Thursday, May 31, 2012

Hanging "Fire" with Gil Rose and BMOP

Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project

It has been a tumultuous year for Gil Rose, founder and conductor of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, which two weekends ago (!) mounted a pleasing evening of classically-themed pieces collectively dubbed "Apollo's Fire."

Indeed, Rose may still be recovering from the closure of Opera Boston, which he had led until its untimely demise (under contested circumstances) last winter.  At least he landed on his feet, though - the hard-working, likable Rose quickly found another post, leading New Hampshire's Monadnock Music, and it was good to see that BMOP is still going strong - judging, at least, from this concert.

As usual, the evening was built  around a new (or newish) piece of music by an academic composer - this time Lewis Spratlan's Apollo and Daphne Variations (from 1987).   Spratlan was a fixture at Amherst for years, and like many other academic composers, he has a Pulitzer to his credit (for his opera Life is a Dream, which I believe dates from the late 70's but has only recently been staged).   And again like many academic composers, he is obviously a skilled and intelligent musician; the Apollo and Daphne Variations proved lushly - even brilliantly - orchestrated, and the piece covered a lot (and I mean a lot) of musical ground: ten central variations rubbed shoulders with a fugue and a panoply of different effects, most of them late (or post-) romantic, but others modernist, and some even atonal.

Still, the resulting mélange left you scratching your head; the basic (very basic) idea seemed to be that "Apollo and Daphne don't mix" which I suppose is true, but misses the breathlessly poignant drama of this particular myth.  In his notes Spratlan described his central theme as "vaguely in the style of Schumann," but the motif was only too recognizably a lift from the familiar "Traumereï," a piece with many traditional associations, but few that seem applicable to the myth of Apollo and Daphne. The mix of irony and grand tragedy that Spratlan's orchestration conjured likewise seemed - well, gorgeous but also oddly overbearing, and somehow beside the point.

But then the new music on a typical BMOP programs usually strikes me as an elaborate, over-considered misfire.  Indeed, I really go to BMOP to hear the old music, not the new stuff, because Rose often builds fascinating programs around his premiere (or near-premiere).  This time the musical framing was particularly strong - Stravinsky's Apollon musagète, the accompaniment for Balanchine's classic ballet, was the highlight, but the evening also featureda  strong reading of Nikos Skalkottas' Five Greek Dances (1936) and a more mixed take on Elliott Carter's The Minotaur (1947).

I don't know Skalkottas, but his Greek dances proved intriguing - pulsing and muscular, and played with dark energy by BMOP's secret weapon, their accomplished string section.  The Stravinsky was even better - "Apollo, Leader of the Muses" is a superb score, which I've never heard live without the accompanying Balanchine dance; this gave me a chance to appreciate its purely musical qualities, particularly its subtly growing rhythmic complexity (which is highly appropriate, given the ballet follows the wooing of Terpsichore, the muse of rhythm, by the eponymous god - who's really just a stand-in for Balanchine himself).

The only real disappointment on the program, actually, turned out to be the Carter; The Minotaur proved a bit of a mess.  Its greatest intrigue, I suppose, came from the glimpse it gave of a pre-modernist phase for this particular composer; The Minotaur is (like the Stravinsky) a story ballet, but it lacks Stravinsky's genius - or innate sense of structure (I'm afraid I'll always rank Carter, lovable as he is, in the second tier of composers).  As with the Spratlan, though, the orchestral color was always arresting, and when Carter dramatized sex with the man-bull, he did work up a frenzied lather of Harvard-Classics sex horror. The trouble was that sans any accompanying dance, the piece grows muddled (it's one dramatic effect after another), and while the BMOP string section sounded as strong as ever, the brass here was blaring and broad.  Oh, well.  For this listener, the Stravinsky, and even the Skalkottas, were worth the trip anyway.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The blogosphere in its purest form

Two future critics engage in a free exchange of ideas.  It's all about dialogue, after all.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

After the fall

Helen (Aimee Rose Ranger) faces down the Trojan Women.
To paraphrase Browning, a theatre's reach should exceed its grasp - so there's no shame, I think, in Whistler in the Dark's earnest, well-intentioned, but rather flat Trojan Women, which runs through this weekend at the Factory Theatre.  Indeed, those rare souls starved for a shot of Greek drama done Old School may want to seek out this depiction of the terrible plight of the survivors of Troy, even if it doesn't quite gel as tragedy; for it's intelligent and clearly spoken, and unadorned by intrusive concepts (well, mostly); and thus something of the blunt horror of war does come over from Euripides' spare, unsparing text (here in a solid, if not quite inspired, new version by Francis Blessington).

More experienced viewers, however, may sense that even when innocent blood is being spilled offstage, there's little blood on the floor, as it were, in this pleasingly direct, but rarely raw, rendering. Indeed, this production is about as far from the over-designed, overheated posturing of the last Euripides we saw in town (ASP's Medea) as you can get.  Here, under the direction of Benjamin Evett (himself late of ASP), the actors never strike arty poses, and don't have to compete with the lighting design, either: the set is spare, perhaps vaguely Middle-Eastern - it's mostly cushions on crates, around a central tent (basically what you could carry with you on a battle plain), and the audience is pulled right up into the action.  This may be wrong, actually, for Greek drama, which depends on distance for some of its effects - but at least it keeps the focus on the acting.

But ah, there's the rub - the acting here is thoughtful but uneven, or rather it lacks the maturity that such a stark rendering of The Trojan Women requires.  The pain of experience - much less trauma - is hard to conjure at close quarters unless you've lived through it yourself, and as is sometimes the case at Whistler, there's a whisper of the undergraduate theatre major in the air of this production, with young people straining to convey a sense of devastation that's alien to their own lives.

This issue is further complicated by director Evett's one misstep into "concept:" he has given all the major female roles but one (Hecuba) to a single actress, Aimee Rose Ranger.  Now Ms. Ranger is a very talented and beautiful performer, with considerable resources at her command - but let's just say playing Athena, Cassandra, Andromache and Helen in a single production might daunt even Meryl Streep.  What's more, Evett's conceptual gesture doesn't give us much to chew on beyond a kind of blunt "I'm Every Woman!" statement that we'd expect more from the likes of Helen Reddy or Whitney Houston than Euripides.

Ah, Euripides; let's talk about him a minute.  In his day this playwright played second fiddle to Sophocles and Aeschylus, but his work eventually became far more influential than theirs; indeed, Euripides is probably the source of the hybrid mode that flowered as "tragedy" in Shakespeare and elsewhere.   What's more, in his work women come into their own for the first time in the history of the stage (even if they were originally played by men). Indeed, Euripides, like Strindberg and many other male writers, is obviously obsessed with women, and in a peculiarly multi-valent way (he has been called "a misogynist feminist," which comes pretty close to nailing what one senses of his psychological affect).

The Trojan Women almost schematizes this contradiction - through his portraits of these refugees, Euripides boldly sketches the helplessness of women in the Greek state - particularly when subject to the cruelties of war; and what's more, he creates one of the first great galleries of feminine types, from the noble mother to the amoral temptress.  Yet the playwright also points the finger: his women should beware women, for they weep at the whim of Athena (who fought for the Greeks, even if at the moment they've pissed her off), and the source of all their suffering is the insufferable Helen, whose beauty burnt the topless towers of their city, but whom Euripides hints (and Homer confirms) will get off scot-free, as her beauty counts as the baseline for what attracts men (and hence trouble of all sorts) to women in the first place.

You can sense in this subtext what probably tempted Evett to his stunt casting; but in simple dramatic terms - judging from other productions I've seen - variety is the spice of Trojan Women - indeed, its climax (Helen's infuriating self-defense) burns brightest before her victims' seething hatred (which is hard to pull off when the same actress is playing almost all the roles!).  As Hecuba, Rosalind Thomas-Clark does her best to keep those home fires burning - and elsewhere she's a welcome source of believable age and experience - but there's a limit to what she can do.  Luckily Ranger is at her strongest as Helen (although I prefer a more vulpine reading of the role), and she makes an adequate Athena.  It's at the extremes of Euripides' feminine spectrum that she falters; Cassandra has already basically been driven mad by her powers of foresight, of course, but Andromache, too, should be pushed to the edge of a different derangement when the Greeks ruthlessly decide to murder her son (so he will never grow up to avenge Hector, his father - Euripides has few peers in the depiction of the brutal calculations of war).  But alas, at this point in her career, Ranger can't quite deliver either extreme.

There are other moments to savor in the production - Nathaniel Gundy gives Menelaus a crude spark, for instance; but the chorus (whose role is always a tricky proposition) feels underdeveloped, and frankly the pace is never, shall we say, too swift.  Chris Larson has contributed an intriguing sound design, however, and Emily Woods Hogue's costumes and PJ Strachman's lighting (as ever) are apt.  The general thoughtfulness of the artistic team probably makes this a worthwhile introduction to Euripides; but it's hardly the last word on either this playwright or his Women.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Watching the "Next Generation" at Boston Ballet

I'm late with several reviews - and one of those is the note I've been meaning to post for over a week regarding Boston Ballet's "Next Generation" performance, which occurred during the run of Fancy Free.

"Next Generation" is an annual showcase of the rising talent in the Boston Ballet School's pre-professional program, joined onstage by the dancers of Boston Ballet II, the company-within-a-company at the Ballet that serves as a bridge between the completion of schooling and a full-fledged professional career.  The evening is always a charming occasion, but it's all the more remarkable because the entire program is accompanied by the New England Conservatory Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Mark Churchill.  So not only are we watching the dancers of tomorrow, we're hearing the musicians of tomorrow as well.

Brittany Stone and Trevor Felixbrod in The Eighth Layer.
The program always opens with Les Passages, a pleasing promenade designed to highlight the progression of training, choreographed by the School's faculty (above).  The students were all delightful, of course, with a clean, consistent standard of focus in evidence everywhere.  My only thought was that the boys this year got the better choreography - a rambunctious suite of jumps that inevitably drew the loudest applause.  The same gap held true for the students' second appearances, in Alla Nikitina's "Dance of the Girls" and "Lesginka," both drawn from Georgian (as in Russian) folk motifs; the boys just got to do more.

The sexes were on more equal footing, however, in The Eighth Layer, a premiere by the Ballet's own Yury Yanowsky, featuring dancers from Boston Ballet II, and set to a new score commissioned from Berklee grad (and rising light in the world of film scoring) Lucas Vidal.  The dance proved something of a sensation; it was conceived as a meditation on "the relationship between space and energy"- which sounds, I know, like gassy nonsense - but it actually did evoke a sense of quarks popping in and out of some fluctuating quantum field, and thanks to the utter commitment of the Ballet II dancers, often crackled with visceral, athletic thrills.  Vidal's music - a more romantic variant of Philip Glass - was likewise seductively exciting.  The only problem with the piece, actually, was that it currently lacks a satisfying finish; but I'd be eager to see the Ballet stage it again, more fully, with perhaps an expanded score from Vidal, just to see how far its sparks can travel.

At the conclusion of the program, the Ballet II dancers mixed it up with the School's senior trainees in Balanchine's  Raymonda Variations, a pillar of purified classicism that's challenging for young dancers, but not too challenging.  The trainees made Balanchine's demanding corps work look easy, but Ballet II leads Lauren Herfindhal and Matthew Poppe stole the show all the same - especially Poppe, whose cabrioles (and particularly their landings) were things of limpid grace and beauty.

Lauren Herfindhal and Matthew Poppe in Raymonda Variations - Photos: Rosalie O'Connor
I can't close this notice, however, without taking special notice of the artists who were in the pit rather than on the stage. Under Mark Churchill's direction, the young musicians of the New England Conservatory Youth Philharmonic Orchestra were in startlingly strong form throughout the evening - indeed, through most of the performance they could have easily been mistaken for a professional orchestra (and concertmaster Momo Wong's solos were something spectacular).  Sometimes the future of the performing arts looks bright indeed, and "Next Generation" was just such an occasion.

Friday, May 25, 2012

How exactly did Terry Gilliam predict the Bush administration?

Late night YouTube surfing brought me unexpectedly to the opening sequences of Brazil, certainly one of the greatest movies of the last thirty years.  And I was shocked at how much more chilling I found it today than I did back in the day.  The prediction of the Bush administration's "War on Terror" is so exact in every detail - the compulsively consuming populace, the metastasized surveillance state, the terrorist threat whose real cause is denied, the technocrat dreaming he's a winged superhero - God, it's almost terrifying. Was any director ever more prescient than Terry Gilliam?  I doubt it.  The only thing that makes this film feel like a "fantasy" at all is the 1948-Orwellian production design.  If a remake were to replace all the ducts and typewriters with digital technology, Brazil would count as a documentary. Which struck me as a good message for Memorial Day weekend.  So go ahead, WTWT. Take a long look in the mirror.  It's on YouTube in its entirety.

Yes, I know, I know, this dumb white chick hates Shakespeare

Emer O'Toole, hirsute Shakespearean critic.
Everyone can stop sending me this link.  I cannot change what dumb white chicks think!  (Can anyone?)  This particular one, Emer O'Toole (above; she's best known in the UK for hairy pit advocacy) is getting her Ph.D. at the University of London, and you'd almost think she'd been punched out by a machine somewhere, she parrots the official line of her numbskull academic mentors with so little deviation from the mean.

Yes, for the record, after seeing a production at the (ongoing) World Shakespeare Festival, Emer has decided that The Comedy of Errors is not "a good play," indeed it's actually "a cadaver" (and she seems to think that Shakespeare, not Plautus, came up with the plot).  What's more, somehow she imagines her errors regarding Comedy mean that Shakespeare isn't "universal," at all, as so many misguided people claim. Indeed, Emer huffs about that supposed canard, "Universal my toe."

Now I suppose this assertion may be technically true, as Emer and her lower digits clearly don't "get" the Bard at all.  Indeed, they declare that he's "full of classism, sexism, racism and defunct social mores," and cite the usual evidence for this philistine crapola, "The Evil Jew," and "The Shaming of the Vagina Bearer," as O'Toole re-names the two plays in which Shakespeare openly trades in the prejudices of his day.  (That he transcends these attitudes over and over again elsewhere in the canon doesn't seem to have occurred to Emer or any of her digits, upper or lower.)

What's more, the reason so many people cling to the illusion of Shakespearean "universality," Emer asserts, is that they've been brainwashed by "colonialism." "Taught in schools and performed under the proscenium arches built where the British conquered, universal Shakespeare was both a beacon of the greatness of European civilisation and a gateway into that greatness – to know the bard was to be civilised. True story," she declares. Hence in our misbegotten opinions regarding Shakespeare we've all been seduced by the desire to pretend that "our culture is just a tad superior after all."

Wow, I guess that's why I just love kippers for breakfast - because the British do, and I've been brainwashed by their occupation of large swaths of Africa and Asia almost two centuries ago!

Only wait a minute - I think kippers are disgusting! Golly, what happened to me, Emer?  How did only part of my brain get rinsed by colonialism?

And btw, how were the Russians and the Germans brainwashed?  I mean, I don't think the British invaded and occupied them.  And what about Giuseppe Verdi?  He was attempting to convince his fellow Italians that British culture was superior when he penned Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff?  (And let's not talk about Boris Pasternak!)

And . . . hmmm . . . how do you explain the fact that I only slowly appreciated Shakespeare's greatness?  That my bardolatry only kicked in after exposure to truly great productions - that, in fact, I was never really convinced of Shakespeare's greatness by being force-fed him in the classroom at all?

See this is why I'm so passionate about the constant performance of the Bard, even though most productions of Shakespeare are terrible, frankly.  Nevertheless, I believe the only way into the Shakespearean mystery is in the playhouse - and you usually unlock the door to his riches only by accident.  The resonances, the intelligence, the seemingly bottomless depth - these cannot be explained to you, they have to occur to you, you have to discover them for yourself; somehow your subconscious decodes the secret password in performance, and then you're in.  The process is, in fact, the opposite of the kind of pedagogy that has hypnotized Emer and her ilk.

And once you're in, you can never get out, nor can you pretend that other authors who are far more politically correct could ever compete with the Bard.  I simply could never convince myself that Shakespeare was less than a transcendent genius, because almost everyone else seems thin by comparison.  What's more, I don't care if he shared the prejudices of his day, or even had some of his own.  I mean seriously - is Emer O'Toole fucking kidding?  She yanks this author out of his own life and times - ignoring his separation from a wife he probably no longer loved, and who may even have had children he doubted were his own, and then pretends he didn't live in a country where being Jewish was literally illegal - and where playwrights were sometimes jailed, tortured, or even killed - and then proceeds to cluck and wag the finger, and essentially self-fellate her academic ego.  Ugh!

What's more - although this may be a little too complicated for Emer to grasp - people who love Shakespeare generally do not believe that wives should be submissive to their husbands, or that Jews should be forcibly converted.  Just as we don't wander around in doublet and hose.  In fact - stranger still! - our love of Shakespeare generally maps to the opposite of these attitudes.  But how can that be, if Emer's theories are correct?

But of course they're not correct. Shakespeare's "universality" does not lie in the defunct social mores he has outlived (and that bug Emer), nor does reverence for his legacy mean his fans yearn for those mores to return.  Indeed, it's rather obvious that it's the subversive aspects of Shakespeare that have kept the canon relevant, not the superficial stuff that made it popular - and that kept its author out of prison, and alive.  For let's be honest - if Emer had had to face the kind of penalties Shakespeare would have been subject to for making the kind of political statements she today professes, she never would have gone as far as the Bard, methinks.

And let's be honest about another contradiction embedded in Emer's critique of "cultural imperialism."  She imagines that Shakespeare is oppressive - but compared to what, exactly?  What other "world culture" is superior in terms of human rights to the British tradition (fraught as its history may be)?  Does Emer feel the Bard is more sexist than, say, Indian culture?  Or Chinese culture?  Or African culture?

I guess I'm confused here.  Is Emer looking for more plays about the forced circumcision of girls, or maybe the murder of female babies?   Sorry, but give me The Taming of the Shrew any day.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

This is off topic, but is anyone else having trouble finding working Sovereign ATMs?

What I haven't seen in Boston lately.
A quick time-out for something completely different: has anyone else in the Boston area noticed that it's getting harder and harder to find a working Sovereign Bank ATM?

I'm a Sovereign Bank customer, and with my schedule, I usually find myself withdrawing about enough cash to last a week from an ATM sometime after normal business hours.  So I don't need an ATM all that often, but when I need cash, it's my only option.

And recently it has been harder and harder to find a working one.

Over the past few weeks, I have been frustrated by non-working Sovereign ATMs at the Boston Center for the Arts, at the Longwood Galleria, and in the Prudential Center.  Last week I discovered, as I dashed toward a restaurant one evening, that the Sovereign branch across from the Park Plaza only had a working ATM inside its locked lobby; the accessible one, mounted in its exterior wall, looked as if it had been broken for months, if not years.  And today I found that the Kenmore Square branch's lobby has a broken card reader, so I couldn't access that ATM, either.

Hmmm.  Does five broken ATMs constitute a pattern?  Does it constitute a conscious pattern?  I don't know, but I can say this - I haven't used a working Sovereign ATM in close to six weeks.  But rest assured, in each case I quickly found a nearby Bank of America ATM, but had to fork over $6 in fees to access my money - $3 to Bank of America, and $3 to Sovereign.

It occurs to me that this situation could amount to a tidy little revenue stream for this particular bank - it has already pocketed $15 of my money that it really has no right to have.  I admit I'm a little slow, but I'm beginning to think that if I don't find a working Sovereign ATM soon, it may be time to move my account someplace else.  Like even to Bank of America.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Anatomy of a Morris misfire

Pretty vacant: Mark Morris's Socrates
I've always been a fan of Mark Morris, so I was surprised as anyone that his big premieres at Celebrity Series last weekend proved so boring.  I was even more shocked, however, to read the praises heaped on them, particularly Socrates, the elaborate, exquisitely pretentious pantomime that concluded the program.  The gap between these kudos and Morris's actual achievement was all the more troubling because it reminded one how rarely actual criticism surfaces in dance reviewing (almost as rarely as it does in theatre reviewing!).  For the slow, onstage death of Socrates illuminated a central, critical issue in the Morris oeuvre  - and to pretend otherwise is to avoid any accurate insight into his work, and mistake what's truly great about this particular artist.

The first offerings of the evening - The Muir, set to ballads and folk songs arranged by none other than Beethoven, and Festival Dances, to a piano piece by Johann Hummel, were charming in their way, but also felt overly familiar from their opening steps - they were simply too much like many other Morris dances to make much of an impression.  Both were roundelays for several couples, romantic and ironic by turns, that floated between modes of balletic, modern, and folk dance.  They were subtle, wry, and definitely had their moments, but you could feel Morris treading water in them.

Then came Socrates, set to Erik Satie's un-categorizable Socrate (the composer himself called it a "symphonic drama in three parts," but it's obviously not a drama) - and I knew from the opening moments that Morris was in deep trouble.  He has claimed to have been drawn to the work for decades - and if so, this amounted to a kind of subconscious death wish; for Socrate is, rather obviously, precisely the kind of music to which Morris cannot choreograph.

But let me explain a bit more about Morris, Satie, and this particular piece.  Morris, as has been widely discussed, returns again and again to two deep sources of inspiration: his early training in communal (read: folk) dance, and his intuitive understanding (and adoration) of classical structure.  Community and structure; those are his pole stars.

But Satie's aesthetic was almost as far from this formulation as you can get - he was an eccentric kind of semi-recluse whose claim to fame rests on a series of deceptively simple (but deeply de-stabilizing) musical miniatures.  Although Satie wasn't "only" a composer; he was more like a kind of deadpan provocateur at large (for the record, he called himself a "gymnopedist," whatever that is).  Many classical music fans are unaware, for instance, that Satie mixed it up with both the Dadaists and the Surrealists, debated André Breton and Tristan Tzara, and helped Man Ray build his first readymade; he even composed a film score for René Clair.  He knew everyone and did everything, yet he almost seemed to wander through his career, a distant sort of melancholic isolate.

Socrate reflects this characteristic Satiean mood; it treats the philosopher's execution - one of the great tragedies of Western history - with a pellucid calm, and foregrounds the account of his death (from the Phaedo) with odd, alienated quotations from the Symposium and the Phaedrus.  In the first of these, Alcibiades (himself a figure of tragic complexity) compares Socrates to the satyr Marsyas, who was flayed alive by Apollo for the sin of pride in his musical ability (an eerie parallel to Socrates' own death, btw).  In the second episode, Socrates and Phaedrus visit the site of a notorious rape and murder (of Orithyia by Boreas, the north wind); but they only muse on how the scene of the crime is now graced with "shades and gentle breezes;" indeed, at the exact spot where the doomed girl was killed, they remark that "the little stream is delightfully clear and bright."

Clearly Satie was after something like the opposite of catharsis in Socrate; rather than the purgation of emotion, he seems to desire a kind of passage past it, to a realm utterly beyond it; he is considering Socrates' death in precisely the same way the philosopher himself mused on the death of Orithyia (actually, perhaps at an even greater emotional and intellectual distance).

David's The Death of Socrates
But from the first moments of Socrates, we sense Morris violating the composer's intents by instead whipping up a middlebrow weepie - albeit one of a suppressed, exquisitely rarefied type.  Satie insisted that the emotional color of his work was "white," perhaps even "white on white" - but Morris draws his palette almost directly from David's sentimentally noble Death of Socrates (above); indeed, the dancers flutter by in tunics and skirts (by Martin Pakledinaz) that could have been lifted directly from the painting.  Thus Satie's remote, ironic tranquility is immediately replaced by a delicate, busy prettiness.

Not that this is entirely alien to Satie; after all, Socrate itself is lovely, if repetitive; it's essentially a series of similar cadences, voiced with only the subtlest of differences, and the slightest variations in rhythm.  What's more, in the reduction of the score performed at Celebrity Series, the four voices of the original have been reduced to one, making the work "whiter" and more mono-tonic than ever.  But then it's clearly meant as a "clear and bright" musical stream, much like the literal stream running across poor Orithyia's deathbed.

And appropriately enough, Morris has lined up his dancers into flattened planes of movement (sometimes just a skipping kind of walk) that recall both ancient friezes and - particularly in the flutter of their skirts - the rippling surface of a brook.  So at first you think that perhaps Morris is simply going for a "clear and bright" choreographic stream to match Satie's.

But soon you can feel him groping for some sort of musical frame on which to drape his steps, and it just isn't there.  And that's bad news for Mark Morris.  For musical structure has always been the backbone of his greatest dances, from L'Allegro to V; the complexity of his accompaniment has been what granted him depth and resonance, as his steps and gestures went through the subtle repetitions and variations of the music.  Indeed, I've often said that if you want to truly understand how a particular piece is put together, how it builds, you have to watch a Morris dance set to it.

The flip side of this, however, has always been that without a helping hand from his composer, Morris can get simplistic and obvious; sometimes he has even resorted to sign language to get his point across. Indeed, perhaps because of his unconscious grounding in folk dance, he seems unable to build abstract dance structures, as Balanchine did; and he has never managed the kind of conceptual contradictions that are the M.O. of people like Jiří Kylián.  To be blunt, Morris has always been a kind of choreographic slave - if not to the literal rhythm, like Grace Jones, then to the structural rhythms of his music.

But Satie was careful to eliminate almost all traces of structure from Socrate; it simply has no architecture.  So Morris works hard against the tiny cross-currents in its beats, and occasionally almost conjures some choreographic interest from them. Almost.  But elsewhere he's reduced to pantomime to get through his "story" (making this perhaps his first "story ballet"); or he attempts to float big, squashed, symbolic patterns (for "dialectic!" and "self-knowledge!") that roll past us like posters.  Worst of all, as is his wont, Morris makes everything a group effort; the stage is crowded, and there seem to be multiple Socrateses and Phaedri; indeed, when the great philosopher swallows his hemlock, everybody dies, dropping gracefully to the floor like so many artfully choreographed Attic flies.

And it's poignant, all right - it's just completely wrong.  And misses entirely the true point of Socrate - which is a coolly gnomic vision of the ironic outcome of tragedy.  Not that many of the work's reviewers have picked up on that; indeed, most made remarks along the lines of "It's impossible to watch this without crying!" (An impressively block-headed response.)  Sigh.  I admit I'm almost more irritated with Morris's reviewers here than I am with Morris himself; I've often seen actors drawn inexorably to roles that would prove their undoing, so in a way I think of Socrate as an accident just waiting to happen.  It's the cluelessness of these critics that bugs me.  To them, the simple prettiness of Morris's effects, and the way they're attached to earnest intellectual intents, counts as "success" enough.

And it didn't help that for once even the musical - or at least the vocal - performances were weak at Celebrity Series.   Socrate was written mostly for mezzos, but is sometimes sung by tenors, as it was here - only singer Michael Kelly didn't have the full range of the piece at his command, and had to scrape through the upper notes in falsetto.  There were weak vocals earlier in the program, too; the ensemble for The Muir simply didn't have the power for a space the size of the Cutler Majestic.  Fortunately the instrumentalists were quite a bit better, particularly pianist Colin Fowler.  But Socrate seemed a little beyond everybody else's grasp, both onstage and off.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Life on the Street with Avenue Q

John Ambrosino, Davron S. Monroe, and Erica Spyres with Princeton and Kate Monster. Photos: Mark S. Howard
People are always asking me, "So what's the best show in town, Mr. Hub Review?" And sometimes the answer is hard, but sometimes it's easy - as it is right now: the best show in town is Avenue Q at the Lyric Stage (through June 24).

There are other fun musicals up at rival houses, I admit, but the source material of Avenue Q is probably a bit stronger than that of those other contenders - plus there's a tight match between its demands and the Lyric Stage's particular strengths.  For artistic director Spiro Veloudos has always been at his best in knowing, wise-acre comedy, and he's basically in clover - or at least yards and yards of felt - with Avenue Q, the cute/raunchy spoof-tribute to Sesame Street, in which sweet Muppet knock-offs teach us a few more (ahem) adult lessons about, well, life on the actual street.

For the millennials who land on Avenue Q discover that life, love, and everything else is a whole lot more complicated than Grover and Big Bird made it sound back in the day (even if at the Lyric, designer Kathryn Kawecki's "Avenue Q" is a dead ringer for their old PBS hangout) .  Indeed, these twenty-somethings wonder aloud (in song), "What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?," and after taking a few hard knocks (poor "Princeton" gets downsized before he's even hired) move on to such even-harder truths as "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist."  A few slowly edge out of the closet; others take the big step toward real commitment; still others come to terms with their "otherness" in a variety of ways.

John Ambrosino and Phil Tayler as Rod and Nicky
In short, they grow up, just as they did on that other Street - indeed, the show is essentially a sweet meditation on living and learning during those oft-troubled years of postgraduate funk, when everyone sometimes thinks "It Sucks to be Me," but slowly learns the importance of (yes) sharing. And if it's occasionally kinda raunchy, that's also part of the joke (but don't take the kids, unless you want to find yourself explaining just what, precisely, those puppets were doing doggie-style).

And the Lyric gets it all exactly right, with confidently bold (but not too broad) puppetry, strong voices, heartfelt performances, and a breezy tone and pace that map perfectly to the patter songs of Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, and the clever book by the oh-so-appropriately-named Jeff Whitty.

The stand-outs of the cast are probably the sweet, poised Erica Spyres (who voices both the lovelorn Kate Monster and the love-addicted Lucy the Slut) and the versatile Phil Tayler, who as the Trekkie Monster is as incandescent here as he was in Floyd Collins just a few weeks ago.  But frankly the cast is bursting with talent: John Ambrosino makes both a wry Princeton and a believably conflicted Rod (who kicks his best friend Nicky out of the apartment just because he can tell Rod's gay).  And there are even more sparkling performances rounding out the cast - Jenna Lea Scott made an amusingly gonzo Christmas Eve (the local therapist who can't hang onto a client), while Davron S. Monroe gave just the right knowing spin to "Gary Coleman," who in one of the show's meta-flourishes, is still hanging out on a kiddie show (just now as the building super).  Meanwhile, in supporting roles, Elise Arsenault and Harry McEnerny V did their best to steal the limelight whenever they got the chance.  Not that there were many chances; for whether built of flesh and blood or felt and fur, the denizens of Avenue Q proved one of the tightest ensembles of the season.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The invariable Emmanuel Ax

The man himself.

There's just something comforting about Emmanel Ax (above); he is invariably modest in demeanor, but brilliant in accomplishment (a combination that is becoming rare indeed, and not just in the concert hall).  There's very little prickliness to his persona, either - he seems blissfully non-neurotic and demon-free.  His relationship with the audience is perhaps slightly diffident - he's a little shy - but it's also quietly, unassumingly inviting.  He is on stage to deliver on a legacy he reveres; we're there to appreciate it, and that's all.  But isn't that enough?

Well, it seemed like more than enough last Friday, when he kept a nearly sold-out Jordan Hall enraptured throughout his Celebrity Series appearance.  The program was Herculean, among the most technically challenging piano programs I've heard in years - indeed, as a feat of muscle memory it was almost unbelievable, and yet it never played as a mere display of technical prowess; instead, it functioned as a kind of essay on (or even tour of) the changing meanings of technique across several musical eras.

Ax hopped around between those eras, however, opening with Aaron Copland's notorious Piano Variations from 1930 (which Leonard Bernstein sometimes joked were all you needed to empty out a room).  In their harshly chiming, Here-Come-the-Modernists! astringency, these sound a bit dated now, I think; Nadia Boulanger's fingerprints are all over them, and their severe, self-flattering heroism has begun to ring a bit hollow (part of the problem is that even though they're variations, they don't vary much).  I admit they're of historical importance, and Ax played them with just the right level of cool, percussive attack, but in the end I'm glad Copland left this stuff in the dust.

At this point, as if to underline the fact that he's able to play anything in its appropriate style, Ax leapt back in time over a century to Haydn's Andante with Variations in F Minor.  Here Ax's touch magically became late-classical; poised, but with more pleasing elegance, and a touch of mournfulness, but only a touch - although some claim the work's coda is an unspoken elegy to Mozart, Ax kept the tears in check.

Indeed, if there was a criticism to be made of the program, it might be that the potential emotional development of works like Haydn's simply wasn't Ax's focus; he was more interested in these pieces as eloquent explorations of the possibilities of "variation" per se (each "varied" differently).  Thus he was at his most impressive in the next two challenges, Beethoven's Variations and Fugue in E-Flat Major (the "Eroica Variations") and Schumann's titanic Études en forme de variations, Op. 13 (widely known as the"Symphonic Études").

The Eroica Variations intrigue because they expand the idea of lateral variation to the nth degree while hardly varying harmonically - and Ax threw himself into the contrapuntal complexity of it all with obvious brio (the concluding fugue was particularly thrilling).  But perhaps Schumann's Études were even better.  There were a few missed notes here and there, I suppose, but  then this is a virtual mountain range for the keyboard.  Yes, it's called "symphonic" for a reason; several of the variations explicitly mimic different forms of orchestral color, and Ax seemed to capture them all.  And he built thrillingly to the commanding finish, in which Schumann pushes his central "love" theme (borrowed from the father of a girl he was briefly interested in) to a level of elaborate grandeur perhaps never bested on any other single instrument.

This performance brought the crowd to its feet, but Ax still had energy left for two quick encores, from Liszt and Chopin; these were plusher and more intimately lyrical than anything that had come before - a perfectly contrasting aperitif to what had been a sumptuous musical banquet.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Footloose and Fancy Free at Boston Ballet

James Whiteside, Paul Craig and Isaac Akiba kick up their heels in Fancy Free.  Photos: Gene Schiavone.
It's actually rare that a Boston Ballet program doesn't hang together thematically, but, well, the current Fancy Free (through this weekend at the Opera House) lives up to its moniker; it's a little bit of this, and little bit of that, thrown together fancy-free; most of it's good, some of it's great, and some of it kind of misfires.  You leave it happy, but a little confused.

But that's okay - there's certainly no confusion about the fact that we've been overdue to see Fancy Free, the seminal Jerome Robbins/Leonard Bernstein portrait of three sailors on leave that became the springboard for On the Town (and its subsequent Hollywood incarnation with Gene Kelly), which has long since worked its way into the national consciousness as a central cultural trope of World War II - even though ironically enough, the Jewish Robbins and Bernstein (Robbins was born Rabinowitz), both avoided military service during the fight against the Nazis.

Other ironies cling to Fancy Free; it was inspired by gay artist Paul Cadmus' notorious The Fleet's In! (below), a painting funded by the WPA which had to be withdrawn from public view due to the apparent sexual aggression of its subjects (who, it seems, swing both ways - note the sailors sprawled together on the left).  The gay Robbins, who was far more determined than the bisexual Bernstein to keep himself in the closet, quietly deleted the work's homosexual subtext, however, explaining some years later that "I wanted to show that the boys in the service are healthy, vital boys: there is nothing sordid or morbid about them."

Okay, count me in as sordid and morbid - and the long arc of The Fleet's In! is probably an archetype of how art is processed into pop in this country; but, you know - whatever. At any rate, Robbins left the hetero-sexual harassment angle in, that's for sure (although even this was toned down over time, until in the Gene Kelly vehicle it's actually the women who are the happy aggressors).

The Fleet's In! by the openly gay Paul Cadmus
On its own terms, of course, Fancy Free remains a lark that still spreads bold wings against a dark, empty sky; to the tune of Bernstein's structured "jazz," Robbins' boys fight as much as they flirt, and they float in a kind of desolate urban void, seemingly populated only by the occasional lonely woman (and a bartender straight outta Edward Hopper).

On opening night, this trio included two of the Ballet's strongest athletes, Isaac Akiba and James Whiteside, who were hanging with the up-and-coming Paul Craig (at top).  Akiba channeled his usual eagerness to dazzle into a galvanizing solo, nailing the work's most difficult moment (multiple tours that fall into full splits).  Whiteside, meanwhile, was slyer - one brow was always cocked, the other eye always winking - and delivered a witty, booty-shaking turn as the little clique's class clown.  But Craig was the surprise, once again displaying a smooth technique and a subtler set of acting chops than most dancers his age; his sailor was the guarded, knowing romantic, the guy who might be able to offer a girl more than a five-minute roll in the hay.  As said girls, the reliable Erica Cornejo and Kathleen Breen Combes lit up the stage with fire and smarts, respectively, before they finally fled their uncontrollable suitors - and another up-and-comer, Brittany Summer, then made hilarious comic hay out of a cameo as their next target.

From Barber Violin Concerto
The rest of the program intermittently held to this high standard.  In the evening's first offering, in fact, Peter Martins' Barber Violin Concerto, the dancers themselves were superb, it was the work itself that seemed slight.  Martins offers two couples, one apparently "classic" (she's in toe shoes), the other "modern" (he's bare-chested, both are bare-footed) who first have their own variations, then switch partners, to the accompaniment of Barber's lovely, vaguely modernist concerto.

The idea seems to be a dryly affectionate parody of the conflicted intersection of the modern and the classic; over the course of the dance, the ballerina lets down her hair (!), while the "modern" woman does everything she can to distract her calm, classical consort.  This isn't quite enough to fuel an entire dance, though (it ends suddenly), and several gambits play a bit oddly (or ironically?) against the smooth lyricism of the Barber - still, the work often has a pleasing grace.  Lia Cirio and Pavel Gurevich (at right) were appropriately elegant and remote as the classicists, while Yury Yanowsky and Sylvia Deaton threw sparks as the brutal modernists.  Deaton, who has long lit up the corps and small featured roles, proved a particularly appealing free spirit - she grabbed her big chance with both hands, in a night of young turks taking turns in the spotlight, and perhaps made the biggest splash of all.

Silhouettes from Études 
If the Martins seemed only lightly connected to the Robbins, however, the concluding dance, Harald Lander's Études (to an elaborate orchestration of Czerny's familiar piano exercises) felt like a puzzling non sequitur.  Perhaps the idea was to focus on the corps itself after so many cameos by its former denizens; I don't know.  The idea of the piece is clearly to build from simple exercises to ever-grander choreographic structures, in what can only be called coordinated group solos.  This has some formal interest, I admit - it's at its most effective at its most mechanical, in a few silhouetted sections (at left).  But the development gets repetitive, and at times seems like a big in-joke on what some people think of as "ballet" (you know the type - the ones who insist on an elaborate descriptive vocabulary in French).

And in the end, there's only reason to program Études, and that is if you've got a company that works like clockwork.  And alas, as deep as the Ballet's bench currently is, at least on opening night there were a few slips, both from the corps and the soloists. Still, as the Ballerina with a capital B, Misa Kuranaga was her usual perfect self, and Jeffrey Cirio and Paulo Arrais, the company's current junior stars, wrapped things up with a dazzling technical duel.  It got so competitive, in fact, that Arrais wobbled at one point - but I may have preferred that moment of real, human drama to the some of the robotic virtuosity that had come before.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

This is like shooting fish in a barrel . . .

But here's another hilarious Romney lie making the rounds - a pink flyer handed out at 2002 Gay Pride, offering then-gubernatorial candidate Mitt Romney's wishes for a "Great Pride Weekend!" and asserting that "All citizens deserve equal rights, regardless of their sexual preference."

Ah, well!  That was then, this is now . . .

Sometimes "interesting failures" are still just failures . . .

The crazy kids of Assassins
Ah, the "interesting failure."  Every major theatrical artist has one, even Shakespeare - and Stephen Sondheim has a couple - among which Assassins, from 1990, has always been particularly prominent.  I think there's just something so outré about the concept of this revue (I guess it's a revue) that it has exerted a kind of siren call over the musical theatre even though - well, by now we know it really doesn't work.  I mean a musical about assassins?? That's got to be interesting, right?  Well, it failed interestingly at its premiere, and then it failed a little less interestingly in a New York revival, too.  It likewise failed - perhaps even less interestingly - in several regional productions.  And now it has failed again, exuding only a mild level of interest, in a production by the BU School of Theatre, under the direction of Jim Petosa, which closed last weekend.  (I know, another post-mortem - but I'm almost caught up.)

Not that Petosa didn't work hard - he discarded the original "Step right up and shoot the President!" staging, opting instead for a hopeless, breadline-in-the-Great-Recession mise en en scène that relied on a bullet-riddled American flag out of Jasper Johns (or maybe Nashville), and hinted that the show's assassins were being drawn right up out of the audience (i.e., the Masses).  These were good ideas, but they didn't, finally, do much good; I think at this point we can safely say that Assassins is, indeed, a failure, and it's pretty obvious why: its concept may be "interesting," but it only works as an excuse for Stephen Sondheim to stretch out in a number of savage parodies (Marvin Hamlisch is neatly skewered in "Everybody's Got the Right," for instance).  But this invitation to misanthropic indulgence only yields maybe two numbers that can stand up to the rest of the Sondheim canon, and in the meantime, dramatically - whoo-boy, is Assassins ever a mess.

There are so many things wrong with it, in fact, that it's hard for a critic to decide where to begin; which mistake is the central one?  The show is like a sprawling network of dramaturgical error.  But what leaps out at you from the history books, of course, is that America's assassins simply share no connecting thread; they don't have a communal "history," much less a "concept;" so when they speak to each other across the historical ether, as they constantly do in Assassins, there isn't really that much for them to talk about.  John Wilkes Booth, for instance, was a successful, famous actor who led a racist conspiracy.  But Squeaky Fromme was a pathetic lowlife who managed to consistently skirt a laundry list of crimes of really appalling sadism and squalor.  Other killers were loners deranged by obvious mental, or even physical, demons, and a few could be loosely grouped as avatars of the downtrodden immigrants of the late nineteenth century.  And of course Lee Harvey Oswald was a self-destructive cipher who may - or may not - have been the patsy of a kind of coup, but who certainly never communed with Booth on any assassins' astral plane, as posited here.

Although frankly, if librettist John Weidman's concept is a mess, then Petosa's is also a little murky.  We get the vague idea that the whole production is intended to help us "understand" the potential assassins now obviously lurking in the Tea Party.  But sorry, I'm still unsympathetic;  I'm just not the type to confuse patronization with fellow feeling. And frankly, I don't even think the nutty Tea Partiers are desperately seeking celebrity; theirs is simply an evil mix of racism and ignorance, with little of the need for personal validation which is the closest Sondheim & Co. ever come to a psychological explanation for their singing shooting gallery.

This is all too bad, really, because the kids at BU did give these killers their, um, best shot, and a few scenes, particularly those between the gonzo Melissa Carter and Casey Tucker (as Sara Jane Moore and Squeaky Fromme) kind of worked.  Elsewhere the singing is stronger than the acting, but things never really bog down, they just never come together, either.  Evan Gambardella does throw off a weird kind of pseudo-innocent energy as both the "Balladeer" and Lee Harvey Oswald, and John Zdrojeski, as John Hinckley, hints at dramatic potential the role doesn't allow him to access.  The rest of the cast is more scattershot, although everyone hits the bulls-eye here and there.  Still, is that enough to float another production of Assassins?  I talked briefly with director Jim Petosa about this after the show, and he argued that academic resources are better spent re-evaluating intriguingly troubled shows than in simply mounting sparkling new productions of the tried-and-true.  Well - maybe.  You might answer that with the observation that until a student triumphs in a true classic, he or she has no yardstick of actual success. Of course there's surely room for both options in any curriculum, I think - but in the meantime, can we please put a bullet in Assassins for good?

Lost on the Camino Real with Beau Jest.
But alas, the BU Theatre Department hasn't been the only local troupe sipping the "interesting failure" Kool-Aid of late. Across town, at the indomitable Charlestown Working Theater, the widely-respected Beau Jest is currently (no, this is not a post-mortem, it runs through next weekend) attempting to revive Ten Blocks on the Camino Real, the one-act source of perhaps Tennessee Williams' most legendary Broadway bomb, Camino Real.

Beau Jest had a hit last year with another Williams one-act, the much-later Remarkable Rooming House of Madame LeMonde; but this time around, I'm afraid they only manage to confirm that Ten Blocks is an artistic traffic jam of truly epic proportions. And I mean truly EPIC proportions; this thing makes Assassins look coherent.

The scuttlebutt on the full-length version's Broadway failure has always been that director Elia Kazan forced Williams' fantasia into a naturalistic straitjacket. Having now sat through the (abbreviated) first version, I can only say I kind of admire Kazan for at least trying to wrestle this embarrassment into some kind of shape (Beau Jest just lets the pieces fall where they may). It's essentially a pretentious pastiche in which Williams' usual hobbyhorses - the stud vs. the seductress, the wisdom of the fallen queen, and of course "life" vs. "death"- all meet in a kind of car crash on some cosmic Latin highway. There are a few poetic stretches, to be sure, along with a tone of amusingly deadpan political horror. There's atmospheric Day-of-the-Dead accompaniment from a live trio that sometimes helps paste things together.  But I'm afraid even when something works, it doesn't work for very long.

The Beau Jest version, directed by Davis Robinson, is nevertheless funkily likable, even though it doesn't come close to getting the dramatic job done. The basic problem is that these folks are essentially very smart comedians - so they nail the droll asides that Williams often wickedly slips into, but can't really convey at all the "wild and moving" sense of dramatic freedom the playwright thought he was unleashing. Gypsies re-growing their maidenheads as they dance wildly in the moonlight, death as a form of orgasm - sorry, much as I love 'em, this just ain't Beau Jest; imagine the Flight of the Conchords trying to do Blood Wedding and you've got roughly the situation here. As expected, the comic scenes - particularly an amusing shakedown by the local fortune teller - worked best; the orgasmic flights toward inevitable Death, less so. And then there were the ridiculous interpolations from Cervantes, Proust, and others (Don Quixote AND the Baron de Charlus both wander through!); Beau Jest offered a weak smile here at the playwright's own pretensions (Williams is hardly on a par with either writer), but couldn't make much more of these interludes.

Oh, well. I suppose I'm glad that I've seen this rarity, but I can't honestly say I'd willingly sit through it again. And perhaps it's time we began to formulate a critical approach - or even a mode of intervention - toward the temptations of the "interesting failure." A first precept might be to resist the illusion that audiences of the past were necessarily philistines (and at any rate, let's face it, even philistines sometimes have a point). The second might be to question the true "interest"of a failure that only rehashes, or just plain hashes, elements which reach obvious fruition - or at least balance - in an artist's other, successful works (as is the case with Ten Blocks). I mean, is it so "interesting" to discover that a particular gambit works in one way, but not another? Perhaps to an academic  - but rarely to an audience.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The usual suspects, or "No Room for Honesty"

Perhaps you can't evict it, but some Boston theatre people would like to co-op it.
You may have heard this already, but I felt I should announce it on the blog: actor Danny Bryck has refused the financial support I offered him to develop No Room for Wishing, the solo piece on the Occupy Boston movement that he is currently developing. This is too bad, of course, in and of itself - I'm sure Danny could have used the cash; but what's most troubling about it is the fact that he was pressured into returning the money by his collaborators in the theatre community.

Yes, you read that right - although I wasn't that surprised to hear the news.  Before I made the announcement of the award, in fact, I mused to Danny that I wondered if it was best to make my support public at all; I sensed that it could unleash a toxic mix of envy, frustrated malice, and phony political rectitude in quite a few of the dimmer players around town.  BUT, I basically believe in transparency - and while I was sure many of my enemies on the scene would be quite discomfited by the news, I didn't really think they would victimize another actor in a misguided attempt to get back at me.

But, guess what - that is what they did.  Danny won't name names regarding those who pressured him - although when you discover the identity of his current director, and at which theatre companies she has worked, you can probably come up with a short list of the usual suspects yourself.

Well, so Danny is out a thousand bucks - and I'm a thousand dollars richer!  Which is kind of nice, I must admit.  Danny, who twisted back and forth on this decision until frankly I got tired of hearing about it, suggested that an "elegant solution" to this "dilemma" would be to donate the money to Occupy Boston.  Only I don't really see it that way - I don't see any dilemma, and at any rate I've already given a good deal of money to Occupy; and wouldn't such a donation send the wrong message by only compounding the irony of his situation?  I mean, how could his collaborators be okay with Danny giving up the donation, but the movement keeping it?   (It would seem that if you're actually against me, then you're against everything I stand for - right?)

Ah, but there's the rub.  Many of the people on my personal short list of perps have long told themselves that I opposed their work because of my supposedly reactionary political views, or because I'm racist, or sexist or whatever.  Yawn.  This is a handy psychological dodge - an elegant way to avoid awareness that you're just not that good at theatre, while congratulating yourself on your politics, and I've seen it practiced often. No one who actually knows me imagines I'm racist or sexist, of course, and my support for Occupy Boston places me quite a bit further to the left of many in the theatre community.  Indeed, my frequent presence at Dewey Square last fall sets me apart, I 'd bet, from Danny's testy collaborators (I rarely saw any theatre people other than Danny down at Occupy).  So in this situation you can clearly limn the outlines of a very embarrassing spectacle in which theatre people who weren't actually at the protest try to lay claim to its goals, while shunning someone who was really there.  In short, Danny's collaborators are violating every principle Occupy ever stood for, all while attempting to wrap themselves in its mantle.

This, of course, is disgusting, but again - hardly unexpected, given whom we're probably talking about.  It's also somewhat pathetic in its incoherence and lack of impact.  Danny's show will go on, of course (he'll just be a little poorer), and in the meantime I'll be looking for other theatres in town to donate the money to.

Only this time I've learned my lesson - no more transparency.  The theatre community obviously can't handle the truth.  The IRNE critics will know of my donations, of course, but to all you "idealists" out there, who imagine you are so courageously battling the forces of evil, I'm keeping them completely confidential.

A post-mortem on Boeing, Boeing at Trinity Rep

Amanda Dolan, Rebecca Gibel and Liz Dolan are flying the 60's dream down at Trinity.
Time has not been kind to the sex comedy - and it has been particularly harsh to those dinner-theatre romps of the 60's and 70's, like No Sex, Please, We're British, which once roamed the theatrical landscape like naughty mastodons before slowly creaking to a halt, and then seemingly going completely extinct.

Or so we've always told ourselves.

And yet Alan Ayckbourn, who basically crosses this kind of thing with Chekhov, has enjoyed a wide revival in recent years.  And it's impossible not to remark on the similarity of the empowered, woo-hooing twenty-something gal-about-town of today, wobbling through her ritual bar crawl on Saturday night, with the Playboy-Advisor fantasies of yesteryear.

Yes, face it.  Our children are now living the dinner theatre sex comedy we used to watch.

So it's no surprise that Marc Camoletti's Boeing, Boeing, a classic of the genre, has bounced back onto the professional stage - first in London, the homeland of Benny Hill, where a spring of good-natured prurience is forever on tap, and then on Broadway, in a much-lauded vehicle for Mark Rylance and Christine Baranski, and then at Trinity Rep down in Providence, where a broad, brightly-colored rendition packed in happy crowds till last weekend.  (Alas, this is a post-mortem - I thought the show had one more week to go!)

Well, what can I say.  What do I have to say?  History has caught up with the transgressions of this particular farce and surpassed them with such force that now the whole thing seems a little sweet.  Or at least its structure - a model of its kind, and quite a bit tighter than most Feydeau (its major source) - seems almost quaint in its craftsmanship.

You can probably work out the plot just from the title - and frankly, you're always at least a step, if not a whole time zone, ahead of the story - but we'll give you the recap anyway.  In Boeing, Boeing, the masculine dream of polygamous bliss is briefly floated in the person of one Bernard (Joe Wilson, Jr.), a Parisian architect who, thanks to his knowledge of the international flight schedule, is juggling three buxom fiancées simultaneously (each a stewardess - NOT a "flight attendant" - from a different country, to enable all manner of obvious, Gallic jokes about stereotypical national character).  Robert happily explains all this to his amazed buddy, the visiting, virginal American-in-Paris Robert (Stephen Thorne), who - guess what! - soon gets mixed up in the shenanigans.  Because (surprise!) after a snafu in the flight schedules, all the girls show up at Robert's apartment at once!  So it turns into a kind of giant sex terminal, with bedrooms and bubble baths behind every slamming door - as long as the girls don't bump into each other (oh no)!

Stephen Thorne and Rebecca Gibel compare wardrobes.
Yes, before there was Grindr, there was the Boeing 707, only that earlier app came tricked out with all manner of bourgeois romantic conventions (note the "fiancée" gambit) - hence the opportunity for farce, which is always about the pressure of instinctive human desire against the strictures of social convention.  Although fear not, my settled suburban friends, Boeing, Boeing in the end is hopelessly square - at the finish, the last door is firmly slammed on the sexual id, the morality of monogamy is explicitly confirmed, and everyone ends up with the girl (or guy) who's "right" for them.  (This I guess is where the nostalgia part kicks in.)

But in the meantime, under the direction of canny ringmaster Fred Sullivan, Jr. (who I think may have been born to direct this play), the frisky circus at Trinity spun amusingly before it finally wobbled to an exhausted stop (although at times, to tell true, it seemed almost too much of a good thing).  Patrick Lynch's sleekly modern set, all in bold, primary colors - like those airline uniforms - wittily channeled the 60's (Boeing flew for seven years in "Swinging" London) while somehow honoring the clean mechanics of the script itself.  Meanwhile (speaking of structure) William Lane's underwired costumes were half sitcom-French, half hydraulic-marvel - all the bosoms and bums were practically confrontational. But my heartiest kudos had to go to sound designer Peter Sasha Hurowitz - I mean you have to love any production that features go-go in cages and Nancy Sinatra in French.

Nance Williamson gives a classic double take.
Of course none of this could have worked without a hard-working cast that was in just the right mood, and mode, for Camoletti's antics - and rest assured, everything here was executed in the patented high-energy Trinity style.  There was one strange stillness at the eye of the hurricane - Joe Wilson, Jr. seemed a bit lost as Bernard (he only came to a life in his occasional broader-than-broad schtick), which just struck me as odd; can't Wilson do "suave"?  Luckily Stephen Thorne,  in perfect physical-comedy form, picked up the slack as his clueless straight man (another staple of Gallic farce), who desperately kept trying to hold the whole whirligig together for his buddy.

He was more than matched, however, by Rebecca Gibel's squealing American vixen, Gloria, who probably delivered the most bodaciously randy female performance I've ever seen - at one point she was actually blissfully rubbing her bottom across a love seat, and her flight-bag-as-vagina gambit was pretty unforgettable.  (Oh, before you point the finger, you feminist blowhards you, be aware that Gloria turns out to be just as sexually empowered as Robert - she's got a "fiancée" in every port, too.)  I was also quite taken with Amanda Dolan's neurotically growling Gretchen (she's German, so she's a kind of highly-strung SS commandant).  Alas, like Wilson, Liz Morgan didn't give Gabriella, the tempestuous Italian, much in the way of inner intrigue - but she's such a stunning stage presence you didn't really mind.  And I have to also give a tip of my beret to Nance Williamson (above) who made witty hay of Berthe, Robert's maid (and second sidekick), whose blasé demeanor disguised a despairing existentialist.  Sigh - if you're a fan of mild titillation and tight comic construction, then I'm afraid you missed it - but perhaps with a little luck, Trinity will bring the whole crew back for a return flight.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Looking back at Euridice at Boston Baroque

Owen Willetts sings and suffers in Orfeo ed Euridice.
Over the past few years, Martin Pearlman's Boston Baroque has developed its own rather unique approach to baroque opera.  Usually working in the same constrained space (Jordan Hall) as the more historically-minded Boston Early Music Festival, Boston Baroque has pursued an intriguing amalgam of the modern and the period; generally this has meant modern costume and dance, coupled with "originalist" instruments and vocals.  This contrast might bother a purist, I suppose; but Pearlman has usually turned to choreographers, such as Marjorie Folkman (late of the Mark Morris Dance Group), with a natural sympathy for baroque style and form.

For Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, however, (which closed last weekend), Pearlman went instead with dancemaker Gianni Di Marco, whose work is less historically minded than Folkman's, but also larger in vision and (I'd argue) dramatically responsive, even inspired - it mapped beautifully to David Gateley's subtle stage direction, making this perhaps the most aesthetically coherent opera production I've yet seen from Pearlman's group.

This would have been good news enough, but the production had another secret weapon - the Boston (and, I think, American) debut of British countertenor Owen Willetts, who has been a big noise in Europe for some time, and practically shook the rafters at Jordan Hall with what amounted to a mezzo of stunning, indeed almost clarion, power.  At times you can feel that Willetts is turning inward to focus entirely on exactly how he's producing a voice this size - indeed, his thin frame seems to almost tense with every aria; but actually, this often helped with a dramatic performance that was appropriately intense and stricken, and you didn't mind the occasional "gap" in his acting because his vocals were so transfixing. Willett's voice doesn't boast just size, but also a rich, deep color that's rare in countertenors, and which as the grieving Orfeo he tinged with a melting poignancy.   Willetts is truly something to hear, and let's hope we hear him again soon.

His only real vocal competition (at least in terms of sheer force) was the chorus, actually  - which sang with beautiful focus and an eloquent attack, btw  (and was imaginatively blocked by director Gateley).  But for the record, local favorite Mary Wilson proved a luminous Euridice - whose second death was quite heartbreaking - and soprano Courtney Huffman made a delightfully nimble and boyish "Amor" (who in this version revives Euridice at the finale, just because otherwise the story is way too sad!).

For the opera buff, the production was intriguing in yet another way - Pearlman had returned to Gluck's original version, in Italian, which was stripped of much of the ballet music which encrusted it in its later, French incarnation.  The results were, indeed, pleasingly swift and dramatically focused - with my favorite sequence, the chorus's rebuke of Orfeo at the gates of Hell,  here a particular delight.  But there's still a lot of dance even in the original, so it was good to have Di Marco on board; his evocation of the Elysian Fields was especially lyrical and moving, and several scenes featured exceptional work from leading lady Ruth Bronwen Whitney.  Later, as Orfeo and Euridice creep up from Hades, Di Marco conjured an even more inspired pas de deux which developed cleverly from the requirement that the two lovers never meet each other's gaze; here the haunted, uncomprehending Whitney was sensitively supported by partner Henoch Spinola.

So - to recap: this production included some of the best singing and definitely the best dancing and staging we've yet seen at Boston Baroque; but how was the orchestra?  Pretty damn fine too - although the horns scraped alarmingly in the opening sections, they seemed to quickly right themselves, and the rest of the orchestra was transporting, particularly harpist Barbara Peschl-Edrich, who on a tricky period harp evoked Orfeo's lyre with an exquisite delicacy.  Altogether, this was quite the night to remember at Boston Baroque.  I'm not sure how they'll top it, but here's hoping they do.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Okay, we now know that Mitt Romney has terrorized gay kids, blind people, and even his own dog

Why . . . so . . . serious?  Meet the Joker.

I'm not really sure what else we need to know about Mitt Romney.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Quick Take: Fresh Ink's Trog and Clay

I owe at least a short nod to Fresh Ink Theatre's Trog and Clay (An Imagined History of the Electric Chair), by up-and-coming playwright and screenwriter Michael Vukadinovich.

Fresh Ink was launched by several local playwrights to get their work produced, and so deserves our interest and support.  If Boston is ever to become nationally recognized as a theatre town, it needs more home-grown playwrights (and preferably some operating outside the naturalist precincts of the Huntington and BU).

So I was happy to see that "naturalism" is pretty much totally eschewed by author Vukadinovich (a great character name right there, if you ask me) - but I couldn't say the playwright has found his own voice yet, either.  Trog and Clay plays like a smart piece of ventriloquy, with the ironic voices coming from the likes of E.L. Doctorow and T. Coraghessan Boyle, while the dramaturgy channels current strains of free-form millennial whimsy.

Still, Vukadinovich has been inspired by a morbidly intriguing chapter of American history: the ghoulish birth of the electric chair, which gestated during an ongoing battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse over whether the nation as a whole would go AC or DC (insert sniggering joke here).  The playwright loosely follows the case of the first man to be electrocuted (on alternating current), one William Kemmler, but embroiders this pathetic perp's grim story with an improbable intrigue tying him to Westinghouse, as well as a vaguely structured "vaudeville," if you will, starring the eponymous tramps Trog and Clay, who earn their daily bread capturing stray dogs for Edison to test his electrodes on.

I know.  Ugh.  Still, Vukadnovich has his macabre points to make regarding capital punishment (and the stray dogs of our own species who usually become its victims) - he just makes those points a bit heavy-handedly, and the broad acting style encouraged by director Lizette M. Morris does him no favors.  Still, as Trog and Clay, Cameron Beaty Gosselin and Louise Hamill have their moments, and several of the blackly comic asides are quite funny.  The production gets a boost in power from Tim Boland's evocative lighting, and definitely throws off sparks in its final, appalling scene of execution.  (Although the death endured by the actual Kemmler, who survived in the chair for several minutes, is even more gruesome than what is rendered here.)  Through Saturday evening at the Factory Theatre.

The trouble with Troilus

No, it's not Les Miz, it's more like Les Troyz. Photo(s): Stratton McCrady
Of all Shakespeare's "problem" plays, none may be more problematic than Troilus and Cressida.  For in it, the Bard awkwardly yokes together a savage parody of the Iliad with a poignant, but derivative, romance  (the inconstant Cressida does not appear in Homer, or anywhere else in Attic literature; she is a medieval invention).

The tone of the resulting amalgam has puzzled readers from the start - indeed, the Quarto edition of the text decided it was "history," while the Folio deemed it "tragedy" (even though many today consider it a peculiar kind of pitch-black comedy).  Compounding the confusion was the fact that it seems Shakespeare's troupe never produced Troilus and Cressida; so even though its performance history has slowly burgeoned (and even ballooned in the past few decades), it may be true that it was always intended for the page rather than the stage.

Which may give you some sense of the basic problem with this problem play: Troilus and Cressida is a travesty, yes, of Homeric heroics; but it is an elaborate,  subtle travesty - indeed, some critics have called it Shakespeare's most sophisticated creation (I wouldn't go that far, but it's definitely up there).  And the tension between the Bard's extremely dark themes and his exquisitely discriminating tone has thrown many a production into chaos (in fact I've never seen this play quite work), as it does the current version by the Actors' Shakespeare Project (at the Modern Theatre through May 20).

It probably didn't help that this Troilus was directed by Tina Packer, the widely lauded founder of Shakespeare and Co., which has long been known for its hearty brand of Shakespearean brio.  And while I won't deny Packer's productions have often packed a punch, her forte has always been rollicking, even gonzo, comedy; no one ever called the lady subtle - and they're certainly not going to start now.  Not after this.  For Packer has pounded Troilus and Cressida down into a really complicated, but essentially simplistic, screed against war - which it isn't, not really (in fact not at all, not at all).

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Little Shop, re-planted and in bloom

Bill Mootos has a gas as Blake Pfeil looks on.  Photos: Andrew Brilliant.

When it comes to Little Shop of Horrors, the doo-wop musical based on the cult Roger Corman film of the same name, I've always felt something like what the show's characters evince toward "Audrey II," the blood-thirsty plant at the center of the show's action: I'm not really sure how or why it ever came to exist.

But then in a way, the sheer improbability of its existence is its raison d'être; in fact librettist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken sometimes opined that they were purposefully looking for the strangest source material available when they decided to adapt it.  And even for the early days of quirk, they hit solid cult gold with Little Shop, which tells the strange tale of sad-sack florist assistant Seymour, his winsome lady love, Audrey, and her sadistic dentist boyfriend, along with Seymour's man-eating alien plant, Audrey II - who eventually grows to the size of a house and devours the entire cast.

Should Obama have come out of the closet for gay marriage?

My gut tells me "no," because I feel his re-election is absolutely crucial for the future of the country. Although perhaps I should really say, "if the country is to have a future;" I'm not at all sure we can survive a resurgent Republican party with a smarmy milquetoast like Mitt Romney in the White House.  And therefore I worry over any fresh ammunition the Tea Party crazies have to hand.

But, my gut could be wrong.  Certainly this keeps Obama on the moral high ground, and of course on the right side of history.  Let's just hope we can make it safely through November . . . .

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Handel and Haydn crown Wakim

George II at his coronation, for which Handel composed Zadok the Priest
The weekend before last (yes, I'm that late with this!) the Handel and Haydn Society had almost everything required for a grand concert - in fact the program was bursting with some of choral music's greatest hits (with something by Handel and something by Haydn; Mozart was also along for the ride).  What's more, the program, dubbed "Coronation," boasted a loose kind of theme, if you will; proclamations of benevolent power were to be heard over and over again, in various keys and modes.

There was only one thing missing.

A soprano.

For Rosemary Joshua, the concert's headliner, had dropped out of the concert only nine days earlier.   But luckily the Society could turn to its own secret weapon, soprano Teresa Wakim (below), who has long sung as a featured soloist in the Society's chorale.  Knowing that she had to come back a star, this chorus girl stepped calmly and confidently into Joshua's shoes for Mozart's famous Exsultate, jubilate, K. 165, as well as the Mass in C Major, K. 317 ("Coronation").  And she left the stage crowned, I think, an audience favorite.