruitful.  Weirdly fruitful.  And Guettel's feel for phrases rather than melody finds its natural parallel in the yodeling that's common to the region - indeed, Floyd's opening "song," a long solo as he creeps further and further into a network of caves, yodeling to asses their size, may be the best thing Guettel has ever written, and it's brilliantly performed here by Tayler (with an assist from Dan Costello's evocative sound design, which later conjures a convincingly thunderous avalanche, too).

By now you're probably wondering - what the hell is Floyd Collins about?  Well, it's the tale of one of America's earliest (and largest) media sensations - the attempted rescue of the eponymous Floyd Collins, the eccentric operator of "Crystal Cave," one of Kentucky's lesser underground tourist attractions, from his entrapment in an uncharted cavern he had been exploring.  Poor Floyd didn't make it out in the end - but in the meantime, the media circus that surrounded the various efforts to free him became a legend in its own right.

The story has already inspired a minor film classic - Billy Wilder's caustic satire of media exploitation, Ace in the Hole, which still shocks in its cynicism (but only because it's so accurate about the press). Alas, Wilder's film failed at the box office; its worldview proved too acrid for popular taste.  And the musical didn't really become a hit, either; the rap on it is book problems - which I'm afraid it does indeed have (and which Moonbox does not quite triumph over).  But these largely stem from the fact that Guettel's librettist, Tina Landau, clearly wanted to dodge Wilder's dark tone, but keep some satiric edge to the material  - while simultaneously varnishing her characters with a solid coat of musical-theatre treacle.

Thus Floyd is here transformed into a wide-eyed innocent (when really he was spelunking more for profit than pleasure), while his neighbors, and even the reporters who descend on them, are viewed through a veil of sympathetic emotional gauze.   Now I'm not saying some surprising synthesis from these seemingly contradictory points of view is impossible - stranger things have happened! - but I am saying that Landau doesn't nearly pull it off in this case.

Still, the book has its moments.  The satire only works in one lightly pointed song - but Floyd's plight remains quite touching to the end, and his brief moments of human connection down there in the dark, buoyed by Guettel's delicate score, inevitably tug at the heart strings.  And Moonbox is certainly lucky in its Floyd - Phil Tayler (at left) offers both a beautifully sung and an utterly heartfelt performance.  Meanwhile Matthew Zahnzinger more than holds his own as Skeets Miller, the one newspaperman who really seems to care for Floyd, and there's also solid work from Mark Linehan, Teresa Winner Blume, and others in the cast.  Alas, the set isn't particularly evocative (although it gets the job done), and director Allison Choat can't quite keep the show's early momentum going - but she always keeps things in hand (wherever the tone may wander), and thank God everyone in the cast can sing (and as mentioned, the band is exemplary).  Fans of the minor gems of the recent Broadway catalogue won't want to miss this production - for I doubt we'll see a stronger Floyd Collins in these parts anytime soon.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Looking back at a Master of the Impossible

Kubínek in mid-flight.

I did want to take a moment to look back - before they're too small in the rearview - at Tomáš Kubínek's performances at ArtsEmerson a little over a week ago. The self-advertised "Certified Lunatic and Master of the Impossible" has been performing his quirky variant of what I suppose are now called "circus arts" to spellbound crowds across the globe - and in his first moments onstage, Kubínek did cast a strangely potent spell over his audience at the Paramount Theatre.  Creeping out into the half-light in an old-world robe, babbling softly to himself, his hair a ghostly nimbus around his head, Kubínek conjured an almost eerie atmosphere while doing hilarious battle with a lone candle.  Were we locked in the curiosity cabinet of some ancient wizard?, I wondered.  Had we been kidnapped by some wizened gypsy caravan?  Or were we watching a silent scrap of existentialism long lost in Samuel Beckett's wastebasket?  For a time Kubínek kept us delightfully guessing as to the true nature of his persona and act - even the proportions of his body seemed unstable - as he simultaneously kept us howling at some of the subtlest pieces of sleight-of-hand (and pure schtick) that I've ever seen.

Alas, the spell couldn't last; indeed, it was slowly broken by the performer himself, as the lights rose, he began to speak (and then engaged directly with the audience), and slowly emerged from several levels of eccentric disguise to reveal - well, a consummate physical performer, yes, but also one who was happy merely to entertain rather than enchant.  Does that sound ungrateful?  Maybe it does - and I really shouldn't be; like the rest of the crowd, I left the show happy.  But I still wished that among the pratfalls and tricks, Kubínek had somehow been able to hang onto his first, utterly evocative persona.  At the same time, if he comes back to town, I have to admit I'll be in the first row.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Boston Ballet meets Beyoncé

Yes, that's James Whiteside, Principal Dancer of Boston Ballet - or rather that's his alter ego, "JBDubs," breaking out into the club scene and channeling Beyoncé - or at least her famous SNL skit - with his new (hopefully) hit single "I Hate My Job" (backed by fellow Boston Ballet dancers Bradley Schlagheck and Lawrence Rines; I hope they don't all hate their jobs!). Now I'm not sure old Beyoncé needs to worry about James' pipes - but his legs are another matter; the choreography here is hot, and the boys are definitely rockin' those, um, red shoes, oh yeah. And it sounds like James may have chops as a producer, and the lyrics are nasty fun most definitely. You can hear more of JB's songs on his blog (see how many of the Ballet's dancers you can spot in the song "So I Cry"), or, boogie down in a master class with him for just $15 at Urbanity Dance next Wednesday.  Now all I have to do is shake these images before I see Don Quixote in two weeks . . . that is if James hasn't decamped for stardom in Lady Gaga's entourage by then . . .

Monday, April 9, 2012

Long Day's Journey proves a long night, too

Will Lyman and Karen MacDonald channel the doomed Tyrones. Photos: Andrew Brilliant.
I confess I'm on the fence about the New Rep's current version of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night. It's hardly a great production of this difficult (though deeply rewarding) play - it features several of Boston's best actors, but they're slightly miscast, and the direction, by Scott Edmiston, isn't up to the demands of the text. Nevertheless, it's not a bad production, either; I doubted Edmiston could handle O'Neill's thorniest tragedy - and I count myself vindicated - but he did do better than I thought he would.  And his leads, Will Lyman and the great Karen MacDonald, have moments of piercing intensity and insight (as above) in two of the greatest roles O'Neill ever created, James Tyrone and his doomed wife Mary (who were modeled on O'Neill's own tormented, emotionally dishonest parents).  Thus, if you've never seen this drama, what I call the "Vanya on 42nd Street" effect may pay off for you; there's enough raw power here, in sporadic bursts, to allow the uninitiated to sense the intensity of the play.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Holiday videos!

Welcome to San Francisco!
Happy Eastah! We're taking a break from power-blogging at the Hub Review today, but here are some Eastah-themed videos to tide you over till Monday.

First, what would Eastah be without a party? And what's a party without our friend Art Hennessey dressed as Peter Rabbit, uttering the immortal lines, "I-Party!" and "Great!"  Don't worry, Art will forgive us for posting this, and in the meantime you can savor a brush with artistic greatness:

Next - a nod to what I think should be our de facto Eastah movie. I know, I know, The Ten Commandments is fun - slow, tantric fun - but isn't Ben-Hur (below) really a whole lot better?

Yes, these are the dimensions of the original 65 mm image.
I mean this combination soap opera/sermon/boy's adventure is just as long and just as ponderous as Cecil B. DeMille's gargantuan biblical parade float, BUT you get more of Charlton Heston in a loin cloth, PLUS the Battle between the Model Ships in the Gigantic Bathtub, AND (best of all) the terrific chariot race, which I'd probably rate as the single most spectacular sequence ever recorded on film. You can watch it here; due to copyright issues I can't embed it, but I can embed the same sequence from the original 1925, silent Ben-Hur (with an added soundtrack from 1931), which is plenty amazing too - indeed in some ways is more spectacular than the 1959 remake, for which it essentially served as template.

Finally, something in a different key (a somewhat different key). Christianity is almost unique among faiths in its effort to fill just about every psychological familial niche with a primary deity (father, son, mother, etc. - no sex allowed with these gods!). Thus all the explicit erotic content of other religions is crowded into the subtext of Christianity, where it marinates into something pretty lurid; and nobody knows that better than San Francisco's Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, who parody the homosexual and sado-masochistic underpinnings of the Passion story annually in their Hunky Jesus contest in Dolores Park (this may have become America's most prominent public celebration of the holiday). Now I know Jesus doesn't deserve this - we're big fans of Jesus, of course, at the Hub Review, and know we should be more like Him. But honey, Christianity deserves this - and how! Below is the 2011 edition (set your offense meters on stun - and take that, Pope Benedict!).

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Bach's elusive Passion

Harry Christophers conducting soloists and orchestra in the St. Matthew Passion - photo: Kyle T. Hemingway.
I've been pondering Handel and Haydn's version of Bach's St. Matthew Passion for some time now (since last weekend), and Hub Review readers know what that means: it's hard to come to a clear decision about it.   The piece itself, of course, is a monument - really a touchstone - of Western music; the Bach family referred to it as "the great Passion," and the master himself took care to execute a definitive edition, on "the finest paper available."  So I was grateful to hear the work again; to be honest, I haven't heard it in years - it was once a staple of the H&H repertory, and these performances were partly intended as a means of reconnection to this great organization's venerable past.

But again to be honest, the St. Matthew Passion is also a bear, sprawling, multi-foliate, and perhaps even somewhat incoherent in its ambitious attempt to weave together contrasting personal, communal, and historical visions of the tale of Christ's crucifixion.  Now before you start screaming - a lot of great works of art are somewhat incoherent (people have made that argument about Hamlet, for instance); but the aesthetic gaps loom particularly wide in the St. Matthew Passion, and I'm not sure that conductor Harry Christophers (brilliant as much of his work was here), quite bridged them in these performances.

Friday, April 6, 2012

August Wilson's bottom line

August Wilson was a playwright absorbed in his people's history; and now, of course, he himself is a part of that history (he passed away in 2005).  This melancholy fact, coupled with the knowledge that Ma Rainey's Black Bottom represents (roughly) the starting point of the playwright's life work, his ten-play saga now known as the "Century Cycle," brings a poignant emotional weight to bear on the production currently on the boards of the Huntington (but only through this weekend).

The fact that this Ma Rainey also represents the completion of the Huntington's own commitment to staging Wilson's entire cycle only seems to up the artistic ante.  Watching the close of this production is like watching the curtain of time descend on ten different plays and nearly twenty-six years of effort (the theatre staged its first Wilson play, Lloyd Richards' production of Joe Turner's Come and Gone, in 1986; I remember it well, but were some of the stars of the current show even born then?).

So let's just say that watching this new version of Ma Rainey put me in mind of what my father used to call the Long View - and it also re-enforces the impression that at the end of vast artistic endeavors, you sometimes end up precisely where you started.  That is if you haven't actually lost some ground.  For has anyone come along to take up August Wilson's mantle?  Do we have a young black playwright - or a young playwright of any color or gender - of Wilson's size, scope, or sympathy?

Oh, let's be honest - we don't [although local playwright Kirsten Greenidge will take her shot next week with Luck of the Irish].  I don't mean to make exorbitant claims for Wilson; the familiar rap against him is one I agree with (in fact it's one I've helped shape): he was never much for structure, perhaps not even for story, particularly as he aged; his plays became ever more digressive and discursive; in some of the late ones, in fact, all you can count on are a few stretches of spectacular oratory.  Since Ma Rainey is at or near the beginning of this arc, it's more coherent than some of the cycle - which probably peaks in the middle  period of Joe Turner and The Piano Lesson - but you can feel here, at the very beginning, the buds of the flaws that would eventually fully flower by the cycle's end.

Can you spot the Hub Review?

Ha!  I got an e-blast from a local theatre company today, listing all the critical praise for its current production.  (Nothing wrong with that, btw; indeed, more power to 'em!)

But I had to LOL when I pondered my own response to the show in question.

So . . . in the spirit of "Where's Waldo?", can you spot the Hub Review review among the following?

1. A powerful, moving production

2. A show to savor

3. One of the best performances I've seen this season.

4. A can't-be-missed production.

5. A profound, complex, well-executed piece of theater.

6. A dazzling, top-of-the-line piece of you-know-what.

(Hint: It's not #1-5.)

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Play That Wasn't There, or: Are We Pinter Yet?

Rebecca Harris, Dennis Parlato, and Jay Ben Markson in Mrs. Whitney.  Photos: Meghan Moore.
With John Kolvenbach it always seems to be "one step forward, two steps back."  This prolific playwright keeps getting produced, and so I keep getting exposed to him.  And I keep being mystified by the fact that he keeps getting produced, and that I keep getting exposed to him.

Or at least I felt that way until I saw Love Song, which Orfeo Group did last summer, and which had at least one great idea, and some sharp writing, to recommend it.   Love Song also sang with something like a theme - call it "romantic autism," or "relationship autism," if you will - that I suddenly realized had been a component of everything I'd been seeing by Kolvenbach all along.  This playwright seems obsessed with relationships that are in the end impossible because of the perceptual or emotional deficits of his characters; what made Love Song so witty was that it turned this gap on its head; the play's romantics learned to conduct the most passionate of affairs with themselves, and their own fantasies - indeed, it turned out the script's central love object wasn't even there.

So I actually began to think - you know, maybe there is something to this guy after all.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Tales from Andersen, Part 2

Confronting Andersen's lost Dryad - actually, Auguste Clésinger's "Woman Bitten by a Snake"

Where to begin with Robert LePage's The Andersen Project (which closed Sunday at ArtsEmerson)?  I've already confessed I'm a little in awe of this piece; I haven't felt this way about a new work since I saw Tony Kushner's The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide, etc. - which, come to think of it, I never got around to decoding, either, partly because of its daunting level of achievement, the sheer density of its intellectual reference.  In comparison, Andersen seems lighter on its feet, and because much of its text is composed of imagery, it's somehow easy (at first) to imagine that it's a  kind beautiful, easily understood, postmodern picture book.  It's about this guy trying to write a children's opera about Hans Christian Andersen for the Paris Opera, right?  Right.

If you ponder the piece for long, however - and begin to sense that every stage picture seems to open out into something that has come before, or will come after - then the narrative "floor" of the text seems to drop out from under you, and you realize you're grappling with what amounts to the imagistic equivalent of hypertext.   Indeed, if I had to pin down the theme of The Andersen Project at this point, I think the best I could do is something like "the isolation of the imagination in modernity."

Which of course makes the piece sound ridiculously pompous and dull, which it isn't at all - instead it's a bewitching mix of whimsy and melancholy.  Its melancholic atmosphere largely derives from the sense of lonely self-fulfillment that pervades the piece - it's about a librettist, Frédéric, writing an opera for a single voice (remember that), and his seeming twin, Arnaud, the ambitious arts administrator guiding the project through the political shoals of E.U. high culture.  Both - along with every other character in the script - are played by a single actor, the brilliant Yves Jacques (remember that), and thus, though in theory LePage's characters often meet and interact over the course of the narrative, in practical terms they never do - and hence questions of actual conflict are essentially moot.

So everyone in The Andersen Project is alone, but in a crowd - of machines, that is.  LePage sends his heroes wandering among rows of peep-show booths, rows of telephone booths, rows of computer booths - there's instrumentation available for everything, from communication to masturbation.  Everywhere the implements of fulfillment for each and every desire are calmly, silently waiting to be activated.

Hans Christian Andersen, of course, lived when this technical dream was only just dawning - or as Arnaud glibly puts it, on the cusp of the "romantic and the mechanistic;" indeed, Andersen visited Paris during the Exposition Universelle of 1867, one of the first of the great technological fairs to dazzle the world with visions of utopian advance (Verne wrote 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea after visiting it).  And LePage is quick to seize on the resonance of this moment, and incorporate it into his Project; his Andersen (again Yves Jacques) haunts the same neighborhoods his modern heroes do, over a century later.  Indeed, in a way he prefigures them; for Andersen was famous for fairy tales in which mermaids and match girls dreamt of transformation and deliverance; and he stood on the brink of a technical revolution which promised exactly the same thing.

Between the romantic and the mechanistic.
Thus the resonance of "The Dryad," the Andersen fairy tale which Frédéric is bent on transforming into a children's opera.  It's a typical Andersen story in many ways; a powerless female presence - here a dryad (that's a tree-nymph) imprisoned in a country chestnut - dreams of escaping her prison and achieving transfiguration by wandering the streets of Paris, whose lights she can just make out on the horizon of her meadow.  And as in much of Andersen, the dryad prays so intensely for her deliverance that it is granted- but at a terrible price: once freed, she will live only for an evening.

Which is when we recall that happy endings aren't always the norm in Andersen; the Little Match Girl, the Little Mermaid, and the Steadfast Tin Soldier all come to grief; and the little girl who dons the famous Red Shoes only frees herself of them by hacking off her ankles, while the little fir who dreams of being a Christmas tree ends up chopped into kindling and burnt alive.  Again and again, in the magical realms of Andersen, the will to personal enrichment and enhancement - the core promises of modernity - lead only to punishment and repentance.

But it's only gradually, as we watch The Andersen Project, that we realize similar disappointments are in store for its characters, too.  Frédéric is in Paris basically because he has been dazzled by it (just as the dryad was), and hopes its glory will validate him - only his opera will fail to materialize, and the romance he hopes to rekindle back at home will instead die out for good in his absence.  Meanwhile the life of his double, Arnaud, all but collapses as his wife leaves him for his best friend, and he sinks into a round of obsessive wanking in the city's peep shows (his trajectory is mirrored by a second fairy tale, Andersen's eerie tale of foreboding, "The Shadow").  Indeed, Andersen himself has a modern doppelgänger in the Moroccan immigrant Rashid, a street artist who mops down the booths that Arnaud frequents (that is when he isn't spray-painting Paris with his graffiti).

The parallels and mirrors hardly stop there; we're told that Andersen dotted his writings with little crucifixes, in much the same way that Rashid tags the blank page of Paris; only it's theorized that what Andersen may have been recording was actually his daily wanks (rather like Arnaud's self-administrations, which Rashid is paid to erase?) - or are Andersen's stories themselves a form of auto-erotica - like Rashid's graffiti?  We also recall that Andersen may have died a virgin - he was never able to consummate the sexual act (rather like Frédéric? rather like Arnaud?); indeed, it's probably worth noting that in the romantic scenes LePage conjures for Andersen (above left), women are depicted by mannikins - that is, by machines . . .

You may sense at this point the referential density of LePage's design, but believe me, there's more where this came from; indeed, I'm not sure there's a single line or image in The Andersen Project that doesn't refer to or echo something (or someone) else embedded elsewhere in the text.   As I said, of contemporary playwrights, I think only Kushner may be this densely self-referential (or this ambitious) - only LePage is far more unified than Kushner; indeed, as we watch The Andersen Project, we begin to sense LePage's various gambits coalescing into a single meditation on what you might call the 'problem' of the modern imagination.  Like Andersen's characters, we now enjoy new technological powers that reach far beyond the merely mortal; but again like them, once transfigured, we find ourselves abandoned to our dreams - and demons.

And there is, of course, another dimension to LePage's work which deserves mention here: the way in which he conjures a kind of "cinema" onstage - a technique which proves far more resonant in The Andersen Project than in any of the other pieces by this director I've so far encountered.

It makes sense, of course,  if you're going to make your "text" out of imagery, that you work in film or video rather than the theatre; yet film and video famously lack the sense of live presence that theatre bears in its bones.  Indeed, film directors must work overtime (with soundtracks, lighting, camera tricks, etc.) to simulate a sophisticated kind of dream-state for the cinematic audience to participate in, to sink into - indeed, without this subtle hypnosis, this complete identification, it's difficult for a viewer to even access the thematic content of a film.  (This is why straightforward films of stage productions never convey the excitement of the theatrical event; the content hasn't been massaged yet into a kind of directed dream.)

LePage wants things both ways, however; he wants to tell his story through imagery, and yet with the immediacy of live theatre.  And in The Andersen Project, I'd argue he largely succeeds in this contradictory aim; indeed, the sense that we are moving in and out of a "screen" - which itself edges towards us now and then throughout the show - is central to the cumulative effect of the work.  The screen in question is slightly curved, so that Yves Jacques can step directly "into" it at will (below); the effect is mysteriously cinematic and theatrical simultaneously; we sense the power of the dream, even as we remain apart from it.  The technique has a further thematic resonance - for in a way LePage's characters (like his audience) are now living their lives in separate, fantasized narratives, like so many interlocking movies (or booths).  Indeed, the director pushes things perhaps even a step farther at his finale, in which Frédéric appears both before us and on screen, like a giant ghost floating within the Palais Garnier, to tell us, it seems, of his own death by fire the night before.  But has he actually perished (like the dryad)?  Or has only his dream of himself finally died?  As the flames reach the ceiling of the opera, we realize we will have to decide this one for ourselves; neither the stage nor the screen can tell us.

Alone in the culture of Culture.