Thursday, June 28, 2012

Gloucester gets back to the Garden

Steven Barkhimer, Richard Snee, and Barlow Adamson search for pussy up in Gloucester.
Just in case you can't quite limn the theme of Round and Round the Garden, the last round of Alan Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests (and also the final leg of what amounts to a triple crown for Gloucester Stage, where it runs through this weekend), the playwright spells it out for you in a joke straight out of the middle-school playground - or maybe some James Bond extravaganza.

For when we first meet the benighted men of Ayckbourn's sardonic roundelay, they're actually out among the flower beds of the title, forlornly calling, "Pussy?  Pusss-ssyyyy . . ? Pussy!"

Yes, they're looking for pussy - and having a damned hard time finding any (the thin excuse for their antics is that the local cat is up a tree).  Their helpless consternation serves as the motor of Ayckbourn's comic action - which follows, once again, the pathetic search for - well, you-know-what - by unlikely lothario Norman (Steven Barkhimer), who is desperate to bed his wife's sister, her brother's wife, or even his own spouse.  All these campaigns (even the marital one) fail epically, of course - as they've foundered in the previous two installments of Ayckbourn's triptych (which all follow the same events, during the same weekend, from different parts of the same house).  The difference this time, however, is the way Ayckbourn subtly shifts his focus from the eponymous Norman to his eponymous Conquests - and what an unflattering light he generally sheds on them.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Rembrandt was really good, and other things I learned from Kenwood House

Detail from Rembrandt's 1665 Portrait of the Artist.
I spent the weekend down in Houston, sweltering in 99-degree heat, doing (happy) family stuff, escaping only long enough to drop by Houston's Museum of Fine Arts to catch a touring show from London's Kenwood House, which has long been the home of an extraordinary collection of 17th and 18th century portraiture.  Above is a detail from one of the collection's treasures, a late (and great) Rembrandt self-portrait, but the show was full of other wonders; almost all its highlights are on tour, in fact, to pay for a major renovation of the house itself (only its Vermeer, The Guitar Player, and Holbein the Younger's (probably) Sir Thomas More, were considered too precious to leave the country).

In Boston, this show would have been a blockbuster - if it only it had come here!  (Instead of Rembrandt, Van Dyck, and Hals, we're contemplating Alex Katz this summer - uh, no offense.)  Down in Houston, however, the galleries were empty, even on a Saturday afternoon (a wonderful argument against cultural literacy, if you ask me), so I was able to spend a good deal of quality time, practically undisturbed, with several of my favorite artists.

Pieter van den Broecke, by Franz Hals
It was a little dizzying at times.  Rembrandt's dawning dismay was heartbreaking enough, but it literally rubbed shoulders with Hals' valiant portrait of Pieter van den Broecke (at left), a merchant-adventurer who was reportedly "the first Dutchman to taste coffee," and who drew from Hals one of his most poignant portraits of jauntiness undercut by experience.

But wait, there was more (much more) - two major van Dycks, one of Gainsborough's best (Mary, Countess Howe), and a slew of masterworks by Reynolds, Romney and Raeburn.  (The Reynolds group included a particularly wonderful self-portrait that seemed to channel Chardin from across the Channel.)  What was most striking about the installation was how elegantly it made what amounted to a worthy, if familiar, curatorial argument: the connections between the portrait traditions of Britain and the Low Countries - with the Flemish van Dyck as the explicit bridge between the two - were quite clear, and quite fascinating.

Sigh.  Most of these paintings have never been seen in America before, but they'll only be visiting Houston, Little Rock, Milwaukee, and Seattle, for reasons unknown (only the Rembrandt touched down briefly in New York).  My advice, however, is that if you're visiting any of those distant burgs, you should set aside an afternoon to tour Kenwood House.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Say hello to this Dolly!

Jacquelyn Piro Donovan leads the singing waiters in the title tune.

Slowly, up in Beverly, a small theatrical renaissance has been going on at the North Shore Music Theatre.  As loyal readers may recall, the nonprofit company which had built an audience there over several decades suddenly collapsed as the economy went bust in 2008, and for a time it looked as if the property might be sold, and the theatre even demolished.

But improbably enough, theatrical entrepreneur Bill Hanney rescued the facility in 2010, and re-opened it (even more improbably) as a for-profit musical theatre and concert venue.  Past subscribers - who had been burnt by the previous regime - were nevertheless leery of returning, and the first few productions were a little threadbare, it's true.  And it didn't help that the Globe's Ed Siegel, for reasons that I think will forever remain mysterious to everyone but him, tried to bury the theatrical fledgling with a bizarre hatchet job.  (I guess he was hoping the theatre would become another anonymous office park.)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

This is, like, chilling

You may have already heard of young Emily White, who has quickly become the poster girl for clueless millennial cultural destruction.  But if you haven't, you may want to peruse her narcissistic NPR blog post on how she has never paid for music, so like, why should she start now???  All she wants is a  digital catalog of everything ever recorded, that she can access at will, and at a price she determines (but one, you sense, that is very close to zero, as that seems to be all she has paid for the 11,000 songs she has in her library so far).  Is that too much to ask?

Whew. Emily's "whatever" shrug is beautiful, really, in something like the same way the open jaws and blank eyes of an oncoming shark are.  (She shares the same purity of purpose, and the same simple, satisfied self-regard.)  And though we're quite used by now to the economic plight of musicians, don't imagine that Emily's consumption habits won't soon be the norm for books, articles, movies -indeed anything that is recorded in any medium.

But she does remind me that what we often think of as theatre's great handicap in the digital age - that it's hard to record its essence, that it is essentially evanescent, that you have to be there to experience it - is, in some ways, a blessing in disguise.  Theatre never depended on the business model that, for a time, so wildly expanded the music business (which is itself slowly being battered back into a dependence on live gigs for its very survival).  Not that this model is a particularly healthy one - but at least Google and Microsoft aren't bleeding it dry.  Although rest assured, I'm sure someone like Emily is dreaming of a way to destroy it, too.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Easy Marxmanship

I know, I know. Criticizing Bill Marx is like shooting fish in a barrel. But sometimes I just can't resist.

Bill has always been under the delusion that he writes trenchant, incisive criticism. If only. I grant you he's pretty good at literary criticism, but less good at theatre criticism, and basically an ignoramus at everything else. I guess in his brain he imagines that his ongoing resuscitation of various crippled critiques of capitalist culture from the mid-twentieth century counts as "incisive." Again, if only.

And as for using "the point of his pen, not the feather" (a favorite quote of his from Swift) - well, somehow when the going gets rough, Mr. Marx always goes missing; he has managed to tiptoe almost entirely around the ongoing intellectual debacle at the A.R.T., for instance.  He was also bamboozled by the devious guilty-white-chick dramaturg Ilana Brownstein (late of the Huntington, now at Company One), who lured him for a time into lame attempts to puff up the intellectual profile of Shawn Whats-his-Face of the same theatre (I still get a chuckle out of Shawn's attempt at a "Judicial Review" essay). And we won't even go into the Arts Fuse's anonymously-sourced paeans to the (now debunked) Matter Pollocks.  Fortunately these days, we don't really hear that much from Bill at all (he recently wrote something incisive about Cirque du Soleil, I think.)

In short, Bill is all hat, and no cattle, as they say down in Texas. And he's sporting quite the chapeau today, as he once again intones that “Criticism should not read as if it had been written by a publicist.”

Uh-huh.  Sure, fine.  I couldn't agree more; I've often said much the same thing myself.  But let's just see how closely the Arts Fuse, which Bill edits, follows this dictum.

Oh, who am I kidding.  You don't have to look far to find P.R. in its purest form on the Arts Fuse.  One recent review described SpeakEasy's Xanadu as "a totally rad entertainment experience . . . an effervescent jukebox musical spoof that brings smiles to every face and glow sticks to every hand." Okay - now you publicists, stay away from that quote, you hear me?  Because that's NOT publicity! No sir, no way, no how!

But wait, theres more non-PR where that came from: Little Shop of Horrors was "vibrantly entertaining . . . Shakespeare might have written this story with an eye to pleasing the groundlings . . . my twelve-year-old daughter has seen and loved the show."

Oddly, there are a few moments when the PR on the Arts Fuse does, indeed, feel like clueless non-PR, as when one critic said of Woody Sez: "expansively competent . . . [its] music appeals to the average person."  (The 30's got a truly bizarre plug, too: "The thirties were famous for the Depression . . . and the Dust Bowl."  Really?)

Wait - the Arts Fuse critics do take out the long knives on occasion, as when they cut up Cupcake, a teensy little gay revue at Club Cafe: "I missed the two ingredients that transform a work of convincing craft into a work of convincing art: surprise and surprise’s twin brother, leaps of the imagination," the Fuse suddenly fumed. "Is the cupcake-baker straight or is he gay? Does he have a legal permit to sell his cakes? These are the basic questions Cupcake raises. Now I grant it’s all done charmingly. But does celebrating “all that is summer and fun” excuse all that is omitted here? If you are the type of theatergoer who yearns for a more engaging, more honest take on Provincetown in summer and on the high drama of ANY relationship—straight or gay—this musical will leave you full but not filled."

Seriously. Xanadu - good.  Cupcake - bad.  Because it didn't "transform a work of convincing craft into a work of convincing art."


What is there to say?  How can Marx keep imagining he's putting out Partisan Review, when more often than not he's thrashing around well below the level of the Globe? And as for PR - well, honestly, it seems PR calls the Arts Fuse home, until suddenly - usually when the artists in question have no connections - it doesn't.  I'm not sure what Jonathan Swift would have to say about that.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Obscured by sun

Gabriela Martinez
"Headshots" (as photographic portraits of performers are known the world over) are designed to enhance physical strengths - and conceal physical flaws.  In the case of Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Martinez, however, there just aren't that many flaws to conceal, so the photographer's job is all but done for him.  Yes, that's really her, caught candidly at left: blonde, beautiful, statuesque, and with a smile bright as a flashbulb - with that kind of physical presence, a performer has the audience in the palm of her hand the moment she steps onto a stage.

As this rising star did from the start of her concert last weekend, at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival in the (equally) gorgeous Shalin Liu Hall (see masthead above). The pianist dared to play with the hall's shades up behind her, so that she was competing with the slow sunset unfolding over Sandy Bay.  But then again, Martinez probably knew she could hold her own against it.

How strange, though, to discover that her actual playing belied the shining candor of her looks (indeed, her physical presence may contradict her artistic one).  For Ms. Martinez is a serious technician - perhaps an overly serious one (and not, apparently, a free or happy one).  She had chosen an intriguing and challenging program, studded with such concert rarities as two of Rachmaninoff's six Moments Musicaux, as well as Karol Szymanowski's even lesser-known Variations in B-flat Minor, Op. 3 (I've never even heard Szymanowski in the concert hall).  There was Beethoven, it's true, but it was a curiosity: the self-consciously whimsical (yes, whimsical) Seven Bagatelles (Op. 33); the concert concluded with its only warhorse, Schumann's Carnaval (Op. 9).  It was a program that all but cried out to be read as some kind of statement (a self-aware strain ran through the choice of composers) - but what sort of statement was it?  I'm afraid this remained unclear until the encore (Anton Rubinstein's Romance).

Martinez's selections from Rachmaninoff's Moments (she played the first and fourth) are generally considered showpieces (the first derives from Schubert, the fourth from Chopin), but they didn't really sparkle here; indeed, more often than not the contrasts between their musical sources felt a little murky.  Martinez tended to over-scale her playing for a hall as intimate as the Shalin Liu, and her touch, though sometimes sensitively plush, also had a weight that turned some clusters of notes into clots.  Indeed, I sensed over and over again the kind of mental concentration from Martinez that a performer turns to when the muscle memory isn't quite there yet - when the notes aren't "under the fingers," as musicians like to say.

The pianist herself wasn't too happy with how the Rachmaninoff came off, you could tell - she let out a tell-tale shrug as she finally lifted her fingers from the keyboard.  But the Beethoven went better, even though her emphasis on the piece's sweet galumph, with its poignant, almost tragic sense of caprice (given the composer had lost more than half his hearing when he began it), sometimes felt over-studied.  And the Szymanowski was stronger still, particularly in its brooding opening; I wondered whether this wintry Pole might be this summery Venezuelan's true artistic soulmate.  The impression was only strengthened by her take on Carnaval, Schumann's long, densely-but-brilliantly programmed evocation of a masked ball; Martinez scaled it as an epic, almost jagged march - she became so absorbed in its complexity and abrupt technical shifts that she lost all sense that it's supposed to be a party.  Oh, well; the crowd loved it anyway.  And I finally felt in her encore that I caught a glimpse of what Martinez, in the end, may be all about; Romance was completely "beneath her fingers," and her heavy, but velvety, touch perfectly matched its thoughtful, sorrowful sonority.  I somehow have the feeling that the sunny Ms. Martinez may be most inspired by musical clouds.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Any idea how much money theatres waste on glossy, full-color brochures?

I got two of these mailers just yesterday from local theatres. Full-color, stapled booklets, with images "bleeding" off the edge - basically the most expensive thing you can print. One of them was sixteen pages long.  (My partner generally gets a copy of whatever I get, too, so that's four of them on the kitchen table, if anyone's counting.)  I won't mention who sent them, because everybody with a sizable budget sends them.

I'm just wondering how much money is going down the drain along with them.

Everyone thought that with the rise of the Web, transactions would become more and more paperless. Bills of all kinds certainly have, along with various tickets and other cash transactions. But somehow subscription advertisements, and just general get-out-the-word announcements, haven't. In fact they seem to have gone more paper-ful, if that's a word.  I could line a bookshelf with the full-color brochures I get in the mail every year, and that's not counting all the postcards and flyers.  It's an avalanche.

Perhaps they're cost-effective; indeed, market theory would insist they must be.  Handling print is just more seductive than scanning a screen, after all.  And we know most subscription audiences map toward the elderly, who aren't always computer-literate or screen-savvy.

Still, I wonder.  You could pay for a lot of actors, dancers and musicians with what it costs to put together a full-color, sixteen-page brochure (since most of these arts groups are non-profit, the mailing costs are minimal, but surely the design, distribution and printing charges are high).  Various people have railed quite a bit about the way marketing staffs and real estate have gobbled up money that might have gone as wages to artists, but so far I've never heard of anyone attacking this expense - or even attempt to reduce it.  Surely some current subscribers could be wooed with online blandishments - and surely the audience target could be reduced in other ways (I, for instance, really don't need to be tossing so much stuff into the recycling bin).

Just a thought.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Castle Perilous

Allyn Burrows and Melis Aker in I Capture the Castle.
Theatre people are always singing the praises of taking a risk.  Risk, risk, risk.  It's all about risk!

But there's nothing more painful than watching a large number of talented people take a big risk that doesn't pan out.  And I'm afraid that is basically what has happened up at Stoneham with I Capture the Castle (through Sunday only)  The cast is talented, the set impressive (and expensive!), the costumes and lighting evocative.  Even the music is memorable. But the play - adapted by Dodie Smith (of 101 Dalmations fame) from her own 1948 novel - is simply too flawed for anybody to put over, and there's something almost painfully Sisyphean about this talented crew's attempt to get the show moving.

In the end, artistic director Weylin Symes really should have been able to predict this, but I can also see how he might been blinded by the poetry of Smith's prose. This kind of bewitching romance held the British in its sway for much of the first half of the twentieth century: a hybrid of the pastoral and the gothic, it was basically a feminine coming-of-age story, yet also traded in benign fantasy and "fancy" - its characters encountered full moons, ruins, and crashing waves with astonishing regularity (often on midsummer eve or Hallowe'en), and were often quite sure they must have seen spirits or sprites, to boot.  The genre probably reached its fullest flowering in a charming handful of Michael Powell movies, but the novel I Capture the Castle is a pretty good avatar of the form, this time genially cut with a Shavian bemusement regarding bohemianism and social class.

Melis Aker as Cassandra
But you can't really power a play on atmosphere alone, and that's all Smith's got; she wrote several other fairly successful scripts, but I can't imagine how, her dramaturgical powers seem so puny.  Indeed, Smith is unable to structure even a single solid scene (nobody at Stoneham gets one); she telegraphs shifts in mood, and notional conflicts, directly (some confrontations are simply narrated by the heroine, who of course wants to be an author, at left), and shuffles her large cast back and forth at will, pushing characters through unlikely emotional hoops with little rhyme or reason.

So it's hard to care in the end who will capture this castle  (the play is about two poor British girls living with their lovably artsy family in a rustic ruin, which two rich, eligible American boys inherit - I think you can do the rest, and probably better than Dodie Smith could).  But everyone at Stoneham works so hard at being lovable - and Smith is, occasionally, quite witty - that the show is sometimes charming (if faintly so).  Local star Marianna Bassham, deploying a smoky alto that would have done Tallulah Bankhead proud, has the most fun with the trenchantly ditzy opinions of Topaz, the artist's model who now plays stepmother to the Disney-esque brood of James Mortmain (an intriguing Allyn Burrows), a once-great author now lost in the doldrums of writer's block.  Yes, "Topaz Mortmain" - this kind of play always features that kind of name, along with tongue-twisters from Greek mythology, so people often stumble over lines like "I never loved Melpomene, Ariadne, but I'm mad for Euterpe!"

Oh, well; I was glad to watch many of the actors Stoneham has assembled for this extravaganza, even if I winced at their lines.  It's been far too long since I saw the lovely Philana Mia, for instance - who really should be playing some Shakespearean heroine somewhere - but she was more than matched by newcomer Melis Aker (a senior at Tufts), who brought a rosy, vulnerable intelligence to Our Narrator, "Cassandra" (but who didn't quite limn the painful arc of her romantic experience, I'm afraid).  Alas, the girls' suitors were less compelling - Dan Whelton and Michael Underhill have given striking performances elsewhere, so I didn't understand quite why they failed to channel the vibrant American glamour Smith clearly intended.  But almost everyone else was in clover with the author's gallery of eccentrics, so I'll just list them all - Bernie Baldassaro, Charlotte Anne Dore, John Geoffrion, Joey Heyworth, Sarah Jones, Gerard Slattery, Meredith Stypinski, Sheriden Thomas, I wish you'd had a better play to be in.  Still, you couldn't wish for a better set to be in: Richard Chambers constructed an actual turret on the stage of Stoneham.  Maybe they can store it somewhere and bring it back if somebody else ever captures this Castle in a more stage-worthy play.

Friday, June 8, 2012

A classic classic at the Huntington

Waterston and Amato arm for their next lovers' quarrel. Photo(s): Paul Marotta.

If you haven't noticed (and why should you have?), the debate over new plays vs. classics has once again coughed to life in the blogosphere.  Of course the usual suspects (i.e., under-talented climbers) have piped up with the familiar arguments against producing the great plays - when, as everyone knows, their actual argument is that if classics once again are allowed pride of place on the stage, young playwrights will be forced to reckon with their standard (which is something they quite desperately do not want to do).

But don't worry - I'm not about to make an argument in favor of the classic theatre; instead I'm going to let the Huntington's current production of Noël Coward's Private Lives make it for me. Just see it and you'll understand what I mean; the heady buzz that it leaves the audience in tells you that a classic done right is its own argument - indeed, it simply levels the opposition.

But before you speed-dial Parabasis, I don't mean by this that theatres should abandon new work (far from it!).  The Huntington does both, after all (The Luck of the Irish was their most recent new-play success), and while artistic director Peter DuBois seems, well, disinterested in the classics, he has been careful to hire great outside directors to carry on that half of his theatre's mandate.  Hence we have recently enjoyed unforgettable productions of plays like Candide and All My Sons.

Perhaps somewhere DuBois understands that without the frame of the classics, new work has no context, or rather its context becomes television (which may be why so many new plays have begun to resemble cable).  Indeed, context is part of the reason classics continue to be central to every other art form; symphony orchestras, for instance, play Beethoven and Mozart because they define the reach - and limits - of their medium (at least so far).  When an orchestra launches into Beethoven, it is in effect stating "This is what we're aiming for; this what it's all about; this is what you can do with an orchestra." When a ballet company takes the stage in Balanchine, it is making the same kind of declaration. Theatres should do classic plays for precisely the same reason - and what's more, new playwrights should welcome the challenge and inspiration they provide.

Now mind you - after all those claims, I'm going to have to admit that Private Lives isn't actually a great classic; it's a minor classic (if a highly entertaining one).  And this isn't even quite a great production - it's only a very, very good production; and oddly, one that doesn't attempt to "re-invent" or "update" the text, but plays everything absolutely straight; in other words, this is a classic version of a classic. And yet everyone is celebrating!  It has critics doing handsprings, and on opening night, people were as bubbly as the champagne flowing through half the show as they surged into the night after the final curtain.  That's how powerful classics - even minor ones - can truly be.

The originals in the original production.
Although okay, I admit it - I do adore Private Lives.  Coward churned out many plays, songs, and entertainments over the course of his life - some of them only serviceable, some of them even dross, but a handful that may well live forever - or at any rate deserve to.  And Private Lives is one of those happy few.

Like most of classic Coward, it's a confession disguised as a cabaret act; and it is immortal because almost unconsciously, beneath all the sparkling quips and flip bon mots, the author reveals more than he ever meant to about his own heart - and certain conditions plaguing it that are probably universal.  He himself, of course, played lead Elyot Chase in the 1930 premiere, opposite muse Gertrude Lawrence as Amanda (he directed as well, and cast a rising young actor named Laurence Olivier as Amanda's new husband, Victor).  You get some idea of how perfectly matched Coward and Lawrence were as the warring old flames at the center of Coward's comedy from the following legend: when Lawrence first read the play, she immediately cabled "There's nothing wrong with it that can't be fixed!"  Coward cabled back at once that her own performance was the only thing that he thought would need fixing.

Ever since, Private Lives has been catnip to actors, but few have captured precisely the elusive chemistry that Coward and Lawrence brought to the roles.  And at the Huntington, I'm afraid, the trend still holds true: James Waterston (yes, son of Sam) is obviously miscast as Elyot; he lacks the sense of cheeky chic, the easy gloss of fabulousness, that we expect of a Coward hero.  Plus he seems heterosexual, when of course Coward was one of those male orchids of the 20's and 30's (Cary Grant was another) whose allure seemed to soar onto some higher plane, and make questions of ultimate orientation irrelevant (Lawrence had something of the same aura, and let's not get started on Olivier!).

Luckily, however, Waterston is a smart and accomplished actor, and he makes the wit work in his own appealingly spoiled way - and he makes us believe (and this is crucial) that arch as he may be, his love for Amanda is real.  And at any rate, his costar supplies enough luxe for both of them; Bianca Amato (at right) is practically the perfect Amanda - très amusante and yet a little world-weary too; more self-aware than Elyot but also more impulsive and exasperating; with a streak of the gamine in her soul, and a hint of boyishness as well (which would, in a more perfect world, balance Elyot's feminine hauteur).  What's more, she warbles (and Charlestons) like a dream.  I've seen several Lives - and one that cohered slightly more than this one, with both a brighter gleam and deeper shadows, too; but I've never seen a better Amanda, and I don't expect to; Amato is Amanda.

Together these two - with the help of director Maria Aitken (who herself once played Amanda) - exquisitely limn Coward's great theme (almost his only theme); the folly of living for, and to, the siren call of infatuation.  Elyot and Amanda are the type who can neither live with nor without each other; already divorced, we bump into them when they bump into each other, on their respective honeymoons with innocent new spouses.  Needless to say, their spark is rekindled (for who else could be more attractive?), they ditch the new bride and groom, and the rest of the play follows their impulsively renewed affair as it flares brightly, in a cocoon of delicious intimacy, then eventually (and inevitably) crashes and burns.

But before Coward lets you wag the finger, he brings those conventional, outraged spouses onto the scene, to play out their own emotional arc (from which, as usual for this playwright, the heroes simply escape again).  The joke, of course, is that this proves what is true of Elyot and Amanda is true, to some degree, of everybody; but the surprise here is how complex at least one of these figures becomes.  Autumn Hurlbert is perfectly good as the chirpy Sibyl, Elyot's spurned spouse; but Jeremy Webb (below, with Amato) makes something extraordinary out of Victor, who's generally cast as a quietly pompous prig.  Webb teases so much sophisticated, even noble, color from his final scenes with Amanda, however, that you leave almost wishing he'd been playing Elyot.  I've seen Mr. Webb before - and been impressed before, too; indeed, after this performance I have the feeling he may be one of the most gifted classical actors in America.  May the casting gods bring him our way again, and soon.

Well - do you really need to know more, or do you have your tickets yet?  The scenic and costume design, by Allen Moyer and Candice Donnelly, respectively, are quite smashing (as you can tell from these photos - the  scrims after Dufy are also just right, and the Parisian apartment, knowingly graced with a huge mirror, is particularly expert).  On the sidelines, local light Paula Plum does a droll turn - and nails a convincing accent - as Amanda's put-upon maid.  Meanwhile director Maria Aitken, whose subtle and intelligent work has become a staple at the Huntington, perhaps glides over the darker notes that Coward (almost unwittingly) strikes, but she doesn't try to obscure them, either; she clearly knows this play inside and out, and she lets you figure some things out for yourself.  Nor does Aitken make too much fuss over the slap Elyot delivers to Amanda (just after she has struck him over the head with a phonograph record); she conveys that no, this is not acceptable behavior, while acknowledging that with someone as essentially childish as Elyot, it's not so unexpected, either.

So you leave bemused by these people, but hardly morally impressed; and that's as it should be, too.  You may even find yourself teased by a certain trace of sympathy for this pampered pair - poor, divine Elyot and Amanda!  How barren their gorgeous lives must be!  And if you're like me, you may even want to spend more time with them.  For yes, I admit I'm paying this production my highest compliment: I'm paying to see it a second time.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Wild, but broken, Dreams

Denise Drago makes her move on Will Schuller in Your Wildest Dreams
Last weekend I checked out one of the final performances of my buddy Joey Pelletier's play Your Wildest Dreams, produced by Heart & Dagger Productions at the Boston Playwrights' Theatre.

Joey is a kind of playwriting dynamo - Heart & Dagger just put up another one of his scripts only a few weeks ago - and he has an endearingly gonzo attitude when it comes to his craft.  Indeed, he tosses off plays as if they were songs: Joey goes for it, gets it up there, and only then scans the fourth wall to see what (if anything) has stuck.

And not only is speed everything for Joey and Heart & Dagger, but experimentation is also a necessity.  So a typical Pelletier play is studded with choreography and stage pictures - devised by frequent collaborator Danielle Leeber Lucas - that sometimes patch holes in the plot, sometimes extend the action in a mode that's vaguely cinematic, or sometimes simply attempt to "get abstract."  Now this kind of thing can often be irritating, but it never is at Heart & Dagger somehow, because the troupe is never pretentious; nevertheless, their shows can be - well, a bit confusing.

And Your Wildest Dreams, in fact, was like a short course in the company's strengths and gaps.  The concept of the show was intriguing, and conceptually ambitious: Dreams was composed entirely of dreams, as experienced by eight different characters, most of whom seemed linked in a complicated set of relationships in the waking world, but who in their wildest dreams operated in very different, at times even fantastical, roles.

But perhaps the production's ambitions were almost too wild.  The key to conveying dream logic as dramatic action is to build in framing that explains the rules of said dreams (hence all that explicit exposition in Inception, which despite its confounding contradictions, operated by a simple set of conventions).  But Joey never clearly does this, so we're on our own throughout his various episodes, which he tries to structure as a web of interconnected fantasies and a functioning "queer vampire thriller," to boot.  This is rather a tall order - especially given the fact that the script juggles eight major characters, all of whom are sometimes seemingly their "real" selves, and sometimes their "fantasy" selves (i.e., as they might figure in someone else's dreams).

Oh, well.  I have to admit that half the time I was slightly lost, but the show was still punchy fun, off and on, and Lucas's choreography seemed better integrated into the storyline (and more clearly interpretible) than usual.  Slinky Denise Drago had the most impact as a seductive vampire (above), but Jenny Reagan, Amy Meyer and Kendall Aiguier also made positive impressions (in general the women seemed to fare better here than the men).  Sets and lighting were minimal, but at least the sound track was solid - Joey's got good taste in club music, and many episodes were at their best when channeling (however vaguely) the menace that floats just beneath the come-on of so many club tracks.  In the end, Your Wildest Dreams felt like a promising first draft - although it will take real discipline (and time and focus) to make it the stuff that dreams are made on.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

This is just painful

I came across this on Art's site. He found it on the Times site.

And it is so fucking stupid it makes me want to cry.

This sad excuse for a "conversation" seems to have been sparked by Samuel L. Jackson, whose career peaked in intellectual terms with Snakes on a Plane, and who famously dissed Times critic A. O. Scott on Twitter for himself dissing The Avengers, which was last weekend's multiplex fodder.  (Or was it the weekend before?)  Oh and in which Samuel L. Jackson paid some baadassss superhero who kicked asssssss.

Now, artistically - sorry, but I'm laughing already; I actually can't write a sentence that reads, "In artistic terms, The Avengers - " It's just impossible; it's too funny.  The Avengers.  Artistic.  Seriously.  I mean, are the Avengers the ones who are like mutants, which means they're like gay in comic-speak?  Or is one of them the actual new gay one, the Green Lamppost?  I mean gay is so hot in the graphic novel now.  Hot, hot.  Because you know - well, you know; because.  Because Obama.

But back to this sack of shit the Times posted under the rubric "Sweet Spot."  (Uh huh.)  Now I've never been a big fan of A.O. Scott, but he is not stupid, and he is articulate.  (And something tells me that the opinion of the ages will most likely align with his review regarding The Avengers.)  So you'd think he could strike a few intellectual sparks on this subject.  But the Times has teamed him up with David Carr, who thinks the Strokes are as culturally important as the Sistine Chapel.  (I'm not kidding, he actually says that.)  Now true, David Carr looks like he may have been around since, oh, 1512, so maybe he really knows whereof he speaks.  Or maybe Michelangelo is the only other fucking artist this fatuous idiot knows.  (You be the judge!)

But wait, there's more - and actually, here, I think, is the sweet spot of this "Sweet Spot." David is all broken up about how A.O. may have hurt Samuel L.'s feelings.  Because you know what?  David Carr got a bad review once (can you believe it?) - and it hurt!  Carr says this right into the camera, as if he were Charlton Heston laying down the law to Pharaoh - "It HURT!"  So 1-2-3 - awwwwwww.  We're sorry, David Carr.  AWWWWWWW.

Only you know what, David?  Sure, the reviews hurt - but can you say your critics were wrong?  'Cause just judging from this interview, they may have been right (you certainly suck here).

And I'm just curious what case you're actually making.  (Let's review!) Are you arguing that critics should not speak their minds - that is to say, are you a newspaperman arguing for censorship?  Are you seriously arguing that not hurting feelings is more important than free speech - as my kindergarten teacher insisted once, and quite passionately?  (Maybe you would have liked her!)

Or are you arguing that we should all pretend the Strokes are as good as Michelangelo?  Because deep in your heart you know that is an extremely foolish thing for a grown man to believe?

Or were you just paid to say all this crap because the Times saw an opportunity to suck up to the pissed Avengers audience, in the hopes they might suddenly decide to take out web subscriptions?  Oh, yeah.  As if!  Seriously, that's like the most pathetic scenario of all - that you could somehow come off as hip.  It's just - oh, what can I say.  The Times so sucks.

Friday, June 1, 2012

SpeakEasy rolls out Xanadu

At its best, Xanadu is highly a-musing; Photos: Craig Bailey

Once upon a time - perhaps as late as, say, 1980 - every English major in the Western world (and most college graduates) knew that "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree."  But today, for most 'liberal arts' majors (and we use that term advisedly), not only that line, but its entire, famously-unfinished source (not to mention its author!) is unknown; in the popular consciousness,  Xanadu refers not to a pleasure-dome, but to the notorious roller-disco-musical which Joel Silver and a slew of other producers unleashed on the world in 1980, in the process knocking Olivia Newton-John's booming film career right off its skates.

Xanadu - which I half-watched on cable many moons ago - actually has several dubious claims to fame beyond its nearly nonsensical plot (something about the Greek muses coming to earth to help open said roller rink).  The movie also derailed the renewed interest in big-budget musicals that tracked the success of Grease and Saturday Night Fever (which is kind of a musical); it also, rather sadly, showcased Gene Kelly's last turn on the silver screen.

And anyone who has seen it can tell you the movie deserves its rap as one of the worst musicals EVAH - not because it's so dumb (Grease is almost as dumb), nor because its songs are particularly bad (in fact its soundtrack, powered by the synth bombast of Electric Light Orchestra, was a big hit).  No, Xanadu was just made badly.  The script is klutzy, the cinematography indifferent, and the choreography almost bizarrely clueless (below).  It's a shining testament to the the sheer craft of more competent moviemakers, who can position and sculpt similarly weak material so deftly that it's palatable, even entertaining.

The cluelessly choreographed climax of Xanadu - don't miss the tightrope walkers!

Now - are you thinking what I'm thinking?  Cheesy but campy concept, a roster of pre-made hits: can you say gay juke-box musical?  Well, Douglas Carter Beane, the mastermind of The Little Dog Laughed and other Hollywood-Babylon baubles, certainly could.  In 2007 Beane repositioned the script for Broadway as an elaborate in-joke, with its central trope being its self-awareness of its status as the movie moment when pop culture jumped the shark, as the 70's pleasure-dome collapsed of its own weight before the Reagan revolution.  For what it's worth, Beane also pulled another 80's clunker, Clash of the Titans, into the mix - on which he actually relies for more plot points, it seems to me, than he does Xanadu.  (Although the distinction is really neither here nor there; both movies targeted the pleasure centers of the reptilian brain coiled within the human one, and both pretty much blew it.)

Beane's re-tooled Xanadu proved a solid hit in New York - but does impressing Ben Brantley or Charles Isherwood really count for much anymore?  Sorry, I don't think so.  I mean isn't the whole gay-theatre-for-straights thang itself a little campily dreadful at this point, and just waiting for its own meta-Douglas-Carter-Beane treatment by some wicked-smart hetero?

Which one's actually channeling Olivia?
Well, be that as it may - let's not push the self-conscious cultural meter any further along than we have to; but there's still an obvious problem rolling around in Xanadu - and that's Xanadu itself.  Beane does dodge its trudging storyline much of the time, but he can't skate past it entirely; it's still there, and you have to find a way to make it fun.

And the current SpeakEasy Stage production is some testament to just how hard that really is to do.  The company has pulled out all the stops this time around; they've reconfigured the Roberts Studio to accommodate a roller rink, and blown the budget on glamorously tacky costumes that look just right - they even hand out glow-sticks to everybody.  And the results are amusing, but never quite transporting.  It's hard to put your finger on precisely why this is so, but surely director Paul Daigneault's artistic signature has something to do with it; there's a kind of gently knowing control strategy, an unspoken commitment to deferred gratification, about his style that simply short-circuits the sexy stupidity of Xanadu.

Star McCaela Donovan almost personifies the problem.  This talented and lovely lady is a mainstay of the local scene, and for good reason - she nails every aspect of this tricky part, singing her heart out, roller-skating like a pro, and even pulling off a wicked Australian accent.  But she doesn't seem to be having all that much fun; with every entrance she lobs a chunk of glitter into the air, but somehow the gesture seems too ironically off-hand; you can always see her mind turning, and frankly, she shouldn't have a mind at all.  As her numbskull boyfriend, "Sonny Malone," the hunky Ryan Overberg (at right, with Donovan) has more the right idea (he channels Newton-John's dumb sparkle better than Donovan does), but there's only so much he can do in a role that's essentially reactive.  And surprisingly, for once the usually-reliable Robert Saoud doesn't get much loft in the Gene Kelly part, either.

Clash of the comic titans: Shana Dirik and Kathy St. George
Luckily, the supporting cast makes hilarious hay of the Clash of the Titans half of the show, where adaptor Beane has squirreled away the best of his bitchy quips.  The great Shana Dirik and Kathy St. George are probably the two funniest ladies in the city, and they go for broke here (at one point St. George literally locks her molars on the set), and whenever they're onstage, Xanadu suddenly does glitter with campy malice. And this dastardly duo gets strong back-up from castmates Kami Rushell Smith, Val Sullivan, Patrick Connolly, and Cheo Bourne, who have lots to do - and do it all well - but only occasionally get to bask in the spotlight.

David Connolly's choreography, meanwhile, is better than the movie's (it had to be), but perhaps - as was the case in last year's Drowsy Chaperone - it lacked its own distinctive profile.  As for the familiar songs - well, they lose something essential, I'm afraid, when stripped of the overdubbed churn of Jeff Lynne's original production; and you can't help but notice that the chorus of some of them ("I'm Alive," "Evil Woman," "Xanadu")  is really just the title repeated over and over.  Still, they're better than most of what you hear on Broadway these days, and the onstage band proved tight and punchy, effortlessly supporting Dirik and St. George's groove with "Evil Woman," and Donovan's sweet warble in "Have You Never Been Mellow?" And at such moments, the Roberts Studio suddenly did feel like a pleasure-dome - okay maybe not a stately one, but then could you really wave a glow stick in the air with Samuel Taylor Coleridge?