Thursday, January 31, 2013

Handel and Haydn's Best scenes from Purcell

Henry Purcell, England's greatest composer.























Last weekend Handel and Haydn gave props to a composer they've rarely performed in the past - Henry Purcell (perhaps, as is often claimed, the greatest English composer who ever lived) - and dipped a hesitant toe into performance styles that we rarely encounter anymore, the semi-opera and masque.  This meant that the evening was instantly of considerable interest to a critic like me, who often ponders music, theatre, and opera, as well as their various intersections - and I confess that I left the performance highly intrigued, but not consistently satisfied.

This was partly because the works themselves were at times musically brilliant, but to be honest, also somewhat variable (a good deal of the concert was devoted to a masque from The Indian Queen that had to be completed by Purcell's brother Daniel, due to the composer's untimely death).  The lack of full staging for another long sequence from the same work (a kind of semi-opera by Dryden) resulted in a performance that felt rather tantalizingly un-focused (for the effect of masque, I think, is actually connected to its physicalization in a deeper way than that of opera).  The concert was also impacted by the illness of one of its stars, local light Teresa Wakim, whose absence required various roles be sung by members of the H&H chorus (amusingly, as I noted earlier this week, this fact seemed to sail right over the head of Globe critic Jeremy Eichler).  

On top of all this, I sometimes wondered whether other soloists might be suffering from a touch of the sniffles.  Tenor Zachary Wilder sounded far thinner than he had the last time I heard him; indeed, the entire top of his range sounded stretched, and he didn't have the vibrancy I recalled from earlier performances.  Likewise Wakim's replacements simply weren't singing at full force; only Margot Rood seemed in full possession of her sparkling instrument.

Jonathan Best
The great exception to this general rule was bass-baritone Jonathan Best, who made a stunning Boston debut in two of Purcell's most famous scenes: "Scene of the drunken poet" from The Fairy Queen (a kind of incidental masque devised for A Midsummer Night's Dream) and the delightful "Frost Scene" from King Arthur (again, set to a text by Dryden).  Best (at right) proved something like a force of nature - his deep, resonant baritone is the kind of voice that the word "burnished" was coined to describe, and what's more, he's an actor of startlingly command (after seeing this, I'd gladly watch him essay Falstaff, or any number of roles from Shakespeare).  I'm actually not sure I've ever encountered a singer this talented who is also an actor of this stature; Best is nothing less than a phenomenon.

Indeed, in some of these roles he was literally a force of nature - in Purcell's "Frost Scene" from King Arthur, the baritone portrayed "The Cold Genius," a personification of nature in winter, who is stirred from beds of snow to life (and spring) by the power of love.  The vignette, and Purcell's music, are built around the amusing similarity between shivery coughs and the familiar staccato stroke of baroque strings - and the results are deeply bewitching in the manner of the oldest fairy tales. (The score also features perhaps the only fully-sung sneeze in the choral repertoire.) And Best was irresistible, as he was in the even tougher role of the drunken (but self-aware) poet from The Fairy Queen.

Elsewhere the chorus shone brightest.  Purcell was a mysteriously powerful choral writer, and there are some stunning choral passages in The Indian Queen, all of which got the full Harry Christophers treatment here.  Best was in continued fine form, of course (although he actually seemed to be sight-singing at times), and the well-known duet for "Two Aerial Spirits" was given a charming rendition by Margot Rood and Erika Vogel; there were also strong solos from Woodrow Bynum and Donald Wilkinson.  But alas, Christophers didn't draw his usual level of precision from the instrumental ensemble.  The deceptively simple, lightly-dancing rhythms of Purcell are tricky; their casual grace requires a seemingly offhand (but actually utterly precise) syncopation.  Here, however, things were a little too loose at times - although the winds were in better shape than the strings, and Bruce Hall sparkled reliably on the trumpet.  I'd have to say this proved one of the shaggier H&H concerts I've encountered; but its high points were memorable, and I was happy to be introduced to both Jonathan Best and some of the more obscure aspects of Purcell's achievement.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Beasts have a kiki

Jill Rogati, Christopher Nourse and Kiki Samko listen up.
If you haven't heard, the Beasts are back - the Imaginary Beasts, that is, and "back" with their annual winter panto, this time (loosely) based on Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (through this weekend only at the BCA).

What's a "panto," you may ask?  (Sigh. You're so out of it. I suppose next you'll ask me what a kiki is!)  A panto is a charming British mode of children's theatre, in which a favorite tale or nursery rhyme is sweetly scrambled by a laundry list of tongue-in-cheek performance traditions. These include cross-dressing heroes and heroines, silly dance numbers, call-and-response routines, booing and hissing (of course!), a panto-load of slapstick, as well as a very mild dose of innuendo for the grown-ups.

In short - what's not to like?  And Head Beast Matthew Woods is obviously devoted to the panto (he climbs up onstage as the villain every year - this time he's all but unrecognizable in beaver-sized buck teeth); what's more, in crafty costumer Cotton Talbot-Minkin he has found a kindred spirit who conjures perfectly the Arthur Rackham/Maxfield Parrish "look" that grounds the form.  

And after several years of putting on these daft extravaganzas, the Beasts have pulled together a band of veterans who know just what they're doing.  The whole troupe is amusing, but special shout-outs this year have to go to Jill Rogati's shapely Ichabod Crane, Joey Pelletier's irrepressible "Dame Vivian Van Winkle" (whose rendition of "Tiptoe through the Tulips" is a highlight), Kiki Samko's super-spoiled Katrina van Tassel, and the reliable Michael Underhill's "rollicking, roaring, roistering" Brom Bones.

To be honest, this show is probably best enjoyed with kids (who "get" the panto form in some deep way); it also helps if you're tickled by shouting things like "Look out behind you!!" at the stage.  In this year's edition, I was most struck by the occasional shadow-play, and wanted more of it (I dream of the day the Beasts break out into a larger budget, as their whimsical design skills seem to know no limit).  I was less taken by this year's pop number, the Scissor Sisters' "Let's Have a Kiki," which I know sounds like a great choice, but didn't seem to conjure anything too kicky.  On the upside, the action was in general a little tighter than I remembered from last winter, so the adults didn't get restless (for some reason the kids never do).  Not that I'm complaining.  Something about the wacky whimsy of the panto form has seduced me too; seeing any of them for me is like having a kiki.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Everybody's a critic, even Fido



What can I say?  Aesthetic experience is universal.

IRNE season begins!

Yes, it's that time of year again - time to compile my list of nominees for this year's Independent Reviewers of New England Awards.  (I've been a bad boy, actually, I'm at the very deadline, so I have to double down and get the list out today!)

Which means it's also time to confront the many vagaries of the critical process - which loom all the larger when the pool of candidates is as wide as it is with the IRNEs. For this is that moment when your list of three or four possible nominees has to be boiled down to one.  That moment when you have to go with your gut, when much of your reasoning can be answered with other reasoning.  When your sense of history and feel for the dynamics of the scene can only go so far, when you have to decide between apples and oranges, and you're wondering if your final call, between one type of quality and another, comes down to a subconscious coin-toss.

This of course doesn't mean that the process is random - I have my reasons for everyone who is on my nominee list, so whoever gets the nod deserves it, IMHO.  And it certainly doesn't mean I don't agonize over the final decision (and does anyone agonize over a coin toss?).  Indeed, rest assured that everyone on the IRNEs takes these decisions extremely seriously - and are often shocked, shocked to find that someone else's decision has gone "the other way."

It doesn't get any easier in the final round, either - that's for sure.  Which is one reason we keep trying to  be more and more inclusive.  The great irony around the debate around my IRNE membership some years ago was that I was the one always pushing for more, not less, diversity in the nominations - particularly where our influence counts the most, in the fringe and small theatre scenes.  I'll say up front that I feel our highest goal is to help talent rise into the profession - and I think we do accomplish that to a surprising degree. I really couldn't care less which Broadway in Boston tour wins Best Visiting Production; and if an actor or actress wins a Norton Award a year or two after we've nominated them, that's all well and good - but the real action is over, indeed it ended when the artist broke into their first Equity production in part because they got noticed by an IRNE reviewer.  This process happens anyway, of course; local casting directors do keep a close eye on the scene; but I think it moves faster now because of us - and perhaps my greatest satisfaction comes from seeing a performer I first saw in some basement or fringe space step onto the stage of an Equity house.

So let's hope that happens again this year.  In the meantime, I have to go find a quarter . . .

Monday, January 28, 2013

High and dry with the far right

Home for the holidays in Palm Springs.








Okay, I have to ask this right up front:

Do you really care about aging Republicans in Palm Springs?

Because I don't.

And that's one reason I struggled with Jon Robin Baitz's Other Desert Cities, which SpeakEasy Stage is presenting in a superficially strong, but slightly anemic production through February 9 at the BCA.

Now I know I should love all God's creatures: spiders, snakes, smallpox - even Republicans.  Because of, you know . . . Jesus and Buddha and stuff. So I suppose I should be willing to grant these types my . . . aesthetic attention, for lack of a better phrase.  At least for the length of a play.

But honestly, Jon Robin Baitz has made it tough.  Partly because he thinks he has made it easy. The playwright seems to imagine he has somehow tied the emotional undertow of the classic American melodrama to the red/blue battle-line dividing our politics. All I can say is - if only.  If Baitz had, indeed, pulled off that particular trick, then Other Desert Cities would be of high interest.  But he has actually dodged the hard part of the job entirely.

To be fair, the playwright has penned a solidly entertaining long-form cable TV episode.  And to some in the theatre-going audience, that's probably enough.  Baitz was famously dumped from his own TV series, Brothers and Sisters, over the political themes he wanted to pull into its opening season; and that imbroglio clearly hangs over Other Desert Cities, which follows one Brooke Wyeth (Anne Gottlieb), a liberal writer who long ago retreated to a redoubt on Long Island (just as Baitz did), who is now spending a Jewish Christmas with her Palm-Springs-Republican parents, Polly and Lyman (Karen MacDonald and Munson Hicks).  Her apolitical bro-dude (Chistopher Smith) is also along for the ride in the holiday golf cart, while blowsy, broken alcoholic Aunt Silda (Nancy E. Carroll) livens things up with predictable speak-truth-now antics.

For Brooke has it in mind to lance a secret boil that has long plagued the family's psychological underbelly: one troubled brother, perhaps in reaction to his parents, swung further to the left than they did to the right, got involved with domestic terrorism in the 70's - and then vanished (and is now presumed dead). Polly and Lyman continue to live in denial of same, of course, while depressive Brooke has almost begun to feed on it emotionally - hence this Christmas she's gifting her parents with a tell-all memoir, spiked with secrets leaked by Aunt Silda.  

Now this is a solid melodramatic set-up, and at first Baitz competently cues us to wait for a slow drip of revelation to accelerate into confrontation.  But when that showdown finally comes, it's a bit of a let-down, because what Baitz seemed to promise as the distinctive twist of his plot, i.e., a battle royale between the mental stances shaping our two leading political styles (the denial of the right vs. the narcissism of the left), never actually materializes.   Indeed, Baitz never engages with what it means to be a Republican today; racism, homophobia, torture, the subjugation of women, the denial of science - none of the truly toxic aspects of the far right are aired here (probably because they would make the play's melodramatic frame collapse).  And at any rate, nobody's politics shift even an iota over the course of the drama, and the climax pivots entirely on familiar cliches of family loyalty. At the finish we really feel someone should pass through saying, "Nothing new to see here, move along now, move along."

Photos: Craig Bailey
I guess you could argue Brooke mellows a bit in her aggressive  New Age defenses - but is that enough to justify two and a half hours of complicated exposition and dramatic construction?  I'd argue no.  But clearly SpeakEasy feels otherwise - indeed, they even claim in their program notes that Jon Robin Baitz is "the Arthur Miller of our time."

Uh-huh.  I guess time will tell.  In the meantime, there are mild pleasures to be had from Other Desert Cities, thanks to a crack cast and director Scott Edmiston's customary skill. The stand-out is local light Anne Gottlieb (at left, with memoir), who manages to make the sensitive, self-obsessed Brooke not nearly as obnoxious as she might be in less skillful hands.  If anything, newcomer Christopher M. Smith is even a bit better in the lesser role of her politically-neutral brother; precisely cast and precisely directed, Smith makes superficiality seem like so much more than it is.  Just as skillful is the reliable Nancy E. Carroll as Aunt Silda, but you know, she could probably play this part (basically a set of snappy one-liners) in her sleep; and sadly, the moment Silda opens out into a conflicted character, Baitz drops her like a hot patio tile.

Front and center are the mysterious Republican parents, who are supposed to intrigue us with their curious mix of nasty clubhouse politics and easy-going, good-natured fun.  This combination isn't such a mystery, of course; nor does the portrayal of Jews celebrating Christmas at the country club with the Reagan crowd exactly knock us for a loop.  If Baitz had scratched the surface of these characters, he might have revealed a truly disturbing portrait of a certain kind of nervous, amoral ambition on the make.  But he doesn't seem able to see that far dramatically; I think narcissism has shaped his drama more than he realizes.  At any rate, the reliable Karen MacDonald and Munson Hicks both hold us, but they're both subtly mis-cast (neither is quite old enough, and the hearty MacDonald has trouble conveying brittle ruthlessness - while Hicks offers little sense of hidden depth).

A few other aspects of the production don't feel quite right - set designer Janie E. Howland seems to be aiming for David Hockney, for instance, but misses (although costumer Charles Schoonmaker pretty much nails Palm Springs chic).  Still, in general the surface is strong - Edmiston knows how to direct the well-made-play polish of Baitz's banter, and the cast is more than up to his culture-lite demands. Indeed, if you squinted, you might even mistake all this for Arthur Miller, I suppose.  

If you'd never seen Arthur Miller, that is.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

I admit it, I was wrong about Diane Paulus

Ta-da!  I have nothing new to say! Isn't that fabulous??? Photo: Michael J. Lutch.
For those of you have written in to ask, I did indeed go see Diane Paulus's production of Pippin at the A.R.T.  (I think it has closed by now; at any rate it sold out long ago.)

And I have to admit I was wrong about her.  

Yes!  (Bet you never thought you'd read that on the Hub Review, did you.)

You see - I thought Diane Paulus could direct Pippin.

And it turns out I was wrong.  Oh, so wrong.

Now I wonder if she can really direct anything.  I mean Pippin seemed so perfect for her!  PG-dirty, high-school-y, vaguely left-y, and with some lingering resonance as a cultural book-end for Hair, which Paulus made a solid (if not quite inspired) hit a few years back.  Indeed, Pippin is kind of the anti-Hair; back in the day, it was basically about the boomers withdrawing from their short-lived interest in political life, giving up on revolution, and settling down in the ex-urbs.

These days I'm not sure what it's about, and clearly neither is Diane.  Although to be fair, I can only really say that Paulus can't direct the first half (yes, I know in its premiere it was performed in one fell swoop - but the first half is probably the stronger half anyway).  You see I left at intermission. Sorry!  But I'm really ruthless when I've paid for my own ticket, and if a show is as empty as this one, I do NOT stick around - I have better things to do (like check out the chocolate at Burdick's).

Now, I know what you're thinking - it's not her fault: Pippin is bad.  And, okay. It's certainly not, well, good - but it's also not that bad.  I've seen it work (and honestly, it played for five years on Broadway for a reason). Of course Stephen Schwartz's score is terrible - and I mean DREADFUL - and the plot is, if anything, even worse.  The storyline is just whacked, utterly a-historical and ridiculous (there's even a resurrection), and the tone is relentlessly immature, basically because Pippin began its life as a college revue, and it has never entirely shaken off that undergraduate perspective - even though Bob Fosse tried his damnedest to transform it into a dark Brechtian fable for its Broadway run.

Now Fosse is one of the major cultural figures of the late twentieth century - and I'd argue he almost succeeded in making Pippin worthwhile.  Certainly for its day it seemed edgy, with orgies and Monty-Python-esque battles and an African-American "leading player" who all but begged for applause while hinting at a buried hostility behind his Mr.-Bo-Jangles mask.  No wonder Fosse banned Schwartz from rehearsals (tellingly, Paulus reportedly brought him back in); he was ruthlessly subverting Schwartz's schmaltz with a viciously cynical subtext.  

The trouble is, I think our familiarity with Fosse has made it hard to remember the sardonic, de-stabilizing atmosphere his work once breathed.  This whole show, with all its "ideals" and sentimental tropes, is just a kind of sexual sale, his trademarked moves whispered; I'm the pimp and you're the john. Any questions?

But Paulus's attempt to resuscitate Pippin's Fosse-ography falls bizarrely flat, because that sense of challenge is completely missing from her work (and maybe from her mind).  To be fair, perhaps any earnest pop faith in musical theatre is so far in the past that now half the Fosse equation is gone forever.  And don't get me wrong - as always, Paulus proves herself an apt pupil and a dedicated Harvard-level student.  She worked really, really hard on this, you can tell, and to many that means she deserves an A; and she's very open and honest about her lack of any fresh insight or angle on the material - she signals right up-front that she is bringing nothing original to the party.  Indeed, the show opens with a looming image of Fosse's shadow (and all but precisely apes a few of his most famous numbers).  

And yet somehow the whole thing is boring as hell, because Paulus is working at cross-purposes with herself, and doesn't understand Fosse's own conflicted attitude toward the hard sell - I mean honestly, how could she have brought Stephen Schwartz back to consult on the subversion of his own schtick? In the end, Fosse wanted the theatre to be more than high-end prostitution; I think actually he longed for innocence.  And let's be honest - Paulus doesn't.  She just wants to make the sale.  She quite desperately wants to make the sale.  That's all there is for her - the ka-ching.

And you know - that's okay, I guess; you can't really fault her morally because she just seems - well, kind of beyond morals.  I used to get upset with her dumbing-down of Shakespeare, or her slurs against Gershwin - but Pippin made me I understand those moves were just business as usual.  Even sleaze doesn't exist aesthetically for her; she doesn't get it.  She doesn't really understand what she herself is doing.

But like I said, she works hard.  What an effective manager!  And she has certainly built a gigantic whirligig of a production; it will no doubt seem the most dazzling iteration yet of the New-York-Vegas-tourist-theatre-trap when it opens on Broadway this spring (yes, this was always really a commercial show; Paulus just took advantage of the Massachusetts taxpayer for its try-out).  Indeed, sometimes it seemed that every single corner of the Loeb stage had been diligently filled with meaningless spectacle.  Paulus enlisted "Les 7 Doigts de la Main," the millennial Montreal circus troupe, to bring some Cirque-du-Soleil va-va-voom to Fosse's traveling-players conceit, and they did add spectacle, and how - so much so that they all but overwhelmed the slim spine of the musical.  

But if you've seen Les Doigts before (they've been through town three times by now), you've already seen all their best bits, and somehow their virtuosic chill is more bracing in their own work.  If you're from Topeka, of course, you'll be thrilled.  (Or from Harvard, I might add - as I left the lobby, I heard one Harvard blue-hair commenting, "Who are these young acrobats?  They're just wonderful!"  Which is why they call life at Harvard "island living.")

I will say the show had Andrea Martin (who actually gets up on the trapeze!).  We will always love Andrea Martin.  So there's that.  And the great Charlotte d'Amboise, alone among the performers, brought some real sizzle to her Fosse.  But Pippin and his Leading Player were just blanks - talented blanks, but blanks - and if you ain't got them, and you ain't got a director, well . . .

At least the Burdick's fudge was really good.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Dear Jeremy Eichler: This is what Teresa Wakim looks like

For future reference.
Sometimes the disinterest with which the Globe arts staff views its hometown is almost embarrassing.

Just a few weeks ago, a seemingly ignorant Jeffrey Gantz innocently gave away the big reveal at the core of the Huntington's Our Town.  And in today's paper, Jeremy Eichler actually reviews a performance that wasn't there, in last night's Handel and Haydn rendering of Purcell's The Indian Queen.

Eichler gives the concert a good notice (a surprise, as he has often sniffed at H&H), and I'd agree in general with his assessment - you should go see the last performance, at Sanders Theatre this Sunday.

The odd thing about the review, however, is that it praises a singer who wasn't there. The lovely and talented Teresa Wakim (at left) is a mainstay of Boston's vocal scene - indeed, she is one of its leading sopranos, whom I've reviewed or mentioned 15 times in the last four years. She has sung at Handel and Haydn, Boston Baroque, Blue Heron - in fact almost everywhere.

Alas, illness prevented her from singing at Handel and Haydn last night.   But Jeremy Eichler seems to think she did anyway!  In his review, he announces that "Teresa Wakim sang with crystalline tone and graceful musicality."  So apparently poor Ms. Wakim was warbling with crystalline tone through a bout with the flu.

An honest mistake, you say, easily explained by his not reading (or not receiving) a program insert? Not really - although that probably contributed to the flub.  For Wakim was actually replaced by three different members of the Handel and Haydn chorus - Sonja Tengblad, Jessica Cooper and Brenna Wells, all accomplished singers in their own rights, took over the various solos she would have sung.

So did Eichler somehow not notice that three different ladies marched downstage at various times to take over Wakim's duties at different junctures? Did only one of them impress him? Or did he think they were all named Teresa Wakim?  Enquiring minds want to know!

Sigh.  I don't know what's more depressing: that Jeremy Eichler is so out of touch with our classical music scene that he doesn't know who Teresa Wakim is (which would basically be like my not knowing who Karen MacDonald is) - or that he was so disconnected from the performance in front of him that he never scanned it against the cast list in the program.

All I can say - Teresa, you sound even better when you're actually singing!

So get well soon, my dear!

Friday, January 25, 2013

Something Churchill this way comes

Vernoica Barron, bassist Tony Leva, and the witches of Vinegar Tom.















Caryl Churchill liked to call her script Vinegar Tom (through Feb. 2 from Whistler in the Dark) "a play about witches with no witches in it."  She might have added, "And in which the lead character never appears," for indeed we never set eyes on the eponymous tom-cat who's supposedly the "familiar" of her poor, persecuted characters.  (That is, unless he is represented in spirit by the masculine villains of the play.)

But that isn't the end of what's downright odd about Vinegar Tom.  The show is also, believe it or not, a cabaret - yes, a cabaret about hanging witches - and is studded with quotes from such hair-raising sources as the Malleus Maleficarum, an influential 15th-century tract which advised its readers that "All witchcraft comes from carnal lust . . . which is in women insatiable."

For Churchill, that point was of particular significance, for she has always been deeply feminist in her perspective.  Although I don't mean by that anything like today's amoral, careerist feminism; Churchill is a long way from the slick likes of Diane Paulus or Kathryn Bigelow.  Indeed, the playwright often critiques feminism - unheard of today! - as it's really only one aspect of her deeper concern with human equity in general.

But the f-word looms so far over the action of Vinegar Tom (which was devised in collaboration with the 70's-era collective "Monstrous Regiment"), that it has prompted several (male) critics to complain that the play is didactic. And it's certainly true that Churchill offers us no enlightened male hero, à la Arthur Miller, to provide something like a pleasing gender balance.  But then she doesn't really give us a female hero, either; her victims are as benighted and ignorant as their persecutors (indeed the campaign against female sexuality she illuminates may have its staunchest allies among women themselves).  

No, Churchill's "witches" are simply as helpless as they would have been in their actual time and place (17th century England), and with the resources they had to hand; and we're struck forcefully by their plight because it has rarely been depicted quite so bluntly. These women are essentially chattel in a system designed by and for male desire - and so they are generally unable to own property, have no voting rights, and indeed often lack even the ability to read. Thus Churchill sensibly denies them any rhetorical power; none of the women in Vinegar Tom spout poetry in a pinch like Portia or Rosalind. And as for masculine chivalry - well, even though one of these women is literally locked up in a tower, no one comes to their rescue.

Arresting a Witch, by Howard Pyle
Of course, if "accurate" counts as "didactic" - well, so be it. But even those hostile to Churchill's framing would have to admit her sheer talent keeps poking through her lesson plan.  Her characters are indeed rounded (though rough) and their conflicts operate through full degrees of freedom; nothing in Vinegar Tom feels over-determined, even if much in it feels inevitable.

This is because so many of Churchill's characters themselves operate (or try to) with some degree of personal choice in a world that's hostile to it.  Take Alice, for instance (Becca A. Lewis) - she's a misfit who simply enjoys a roll in the hay. And her mother (Karin Webb) is simply trying to make her own living, on her own.  As is outsider Ellen (Obehi Janice), who sells charms and spells to get by. Finally there's pretty young Betty (Melis Aker) who only wants to choose her own husband.  All these desires bring them into harm's way; their autonomy from men targets them, and the mysterious power of their sexuality offers the perfect pretext for their persecution.

Or to be honest, sometimes the repellent power of their loss of sexuality does.  The contempt men feel for the used woman, as well as their horror of those beyond the child-bearing years, obviously figure in the myth of the witch, and if the Whistler production has a major flaw, it's that it doesn't really explore the iconography of the crone as it should (see Howard Pyle's evocation of one of Salem's victims, above).  Even the supposedly elderly women in this version are hale, hearty and attractive, which rather lets us off the hook of our own prejudices (for what really drives our own desperate cult of youth?).

And then there are the curious songs - delivered here by a coolly stylish chanteuse - with which Churchill comments on and critiques her action.  These are in a fully modern idiom, and are often rendered with rather obvious irony - which makes for a curious contrast with the rest of the material (spoken in thick accents, and costumed in a loose historic mode).  To be fair, though, I'm not sure exactly how any production could smoothly bridge this gap - and the song settings themselves, by Molly Allis, Juliet Olivier and Veronica Barron, proved of high quality, and were delivered with diverting élan by a poised (and pitch-perfect) Barron.

As you may have guessed by now, Vinegar Tom defies classification.  But then Churchill was never one to value formal consistency for its own sake, and the Whistler production is so imaginative, forceful and focused that the rough joints and seams in her conception didn't seem to matter much.   The acting - rendered in a thick but precise dialect - is strong across the board, although particular praise must go to Lewis's knockabout free spirit, Obehi Janice's dignified spell-peddler, and especially the luminous Melis Aker's romantically stricken prisoner. 

The lion's share of props, however, I feel must go to director and designer Mac Young, a protean talent on the fringe who actually built for this production (in a rehearsal hall of the BCA, no less) a full-sized, completely structural - though utterly off-kilter - house frame, whose raw joists make the perfect setting for the scrapes of Churchill's script.  Director Young and costumer Emily Woods Hogue have even dreamt up a trick by which Churchill's witches are hanged, quite convincingly, before our horrified eyes (although they soon spring back to life for a disconcerting vaudeville routine).   Something about this seems just right for Churchill, too. And so once more Whistler in the Dark has pushed the artistic limits of the fringe in unexpected directions.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Memo from Václav Havel

Lost in Havel's untranslatable idiom.
Václav Havel, who died only a little over a year ago, was one of the few playwrights who could claim to have had a larger role on the political stage than the dramatic one.

Both the final president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic, Havel, a long-time dissident and intellectual voice behind the Iron Curtain, was a major player in lifting that particular shroud, and eventually led the nascent Czech Republic through a decade of relative stability and prosperity.

But he was also the author of more than 20 plays,  of which The Memorandum (presented by Flat Earth Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts through last weekend) is one of the best known.

Yet we've seen few of these texts in local performance.  And alas, The Memorandum gave one some idea as to why.  Written just before the famous Prague Spring, the script is a smart, if heavy-handed, application of absurdist techniques (mostly on loan from Ionesco) to a satire of an unnamed Eastern bloc bureaucracy.  But if The Memorandum has any historic staying power, it will not be for the playwright's sketch of a peculiarly Havel-like hero, nor for his parody of "scientific" social policy, but rather for the scrappily surreal low comedy of his game corporate survivors.  The lower ranks of Havel's bureaucracy (here simply called "the organization") are filled with earthy types bent on doing as little as possible to get by, while hopefully scoring some milk or cigarettes on the side, at the local market (where, one gets the impression, real social policy is inevitably set).

And you can't blame them for their alienation once you get a load of the organization's latest innovation, "Ptydepe" (pronounced "puh-tee-de-pay") a new language willed into existence to distinguish every word to the maximum extent possible.  Ptydepe is progressive, it's scientific - and, of course, it leads to unpronounceable portmanteau words which no one can remember.  Few can master even the basics of Ptydepe, and no one can converse in it, but that's okay, because obscurantism is really its raison d'être; indeed, the circular process for translating its memos means their content remains unknown; hence the underlings who dreamt it up manage to climb (briefly) to the top of the org chart through sheer intimidation.

You perceive, of course, that such mindless "innovation" is not merely the purview of the left; the essential situation of The Memorandum has played out to some degree in every organization everywhere.  What's more, the surreal details of Havel's social vision often ring hilariously true: you can tell the relative importance of his corporate poo-bahs, for instance, by the size of their fire extinguishers (!), and there's a not-so-secret "staff watcher" who spends his days sneaking around in crawlspaces, spying on people through cracks and chinks.

But if his premise is inspired, Havel's exposition nevertheless tends to grind, and he doesn't seem to realize that a farce (which is basically what he's writing) should accelerate as it proceeds.  Instead, once  the playwright has nailed one particular point, he tends to nail it again and again - until the play feels stuck in a satiric rut.

Fleet timing and a crack cast could save The Memorandum from its naïve dramaturgy, I think; but alas, the Flat Earth performances, under the direction of Victoria Rose Townsend, were sometimes naïve, too, and far too broadly scaled - although most of these actors clearly had some comic chops.  Unfortunately the one player without much comic mojo was in the lead - and he didn't really manage the romantic side of the role, either (nor its paeans to Havel's humanism).  Nor was his antagonist, the weasely deputy who implements Ptydepe, given much in the way of distinguishing feature; only further down the totem pole did the acting liven up, and the production occasionally kick up its heels.  Marty Seeger Mason made an intriguingly self-aware bimbette of her dreamy secretary Hana, and Emily Hecht expertly nailed the annoying goody-two-shoes who got the hang of Ptydepe, even as young Kevin E. Parise cut an appropriately daffy profile as the nutty professor who could translate it.  Meanwhile newcomers Dori Levit and Kevin Kordis made a positive first impression in less antic roles.

Indeed, Flat Earth seemed quite in love with Ptydepe - as you might expect of a crowd of nice, brainy kids like these - the kind who in years gone by would have memorized Monty Python or Firesign Theatre records in their entirety.  If only earnest smarts were all you needed to cover the gaps in Havel's script, they'd all have been in comic clover. As it is, however, I was still grateful to this intrepid troupe for bringing something of Havel's dramatic legacy to light.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

More honest food blogging*: Cheap eats downtown

Your basic U-Cheeseburger.
Whenever I write about a restaurant, someone always emails to say (with an unseen eye-roll), "Yes, Thomas Garvey, we know you can get great food in town for $75 a head. But how about writing about grazing somewhere a little cheaper??"

Well, once again I have heard your cries. And here are a few tips for where to eat when your entertainment budget has all but gobbled up your food budget.

You know, or should know, of course, that Panera Bread is always a worthwhile option before the theatah.  Oddly, the bread and baked goods are the worst thing about the place (go figure); but the soups, salads and (most of) the sandwiches are fine, and reasonably priced - you can easily get out of the place for $10.  And there are Paneras very conveniently located just across from the Huntington, next door to the New Rep, and a block down from ArtsEmerson.  So there, your budget dinner plans on theatre night are done.

On those days when I'm seeing a show downtown and I don't feel like the crunchy fare of Panera, however (and I don't have the cash for Market or some other upscale bistro either) - I have been known to duck into UBurger on Park Street.

Don't laugh.  It's not bad.  I can pound back a cheeseburger with the best of them, and UBurger (above left) is, in a word, just about the best new burger joint in town.  Remember what Mr. Bartley's was like in its glory days?  If anything, UBurger is slightly better, and I'd say it easily snatches the laurels from Four Burgers in Central Square (although their sites and graphics are oddly similar - hmmmm).  

As in all burgery, the salient question is: how much, and how fresh, do you get?  At UBurger, you get a thick, though not over-abundant, patty; the kicker is that it is noticeably fresh - it tastes un-frozen - and the crispy fries, (standard-issue) buns and (generous) condiments are if anything fresher - tasty, even!  The profiles of these various savories are slightly more delineated than usual because it seems UBurger distributes the condiments on either side of the burger.  (Rare and medium-rare aficionados should note, however, that UBurgers tend toward the medium and medium-well; if this is a deal-breaker, you have been warned.)  I have yet to try the hot dogs or the chicken, but my gut is the same high sourcing standards hold throughout the menu, which offers a dude's paradise of toppings, cheeses, and the like.  (There are even some that's-so-gay salads with pears, cranberries, and balsamic vinaigrette!)  Low grease, high flavor - what more could you ask? 

Well, you could ask for a bit more decor than you get here, I think.  UBurger is one big bright-red, sponge-down surface, accessorized with those metallic-looking chairs that are actually plastic. It's basically designed for people who should be wearing bibs when they eat.  Nor can I pretend that it's a find - the Emerson kids found it long ago, and for most of the dinner hour it's jammed, so try to get there before 6 or after 8.  But do tell them I sent you.

*All items bought and paid for.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The inaugural poem, and its poet


One Day, written and recited by Richard Blanco, at 44 the youngest inaugural poet. He is also the first immigrant, first Latino, and first openly gay inaugural poet.

At last, a Hollywood movie worth an Oscar

Richard Parker, burning bright . . .




















It took me a while to catch up to Life of Pi, because I believed the claims of some the dimmer movie critics: with its soulful, shirtless young star (Suraj Sharma), and its high-concept, digitized Bengal tiger in a lifeboat, Ang Lee's latest did sound a little New-Age woozy, with over-obvious "spiritual" metaphors all but drowning in an ocean of color-saturated pixels.

But boy, was I wrong - and don't make my mistake.  I've sat through several of the Oscar nominees recently; some, like Spielberg's Lincoln, made me almost doze off; others, like Django Unchained, made me feel like Marcellus Wallace taking it up the keester from Zeke (or whoever it was) in Pulp Fiction.

Only Life of Pi has held me in anything like what we used to call "its grip" - although trance is probably the  better term, for the imagery throughout is so ravishing you often feel that rather than watching a movie you're experiencing a kind of floating dream.  But then the concept of "floating" is absolutely central to Ang Lee's vision.  His protagonists, "Pi" Patel (Sharma), and a Bengal tiger amusingly named "Richard Parker" (a clerical error mistakenly traded his name with his hunter's) are literally afloat with each other in the Pacific Ocean for most of the film, after the freighter carrying them, and the rest of Pi's family and their zoo, sinks in a cyclone.

And it's also worth noting that Pi's full name is actually "Piscine" - yes, he was named after the French term for "swimming pool" by his intellectual father (who ran an improbable zoo in Pondicherry).  So in a way, he is literally a floater in a wide variety of pools; even his nickname "Pi" references an irrational number whose value floats free from any attempt to pin it down (indeed, in one scene we watch as Pi tries to nail its elusive final digit across a dozen blackboards).

Okay, if all that symbolic exposition spooked you a little, I don't really blame you - and yes, the movie is stuffed with exotically lovely locales, and often feels perfumed with a Whole-Foods-profundity that equates hygienic sex with spirituality, and vegan-ness with godliness.  (In fact, at the film's opening, Pi styles himself a vegetarian.)

Floating among stars above and stars below.
But wait.  The Portlandia-book-club preamble only exists to kickstart the fable at the heart of the story - the one about the boy and the tiger in the lifeboat.  And once poor Pi and Richard Parker have begun their cruise, the movie transmutes itself into a kind of spell that mixes the low comedy of Aesop with the hard heart of Homer and the soft touch of Scheherazade (with perhaps a hint of ripe, Michael-Powell-style fantasy).  And Lee somehow sustains its strangely focused atmosphere for almost the entirety of the movie.  I have to say, I've never seen such mature work from this director before; Life of Pi has been wrought with the kind of confident, un-showy command that you would have expected from an old master like Lean, Hitchcock or Hawks some fifty years ago (only they wouldn't have had the tools to conjure the kind of transporting imagery that Lee does).

Indeed, this is that rare film that I'd recommend seeing in 3-D for thematic reasons: as I mentioned, a sense of floatation is at the core of the film's spiritual and moral concerns, and in 3-D, Lee's many evocations (and conflations) of suspension and flight are all but hypnotic. In general, "magic realism" is  a self-conscious mode of infusing post-colonial culture with some hint of native shamanism - and here Ang Lee brings the technique to some amazing new height of digital prestidigitation.  His Pacific Ocean is at one moment a roaring mantle of purple wrath, and the next an undulating hammock of liquid glass. We watch mesmerized as Pi's tiny boat slides across a rippling plate of sunlit sky; or nods gently above a galaxy of stars above, and a galaxy of jellyfish below.  And slowly, we begin to unconsciously accept the narrative's essential premise that we are always suspended in judgement before fearful symmetries and incomprehensible mysteries, whether beautiful or terrible (the film's most stunning sight may be the moment when Pi, plunged underwater, watches helplessly as the freighter carrying his parents plunges into the Mariana Trench like some doomed starship).

Of course the main action of this fable (or rather parable, for it slowly becomes a parable) is the long détente between the hungry Pi and the even hungrier Richard Parker (who disposes of a few other animals who struggle onto the boat with calm alacrity - so no, this isn't a film for the kiddies). Needless to say, they do work out a mode of co-existence, even perhaps something like a relationship between subject and object; thus the moment near the close of the picture when the exhausted tiger finally begins to sink toward death proves in its own way very moving.

But Lee isn't actually interested in sentimental anthropomorphism; indeed, he has one final trick up his sleeve that banishes any trace of Disney treacle from his movie entirely.  The film returns at the finale to a domestic frame: we are reminded that this whole tale has been an "as told to" story, by the surviving Pi to an unnamed writer (perhaps Yann Martel, the original novelist, who has, amusingly enough, admitted he borrowed the backbone of his story from someone else).

Here Pi suddenly mentions that his narrative admits an entirely different interpretation, one of an even more terrible savagery than that of Richard Parker. I won't give the precise shape of this final coup away; but I will offer a few hints: the tiger shares the name of his human hunter for a reason - and it may be worth remembering that Ang Lee's cinema has often been concerned with the acceptance of one's true nature.  Pi promises his listener that his tale will "make him believe in God" - although it hardly proves God's existence; rather it suggests that denying the divine leads one naked to the most terrible quandaries imaginable, ones that few can view without some kind of psychological veil.

As a boy, young Pi insisted that he was, improbably, a follower of Hinduism, Catholicism, and Islam; this sounds patently impossible, yet out on the open ocean, he instinctively voices a mingling of the three faiths when he drops his vegan scruples with lines like "We thank you Lord Vishnu for appearing to us as a fish and saving our lives!"  Yet perhaps the deepest resonance of Life of Pi lies in its intimation of an even more basic kind of spirituality, deeper than any of those three, which perhaps is the only one that can help us survive the cruelty of life's most terrible symmetries.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Shocking theatre game epic fail!



Remember to explain the rules of the trust fall IN EVERY DETAIL.  Otherwise you could end up like this poor little kid - traumatized for life!  (But admit it, you laughed.)

Shakespeare's Avon lady

As most Hub Review readers know, every summer I make a pilgrimage to the Stratford Festival to see Shakespeare the way it should be done; and I always spend at least part of that sojourn worshipping at the altar of Seana McKenna (at left), one of Stratford's several leading ladies, whom I've applauded in roles as varied as Medea and Richard III (yes).  Indeed, every year, when my happy little band of bardolaters gathers to look over the Festival's offerings, one of the first things we wonder is, "What is Seana doing?"

And now you can worship Seana too, without having to make the trek to Ontario, as she has brought her one-woman show, Shakespeare's Will, to Merrimack Rep for the month of January.

Although right off the top: the play itself, by Vern Thiessen, is, well, no great shakes - if you will (har de har!).  It's an attempt to flesh out, in trendy millennial political trappings, the role that the mysterious Anne Shakespeare, née Hathaway, played (or didn't play) in the life of the Bard.

To be honest, the marital destiny of Miss Hathaway is a rather fertile topic, but Thiessen doesn't seem too interested in exploring it honestly.  Indeed, he plays fast and loose with almost every fact he references.  Anne, of course, was the older woman (by eight, or maybe nine, years) who wed the 18-year-old Shakespeare while already pregnant.  And she's the even-older woman who, some 34 years later, was faced on her husband's death with a will that bequeathed her only his "second-best bed."

Ouch.

Beyond that, we don't know much about Anne, although of course her absence therefore haunts Shakespeare's biography.  Was her shrewishness the inspiration for Kate's in his notorious Taming?  Was her sexuality the source of the paranoia that bred the marital jealousies of Othello, Winter's Tale and Cymbeline?  Did some oversight of hers precipitate the death of the couple's son Hamnet (as Thiessen imagines here) - thus impacting the structure and tone of Shakespeare's greatest tragedy?

Yes, there's a lot there to hang a drama on - but honestly, I don't want to paint Anne as some villainess lurking in every dark corner of the canon; as I said earlier, we just don't know that much about her.  

But that same ignorance leads me to instinctively doubt Vern Thiessen's vision of her as a bohemian advocate of open marriage who simply got the shaft from Shakespeare.  This also seems - well, highly unlikely.

What seems far more likely, I'm afraid, is that Anne in the end fell outside William's emotional orbit because she fell outside his artistic and intellectual orbits as well (as would most of us!).  Indeed, she would also probably fall outside the sympathies of those modern audience members who would like to identify with her as an oppressed heroine.  For we have no records indicating that Anne could even read, much less appreciate the output of the greatest literary genius of the West.  Indeed, the real mystery regarding Anne Hathaway may be the unknown reason why William Shakespeare never abandoned her entirely; why after escaping to London, performing for royalty and amounting a considerable fortune, he returned to her upon his retirement and lived out his last days with her - and why he did, apparently, provide for her till her death (despite Mr. Thiessen's implications, Anne lived out her days in comfort in her home in Stratford).

A possible sketch of the mysterious Anne?
But then to be honest, there is something deeply conservative about Shakespeare that always troubles the modern romantic; we find it hard to believe that the same soul that could pen the sonnets could also behave at key junctures like your average insurance salesman. I wish I had an answer to that conundrum, but I don't - so I wish Vern Thiessen had attempted one; that question has always struck me as the most intriguing about Shakespeare's home life.  But instead we only get a rather rambling (and inaccurate) journal of Anne's years alone, and the intimation that Shakespeare was an inscrutable jerk.  Oh well! I admit Thiessen does know how to keep an effective rhythm going, and he manages a few moments of intriguingly rough poetry - he may have a voice; but here he simply doesn't have a theme.

Luckily, however, he has McKeanna, whose years of playing Shakespearean heroines pay off spectacularly in this bravura turn as the Bard's heroine at home. McKeanna's specialty has always been a subtle intelligence, and here, under the direction of husband Miles Potter (a major director in his own right), she convinces us that Anne could have shared her rueful wit and insightful modern fire.  I have my issues with this text, but frankly I'd gladly pay to hear Ms. McKenna read the phone book (as the saying goes); and if you venture up to Lowell to hear Shakespeare's Will, I think you'll understand why.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

What would we do without the Onion? Once again, they nail it


Jodie Foster Inspires Teens To Come Out Using Vague, Rambling Riddles 

(Sigh. If only they could nail better ads!  Ugh.)

Invisible Man is finally sighted

The "Invisible Man" blindly battles for a chance to attend college. Photo(s): T. Charles Erickson.
























Some sixty years ago, Invisible Man hit America's literary scene - and its racial consciousness - like a bombshell; and judging from the stage adaptation now at the Huntington (through February 3), Ralph Ellison's sprawling howl of a novel has lost little of its disturbing power.  Here, for the first time in our literature, Ellison gave tortured voice to black America's anger at white America, both for keeping it in chains and pretending it was free (and please don't pretend we don't deserve that), along with something even more shocking: a lacerating self-doubt, even self-disgust, at his own race's humiliating inability to shake off its shackles.

But perhaps Ellison's most unusual talent was for limning the twisted symbiosis between the races; as one "old singer of spirituals" tells him in a dream, "I dearly loved my master, son." The eponymous "Invisible Man" slowly realizes, however, that he must give up on that love if he is ever to truly exist in his own right. Duped and deceived by white society again and again - by both the political right and left - Ellison's nameless narrator finally, and famously, retreats underground (like his soulmate in Dostoevsky a century before) to a basement womb filled with electric lights and jazz records, where he ponders, like a ticking time bomb, how to engage a racist society with a consciousness entirely his own; he has in effect become the first racial existentialist.

The arc of the novel traces the narrator's painful descent through political illusion toward that bitter epiphany; and Ellison makes it a phantasmagoric ride, in which memory sometimes surrenders to dream, and the real can bleed into the surreal.  Thus his narrative is dotted with bald symbols (like the "Liberty Paint" company that produces "Optic White"), and barely-disguised political figures (Booker T. Washington and his Tuskegee Institute play a major role).  All this, when combined with Ellison's jazzily digressive style, means the book has been widely viewed as impossible to dramatize on stage or screen.

But in the current Huntington production (which was first developed at Chicago's Court Theatre, before touring to the Studio Theatre in Washington D.C.), adaptor Oren Jacoby makes an honorable stab at the impossible.  Ellison's first chapters come off best, largely because they naturally cohere into a single long vignette, the misadventure by which the narrator is kicked out of a barely-disguised Tuskegee Institute.

The story is weirdly compelling: the Invisible Man (who has already been forced into a fistfight to win his "scholarship," above) has been entrusted with squiring one of the Institute's white benefactors, a Bostonian who dreams that he is "like Emerson," around the local environs.  Somehow the narrator and his charge find their way to "the Quarters," that is the old slave quarters, where the effects of turning human beings into property still linger.  Here they become entangled with a man who has sired children with his own daughter, which mortifies and shames the narrator - but he notices in his white patron a strange air of fascination mixed with repulsion.

The Invisible Man in 'The Brotherhood.'
Thus begins Ellison's long exploration of the deep exploitation of black America that followed (or replaced) slavery.  His "Invisible Man" is cast from the servile realms of the Tuskegee Institute after this embarrassing episode; he heads north, but reaches a personal nadir when an explosion in the "Liberty Paint" factory (where he works) coats him in "Optic White."  Even wilder dream-like sequences ensue, complete with shock treatments, before the narrator eventually recovers and begins to explore his new home of Harlem.

Here he is stunned to find white drivers obeying black policemen on the street; and he begins to wonder if perhaps he can be free of "Optic White" forever. But the first stirrings of his own political activity (he protests an eviction) draw him into the orbit of "The Brotherhood," a Communist-Party-like organization more interested in exploiting the suffering of African-Americans than alleviating it.

And it's here that the Huntington production begin to falter.  Adaptor Jacoby has held (perhaps wisely) to the spine of Ellison's narrative, and resisted the temptation to follow the author into the many discursive eddies of his text.  But in the end Jacoby simply isn't much of a dramatist (he is, perhaps tellingly, a documentary filmmaker), and shows little talent for the kind of structure and shaping required to stage the complicated intrigues of the Brotherhood.  And his stated aim to keep to Ellison's own dialogue, while streamlining his narrative, leads this playwright inevitably into a quandary; essentially what we get in the production's latter half is Ellison's episodic structure without his novel's richness.

This is too bad, but the evening is hardly a loss - and at any rate, can a critic honestly advocate for risk, as I often do, but then rail at only partial success in a project as worthy, but problematic, as this one?  I think that would be hypocrisy; indeed, I sometimes wish the Huntington would more often bite off more than it can chew.  On the other hand, after two previous iterations on regional stages, Jacoby by now has had plenty of time to ponder what is going wrong in his last act; if he hopes for a longer stage life for this work, my advice would be to fix it.

It should also be noted that there is not a single weak link in this exemplary cast.  Teagle F. Bougere is nothing less than phenomenal in the lead role, essaying with tireless intensity long swaths of Ellison's densely-worked prose.  And the supporting players were just as compelling; local lights Johnny Lee Davenport, De'Lon Grant and Jeremiah Kissel did themselves proud as they joined out-of-town talents McKinley Belcher III, Edward James Hyland, Joy Jones, Deidra LaWan Starnes and Julia Watt.  A special shout-out, however, must go to Brian D. Coats, who perhaps more than anyone brought to life the signature cadence of Ellison's verbal jazz.

Meanwhile Christopher McElroen generally directed effectively, even if he couldn't quite pull the last act together, despite considerable help from design elements that were to the Huntington's usual high standard, with imaginative sound by David Remedios and nearly-constant projections by Alex Koch. All in all, Invisible Man is certainly the most challenging piece of theatre up on the local boards (by far); and even if it brings only a portion of Ellison's vision to the stage, that, to my mind, is cause for celebration.

Monday, January 14, 2013

This is what it's all about, people



A rather extended barbershop quartet ("The Entertainers") lets rip with "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" in a Tim Horton's in Ontario.  Any questions?  (Hat tip to Gregg Sorensen.)

Side bi Side by Sondheim

Phil Tayler and Erica Spyres in Marry Me a Little.  I think they're both heterosexual here.
You know what's great about Boston theatre right now?  The talent pool has gotten so deep that even when shows don't really work, they somehow kind of work anyway.

Take Stephen Sondheim's Marry Me a Little (at the New Rep through January 27). Director Ilyse Robbins has decided to experiment with this intimate little revue, which was conjured after the triumph of Sweeney Todd to showcase the "trunk songs" cut from previous Sondheim efforts.

Now back in 1980, the original creative team (Craig Lucas and Norman René) teased from the melancholy of this material a winsome tale of two singles singing to themselves of love when the only thing keeping them apart was the common wall of their respective apartments.  (The kicker was that in the end, they didn't even meet!)

Revivals have since toyed with that concept - one recent version ditched the original's hetero beard completely and featured two gay men.  But Robbins has instead doubled the initial couple to a quartet, and turned some (but not all) of these numbers into same-sex torch songs.  (Which, let's be honest, they probably were when old Stevie first hummed them to himself!)  So now I guess the revue could be called "Gay-Marry Me a Little."

Ba-doom-boom!  All right, settle down, I know I shouldn't snicker.  But the thing is - well, a funny thing happened on the way to the millennium.  Being gay got a little boring to a lot of people.  Even some gay people.  Maybe even to a few fundamentalists!

So somehow Robbins' innovative new take . . . well, it seems designed for middle-aged straights who are, you know, all "down with the gays."  Not that there's anything wrong with that!  And it is a sweet gesture.  But us actual gays, I think, are gonna be wondering, "So - are they all like in a bisexual bathhouse, or what?"  Because one minute the guys are singing to girls, and the next they're singing to other guys, and then they're back singing to the girls again (who are sometimes singing to each other). Are they different characters from song to song?, we wonder vaguely - or are they just jumping the fence over and over?  (I mean I had a boyfriend like that back in college, and things did not work out!)

Still, props to Robbins and the New Rep for you know, being down with us queers - and it doesn't really matter if the concept is a little confusing; the performers make it work song by song. Which brings me back to my first point - once again I've found myself watching a cast that easily negotiated issues and funny twists that would have sent Boston's best pros spinning only a decade ago. The quartet here - Aimee Doherty, Phil Tayler, Erica Spyres and newcomer Brad Daniel Peloquin - all have delightful voices and acting chops to spare.  Peloquin, often perched on the top level of a sprawling set, sometimes had projection issues (the actors were wearing mikes, but the amplification, if it was there at all, was blessedly subtle) - but in general the singing was wonderful, and the vignettes accompanying the songs ran the gamut from haunting to hilarious.

Boston's most fabulous leading lady? Photo(s) by Andrew Brilliant.
Doherty (at left) was in particularly fine form throughout; this lovely lady has matured into our most confidently fabulous musical comedy star. She has it all - a glorious belt, sparkling top notes, and a delicious comic swagger - plus a special kind of girlfriend-sympathy with director Robbins' witty but broad gags.  Thus her take on "Saturday Night" (from the early Sondheim opus of the same name) was a poignant and priceless delight.

But if Doherty was all bright, polished brass, then Spyres was pure gold, once more delivering a kind of glowing sweetness in her vocals (when she wasn't accompanying the rest of the cast on violin!). She perhaps shone brightest in the heart-breaking "Rainbows," a duet she shared with musical-comedy soulmate Phil Tayler, who now has worked opposite her in three shows in a row, and who is also an astonishingly sincere and versatile performer.  This is (if anyone's counting) the fourth riveting performance from Tayler within a year; here he almost whispers a few songs, a move that would be daring if he didn't have the kind of presence that can focus the attention of an entire house.  As I mentioned, Peloquin seemed the least technically assured of the quartet - but if anything he was actually closest to the Sondheim "type," and when he found his vocal power, his delicate, flexible tenor was beautifully pure.  All four found accomplished support in the double-piano accompaniment of David McGory and Todd C. Gordon, who seemed to be playing away in their own apartments (in a clever stroke, their neighbors would occasionally bang on the walls when things got too loud).

The songs themselves, of course, will fascinate the composer's fans, but also appeal to those less familiar with the arc of his achievement. Tunes like "Happily Ever After" tease the Sondheim specialist with their echoes of hits like "Being Alive;" meanwhile curiosities like "Pour le Sport" remind us of just how quirky his lyrics could become.  But numbers laced with double entendres, like "Can That Boy F-oxtrot!" are a kind of universal musical-theatre language, and I think Sondheim's torch songs smolder for everybody.  In the end, that's Robbins' point: heartbreak feels the same whoever is the cause.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

More public art we could have in Boston: Carole Feuerman

Survival of Serena briefly graced Petrosino Square in Manhattan last summer.
You know, sometimes this art thing really isn't so hard.

While surfing the web today, I was reminded of sculptress Carole A. Feuerman, whose sensual works in resin and bronze I've long admired.  Feuerman (who's based in Florida and New York) is technically accomplished and very talented - and her work brilliantly transposes to the present day the great figurative tradition which long dominated public art.

Golden Mean, a bronze in Peekskil, NY
The poetic beauty of the human body is in fact what Feuerman is all about  - but instead of Apollo or Daphne, or some nameless faun or nymph, she gives us ourselves, in bathing caps and speedos, and of course often in full color, as in Survival of Serena, above, rendered in painted bronze, which stopped traffic in Manhattan for a few months last summer.

Does anybody have to explain that sculpture to you?  I doubt it; which, let's be honest, really should be  close to a requirement for public art - as willful obscurity is the main reason so many modern and postmodern installations fail so miserably.  Face it: the essential (if unspoken) air of gnosis that haunts modernism all but undoes it in the public square.  I don't care how far to the left the creators of this art are; what they produce is inevitably elitist, and people resent it.

Somehow, though, Feuerman gets to have her conceptual cake and eat it, too; her sexy sculptures feel sweetly up-to-the-minute, and gently, ironically feminist - and the swimwear her near-nudes sport is pretty timeless, too (I mean are bathing suits going to change anytime soon?).

You could argue, I suppose, that the spandex and nylon that wittily frame her traditional figurative ideas is, in the end, just a gimmick.  But so what? It's a great gimmick, and at any rate only an excuse to dodge the pretentious gatekeepers of modernism so we can access the heroic and poetic nourishment the figurative tradition used to provide.

The artist hangs out with her subject.
So when someone tells you that figurative sculpture looks cloying or clumsy today (like the dreadful Irish Famine Memorial does, I admit), just mention Feuerman to them.

And if you hear of a public effort to fund a sculpture - particularly near a pool! - be sure to put in a word for her.

Because you know, we don't have to put up with the junk our curators and public art committees keep feeding us.

We can have a Carole Feuerman instead.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Why I'm not a cheerleader for the Mellon playwrights

I've been wondering why I've had so much trouble cheerleading for the new Andrew W. Mellon Foundation initiative placing resident playwrights in theatres across the country.

I mean I feel so guilty.

Shouldn't I want this kind of job security for practicing playwrights??  Shouldn't I be reacting the way the folks did at Emerson's Center for Theater Commons (at left)?

Well, I think I would break out my pom-poms and halter top if I was really confident that the $3.7 million being dropped would result in great (or even good) new plays.

And maybe it will, maybe it will!

But - ack - here's the rub; right now the residencies in question look like odd administrative hybrids. Indeed, our local recipient, Melinda Lopez, is already in print saying she's in discussion with her bosses at the Huntington about "finding a balance" over the course of her tenure.  Uh - a balance between what and what?  Well, here's what, according to the Boston Globe:

Lopez will also be involved in staff operations at the Huntington, where she will have an office, according to artistic director Peter DuBois. She will meet monthly with DuBois, traveling to New York or London if he is directing plays there, watching him lead rehearsals, and meeting with other writers. Lopez is also going to help produce the Huntington’s summer workshop, under which selected playwrights work with directors, dramaturgs, and actors to develop their new plays. By the third year, the expectation is that she will serve as the workshop’s lead producer. 

That sounds like close to a full-time job, frankly.  Staff operations, assisting the artistic director, producing a workshop . . . I mean it's better than waiting tables, yes, of course (and it's awfully nice that this new staff position is being paid for entirely by an outside foundation, isn't it).  Still it doesn't feel transformative for the playwright; it merely institutionalizes a system which is already in place: writers make their work around other commitments in the development infrastructure, and for the development infrastructure.  Not so long ago, Mike Daisey was criticizing foundation boards for funding buildings, not people.  Is this just the latest, slightly adjusted iteration of that meme?

And I keep wondering - why couldn't the Mellon Foundation have just given Ms. Lopez the money to finish her current project (apparently a play called Becoming Cuba)?  Were they more interested in funding the administration of various theaters than they were in supporting new work?  Or actually, not "new work" - I hate that pablum-y nomenclature of the development crowd - but rather specific scripts?

For when I looked over the roster of playwrights who were winning residencies, I was struck by how few names I recognized, and how none of the playwrights I think of today as edgy or interesting made the cut.  If you picked playwrights for this program based on plays that had recently made an impact, the roster would have looked quite different, I'm afraid.

Which led me to wonder . . . what kind of play do we really think we're going get out of someone who has an office down the hall and is attending development meetings?

Is this an argument for the garret, for the starving artist writing by candlelight?  No, not really.  But it is a question about artistic independence.  About a strange dodge around actually funding new work directly, because that's too scary.  I mean, don't we need oppositional new work, plays that question the theatre as well as support it?  

And don't we really need new work from people who are not flying with the artistic director to his next rehearsal?

This is why I find all this a little troubling.  

And I find actually quite funny an associated grant for $760,000 given to the Center for Theatre Commons, half of which will be devoted to tracking the success of these residencies.

Hmmm.  

Does anybody seriously think they'll find them unsuccessful?

I mean, $380,000 can buy you a lot of pom-poms and halter tops.