Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Hub Review's Hints for a Highbrow Hallowe'en

People have been asking for a reprise of a Hub Review tradition - our list of "scary movies for smart people."  It's almost too late to watch one of these on Hallowe'en, of course, but there still might be time for you to download a few of these from somewhere - so I've resurrected the litany, and even added a little fresh blood at the end.

So here are the Hub Review's Hints for a Highbrow Hallowe'en.

Now I know what you're thinking - "highbrow"???  That word and "Hallowe'en" are two words you rarely see in close proximity!

I'm not sure why, however, because  horror movies have often been about intellectual challenge and fearless experimentation. Indeed, the fresh tropes you find in the best of them often shape, and eventually become staples of, mainstream culture.

So don't worry, you won't find any multiplex cheese on this list - no Amityville Horror or The Blob - and of course you won't find any bad American remakes of foreign classics. (When in doubt with horror movies, always see the foreign original!)  What we have here is cherce, as Spencer Tracy might say - movies that run the gamut from a pleasant shudder to a full-bore freak-out, but which always have a compelling intellectual component.

So without further ado, and working chronologically:

Partenope is indeed baroque, and don't fix it!

Kristen Sollek, David Trudgen, Amanda Forsythe, Andrew Garland and Owen Willetts let rip.
I'm late with my thoughts on Partenope, from Boston Baroque - when I would generally have run for the keyboard before the show closed, as it was so wonderful.  But alas, the opera only ran for two nights - and to houses only two-thirds full, too!  (I tell you, this town is nuts.)

But if Boston Baroque keeps turning them out like Partenope (and last spring's Orfeo), surely the houses will begin to fill up.  This time perhaps patrons were scared away by the opera's obscurity.  But now you know - Partenope is a gorgeous opera - it's mid-flight Handel, but close to his coloratura peak (and reportedly penned for a virtuosic soprano named Anna Strada).  Still, it's not all dazzling ornament; indeed, ravishingly lyrical lines unfurl in various arias up until the final curtain (there's a theme for theorbo in the last act, for instance, that you could feel send a shudder of rapture through the house). Alas, it does feel a bit long (and I understand conductor Pearlman cut it slightly), largely because its Italian libretto, written some thirty years before Handel's music, is an amusing mix of stock elements (a warrior queen and her competing swains, triangles upon  triangles, and of course a betrayed heroine in male attire), but depends on a single comic complication, and so can't quite sustain its epic length.

Handel's music makes you forget all about that, however, as did the exquisite warbling of the talented cast at Boston Baroque.  Just as it once showcased Anna Strada, Partenope this time around proved the perfect frame for one of our most sparkling local stars, the great Amanda Forsythe (at left), who seemed in her best voice ever last Saturday night.  Ms. Forsythe's control and intonation were superb in even the most challenging coloratura passages, and she dared to ornament her arias with notes at the very top of the vocal stratosphere.  And I cannot help but note that this singer is simply one of the best comic actresses in the city; indeed, the lovely Ms. Forsythe balanced with droll grace a tricky blend of romance, wry intelligence and camp that many comediennes would have been hard-pressed to pull off.

What's more, she was surrounded by a superb supporting cast (who all faced their own vocal challenges, too).  We were last dazzled by countertenor Owen Willetts in Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice last spring; here, as Partenope's main squeeze, he was perhaps even more impressive, as the part pushed him down into alto-ish territory where countertenors often fear to tread.  But incredibly, this is where Mr. Willetts seems at his strongest, projecting rich, lustrous color where many of his peers can project little at all.

But you know, this review is going to get boring, because it's all praise - the production also featured strong turns from contralto Kirsten Sollek, countertenor David Trudgen, tenor Aaron Sheehan, and particularly baritone Andrew Garland. All these folks likewise had a keen sense of humor, and put over director David Gately's witty - sometimes even naughty - staging with confident panache.

I must also add that the Boston Baroque orchestra, under the baton of Martin Pearlman (the true begetter of this triumph), has rarely sounded better. The strings were clean and vibrant; the flutes and even the horns were agile; Victor Coelho was a standout on theorbo; and Robinson Pyle demonstrated again why he's the best period trumpet player in town. The clever modern costumes were by Adrienne Carlile - although frankly, as fun as these were, if there were a God in heaven, we'd get to see Partenope again in fuller dress. Leaving the theatre, my partner and I could only wonder, how could this marvel have ever been forgotten?  Certainly we'll remember it, and this production, forever.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The recovery begins

Here in Boston we largely dodged the wrath of Hurricane Sandy; but our friends to the south, of course, were not so lucky.

At left, a photographer caught a rainbow "touching down" in Manhattan this morning - the traditional symbol, from the days of Noah, of the promise of recovery.

You can help make that recovery possible by contributing to the Red Cross now, either via their website, or by texting REDCROSS to 90999.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

And good news for Republicans - Americans have officially become more racist . . .

A recent Associated Press poll has revealed that Americans have become more, rather than less, racist since President Obama's election.  In fact now a slight majority - 51% - of Americans express explicitly anti-black attitudes.  We hate Latinos a little more, though - 52% of those surveyed expressed negative attitudes toward Hispanics.

It is somewhat comforting to imagine that perhaps this backlash is a result of political gains (a cycle we've seen before); still, observers report that in other situations in which blacks have taken high political office (mayorships, etc.), the black executives' standing has improved with whites over time.  For reasons unknown, however, that has not occurred with Obama, despite his high performance in his role.  Indeed, a strange sort of denial of his successes has set in among Republicans - who will claim with confidence that he didn't save the American auto and banking industries, his stimulus plan didn't work, Republicans didn't kill all his job bills, he didn't really get Osama bin Laden, our government has grown rather than shrunk under him, and he even raised their taxes rather than lowering them!  And of course you have to add to this delusional litany the absurd, but persistent, claims over his birth certificate and religion.  It is hard to explain all this fantasy without recourse to racism as a probable cause.

But back to the survey, which tested implicit as well as explicit attitudes - and found, to no one's surprise, that Republicans were far more racist than Democrats - 79% of Republicans expressed explicitly racist sentiments.  Still, almost a third - 32% - of Democrats expressed some racist feeling, and their implicit attitude scores were much higher - 55% to 64% of Republicans.  (I'm not sure how the implicit score for Republicans could be lower than the explicit score, btw - this may suggest some issues with the survey's "implicit" methodology.)

So there you have it - that's what we're up against.  I admit I sense some deeply tragic, but utterly appropriate, historical irony in the fact that racism may in the end bring about the destruction of our country.  Let's try to make sure it doesn't turn out that way.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

"My party is full of racists."

One Republican, at least, has spoken the truth.

The Fall 2012 Hubbie Awards

Alas, it has been quite some time since I've handed out Hubbies - so some of the winners in this round were seen in the summer months.  Somehow I don't think they'll mind the belated bouquet, though - oh and btw, that's Apolo Ohno modeling another possible Hubbie design up top, should we ever get to handing out physical awards!

Now you know how this works - I look back through the posts from the past few months and pick those performers, designers, and directors whose work I admired the most.  So without further ado:

Best Productions

Kyle Cherry and John Geoffrion in Gross Indecency
War Horse, National Theatre of Great Britain, via Broadway in Boston

Sequence 8, Les 7 Doits de la Main, via ArtsEmerson

Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde (at right), Bad Habit Productions

Round and Round the Garden, Gloucester Stage

Avenue Q, Lyric Stage

Private Lives, Huntington Theatre

Best Ensembles

Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde - John Geoffrion, Kyle Cherry, Gabriel Graetz, Matthew Murphy, Brooks Reeves, Tom Lawrence, Joey Heyworth, Luke Murtha, Morgan Bernhard, James Bocock, and Derek McCormack, directed by Liz Fenstermaker, dialect coach Susanna Harris Noon, Bad Habit Productions

"Master Harold" . . . and the boys - Johnny Lee Davenport, Peter Mark Kendall, Anthony Willis, Jr., directed by Benny Sato Ambush, Gloucester Stage

Polaroid Stories - Luke Murtha, Michael Underhill, Melissa De Jesus, Jesse Wood, Kiki Samko, Danielle Leeber Lucas, Elizabeth Battey, Mikey DiLoreto, Michael Caminiti, Amy Meyer, Robyn Linden, Denise Drago, Lauren Elias, Nicole Howard, Kate Shanahan, and Sarah Sixt, directed by Joey Pelletier and Elise Wulff, a joint production by Heart and Dagger Productions, Boston Actors Theater, Happy Medium Theatre

Round and Round the Garden - Steven Barkhimer, Barlow Adamson, Richard Snee, Lindsay Crouse, Adrianne Krstansky, Sarah Newhouse, directed by Eric C. Engel, Gloucester Stage

Private Lives - Bianca Amato, James Waterston, Autumn Hurlbert, Jeremy Webb, Paula Plum, directed by Maria Aitken, (at left) Huntington Theatre

Avenue Q - Erica Spyres, Phil Tayler, John Ambrosino, Jenna Lee Scott, Davron S. Monroe, Elise Arsenault, Harry McEnerny V, directed by Spiro Veloudos, Lyric Stage

Best Individual Performances

Patrick Shea, Race, New Rep

Luke Murtha, John Zdrojeski, The Kite Runner, New Rep

Joel Colodner, Zach Eisenstadt, The Chosen, Lyric Stage

Adriane Lenox, Now or Later, Huntington Theatre

Karen MacDonald, Nancy E. Carroll, and Johanna Day, Good People (at right), Huntington Theatre

Seumas Sargent, Beat Generation, Merrimack Rep

Hassan Il-Amin, Fred Sullivan, Jr., King Lear, Trinity Rep

Michael Benz, Hamlet, Shakespeare's Globe via ArtsEmerson

Maurice E. Parent, Melinda Lopez, The Motherfucker with the Hat, SpeakEasy Stage

Leslie Shires, Ross Cowan, Homestead Crossing, Merrimack Rep

Michael Underhill, William Schuller, Romeo and Juliet, Happy Medium Theatre

Anita Gillette, Bye Bye Birdie, Reagle Music Theatre

Gary Beach, Matt Loehr, Eric Mann, Hello, Dolly!, North Shore Music Theatre

Ryan Overberg, Shana Dirik and Kathy St. George (both at right), Xanadu, SpeakEasy Stage

Marianna Bassham, Philana Mia, Melis Aker, Bernie Baldassaro, Charlotte Anne Dore, Joey Heyworth, Sarah Jones, Gerard Slattery, Meredith Stypinski, Sheriden Thomas, I Capture the Castle, Stoneham Theatre

Stephen Thorne, Rebecca Gibel, Nance Williamson - Boeing, Boeing, Trinity Rep

Craig Mathers - Troilus and Cressida, Actors' Shakespeare Project

Susan Molloy - Little Shop of Horrors, New Rep

Best Operatic Performances

Amanda Forsythe, Partenope, Boston Baroque

Ricardo Lugo, David Kravitz, Don Pasquale, Boston Midsummer Opera

Owen Willetts - Orfeo ed Euridice, Boston Baroque

Best Design

Janie Howland, set, and Rafael Jean, costumes, The Mikado (above), Lyric Stage

Michael Clark Wonson, lighting, Polaroid Stories, Heart and Dagger/Happy Medium Theatre/Boston Actors Theater

Jenna McFarland Lord, set, Round and Round the Garden, Gloucester Stage

Richard Chambers, set, I Capture the Castle, Stoneham Theatre

Allen Moyer, set, and Candice Donnelly, costumes, Private Lives, Huntington Theatre

Chris Larson, sound, Trojan Women, Whistler in the Dark

Patrick Lynch, set, William Lane, costumes, and Peter Sasha Hurowitz, sound - Boeing, Boing, Trinity Rep

Crystal Tiala, set, Xanadu, SpeakEasy Stage

Dan Kotlowitz, lighting, The Ghost-Writer, Merrimack Rep

Best Choreography

Larry Sousa, Bye Bye Birdie (above), Reagle Music Theatre

Michael Lichtefeld, Hello, Dolly!, North Shore Music Theatre

Best Musical Direction

Susan Davenny Wyner, Don Pasquale, Boston Midsummer Opera

Best Direction

Joey Pelletier and Elise Wulff, Polaroid Stories, Heart and Dagger/Happy Medium Theatre/Boston Actors Theater

Liz Fenstermaker, Gross Indencency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, Bad Habit Productions

Charles Repole, Hello, Dolly!, North Shore Music Theatre

Maria Aitken, Private Lives, Huntington Theatre

Spiro Veloudos - Avenue Q, Lyric Stage

Well, I think that's it for now - so hats off (in fact almost everything off) for the Fall 2012 Hubbie winners!

Friday, October 26, 2012

David Mamet, the art of the con, and the M.V. (Part 2)

Ken Cheeseman and Cliff Odle wonder if they're up to the eightieth page yet at the New Rep.
I can tell you precisely the moment I gave up on David Mamet's Race; it's the moment when one character describes a hot night in Bermuda as like being "inside a big black c--nt."

You could almost hear Mamet giggling over that one; he got to say the c-word!  (Jeez, Mom would kill him if she knew!)

But all I could think was, "Why not go for it, Dave?  Why not n--gg--r c--nt, too?  Hmmm?"

After a moment, however, I realized - no, Mr. Mamet had chosen precisely the slur he wanted; he wasn't really interested in a double whammy.  For Race, despite its moniker, isn't really about racism - not his own, not his audience's, not anybody's. It's about sexism.  Or rather - it is sexism, kind of "personified," if you will.  It is the thing itself.

Oh, I know, everyone huffs and puffs throughout the play about racial grievances; much of the script - like so many these days! - is basically a lecture delivered by the playwright through transparent mouthpieces: two law partners, one white and one black, who've seen it all and want to tell the walls (or at least the fourth wall) all about it.  But what do these two really have to say?  Not much; indeed, near the top of the script, Mamet admits "a white man has nothing to tell a black man about race" (a paraphrase).  And he seems to mean it.  Okay - so why are you still talking, white man?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

An open letter to Ann Coulter from a Special Olympian

In case you missed it, Republican "pundit" Ann Coulter recently called our president "a retard," tweeting "I highly approve of Romney's decision to be kind and gentle to the retard."

She received the following open letter from Special Olympian John Franklin Stephens.  It's a little off topic for the Hub Review, but it's so moving - and crystallizes the "difference in our spirits," as Shakespeare might say, so well - that I decided to post it anyway.

You can learn more about the Special Olympics here.

Dear Ann Coulter,

Come on Ms. Coulter, you aren’t dumb and you aren’t shallow. So why are you continually using a word like the R-word as an insult?

I’m a 30 year old man with Down syndrome who has struggled with the public’s perception that an intellectual disability means that I am dumb and shallow. I am not either of those things, but I do process information more slowly than the rest of you. In fact it has taken me all day to figure out how to respond to your use of the R-word last night.

I thought first of asking whether you meant to describe the President as someone who was bullied as a child by people like you, but rose above it to find a way to succeed in life as many of my fellow Special Olympians have.

Then I wondered if you meant to describe him as someone who has to struggle to be thoughtful about everything he says, as everyone else races from one snarkey sound bite to the next.

Finally, I wondered if you meant to degrade him as someone who is likely to receive bad health care, live in low grade housing with very little income and still manages to see life as a wonderful gift. 

Because, Ms. Coulter, that is who we are – and much, much more.

After I saw your tweet, I realized you just wanted to belittle the President by linking him to people like me. You assumed that people would understand and accept that being linked to someone like me is an insult and you assumed you could get away with it and still appear on TV.

I have to wonder if you considered other hateful words but recoiled from the backlash. Well, Ms. Coulter, you, and society, need to learn that being compared to people like me should be considered a badge of honor.

No one overcomes more than we do and still loves life so much.

Come join us someday at Special Olympics. See if you can walk away with your heart unchanged.

A friend you haven’t made yet,

John Franklin Stephens
Global Messenger
Special Olympics Virginia

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Halloween, Gangnam Style

Just in case you haven't seen the latest twist on Psy's hilarious video.

David Mamet, the art of the con, and the magic vagina, Part 1

So when do we speed-the-play?  The cast of Race at the New Rep.

It's hard to remember, as you watch Race (at the New Rep through November 4), that David Mamet was once a great playwright.  Admittedly, he was always a reactionary - a masculine reactionary, need I point out; even back in the 70's, the days of The Duck Variations and Sexual Perversity in Chicago, Mamet's men were flawed, but basically lovable, while his women were opaque and treacherous.  At the time, however, feminism had flummoxed many American boys - and when Mamet avoided female characters entirely, in plays like American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross, his talent burned bright indeed - so the sexist streak at the heart of this tough guy seemed easy to forget (or forgive).

It's harder to forgive it now, though - particularly as the playwright peaked in achievement almost thirty years ago, and the man himself has apparently devolved into a conservative crank (you only have to flip through his screed The Secret Knowledge to realize he really should be wearing a tinfoil hat).  Indeed, what may be tragic about David Mamet (and he is much given to musing on tragedy) is that he has by now thoroughly undermined his own early achievement; it's as if he has been determined to deconstruct his own success, and reveal the shriveled sensibility lurking within it.

To be honest, this behavior suggests the classic pathology of the idée fixe, the mental preoccupation which over time slowly dominates a psyche.  In fact it's my conviction that the playwright suffers from a double (if not triple) dose of this mania.  For Mamet has also always been obsessed with the art of the con; all his major (and most of his minor) plays have revolved around deceptions of one stripe or other.  But as long as these swindles were perpetrated by men on other men - as in Buffalo and Glengarry - Mamet was able to generate true drama from his obsession, as sexism, his second idée fixe, didn't prevent him from developing complex portraits of his villains.

When his two obsessions converged, however - probably around the time of Speed-the-Plow and Oleanna - Mamet's standing as a serious artist was suddenly compromised.  For ever since, his plots have repeatedly been dumbed down to turn on crude, predictable treachery, and his women (with the exception of the betrayed mother in The Cryptogram, which could serve as a poignant demonstration of his inability to forge a true vision from his psychological history) have long since hardened into mechanical villains.  Like the famous "magical negroes" whose special powers hurry along sentimental white narratives, Mamet's women have become "magic vaginas," figures - I won't call them characters - who are denuded of actual personality, and who implausibly speed-the-play by attempting to crucify the leading man whenever the playwright wants to wrap things up in 90 minutes (or less).

Monday, October 22, 2012

Trevor Nunn, David Suchet, and Sonnet 138

In a televised "master class" from 1979, these two great talents lead us through a guided tour of one of the late, great sonnets - #138 - in the process limning the braided density of meaning that is typical of the sonnets (and the plays) in general.  A hat tip to my friend Debbie for digging this up!

Sonnet 138

When my love swears that she is made of truth, 
I do believe her though I know she lies, 
That she might think me some untutored youth, 
Unlearned in the world's false subtleties. 
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young, 
Although she knows my days are past the best, 
Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue: 
On both sides thus is simple truth suppressed: 
But wherefore says she not she is unjust? 
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O! love's best habit is in seeming trust, 
And age in love, loves not to have years told: 
    Therefore I lie with her, and she with me, 
    And in our faults by lies we flattered be.

It's too late for Now or Later

Grant MacDermott looks for a way out.  Of this script.
Just last month, with David Lindsay-Abaire's Good People, the Huntington showed us how to do a political play. 

And now, with Christopher Shinn's Now or Later, they've shown us how not to do one.

Actually, I suppose Shinn himself did that - or at least he demonstrated how not to write a political play.

Or did he simply confuse "play" with "polemic"?  For Now or Later is a very cleverly devised polemic (and one I often agreed with). It's just never convincing as, you know, human drama, basically because no one but a debate club president (or maybe Andrew Sullivan) would ever behave like Shinn's hero, and no one but his shrink could ever buy his version of his own motives.

And without any believable emotional resonance, Now or Later boils down to a duel between educated narcissists, over equally-justifiable neoliberal stances. All the point-counter-point I admit is mildly diverting at times; and all the "no-that's-not-what-I-really-said" dialogue is sold well by most of the cast (and very well by one actress in particular).  Still, we keep waiting for the real show to start - thus even though it's short, Now or Later is also (like Shakespeare's Pyramus and Thisbe) tediously brief.

Here's the set-up: photos of the president-elect's gay son have surfaced in which, while dressed as the prophet Mohammed no less, he fellated a dildo at a "naked party" on campus (naked parties are, for those out of the loop, a pseudo-transgressive Ivy League tradition - even the "hot" Bush twin was caught at one). Now, believe it or not, Shinn's entire play turns on whether or not "John, Jr." (son of "John, Sr.") should issue a statement of apology for depicting the spiritual leader of a large portion of the planet as a - well, you know - that word they call guys who fellate other guys.  (I'm not interested in a fatwah either, thanks all the same Chris!)

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The rhapsodies of Lar Lubovitch

Lubovitch does Morris doing Brahms.

It's hard not to be dazzled by Lar Lubovitch and his dancers - who hold the stage for one more night (tonight!) at the Schubert, thanks to Celebrity Series.  This 69-year-old choreographer has been a mainstay of contemporary dance for decades, but we haven't seen his New York-based company much in Boston (they're more often sighted out at Jacob's Pillow), so this weekend counts as an unusual chance for the locals to see the best of Lubovitch's recent work, along with one of the early pieces that put him on the map.  (It also offers a showcase for some of the most stylish dancers in the world, just btw.)

Lubovitch, of course, represents a kind of "hinge" in the history of gay dance in America: born in the closeted era of Jerome Robbins, he survived the scourge of AIDS - which decimated the ranks of our dance-makers (Alvin Ailey, Arnie Zane and Ruldoph Nureyev were just a few of its victims) - to become one of the highest profile fundraisers in the battle against that dreaded disease. Finally, he lived to see the success of a new generation of "out" gay choreographers (Mark Morris, Bill T. Jones) for whom their sexual identity was simply a given.

That history only served as subtext, however, to the program on view at Celebrity Series - but when Lubovitch invoked his gay identity (in Little Rhapsodies, from 2007), his choreography seemed to hit a sublime peak.  Elsewhere you could sometimes feel the influence of other talents on his sensibility (North Star was clearly a product of the late 70's, while Mark Morris seemed to shadow The Legend of Ten from 2010 - excerpt above).  But then Lubovitch's sensibility I feel isn't really seminal - it's more of a sophisticated stance, a sleek, lyrical, hybrid response to the currents that are moving around him.

Friday, October 19, 2012

This is not Lear

Berenson and McEleny just before the madness.
More bad news on the Bard front, I'm afraid.

I've held off on my review of Trinity Rep's King Lear till the last minute because - well, actually I usually do hold off on bad reviews, if I can (I do front-load raves, and I suppose that's inconsistent - but with pans I'm often only writing for the intellectual record, such as it is!).  And at any rate this production wasn't quite bad, it was just . . . disappointing, particularly given who was in it and the scale of the effort involved.

This Lear was actually a joint production between Trinity and the Dallas Theater Center - and was directed by Kevin Moriarty (who used to direct down in Providence - got all that?).  Moriarty had something of a reputation in these parts back then, but much of what went wrong with this misfire can be traced to his odd ideas, so let's just say I don't think much of him now.  This wasn't quite the car crash that last season's Merchant of Venice was, but most of Moriarty's interpretative touches either flattened the play, or left you scratching your head.

And I was equally disappointed, I'm afraid,  by Brian McEleny's turn in the title role, particularly as I know this Trinity vet knows his Shakespeare (he gave us a memorable Twelfth Night about two years ago). Here, however, McEleny was hampered by the choice to emphasize Lear's decrepitude; meanwhile the ensemble (drawn both from Providence and Dallas) hadn't really become an ensemble yet (and frankly a few of the actors came off as Shakespearean neophytes). So the production was sometimes a thing of shreds and patches - although it was almost redeemed by one dynamite stage image (when Michael McGarty's elegant set collapsed along with Lear's mind), and a storm scene that came closer than most to the edge of madness.

Now that's no small achievement right there.  But it must be balanced against many other loopy interpretive decisions.  At the talkback I attended, one audience member opined that she had "never realized this was a play about Alzheimer's!"  Now I understood her feeling - it was an appropriate response to what we'd just seen; but of course Lear is NOT a play about Alzheimer's, and to pretend that it is distorts Shakespeare's intents and undermines his achievement.  This is simply another example of how the attempt to give the Bard a contemporary handle often ends up reducing him to puny postmodern dimensions. (And just btw, before you say it, my father died of that terrible disease, so I know from Alzheimer's.)

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Casting white people in "black" roles isn't just happening in Boston . . .

The issues that Beverly Creasey and I have begun discussing in an ongoing series (and which we chewed over on Tuesday with the new task force on diversity that is forming at StageSource) seem to be surfacing globally. (So once again the Hub is on the cutting edge of a racist trend!) Playwright Bruce Norris has just pulled the rights to a production of his play Clybourne Park in Berlin because, he learned second-hand, in a pivotal African-American role, the German theatre (literally the Deutsches Theatre) had cast a white actress. In blackface. What's more, according to Norris, this practice is often accepted in Germany!  (He is instituting a petition and boycott to end the practice.)   You can read his letter on the subject to the Dramatists Guild here.

One of the great productions of our time

War Horse showreel from Toby Olie on Vimeo.
Footage from Toby Olie's rehearsals and performances in War Horse, starting as the hind puppeteer of Joey in the National Theatre's original production, alongside Craig Leo (head) and Tommy Luther (heart), and then as head puppeteer of Joey in the consequent West End transfer, alongside Robin Guiver (heart) and Ben Thompson (hind).

Every few years an unforgettable production comes along.  War Horse is one such show.  I've already written about the London version - but I also managed to catch the American leg of its international tour, which holds the stage at the Opera House through Sunday.

And I felt in the end it was an honorable reproduction of the original, even if it was somewhat cramped on the Opera House proscenium.  In London, a wider apron allowed the horses (Joey and and his doomed buddy Topthorn) to canter and trot at will - sometimes in wide circles - which was impossible here (the limitations of the stage also meant the tank which Joey confronts in the second act had to roll on, and then turn around and roll off).  There was also some slight gap in the verisimilitude of the horses' galloping - my guess is that this is calibrated precisely to the blocking, and so in each new house, it must be re-calibrated, and re-learnt.  Still, the miracle of the production's "living" puppetry (see video above) - which depends on the coordination by three separate puppeteers (who all quickly "disappear" to our theatrical perception) of every feature of their horses' anatomies - had in essence survived its Atlantic crossing.

There were other small changes.  In London, the eponymous horse's owner, Albert, was believably a teen-ager - here he was the hunky and capable Andrew Veenstra, who was obviously a full-grown man (and Joey therefore looked somewhat bulked up from his London version, too, to carry the added weight).  And the second act felt slightly streamlined - which was probably a good thing, actually, as the production begins to pound home its anti-war message a bit repetitively.

I have been amused to see that several of the lesser critics have sniffed at the show, however, and made points that are obvious, yet, I suppose count as sophisticated for them.  War Horse is, yes, based on a children's novel - and its innocent story is yoked, perhaps awkwardly, to an intensely rendered pacifist message (it follows the horrific sufferings of the horses who did service in World War I). I can't deny that there's an issue there, at that hinge - poor Joey and Topthorn's travails may be too much for the youngest theatregoers.  (Joey's screams once he is trapped in the barbed wire of No Man's Land are at lot for anyone to handle.)  Nor does Nick Stafford's adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's original novel quite make the ironies of Joey's adventures on (and across) the German lines "come alive" as they might.

But let's be honest - the text is for the most part quite sturdy - how can people who take Les Miz or Rent seriously sniff at this?  And the production's evocations of trench warfare are often stunningly imaginative - in fact I've never seen war conjured as powerfully on stage as it is here; and if we feel almost fatigued by the Great War's horrors by the finish - well, that comes with the territory, doesn't it (and surely the lines that reference the British disasters in Afghanistan sound an important echo today!).

All this is as nothing, however, before the magic of the production's horses, and the way in which the craft of Handspring Puppet Company has brought to the stage something that has never been seen there before - fully-developed animal "characters," rendered with a poignant force that is all but guaranteed to reconnect you to a beloved pet, or your childhood, or perhaps just the simple pleasures of being alive, and how vulnerable such joys are, and will forever be.  I know it sounds corny to say it - and of course the show isn't cheap (although I believe half-price tickets are available at ArtsBoston) - but if you see one show this season, it should be War Horse.  Trust me, you will never forget it.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

We normally wouldn't post this kind of thing . . .

 . . . but as we have said, wherever craft is brought to bear on a cultural artifact, attention must be paid!  (And isn't a half-time show a show?)  So we thought we 'd post this amazing half-time performance by the Ohio State Marching Band, in the middle of the Buckeyes' battle against the Nebraska Cornhuskers, on October 6, 2012.  It's amazing throughout, but go to about the 6:35 mark for something you might have thought impossible.  This is not your father's marching band!

A mostly magnificent Magnificat from Handel & Haydn

Detail from Botticelli's Madonna of the Magnificat
I'd been looking forward to the Handel and Haydn season opener - a Bach orgy focused on the Magnificat - because artistic director Harry Christophers is a Bach fanatic, and the program had been cannily designed to draw in the crowds (with "Air on a G String," and "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring"), while showcasing some worthy rareties (particularly Cantata 71, Gott ist mein König).

So last Friday Symphony Hall was packed - with an audience, as a few other critics have begun to note, younger and more diverse than most.  And thank Gott, the performance did not disappoint.

But it didn't quite astound me, either.  Indeed, to be honest, it seemed to me that Christophers' vision of "the greatest composer who ever lived" (his own words) never quite came into focus - or rather it moved in and out of focus over the course of the evening.

Which puts me in that tricky position I'm famous for: I'm that critic who first makes a fuss over artistic greatness, and then later, when everybody else shows up to applaud, begins finding fault.  So let me say I'm thrilled that Handel and Haydn is finally getting the credit it has long deserved - even, at last, positive reviews in the Globe!  (Proof that everyone got the memo.)  But I was still slightly surprised by a few of the raves this concert received.  Christophers' special genius was often in evidence, and both the chorus and the orchestra at their best were beyond superb.  But as I've said before, they're simply the best chorus in the region (so by now I expect to be stunned); yet Friday's opener wasn't their best night; there were more than a few moments (particularly around entrances) that simply weren't as clean as they could/should have been (and that's important, particularly in Bach).

This was true in the strings as well, here and there (the winds were at their frisky best, however, throughout); more problematic was that Christophers drew all his soloists from the chorus itself - and alas, didn't really reveal any new stars there.  All of these fresh faces were blessed with intriguing vocal timbres and subtle control (that's why it's a great chorus) - but a few seemed a bit uncomfortable in the limelight, or lacked the power to fully command a space the size of Symphony.

Still I was grateful as always to hear H&H's secret weapons, soprano Teresa Wakim and alto Emily Marvosh.  Wakim, of course, is a known quantity, and she was at the top of her game Friday, hitting the lustrously pearly notes she's famous for with ease, first in Cantata 71 and later in the Magnificat.  Marvosh, in contrast, is still making her mark - although you could argue after last weekend that she has made her mark.   She was in fine voice from the start, but only grew suppler and more expressive as the evening went on, while her physical presence has never been more striking - a charming, almost mischievous gamine, she seemed to morph the Virgin into Diana, and radiated intelligent joy throughout her contributions to the Magnificat.  I have a hunch that, like Wakim, she's a great actress as well as a great singer.

Harry Christophers in action.
There were also some strong turns from reliable tenor Stefan Reed, and bass Jacob Cooper had his moments - but elsewhere the solos were variable.  As I've opined before, the central artistic problem at H&H these days is finding a team of soloists who can stand up to the chorus (perhaps even the chorus can't do that!).  Luckily, they've signed up for Messiah this year the stunning Karina Gauvin, who may be the greatest interpreter of Handel on the planet - if she can't match this chorale, no one can.

On the instrumental side, it seemed to me the horns scraped a bit more than usual (although this is inevitable with natural horns), particularly in the opening overture of the Orchestral Suite No. 3, where they're particularly exposed, and playing high in their ranges.  All this was forgotten, however, in Harry's ravishing rendition of what came next, that famous "Air on a G String," which here swelled with a slow, delicate suspense, and heartbreaking transparency.  In a word: rapture.

Later there were more high points, particularly from Wakim and Marvosh, in the relatively light  Gott ist mein König, which is not actually sacred music but was rather composed as a kind of fanfare for the town council of Mühlhausen - and which seemed to dovetail nicely with the previous buoyant dances that closed the Orchestral Suite.  Less convincing perhaps was the way Christophers pulled together  two Sinfonias and "Jesus bleibet meine Freude" into his own "suite" later in the program. But then to be honest, Bach suites are never very unified anyway, and the Sinfonia from Cantata 18 featured some truly exquisite interplay between the violas and the winds (Christophers always illuminates the structure of what he's doing, even as he makes it dance).  Certainly "Jesus" was as transporting as it should be, with the chorus seemingly buoyed on soft surges from the strings that glinted with colors from the brass.

The trumpets were in even better form during the Magnificat itself - a compact work with the range of a full symphony, the many moods of which unfolded with Christophers' characteristic mix of eloquence and passion.  Once more Wakim and Marvosh were the stand-out soloists, the winds were again delightful, and the chorus shouldered the closing verses with astonishing power and clarity.  I admit whenever these folks sing a line like "World without end, Amen," I always find myself indeed wishing the moment could go on forever.

That iPhone whiner sketch on SNL was one of their best . . .

Here it is again, in case you missed it.  (Sorry for the ad!  Hat tip to Mike Daisey, who else.)

Monday, October 15, 2012

Meet the Beats

Merrimack Rep takes the Kerouac legend off-road with Beat Generation.
Last weekend Merrimack Rep played host to a minor - maybe even a major - literary event: the world premiere of Lowell homeboy Jack Kerouac's only play, Beat Generation, in a staged reading directed by artistic director Charles Towers, and performed in concert with a Kerouac conference at UMass Lowell.

And it proved an intriguing evening - although to answer what I assume is your big question: is Beat Generation dramatically viable?  Alas, no; it's of biographic and academic interest only - clearly a first draft abandoned in a drawer as soon as the mood that spawned it had waned.  But its very tossed-off quality enhances its cinéma vérité atmosphere (you can spot just about every player in the Kerouac posse in its thinly disguised cast of characters), and it provides a touching corrective to the hip, outlaw image of Kerouac that has slowly replaced in our consciousness the alienated, tormented man himself.

In short, you won't recognize Kerouac in this play - well, you might if you were perceptive enough to appreciate the passivity of his authorial presence (as opposed to voice) in On the Road (I haven't read the other books).  In Beat Generation, tellingly enough it's Neal Cassady, the man whose charisma pulled Kerouac onto that eponymous highway, who appropriates the novel's voice, getting all the jazzy riffs, and rattling on in an endless, spontaneous cadence identical to that of the famous "scroll" from which Kerouac derived his magnum opus.  Kerouac, for his part, mostly just listens.  It's almost enough to make you wonder - just who is really narrating On the Road, anyway?

It must also be admitted, however, that Beat Generation hardly cracks the code of Cassady's personal aura (a nimbus that the team at Merrimack was unable to conjure either).  Cassady, of course, looms behind much hipster culture like a kind of ghost - or silent, bisexual god; he inspired not only Kerouac's masterpiece, but also figured in the oeuvre of Allen Ginsberg, and later mixed it up with Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary - in the meantime inspiring a range of golden American cowboys with homoerotic subtexts, ranging from the buddies of Route 66 to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

A drifter blessed with intense physical charisma (you can feel it in the photo below) who struggled intermittently to be a family man, Cassady related to Kerouac in some strange mode that oscillated between brotherly love, disinterest, and sexual obsession (at least on Kerouac's part; Cassady thought nothing of dumping Jack when he felt like it, which is in effect how On the Road sputters to a stop).  I think it's worth noting here that the poet Allen Ginsberg (the openly gay member of this particular posse) penned paeans to Cassady's penis, and even Kerouac was in awe of his buddy's "enormous dangle" - while Cassady's artsier girlfriends sometimes sketched portraits of it (I'm not kidding).  What can I say, it must have been something special - as you might expect, as it basically sired the entire Beat generation.

Timothy Leary and Neal Cassady, in a photo by Allen Ginsberg from the Electric Kool-Aid Acid days.
But like many a libertine, Cassady was intensely self-destructive, and he paid for his pleasures by dying at the early age of 41 - slipping into a coma while wandering along a Mexican railway (Kerouac died from alcohol only a year later, in 1969, at age 47).  They had long since drifted apart, anyhow - and Beat Generation could possibly mark the beginning of that rift, for it traces a kind of "Long Day's Journey into Beat," during which Kerouac (or "Buck," played by Tony Crane) trails after Cassady (or "Milo," played by Joey Collins), just as he did in On the Road, from a friend's apartment to the racetrack - and then finally back to Milo/Cassady's home, where among the wife and kids Cassady's hipster mask suddenly drops, and Kerouac is left out in the yard in his sleeping bag, abandoned again.

It could be a poignant story of an alcoholic little-boy-lost, but Kerouac clearly had few skills as a dramatist, and with minimal rehearsal time, Towers and company managed minimal theatrical shaping until the last act (more on that in a minute).  And as Kerouac/Buck, actor Tony Crane proved an intriguing presence, but seemed more interested in impersonating a sexy icon (Kerouac was a looker, too, as you can see below) than actually limning any of the tensions that surfaced in the script (when Cassady demands that Kerouac shine his shoe, for instance, Crane simply did so with a happy smile).  Meanwhile, as Cassady, actor Joey Collins seemed overwhelmed by the sheer torrents of verbiage he was required to deliver about karmic cats and moonbeams and such; with little happening as subtext to these harangues, it was hard to imagine him attracting any disciples.

Hey, Jack Kerouac - the man himself.
Still, things edged up hill over the first two acts - the second, at the race track, clearly has some potential.  And then suddenly the last scene was weirdly compelling - its centerpiece an interview with some kind of Transylvanian bishop that came off here as a sketch penned by Harold Pinter and directed by Roman Polanski.  Suddenly I was reminded of much that has been forgotten about Kerouac - he was no Buddhist hipster, but a devout Catholic, for instance.  And the scene is one of the few instances of dramatic writing I can think of that powerfully distills what it's like to be drugged, and perceiving social interactions in a warped way.

The whole thing played like a hallucination, to be honest, anchored by one of the most bizarre performances I have ever seen, from actor Seumas Sargent, as the innocently vampiric bishop.  And the whole cast suddenly seemed to pull itself into top form, perhaps because nobody had any long soliloquies to deliver - even as actor Ari Butler did a clever little comic cameo as an amusingly heterosexual Allen Ginsberg.  The mood was still far too straight in general, I suppose - but the scene seemed to get at something strange, and damaged, and deeply personal for Kerouac; his lines ached with a kind of yearning for any kind of meaning that might be available, anywhere, anyhow.   As the curtain fell on Kerouac once more alone, gazing up at the stars, I felt I had, at least for that scene, had the chance to meet the Beats.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

How do you debate a liar? Obama better learn . . .

I wish people would begin to see Obama's "lackluster" performance in the first debate as what it was: something like shell-shock before what may be the most brazenly dishonest performance in recent political history - and yes, this is even taking into account the usual fibs and stretches we normally expect from political candidates.  The sad fact is that Mitt Romney got up before a national television audience and simply lied about his ideas, his proposals, and his  platform, as well as Obama's first term and platform, and was never called on any of it.

At last people are beginning to realize this, I think - or at least the Wall Street Journal is getting nervous about it, which is surely a good sign.  The question is, how does Obama counter it?  To be honest, his weak spot as a political tactician has always been his apparent trust in his ability to find common ground, to get to the facts of the case, to build a reasonable coalition based on truth.

But to be blunt - with the Republicans, that ain't never gonna happen, Barry!  So take a page from Joe Biden's play book, why dontcha - just don't respect Romney's b.s. anymore.  And you'll have to somehow prepare for a "debate" in which your opponent continually denies his own positions.  (An interesting intellectual quandary, surely!)

Meanwhile, to everyone else who cares about this country - the next time someone describes Mitt Romney as a "flip-flopper," stop and correct them.  Mitt Romney is a liar.

Double, double, this Macbeth is in trouble

Allyn Burrows reacts to slashing something - maybe the text?
I don't know why, but Macbeth seems to drive the Actors' Shakespeare Project crazy.  Their last version of it was an all-female free-for-all that cut the play to ribbons and was pretty much completely incoherent.  And while there are some boys on stage this time, once again a strange kind of feminine hysteria hovers over the production, and needless to say, the play has been cut to ribbons and is pretty much completely incoherent.

Sigh.  Local affection for actress Paula Plum, who directed this disaster (for the record, I love her as much as anybody as an actress) will no doubt lead to misleadingly positive notices for this turkey.  But I'm warning you, do not believe her middle-aged fanboys!  This talented lady is over her head here, I'm afraid, and her dude-posse - yeah, nice guys all, I know - should really be reviewing the Patriots rather than Shakespeare.

I will admit there's a method to Plum's madness - let's call it back-story mania. And the back-story she has made the backbone of her Macbeth is Lady M's, not her hubby's.  Now decades ago, when I was in college, the question "How many children had Lady Macbeth?" was considered evidence of amusing aesthetic naiveté.  But basically that's the question Plum has built her production around.

For those not familiar with this particular text, that notorious query stems from one stanza that sticks out from Lady's M's murderous suggestions to Macbeth like a sore thumb (given that there are no kids in evidence at Dunsinane):

I have given suck, and know 
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me: 
I would, while it was smiling in my face, 
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums, 
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn 
As you have done to this.

It's memorable, isn't it - and essentially evidence of Lady M's mad, willful stripping away of all feminine feeling.  She has already called on the fates to "un-sex" her, and elsewhere she taunts her husband with the jibe that a real man would have no problem committing murder.  Now she tells us her vaunting ambition has pushed her beyond even any maternal feeling (surely the deepest instinct of the species).

This being Shakespeare, of course, those lines resonate and echo throughout the play; part of what makes the canon great is the way in which its texts operate not merely as narratives but as webs of thematic investigation.  And here sterility and gender and power are at the center of Shakespeare's concerns - only not at all in the way Plum imagines.

For clearly the Macbeths' vanished spawn are yet another example of those Shakespearean lacunae (like the disappearance of the Fool in Lear) that are meant to tease us subconsciously; what's more, they're just one more facet of an incredibly wide mosaic: the Macbeths themselves may be sexy as hell, but they're childless, and so essentially sterile - while the Witches, Banquo tells us, are genderless: both men and women (and not quite either), they play with strangled babes, and the blood of animals that have eaten their litters.  Meanwhile Macduff, the only person who can kill Macbeth, is "not of woman born" (and he is only able to do so once his own children are slain, and thus he also has become "sterile").  And we note that Malcolm, who replaces Macbeth on the throne, is a virgin, "yet unknown to woman" - while Banquo's issue only joins the royal lineage once he himself is dead.

So the grim sterility of power is one of the cruxes of Macbeth - those among its characters who would tempt or tamper with the political fates are almost always "sterilized" as a result.  Perhaps Plum understands this, but she turns these concerns into a strange, neurotic back-story for Lady M that pulls focus from the actual drama and adds nothing to our understanding of the play.  She actually opens the production with a confusing funeral (later we realize it must have been for that babe who so tenderly milked our leading lady), and then keeps Lady M around in scenes she's not in, listening via radio to the battles of Act I (the production is set, to some positive effect, somewhere after - or during? - World War I).  But alas, the nuns who attended that initial interment stick around too, and turn out to be our Three Witches, and this proves a disastrous choice - nuns these days simply come with too much comic baggage, and of course Plum has to slash their lines to the bone to dodge all the pagan references, and keep her Catholic-school conceit going.

But then she can't keep her hands off the text in general - I'd say the play has been cut by a third; I actually lost track of all the great lines that are missing, even though incredibly, somehow the whole thing still clocks in at two and half hours!  (How'd they do that?)  What's more, Plum has re-arranged things at will, so sometimes missing speeches pop back in when you least expect them.  And needless to say, she has made several male characters, like Banquo and Macduff's son, female because - well, just because, you know, women and stuff!  Oh, and Banquo seems to be a Red Cross volunteer - what?

While watching all this, I admit I had no idea what Plum thought she was plumbing; luckily, she has provided her own exegesis in the program notes, where you can read that she was inspired by Aldous Huxley's The Devils of Loudon, which of course has absolutely nothing to do with Macbeth (but which did inspire Ken Russell's The Devils).  The director also writes that she was greatly influenced by a player piano she came across in the pit of the theatre.

O-kay!  No wonder Allyn Burrows, probably this troupe's most reliable actor, seems to have checked out as Macbeth until the last act (where he does finally show some life, to be fair). If only Mara Sidmore had followed suit - she's capable of a much better Lady M. than the melodramatic caricature Plum has drawn from her here; but then I get the impression she and her director were involved in a kind of folie à deux during rehearsal.  The witches, for their part, are helpless before their gi-normous wimples, but some of the boys get some traction when they're left alone. The skillful Richard Snee made a wry Porter, and James Andreassi understood that it's best to underplay Macduff's grief; meanwhile Ross MacDonald managed an intriguing (if minimal) profile as Ross.  The surprise was newcomer Edmund Donovan, who actually pulled off Malcolm's impossible speeches in Act 4.  Indeed, oddly, this trickiest of all scenes in Macbeth - which I've never actually seen work before - was probably the strongest sequence in this addled production.

You know, I'll vent a little further here, probably because I just saw an exciting production of Hamlet from London that featured actors no more talented than we have here in Boston.  Honestly, between Allyn Burrows, Ross MacDonald, James Andreassi, Edmund Donovan, Joel Colodner, Nigel Gore, Johnny Lee Davenport, Bill Barclay, Benjamin Evett, Richard Snee, Steven Barkhimer, Michael Forden Walker, Maurice Parent and Gabriel Kuttner, among others - not to mention Marianna Bassham, Marya Lowry, Obehi Janice, and Ms. Plum herself  - we have a fine troupe of Shakespeareans in Boston.  You could do just about every goddamn play in the canon with these people. So why can't ASP pull it together more often than they do???  Seriously, I'm just frustrated by now - how do these wacky, half-baked misfires keep happening? Clearly internal politics, bad castings, and variable direction often undo the troupe's best intentions.  Or is their very M.O. - that the actors call the shots - fundamentally flawed, perhaps actually as fallible as the model behind the ART's dreadful old director-driven Shakespearean train wrecks?  Can these good actors ever admit that they need better, stronger direction?  Oh, who knows - in the meantime, let's just blame Aldous Huxley, or maybe that player piano . . .

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Trippingly on the tongue

Squaring off against Hamlet's own history?
As I left the Shakespeare's Globe production of Hamlet (at ArtsEmerson through next weekend), I wondered myself at how much I had enjoyed it.  This isn't the kind of thing I'm supposed to like - millennial in its attitudes, and thus somewhat flat and unevocative, and all but dripping with admiration for immaturity.  Usually this kind of thing makes me break out in hives.

My only excuse for being so tickled by this wicked-smart production is that it is, indeed, the smartest version of this warhorse (oh btw, be sure to catch War Horse, Metro readers!) that Boston has seen in ages.  Indeed, watching these actors scramble over their bare-bones set as they scamper through Shakespeare's bare-bones text, you realize just how coated and clogged Bostonian (and American) Shakespeare has become with pseudo-intellectual gunk.  We've suffered through the ministrations of the Method, and the orbiting low-end and high-end Big Apple bull of Joe Papp and Bob Brustein, and now the wacky conniptions of the Actors' Shakespeare Project - there has been just so much crap between us and Shakespeare!

Thank God that the raison d'être of Shakespeare's Globe is to bring audiences back to something like Shakespearean Ground Zero - literally, the actual ground of the old Globe (or as close as we can get to it), its actual stage, and the unadorned text.  And frankly, in this production they pretty much succeed at conveying that concept in shorthand (for better and worse), even if they can't recreate the original context of the play (indeed, sometimes this production's funny mood seems to derive from a sense of Hamlet as an ur-text floating in a certain quizzical postmodern frame).

But needless to say, there's a flip side to this achievement: many of the interpretive riches that have been mined from Hamlet by our long excavation of it are here tossed aside.  Young Michael Benz's bleach-blonde Prince dazzles us with a sense of contrarian, ironic brilliance let loose and running free; and witty commedia stagecraft supports his capers at every turn; but we sometimes pay for our fun by forgetting the emotional depths of Hamlet and his play.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Is Good People only good, or is it actually great? (Pre-occupied by Occupy, Part 2)

At home in Southie with Lindsay-Abaire's Good People. . .  Photos: T. Charles Erickson.

Craft is such a rare thing in a new play that whenever it appears, I feel (to quote a certain highly relevant author) that attention must be paid.  And I can't think of a better-crafted new play - at least in the past few years - than David Lindsay-Abaire's Good People, which completes its run at the Huntington this weekend.  The drama's quality is slightly muted, I think, by a flawed production helmed (somewhat underwhelmingly) by Kate Whoriskey, whose P.C. pedigree (ART Institute, Lynn Nottage, et al.) probably explains her fumbling of Lindsay-Abaire's satiric valentine to the battered souls of Southie (whose denizens are his eponymous good people). Actually, for half the play Whoriskey can coast on the talent and experience of two of our best local actresses, who deliver an expert and fully-realized vision of the Southie sisterhood; it's when Lindsay-Abaire shifts his sights toward the western 'burbs that Whoriskey stumbles (she's from Harvard by way of Acton, a wealthy exurb with a median household income roughly twice Boston's).  Still, the dazzle of the Huntington's production values (and Alexander Dodge's deadly-accurate set) put over the second act for the most part, and perhaps even highlight some of the script's less-obvious strengths.

Among these qualities (pardon me if I sound like I'm purring) are memorable characters and a realistic, recognizable milieu; a theme (remember those?); and what's more, a refreshingly current political resonance. That Lindsay-Abaire clearly intends his play as a political statement - and what's more an accessible, up-to-the-minute political statement that you don't need an advanced degree to decipher - seems to have given a few critics pause, however.  Not that they have advanced degrees themselves (please!), but they seem uncertain how to broach the delicate question of class, and how it maps to education, in a town that is always denying it even while relying on it to oppress the locals.

For let's be honest about the Athens of America - it's really the Athens of Apartheid, where clear demarcations - often simple streets, like Huntington, Mass, or Dot Ave. - function as virtual Mason-Dixon lines defining a topology of race, class, and educational achievement as clearly and cleanly as the East River cleaves Manhattan from Queens.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Race on Boston's stages, Part I

The young Paul Robeson. Eighty years after his Othello, it's still rare to see an African-American, Latino or Asian Hamlet, Lear or Macbeth.

This is the first in what I hope will be a series of conversations devoted to questions of race in the Boston theatre.  In this post, I will be sharing space with my IRNE colleague Beverly Creasey, who covers theatre on her own blog, the Boston Arts Review (which, btw, you should read regularly). I asked Beverly to engage in this dialogue as I felt she could offer a unique perspective on issues that have become top-of-mind again for the community after a spirited forum at last summer’s Theatre Communication Group conference, and the announcement of a “Diversity/Inclusion/Gender Parity Task Force” initiative by StageSource.  So without further ado -

TG: Now Beverly, you've been involved in what has been called "non-traditional" casting for a long time – maybe since its beginnings; you were one of the first advocates for the practice locally. I can remember when critics like Arthur Friedman of the Herald used to question in print whether actors of color could convincingly play “white” roles, so I appreciate your pioneering work.  But tell me a little bit more about your efforts in this area, and how you feel the casting situation has changed in Boston.

BC: Well, for a little background on “Non-Traditional Casting” (NTC): In 1986 the Theater Communications Group (TCG) did a study which revealed an appalling pattern of exclusion for a lot of Americans in what was supposed to be their own theatre. Something like 90% of the professional productions in the U.S were cast with Caucasian actors. The TCG then began an initiative to promote access to non-white actors and actors with disabilities so that casting people would see the possibilities (and advantages) of hiring/casting Chekhov or Shakespeare or Wilde with actors who reflect who we all are. (Imagine the resonance of a physically challenged actor ruminating on his disabilities as Richard III, or a black actor in Chekhov discussing serfdom – i.e., slavery. Thanks to NTC, I have seen both.)

So I worked with TCG on a Boston conference and then ran the Boston NTC file (of actors, playwrights, directors, tech people etc.) until it was adopted by StageSource as their "unity file." This was essentially before Internet access. Now you can go to the StageSource website and pull up the "actors of color" file. I know it's hard now to believe that this was even an issue, because today most of Boston's theaters cast non-traditionally – to some extent - as a matter of course. So NTC has been an unqualified success. The excuse used by theaters back in the day to exclude actors of color was always some variant of "We cast the best actor for the role," which of course was code for "the best white actor” – meaning trained at the right school, familiar with the right people, more acceptable to the subscription audience, etc. I thought that excuse was a thing of the past!

Saturday, October 6, 2012

It's time to Honk!

This weekend, check out the "revolutionary street spectacle" that is the annual HONK! Festival of Activist Street Bands, which began right here in Boston - in fair Somerville, to be exact - and is now a nation-wide phenomenon.  Check their website for the schedule of events - you can sing, dance, march, play, or just do your thing - but it all wraps up Monday!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Les 7 doigts perform more than 7 wonders at ArtsEmerson

Les 7 doigts de la main (that's "The 7 Fingers of the Hand") are back in town.  Through Sunday at ArtsEmerson. 

There, shouldn't that be review enough?

Anyone who caught Psy, the troupe's first appearance in the Hub last spring, knows what I mean: there are so many delightful thrills on tap in a 7 doigts show that critique seems . . . well, simply beside the point.

I suppose I could chew for a minute or two on the conceptual interest of this millennial circus variant from Montréal (where else?).  You shouldn't expect sequins or spangles, or lions or tigers or bears, or even much in the way of glamorous display from the Fingers (as I like to call them).  Like so many millennials, they take the stage in slacker duds, with confident, low-key DIY attitude, and they mostly build their circus from scratch - like a kit from IKEA.

They are into concept - just not the "high concept" of Cirque du Soleil, which is always claiming their shows are about the rainforest, or the Higgs boson, and then trot out the Flying Wallendas anyway.  No, the Fingers prefer small-scale, quirky concepts, usually rooted in theatre-school psychology (think A Chorus Line goes to the circus).  Psy, for instance, was putatively about acrobatics as an escape from phobias and fears; the current casual extravaganza, Sequence 8, is likewise supposedly about the sparks that fly when personalities clash.

Well, maybe.  The show, I have to report, ends up amiably picking up a variety of concepts (a radio show, bits of standup, a striptease)  and then shrugging and setting them down again. Which was fine, really.  To be honest, the program loses a little steam after the halfway mark, but I was still indulgent of the troupe's half-morphing of the circus into theatre, as the results generally had a funkier, more intimate feel than Psy (which sometimes felt coolly narcissistic). Perhaps this was because many of these performers have been working together for years, and so you could feel something of their own personal dynamics - the tension and the affection - in their routines (maybe that was what they meant by that clash-of-personalities stuff).

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

I call bullshit on Paul Thomas Anderson's worst movie yet

Can a master actor pull off a masterly cinematic con?  Philip Seymour Hoffman as "Lancaster Dodd."

This weekend I sat through one of the worst movies of the year - simultaneously pretentious, obvious, and dramatically flat.  Several folks in the crowd I saw it with lacked my fortitude - people left the theatre in a small but steady stream after about the halfway point.  (And they didn't come back with popcorn.)

I admit I envied them, as I asked myself over and over again, "Why are you sitting through this dreck, Mr. Garvey, when you could be doing something far more exciting, like picking up toothpaste at CVS?"

My answer, I must also admit, actually makes me cringe now with self-contempt:

I was sitting there because A.O. Scott had told me to.

The movie I'm talking about, of course, is Paul Thomas Anderson's dreadful The Master (even typing its title just made me shudder slightly, the way you might while discussing something like a barium enema) over which Mr. Scott, the lead critic of the New York Times, swooned last week.

Which, I think, is of far more cultural import than the same critic's pan of (and the ensuing dust-up over) that Avengers movie last summer.

For to be blunt, the culture has far more to fear from the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson than it does from The Avengers.  Indeed, what's really troubling about the current cinematic scene is not that the detritus of Marvel Comics meets with popular success; it's that the critics who sniff at such multiplex fodder are seemingly unable to parse actual artistic statement from its simulation.  What we're getting at the arthouse as a result is a kind of waxworks avant-garde, in which highbrow tropes and structures are glossily invoked sans cultural salience or purpose.

Monday, October 1, 2012