Thursday, February 28, 2013

Baby's breath

Liz Hayes and Nael Nacer take a breather.  Photo: Andrew Brilliant.


One thing is clear about Lungs.

You have to have amazing lung power to perform it.

Particularly if, like the talented Liz Hayes (above, with the equally gifted Nael Nacer), you're trying to put over the nameless "W," who comprises only half the cast of Duncan Macmillan's two-hander (through March 10 at the New Rep), but who is talking for something like 90% of the script.  "W" talks and talks.  And talks.  She banters, she barters, she barks; she harries and harangues, badgers and berates, accosts and accuses.  She never shuts up.

And this causes problems for Hayes, and Macmillan's play, too.  It's not just that Lungs never gives its leading lady a chance to catch her breath; it's that her character's annoying volubility keeps drawing focus from what appears to be Macmillan's theme.  The playwright seems to be attempting a kind of wry black comedy about the way millennial morals bleed into narcissism - for when "M" innocently suggests to "W" that they think about having a baby (he pops the question in IKEA, no less), she erupts not with happy surprise but instead with every save-the-planet cliché in the Whole Earth Catalogue (remember that?), as well as every insecure accusation she can think of.  Indeed, unlike just about every other professional woman with an eye on the biological clock, "W" seems determined to find every and any excuse not to have a child.

But therein lies the rub.  As "W" rants on about her carbon footprint (so why not stop talking?) and her doubts about her partner - he smokes (!), he needs a better job - we begin to realize that all her criticism isn't going anywhere constructive.  There's no plan for the future in the offing, and the possibility of adoption is never investigated - the conversation is just a cascade of her own issues; indeed, "W" sucks up so much oxygen that we begin to wonder why anyone in his right mind would want a child with her; for a gay man, watching these scenes is like peering into the seventh circle of some special heterosexual hell.

(Spoilers ahead!)

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Flying high with Haydn

Violinist Aisslinn Nosky.
First, the bad news.

Apparently the music of Franz Joseph Haydn is no longer enough of a draw to fill Symphony Hall; for last weekend's all-Haydn program from the Handel and Haydn Society played to only a two-thirds-full house. It seems Boston is only happy to listen to Haydn when he brings a friend along for the ride - like Mozart.  Or Beethoven.  Or even Handel!

And to be blunt - THAT'S SO WRONG.

Catch a grip, people. Haydn is awesome.  Totally awesome.

For proof you need look no further than this program itself, dubbed "Haydn in Paris" (even though most of the music was written in Austria). It opened with the early Symphony No. 6, known as "Le matin," a delightful evocation of a pastoral morning (and very probably an inspiration for somebody else's "Pastoral" Sixth Symphony).  

Next came the Violin Concerto in G major - a buoyant yet mature crowd-pleaser.  Then the overture to a lost opera, L'isola disabitata - with a storm scene like nobody else's.  Finally, Symphony No. 82 (yes, 82), "The Bear," which closes with a rousing Scottish dance that seems to transform the entire symphony into a hurdy-gurdy (orchestral onomatopoeia was a Haydn specialty, btw).

I know; four hits in a row - that was the good news.  The better news was that Handel and Haydn pulled all this off with vivid color, a crisp attention to detail, and a palpable joie de vivre - which is everything in Haydn, frankly, as he was as witty a composer as Mozart (perhaps even wittier).  Artistic director Harry Christophers has been working for some time on physically loosening up the H&H players, and you could hear (and see) the results of all that coaxing last weekend.  Most of the orchestra played standing up, and there was a graceful lilt swinging through their performance (particularly in "The Bear") that was clean yet thrillingly free.

The orchestra didn't just give it up for Christophers, though.  Concert mistress Aisslinn Nosky came center stage to lead the Violin Concerto in G Major, dressed in her best Sgt. Pepper duds (above left) - and with this musician at the helm (whose playing is as fiery as her hair) the performance proved a  lively wonder. What's more, Nosky seemed to have left behind the showy excesses of her turn in the spotlight last season; this time around, there was a depth and singing eloquence in evidence that beautifully matched the music, as well as her own passion for playing.

Meanwhile Christophers dazzled twice, in both "Le matin" and "The Bear," thus banishing all memory of the slightly uneven playing in his recent Purcell outing.  In "Le matin" the ensemble was deliciously fresh, and turned on a tonal dime from the sparkling opening movement (distinguished by Christopher Krueger's lark-like flute) to the very different demands of the far-more-sober Adagio (marked by what amounted to a delicately rising duet between Nosky and cellist Guy Fishman - Nosky again impressed in a subtle interpretation of the later violin solo).

"The Bear" is perhaps less complex in over-arching theme, but it's still a barn-burner (and I think the only piece in "Haydn in Paris" that was actually written in Paris - see comments).  The second movement revolves around a dazzling development through the classic conceit of theme-and-variation, but it's the finale that sends the audience home smiling.  It is also the source of the symphony's sobriquet - to early audiences, its rhythmic, bag-pipe-like drone recalled the music of the fair, and the dancing bear.  Well, at H&H "The Bear" certainly danced - it all but stomped, in fact, in a climax that went on and on, as Haydn indulged one of his favorite jokes: the symphony that won't quite end.  Not that anyone wanted it to!  Now if Christophers, Nosky and Co. can only convince Boston that Haydn is Da Man, and reason enough all by himself to make a trek to Symphony Hall . . .

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Discombobulated Dostoevsky at Trinity

This is just a quick post mortem on Trinity Rep's production of Crime and Punishment, which closed this weekend, and which must go down as one of the oddest misfires in that illustrious company's history.

I feel bad about kicking the show in the pants on the way out the door, but on the other hand I feel I have to note its passing somehow, and I didn't really have the heart to hack it down while it was running (it was the kind of production where you felt for the actors). 

I admit I walked into the theatre with some trepidation, because the very idea of adapting Dostoevsky's great psychological case study sounded like folly - but then I also have to admit that Trinity put its foot wrong just about every way possible. For some idea of the project's scrambled tone, check out the graphic at left - that was actually the poster for the show; yes, Dostoevsky's famously conscience-stricken killer, Raskolnikov, has apparently joined the Flying Brothers Karamazov - which gives you some idea of the incomprehensible car-crash that has held sway on Trinity's Dowling stage for the past few weeks. 

To begin with, as expected, the adaptation proved problematic.  Penned by Trinity artistic director Curt Columbus, it turned out to be only an hour-and-a-half long (length of novel: almost 500 densely printed pages!) - although I admit Columbus did pack in almost every plot point I remember from high school (he wisely begins after its pivotal double murder, which in one of the production's few effective moments, is re-enacted in flashback). Still, with a cast of only three actors, much telling detail is lost (even the crucial moral difference between Raskolnikov's two victims seems blurry) and given the speed with which events whip by, the script has an inevitable Cliff's-Notes vibe.

Add to that the fact that director Brian Mertes directed the whole thing as if it were occurring within Raskolnikov's head, during one of his episodes of delirium (admittedly, the script's pastiche would nudge any production in that direction), while set designer Eugene Lee came up with what appeared to be a Soho loft decorated for Cowboy Mouth (complete with keyboards, video cameras, a tech booth, lighting that descended to bonk the actors on the head, and of course a man-sized crucifix), and hoo boy, you've got one for the history books.

The actors were basically helpless within this surround, but even within those limits, Stephen Thorne, an expert comic actor who always looks a little panicky when pushed into a tragic role, slightly disappointed anyway.  (He should have fought for Raskolnikov's arc somehow, despite everything.)  Meanwhile television star (and former Trinity mainstay) Dan Butler - who played detective Porfiry as well as just about every other male role - seemed to take the whole thing as a lark, sometimes going shirtless for some reason, but more often simply trying to have a little sardonic fun wherever he could.  I have to report, however, that there was one reason to see this production - newcomer Rachel Christopher was the only member of the cast to tap into the torment of the novel, and her many cameos (particularly her turns as Sonya and Lizaveta) were just as harrowing as they should be. Hopefully, next time Trinity decides to do Dostoevsky, they'll simply cast Ms. Christopher in a one-woman show.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Stuck in the middle with Will

Marianna Bassham, stuck in Middletown.  Photo: Stratton McCrady
I left Middletown (at the Actors' Shakespeare Project through March 10) wondering exactly how a playwright as bright as Will Eno could have written a play quite this boring.  

Like a lot of people, I was struck by Eno's spiky monologue Thom Pain (based on nothing) a few years back, so I was quite excited to see one of his full-length plays. But just a few minutes into Middletown I was checking my watch, and by the end of the first act I was all but climbing the walls - although I can't really blame director Doug Lockwood's slightly-light but generally perceptive production; despite a Quirky-with-a-capital-Q decision to angle the audience sideways to the stage (ASP likes playing hide-and-seek behind pillar and post), the talented ensemble essayed intelligent and sensitive performances, and delivered Eno's lyrical non sequiturs with just the right spritz of unspoken pathos.

Indeed much of the production is pitch-perfect; that's the problem. This is what Eno wanted, I kept telling myself, as I wondered why, exactly, being trapped in a bad play is so exquisitely insufferable; why is it so much worse than waiting for two hours in an airport, for instance?  I'm not sure - although perhaps it's that you never feel the airport begging for applause or approval.  It doesn't care about you, but it also doesn't care whether you care about it.

But a garrulous (if soft-spoken) playwright is quite a different thing, particularly one with only a single idea.  For it turns out Middletown, like Thom Pain, is a monologue, albeit a monologue for chorus; there's but one voice here, and one perspective; indeed Middletown only counts as a "play" because it has been rather obviously draped over the borrowed scaffold of Our Town.

You get the impression Eno thinks he's subverting that warhorse in a sneakily awesome way with his quizzical re-enactment of its themes.  All I can say is - if only!  For here Thornton Wilder's rubrics of Everyday Life, Courtship, and Death all wilt under the Aspberger's-Syndrome treatment that is by now the default mode of millennial theatre; no one in Middletown can connect, everything is pointlessly questioned, logic runs inevitably toward contradiction, etc., etc., and oooh look at this funny little thing I noticed about human behavior; isn't that formally interesting?

Sigh.  Yes, kids, you're ironically sweet and clever as hell, and you know just how to sell that, too (Middletown is obvious Charles Isherwood bait) but God, are you ever monotonous; to be fair to Eno, his jokes do sometimes land (it helps if you're in college, either as student or teacher), but they battle a relentless undertow of boredom, because his play, like a lot of plays these days, doesn't really have a reason to exist. And honestly, at forty-something, isn't this author a bit old to be twirling his hair and sighing ruefully, all while doodling on somebody else's text, like Annie Baker or Sarah Ruhl? Aren't we tired of millennial autism yet?  How about somebody writes - oh I don't know - a villain for a change.  Or a hero?  With a goal?  I know it sounds crazy - but how about it, huh?

Okay, right now every literary manager in America is doubled over in laughter at the sheer gaucherie of such a suggestion.  (Only a white male would even think of that! That would be like so awkward!) And again to be fair, maybe it's Eno's bad luck that we just saw a stunning revival of Our Town, so his miniature critique, seemingly sculpted out of a single bar of responsibly-sourced soap, looks even smaller than it otherwise would.  Although hang on, I agree, there are "mysteries" secreted in its various lacunae. (Whose baby is really born in the last act? And why the Native American war dance in whiteface?) But honestly, who cares; I'd prefer a little action instead.  And contrary to Charles Isherwood's vapid suggestion, this is NOT Samuel Beckett, because there's no expanding frame of artistic reference; Middletown gets sadder (and sadder), but it doesn't get any deeper. And I think even those who missed David Cromer's re-invention of Our Town will remember the shocking emotional boomerang of that play's finale: what had seemed a sentimental reminiscence, shot through with starchy wit, suddenly becomes a devastating comment on death.  Here death is just one more reminder that we're all stuck in the middle of something that we cannot understand.  Which is very true, but Eno has been saying it for two hours by now.

Oh well, here's the part where I get repetitive.  Once again I was struck by the pathos of talented actors struggling to put over thin material.  The ASP cast is quite fine across the board; I don't know why director Doug Lockwood (who is an acquaintance of mine) was attracted to this text, but he has certainly drawn an exquisite ensemble performance (probably one of the year's best) from his cast.  Marianna Bassham, Michael Forden Walker, Steven Barkhimer, Paula Langton and Gabriel Kuttner are all known quantities, and have often been praised in these pages.  The news here is that local hottie Grant MacDermott, who has always shown potential, delivers by far the best work he has ever done, and two young actresses make their first major impression on the professional scene.  I've admired the lovely Esme Allen and Margaret Lamb before in either minor roles or student productions (Lamb just graduated from Boston Conservatory).  Here they steal almost every scene they're in.  Both could shine as any number of classical heroines; but I imagine they'll be stuck doing variations of millennial melancholy for some time yet.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Sunrise on Mount Washington



We haven't had a time lapse on the Hub Review for - well, some time now.  This one was taken at the summit of New England's own Mount Washington.  Apparently it was shot just this morning!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Lyric pockets a small miracle

Phil Tayler and Daniel Berger-Jones.  Photos: Timothy Dunn.






Perhaps I was simply in the mood for any type of theatre done well by the end of last weekend (after I had suffered through three misfires in a row), but the Lyric Stage's Stones in His Pockets struck me as something of a small miracle.  I don't want to make any large claims for Marie Jones' sturdy two-hander - which has become something of a warhorse since its premiere in 1996 - although to be fair, it has affecting emotional and political dimensions; it's a worthy, fully-crafted play.  

But above all, it works, and Jones lavishes her two actors with cameos to die for as they impersonate virtually an entire Irish village (and the Hollywood film crew that invades it).  And luckily, the Lyric has cast two of Boston's smartest and most charming young performers, Phil Tayler and Daniel Berger-Jones, in these demanding roles; and they basically go to town with the show as only bright young talents can.

I admit that by now I have something of a man-crush (and a girl-crush too, who am I kidding?) on both these handsome thesps, who are among the most reliable actors in town.  Over the past year, Tayler, who is at heart a musical-theatre man, seems to have suddenly been in everything, everywhere, after lighting up the caverns of Floyd Collins last spring.  In contrast, Berger-Jones is more of an actor's actor, and made a huge impression in such demanding roles as Jimmy in Look Back in Anger with the Orfeo Group (which he co-founded); but Orfeo has disbanded, and we haven't seen him that much of late (somehow, despite being a born Shakespearean, we've never seen him in a leading classical role).

I'm happy to report that these two are naturals together, even though their instincts and approaches are often opposed.  Tayler likes to go big, while Berger-Jones values precision; but both are clearly committed to nailing the multitude of accents in Pockets, and at least to these American ears, they come through with flying colors.  Berger-Jones even carries off the daunting task of conjuring a Hollywood actress struggling (and hilariously failing) to muster an Irish brogue - surely a master-class acting-accent challenge.

Triumph 'n tragedy on the Irish set.
Indeed, the vocal smorgasbord served here (along with our ability to discern every separate spice) is reason enough to see the show.  Beyond that, even though much of Courtney O'Connor's production is painted in bold colors, the dynamic duo at its center do often manage to limn the underside of Jones' comedy, which basically depicts the destruction of a beleaguered Irish community by not only the temptations of the Hollywood dream machine, but larger global and market forces as well.  (The title, unexpectedly enough, refers to a suicide.)  

I admit that if you claimed the Lyric company doesn't quite pull off the playwright's intended mix of satire of Gaelic woe (the extras for the flick in question, The Quiet Valley, are directed to "Look dispossessed!") with a potent dose of the real thing, I wouldn't really argue.  Still, the production is often a good deal more complex than you expect - as the author, and these actors, inflect even their on-the-make Hollywood types with unexpectedly sympathetic motives and impulses.  Then again, both lead performances aren't entirely perfect: Tayler could dial back the barking here and there, and one of his female characters is all but indistinguishable from a swishy gay stereotype (he needs to come up with a little opening signal for her, as Berger-Jones does with his lead actress, "Caroline Giovanni," who is always sweeping a stray tress behind her ear).  Meanwhile Berger-Jones, for his part, could attend to a subtler problem: we learn a sad secret about his lead character toward the close of the show - and looking back, we realize how much more resonant his performance would be if a vulnerable desperation had subtly tugged at his character's hopes from the start.

But these are only quibbles about a production that more often than not simply carries you along with its own exuberant theatricality.  The bottom line is that the Lyric has another hit on its hands, and Tayler and Berger-Jones have earned a matched set of acting laurels.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Daisey goes to Disney, and the desert

Cinderella's Castle at Disney World in Florida.
The trouble with Mike Daisey's American Utopias, which opened ArtsEmerson's "The Next Thing" festival on Friday night, is pretty obvious - and ultimately pretty irritating: it never coheres the way his best work does.  Instead it just rambles along, behind Daisey himself, as he checks out Disney World, and Burning Man (the annual hippie-Thunder-Dome bash in the Nevada desert), and then doesn't check out Occupy Wall Street, but feels guilty about ignoring it instead.

And why doesn't the monologue cohere, you may ask?  Well, if you played a quick game of "What Doesn't Belong?" with this script, most people would agree that last year's doomed protest at Zuccotti Park does not belong next to Disney World and Burning Man.  The reasons, again, are obvious: Burning Man and Disney World are both essentially theme parks (even if Burning Man is only a temporary one; their iconography has actually begun to converge, as you can see in the posted photos). True, Disney World is a fantasy about pre-puberty and the suppression of sex, while Burning Man is a fantasy about puberty, and, well, sex.  But beyond that, they're remarkably similar; both are ticketed events ($380 for Burning Man this year!), both lean heavily toward group participation, both peddle "thrills" and "awesomeness," both require tons of planning to visit (and far more to construct!), etc., etc.

Thus Daisey is, amusingly, a fish out of water in both environments; he's childless, so he can't relate to just how many kids there are at Disney; and, well, he's none too comfortable with the nudity and general orgiastic atmosphere at Burning Man, either.  (Daisey at left; dudes at Burning Man, at right - not that they all look quite that good.)

So, properly alienated, Our Narrator casts his usual gimlet eye on the goings-on around him, and both the hyper-competitive, anxious "fun" at Disney and the beach-lizard vibe at Man come in for some well-deserved knocks. But Daisey rarely attempts to synthesize his experiences into anything like a statement (word has it that an earlier version included a "dream sequence" in which Walt Disney wandered through Burning Man; I vote that be restored!).  If he ever gets around to doing so, though, I think Daisey might have the beginnings of a classic on his hands.

Save for one thing. Alas, interlarded with these amusing musings are what amount to a non-starter: his decision to avoid Occupy Wall Street (even though he lives in Brooklyn!).  All Daisey offers for a motive here is that he didn't want to look "dorky."  Really? I hate to break this to you Mike, but . . .  oh, well, never mind!  And honestly, if you can't even bother to take the subway to Zuccotti Park, how do you expect to us take seriously your fulminations against Bloomberg, capitalism, etc., etc.?

The hot men of Burning Man.
Indeed, if Daisey had visited Occupy, I can't imagine he would have tried to triangulate it with Disney and Burning Man; nor, I think, would he have categorized all three as "utopias;" the shock of seeing the grungy, from-the-ground-up attempt at a true utopia that briefly "occupied" Zuccotti Park would have ended any such illusions about EPCOT, Black Rock City, et al.

So what we're left with is an idiosyncratic ramble that frustrates more than it enlightens (although to be fair, it does enlighten a bit).  I have to also mention that as if to add insult to injury, after cheerfully admitting that he dodged any engagement with Occupy, Daisey leads the audience out into the street to conjure some faux political commitment in a move that really set my teeth on edge. As a frequent visitor and supporter of Occupy Boston, this self-aggrandizement only pissed me off, and recalled the sense of egotistical delusion that allowed Daisey to swear repeatedly that he personally saw the labor abuses of Apple and Foxconn in China. (And for the record, his skeptics have already picked apart a few of the claims in American Utopias; so no, he hasn't entirely changed his ways.)

Of course, Mike Daisey is still entertaining, even when he doesn't really have much to say. His fans will be glad to hear that he once again has constructed (under the direction of his wife, Jean-Michele Gregory) an elaborate vocal and emotional roller coaster (which is hardly spontaneous, though, whatever his claims; whenever he pauses, you can see that he simply has hit a glitch in the tape reel running in his head). Daisey thunders and bellows; he whispers, giggles and squeaks; his hands twist and flutter, and enact a thousand dances; he's like some crazed, avenging Buddha, and as ever, the contradictory vision of his enormous energy remaining utterly anchored and still behind his little wooden desk is, for a time, mesmerizing. But as his script runs on and on, that hypnotic atmosphere slowly drains away.  And we're left wondering why this notorious paragon of the theatrical left thinks it's "dorky" to occupy anything other than Disney.

Burning Man 2012 - even the architecture tells you it and Disneyland have begun to converge.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Snowbound with The Shining, or how Stephen King beat Stanley Kubrick at his own game (Part I)

What the heck is going on in this movie? Jack Nicholson in The Shining.
Posting has been a bit light of late, I know, basically because many of last weekend's performances were washed out by the blizzard.  Which is also why I spent much of Saturday hunkered down with some favorite movies, among them Stanley Kubrick's celebrated 1980 horror extravaganza, The Shining.

Actually, I'm not sure The Shining is one of my favorite movies; I watched it again at the suggestion of Facebook friends who insisted it was the perfect film for a snowed-in Saturday night.  (It beat out Doctor Zhivago, but maybe it shouldn't have!)

I'm in disagreement on that point with the general public, however, which has enshrined The Shining as "one of the greatest horror movies ever made" after an uncertain embrace on its release (the movie was a minor hit, though, and saved Kubrick's commercial reputation from the blow delivered by Barry Lyndon).

Now it's not that The Shining doesn't intrigue me.  Stanley Kubrick never made a less than fascinating movie; the so-called "trilogy" of Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and A Clockwork Orange may comprise the height of his achievement (and, you could argue, the height of intellectual pop cinema in general) - and perhaps nothing else in his oeuvre matches them.  Still, his "second tier" - Paths of Glory, Lolita, and Full Metal Jacket - would be the envy of almost any other filmmaker, and Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and Eyes Wide Shut are all intriguing to various degrees.

I'd actually put The Shining at the bottom of that last tier, however; only it takes a little 'splainin' to define why - and also why the public thinks differently.

But first, some background.  The work of auteurs who enjoy long careers can generally be divided into three phases (with Welles as the exception that proves the rule).  The first phase consists of small-scale grappling with the apparatus of commercial filmmaking, and the search for voice and theme.  Kubrick's initial phase is quite short - Paths of Glory, a huge leap in his achievement, was only his third full feature. (Compare to Hitchcock's silent phase, which despite strong hints of his eventual direction, took a dozen films to coalesce; Bergman arguably took nine; in contrast, Lean only took two, and Fellini, like Welles, spoke in his own voice in his first film; but both had worked as editors or assistant directors for years).

The second phase is generally longer, and builds from a commercial breakthrough (Paths of Glory , for instance, connected Kubrick with Kirk Douglas, who tapped him to take over Spartacus).  Suddenly larger resources and a fresh sense of the artistic self are both available to the auteur, and a kind of long extrapolation begins; his or her distinctive language and perspective (and often the core team that helped develop it) are applied to a series of projects that slowly define - sometimes in rambling fits and starts - an over-arching statement.  Sometimes, as with Lean, this phase boils down to a series of leaps in scale.  Occasionally, as with Coppola, the auteur's talent is too dependent on certain collaborators or circumstances, and his arc devolves into slow collapse. With Kubrick, this extrapolation took the form of an ongoing exploration of differing genres, and covered almost all his remaining career; only in Eyes Wide Shut did he begin what I would call a retrospective phase, in which he self-consciously began to re-examine his means and methods (compare with Hitchcock, whose first retrospective film is probably Vertigo, followed by North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds, and Frenzy - indeed, all his classic late pictures are retrospective in their essence, although sometimes radical in their technique).

What has all this got to do with The Shining?  A good question - and the answer is that in the rear view mirror, it's obvious that often the extrapolation phase of an auteur's career is beset by unresolved or buried conflicts in the artist's method or personality (or both).  In Hitchcock this issue could be summed up as the limits of anxiety and fetish; in Fellini the problem became a self-consciousness that concealed a deeper self-doubt (indeed, his retrospective phase probably began as early as La Dolce Vita).

Kubrick's extrapolation phase, in contrast, was troubled less by what many saw as his pop short-comings (the clinical tone and chess-player pace) and more - and more - by clear, if undiscussed, conflicts with his source material.

Narratives that end in "twinned" concepts - the concrete version in The Shining.

Which is hardly surprising, as Kubrick's movies are marked by thematic consistency, despite their differing sources and superficial variety (war picture, black comedy, science fiction, costume drama, horror).  In every Kubrick film, isolation plays a leading role; the characters are always trapped in a harsh or even inhuman environment (a battleground, or outer space, or a blizzard) - and what's more, they move through it in ignorance.  I think ignorance (and specifically moral action in a state of ignorance) has rarely been given the consideration in Kubrick's work that is its proper due, especially as (curiously enough) it may be his most basic theme.  His first full-length films were noir variants, and all his movies have a sublimated hint of that genre's sense of mystery.  The desperate military brass of Dr. Strangelove spend most of the movie trying to figure out what General Ripper has been up to;  Dave and Frank have no idea why they're going to Jupiter; Alex agrees to the Ludovico technique with no knowledge of its effects; the list goes on and on.  Everyone is flying blind in Kubrick.

But beneath this lies a different kind of interest, in something even deeper than ignorance; call it un-knowability, for lack of a better word. For Kubrick was obsessed with the contradictory nature of human experience - the places were logic stops, where we suddenly realize our bedrock mental concepts conceal their own antitheses; and many of his best films deconstruct such archetypes to limn their embedded, twin-like oppositions.  The symbiosis of man and machine in 2001 is the most obvious example; but connections between sex and death drive Eyes Wide Shut, and Full Metal Jacket turns on the complex relationship between aggression and fraternity. Indeed, Kubrick was at his best when he could tease from a simple pop trope a hauntingly resonant contradiction; he conjured HAL, the "white hotel room," the monolith, and all of 2001, for example, from the slim premise of Arthur C. Clarke's story The Sentinel.

Yet as I sat through The Shining last weekend (as my house, like the Overlook, was slowly buried in snow), I began to realize how often Kubrick actually failed in this ongoing project.  Try as he might, he couldn't work his magic on all his sources. Certainly in Barry Lyndon his duel with Thackeray ended in a draw; and I'd argue that in The Shining, his similar showdown with Stephen King led only to frustration, and a concealed defeat.   Which I will consider more fully in the second half of this two-part series.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Bowing the winter blues away with Gil Shaham

The intrepid Gil Shaham braved winter's worst last weekend.

Neither rain nor snow nor gloom of night stayed violinist Gil Shaham from the completion of his appointed Celebrity Series concert last Sunday, which went forward in the face of two feet of fresh snow and nearly gale force winds, which together left Jordan Hall half empty for his performance. Which is too bad, of course - but to tell true, for those who did brave the Blizzard of '13, it meant the concert seemed to glow with an intimate coziness and warmth.  Let Nemo roar all he wanted - we were going to be listening to Schubert and Bach instead!

The atmosphere was helped enormously by the fact that the virtuosic Mr. Shaham all but beams with his own sweet charisma, and that he was joined on stage by the composers of two of the pieces he played - rising star Avner Dorman, and elder statesman William Bolcom, who was there with his wife and, of course, performance partner, the delightful mezzo Joan Morris.  (In one of the touches that made this concert so very memorable, Bolcom took to the piano to play "Happy Birthday" to Ms. Morris - it was her 70th - as all of Jordan Hall sang along.)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Taxing questions

Can a tax break hook Broadway producers?
Folks have been asking me what I think about the proposed bill to "woo" Broadway try-outs with a tax break.

And I confess my first reaction is:

Aren't we already doing this at the A.R.T.?

I mean, it seems silly to be giving Pippin, or The Donkey Show (of all things!) a financial advantage that we deny to other tourist-trap theatre.

So the answer to the question "Should we cross this particular public policy Rubicon?" is actually "Uh - we're already disembarking on the other side."

Of course, perhaps we shouldn't let everyone get away with what we let Harvard get away with.  After all, Harvard's special.  (For reasons we do not discuss.)

So in the end, I think the bottom line on this particular question is simply, Will it bring additional monies into the state that we otherwise would not collect?

That simple question may not have a simple answer, however - although one basic reply might respond to a more specific query: Will the additional taxes brought in from restaurants, hotels, and the wages of the show's employees exceed the revenue lost by giving the producers the tax break in question?

Even that doesn't quite address the full issue at hand, however, as all sorts of variables are at play here that are hard to quantize.  The first is - If the producers don't bring in the show to begin with, the state gets squat, so the tax bait has to be substantial for the deal to work at all.  But a balancing proviso to that consideration is: When it comes to the size of the tax rebate, we could end up in a "race to the bottom" with competing offers from other states if we seem too eager.  (It's worth noting that Louisiana and Illinois already have similar breaks on the books.)  This perhaps argues for restraint in the first offer we put on the table - we can always up the ante, and sink to the level of Louisiana and Illinois, if we have to.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Clemency performance added Monday night


I'm pleased to report that an added performance of James MacMillan's Clemency (full review below) has been scheduled for tomorrow night, Monday, February 11, at 7 pm at the Artists for Humanity Epicenter. To purchase tickets, or exchange tickets from one of this weekend's canceled performances to attend the Monday show, email your name and phone number to boxoffice@blo.org or call 617.542.6772 (Monday between the hours of 10am-5pm). I don't usually do this kind of direct plug for a production, but I think this opera is important enough to make an exception for.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Another landmark from Boston Lyric Opera

David Kravitz welcomes strange travelers to his table in Clemency. Photos: Eric Antoniou.
























If you haven't been keeping up with Boston Lyric Opera's traveling "Annex" productions, then I'm afraid you've been missing out on the most challenging opera the city has to offer.  (Perhaps that it has ever had to offer.)  The three previous annex productions - The Turn of the Screw, The Emperor of Atlantis, and The Lighthouse - were all startlingly intelligent renditions of landmark twentieth-century chamber works.  And now BLO is offering a brand-new co-commission, Clemency, at the Artists for Humanity Epicenter in South Boston (through Sunday), which I'm stunned to announce belongs in its predecessors' august company.  Indeed, something tells me that this brief, haunting piece - by Scottish composer James MacMillan and British poet Michael Symmons Roberts - will eventually earn a reputation as a minor classic of the millennium, and it's exciting to think that Boston has been a part of its genesis.

At first glance, Clemency seems conventional enough - it's based on a vignette from the Bible, and its musical style is generally in a late-modern "sacred" idiom.  But beneath its deceptively simple surface lies a daring intellectual and political statement, of the kind that perhaps only Tony Kushner or Caryl Churchill of today's playwrights could equal.  For MacMillan and Roberts have seized on a strange resonance with the present day in their chosen episode from Genesis, in which the childless Abraham and Sarah are unexpectedly visited by Yahweh himself and two angels, who declare that the barren Sarah will bear a son, Isaac - and thus kick-start the entire Judeo-Christian tradition.

But this seemingly joyful story hides a strange sting in its tail: it turns out that Yahweh is just stopping by on his mission to level Sodom and Gomorrah - indeed, the central action of the vignette becomes Abraham's shocked plea for, well, "clemency" for the twin cities of the plain (a plea which, as we all know, is ultimately unsuccessful).

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Lost in translation

Omar Robinson looks lost in Patrick Gabridge's Fire on Earth. Photo: Jeffrey Mosser.
























I confess I'm only reluctantly writing about Patrick Gabridge's Fire on Earth (at the Factory Theatre from Fresh Ink Theatre through Feb. 6).  I don't much like delivering bad news to small or fringe companies - but this time my protests were only met with poignant requests for a rigorous dramaturgical analysis.

I greatly admire that spirit, of course; the only trouble is that this time there's almost too much to diagnose, and the doctor doesn't know where to begin.  You can tell everyone involved in this production is smart and talented and earnest; so it's hard to understand how it all went so wrong!

But I suppose the best place to start is indeed with the play itself.  Mr. Gabridge is a local author of some note, and I've often admired the tight comedy-drama cameos he has produced for the Mill 6 "T Plays" and other festivals.  But here, grappling with an ungainly, contradictory chunk of history (the first translation of the Bible into English, completed just before Henry VIII began dreaming of divorce) all his skill seems to either desert him, or divert him into confusing dramatic eddies, and wild swings in tone and focus.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Double fantasy

The divas take a moment to relax on an earlier stop of their tour.






You know, some days I feel so lucky to be able to do this.  And one such day was last Sunday, when I was privileged to hear Renée Fleming and Susan Graham (above) warble to each other - and to a packed Symphony Hall - in a sold-out Celebrity Series concert.

For this proved a vocal match truly made in heaven - or at any rate close by.  Superstar soprano Fleming - familiar not only from the Met and TV, but also from her many appearances with the BSO - drew the big crowd, I suppose; but I'd say it was the warm (and witty) Graham who most completely won them over by the time the house lights rose.  Be that as it may, the two ladies seemed untroubled by any sense of competition, perhaps because they've been friends ever since they won the Met auditions some 25 years ago (and perhaps because vocally they're in such exquisite, mutually-supportive balance).  Indeed, their entwined voices seem to all but become one at times - only to soon delicately part ways again.  These ladies weren't just born to sing, they were born to sing together.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Servant of two styles, but Master of one

The cast of The Servant of Two Masters.


It's hard to argue with comic virtuosity; and certainly the Yale Rep production of The Servant of Two Masters (at ArtsEmerson through Feb. 10) is comically virtuosic.  Although is it really a Yale Rep production?  Fans of the late Theatre de la Jeune Lune may feel differently; with Jeune Lune mainstay Stephen Epp in the lead (as Truffaldino), working with a director and several actors from that company, this amounts to a kind of revival of the style of that Minneapolis theatrical landmark.

To many, that's good news, but I have to admit I'm not an unalloyed fan of the Jeune Lune aesthetic.  If you are, of course, more power to you, and trust me, you'll love this show.  But if you're more like me (and I'm like about half the audience at opening night, I'd argue) the Jeune Lune manner begins to seem like almost too much of a good thing after about an hour or so.  After that, I confess I remained bemused, but slightly bored, by the cast's antics (even when they showered raspberries on the ART's Pippin, which actually became a punchline).  But then I tune out at Three Stooges festivals, too.  It was only toward the finish, though, when I really felt they were trampling over author Carlo Goldoni, that I began to get a little irritated.

Still, since Jeune Lune claims a kind of intellectual pedigree, it's worth pointing out the madness in their method.  What Goldoni did was integrate the the techniques of the classic commedia dell'arte into a longer narrative arc - his plot for Servant is ridiculously over-complicated, but it does give many of the classic commedia characters a chance to shine, and what's more, it evoke themes that were highly salient in his day (and would reach their highest pitch in Beaumarchais and The Marriage of Figaro).

Thus there was perhaps an inevitable tension between Goldoni's goals and the short attention spans of commedia fans; indeed in the earliest drafts of the script, improvisatory cadenzas by the likes of Truffaldino and Pantalone were clearly bracketed off from the action.  That boundary between romantic narrative and comic free-style blurred in later iterations, it's true - but it's also true that Jeune Lune has claimed the whole text for pure commedia, and simply ignored the resulting problem of diminishing comic returns.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Super Bowl ad Coke and Pepsi don't want you to see . .



This ad from SodaStream, targeting the environmental pollution caused by plastic soft drink bottles - was reportedly refused a berth in SuperBowl programming after pressure was applied by Coke and Pepsi.  Something to remember the next time someone tells you that a free market ensures a free exchange of ideas.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Beethoven on the West Bank

You-know-who on the West Bank barrier.






The distinguished conductor Daniel Barenboim has insisted that his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, perhaps the only symphony in the world where Israelis, Arabs, and Iranians play side by side (and which made its Boston debut last week at Celebrity Series) is "not a project for peace."

Okay.  It's hard to fully agree, but Barenboim is quite eloquent on this point, and deserves to be quoted at length:

"The Divan is not a love story, and it is not a peace story. It has very flatteringly been described as a project for peace. It isn't. It's not going to bring peace, whether you play well or not so well. The Divan was conceived as a project against ignorance. A project against the fact that it is absolutely essential for people to get to know the other, to understand what the other thinks and feels, without necessarily agreeing with it. I'm not trying to convert the Arab members of the Divan to the Israeli point of view, and [I'm] not trying to convince the Israelis to the Arab point of view. But I want to . . . create a platform where the two sides can disagree and not resort to knives."

It's sad to say, but clearly the knives are, indeed, still drawn regardless: none of the names of the young players of the West-Eastern Divan could be listed in the program due to security concerns.  So clearly even this dream of building a platform for communication - which Barenboim and co-founder Edward Said named for Goethe's grand cycle of poems inspired by the Persian poet Hafez - remains a threat to some people.

Sigh.  It's somehow comforting, then, that even if the Divan "isn't going to bring peace, whether you play well or not so well," its players still play very, very well.  Barenboim has in fact worked a kind of miracle with what is largely a youth orchestra (plenty of players seemed to be on the sunny side of 25, or even 20 - the membership from the Middle East is supplemented by players from Spain, btw, where the orchestra is based).  Indeed, the conductor has drawn from these dedicated young musicians a startlingly mature, muscular sound that often achieved an impressive sense of majesty.

Barenboim in action with the West-Eastern Divan.


I would have to add, however, that what Barenboim delivered was "Beethoven with a capital B;" he kicked it old school - or at least mid-twentieth-century school - and hardly nodded to any of the fresh insights that the early music movement (or other iconoclastic interpreters) have recently brought to our understanding of the grand Ludwig van.   Thus the orchestra for the Second Symphony was large, and for the Third (the so-called "Eroica," or "Heroic"), truly titanic - practically Wagner-sized, in fact, probably twice the size of the forces at Beethoven's original disposal (and needless to say everyone was playing modern instruments). Perhaps more tellingly, Barenboim conducted both symphonies as if they were the Fifth - there should be an enormous gap, I'd argue, between the lingering Haydn-esque echoes of the Second and the stunning experiments of the Third; but here they both sounded like variants of a kind of quasi-religious musical consensus (intriguingly, sourced in German high culture) that defied what we know of their actual genesis.

Still, as I said, Barenboim is a master of this sound, the orchestra clearly worshipped him - and you could argue that "Beethoven with a capital B" is all too appropriate to the Divan's political aims (to Western ears, at least). And the musical results were often compelling, if not enlightening.  Barenboim favored a thoughtful pace that led to slow, expansive statements - even his idea of a scherzo proved pretty deliberate. Indeed, he often seemed to drop his beat entirely to focus on sculpting some sonic peak; thus one was constantly reminded of mountains emerging from mist. Still, this worked splendidly in the Larghetto movement of the Second, and the more dramatic passages of the "Eroica" - particularly the funereal second movement and the driving finale, which despite a rather strident string section (the winds and horns were less insistent) burned with a palpably grand fire.  Which the packed hall at Symphony clearly adored; and to be honest, even I felt the combination of a nostalgic take on Beethoven with a committed political idealism had proved a potent mix.

Perhaps even a heroic one.

Friday, February 1, 2013

A question for Polly Carl

We watch the career of Polly Carl (at left) over at Emerson's Center for Theater Commons with increasing interest.  Recently, it was announced that Ms. Carl and her Center would be part of a philanthropic effort to embed playwrights in (partly) administrative positions within regional theatres.  

This set off a few warning bells for us, which prompted a somewhat re-assuring response from the Huntington.  Now we read Carl is also looking to hire critics, too - not to write reviews, however, but to - well, you know, "foster a space," "respectfully dialogue," etc., etc.

So . . . now we're talking about equipping theatres with their own in-house playwrights, and even their own in-house critics. What's next - paid audience members?  (Just kidding!)  

With that trend in mind, I submitted the following question to Carl's post on HowlRound.  I'm curious to read her response.

Okay, I'll take the bait, because I'm curious - are you thinking of hiring critics to critique your own productions, or other people's? There would seem to be some obvious conflicts of interest in either case, of course - but I'll assume you're interested in enlisting a critic to discuss your own productions.

Now integrating a critic into the internal development process strikes me as a good idea, actually; indeed, several budding playwrights have asked me to critique their work. It's the public face of this supposed "critical" writing that strikes me as problematic.

You say, for instance, that you don't want to publish "reviews," and you don't want to "wake up in the morning to a bad review." (Only guess what - I don't want to go into the theatre and see a bad show, either. And yet it happens all the time!)

Only if the critic isn't being paid to write a "review," then what, exactly, is he or she being paid to write?

Well, you say it's going to be "positive" and "respectful," which is nice. Beyond that, though, the project seems vague. Very vague, in fact - although these critics will apparently ask questions about "what gets produced and why," and inquire, "Why this play, playwright, or story now?"

Only frankly - those queries don't sound like critical questions, in that they seem to dodge any issues of aesthetic analysis. They sound instead like political questions, designed to subvert critique with open-ended gestures toward "diversity" and various demographic targets (in short, the academic version of audience development).

Not that there's anything wrong with audience development! Only of course it's not criticism, and those who practice it are not critics. Which is why I question the nomenclature of your headline, "Call for critics!" I don't think you're calling for "critics," because I don't think you're really looking for criticism.  Well, okay, you're looking for critics, perhaps - only you'd like them to write something else.

The silvery tones of Quicksilver

Quicksilver in action at an earlier concert.
























Sometimes you can feel it in the air, that sense of a collective "Wow."  It was certainly all but palpable at the Quicksilver concert from the Boston Early Music Festival last Saturday night.

Wow.  Just - wow.

I'd already heard the buzz from their last performance at BEMF - a late-night jam session that left people dazzled, maybe even dazed.  The same happy vibe hummed through the chatter at intermission last weekend - "Can you believe it?" "Oh. My. God!" The partner unit and I were similarly punch-drunk.  "So," I said drily, "how good are they, would you say?"  He thought for a moment.  "They're f--king incredible," he replied.

Indeed and verily.  Pardon my French, of course - and I don't expect to see "F--king incredible! - The Hub Review" on Quicksilver ad copy anytime soon.  But you get the point.  It almost doesn't matter what these people are playing - each member of Quicksilver is so virtuosic, and their ensemble is so tight, attentive and sympathetic, that they could probably make you swoon over "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Bat."

On the other hand, perhaps it helped that almost everything they played was obscure, but also thrillingly beautiful.  (Yes, that usually helps.) Quicksilver seems devoted to exploring the very beginnings of what lead violinist Robert Mealy calls "abstract music" - that is, music sans religious or political pretext, or indeed text of any kind; music that obeys only its own rules.  

Specifically, Mealy and Co. focus on the earliest forms of the sonata, whose rules were made up in the 17th century - and last Saturday they zeroed in on composers in Germany.  What they revealed was a gorgeous kind of chaos, united by a ravishingly mournful tone that can only be described as silvery (hence, perhaps, their moniker?).  These sonatas, from the likes of all-but-forgotten names like Kerll and Vierdanck, literally leapt from effect to effect, voice to voice, and stance to stance. Bustling turns on the dulcian by the virtuosic Dominic Teresi powered the opening number from Matthias Weckmann; something close to a muezzin's call echoed through the Bertali sonata that followed; and then bagpipes (believe it or not) suddenly - and hilariously - marched through Johann Schmelzer's Polnische Sackpfeiffen.  Sometimes in this concert you felt as if you'd bought a ticket to some sort of musical ark.

To be honest, this stuff makes for a wonderful showcase for performers, but its constant variety, and the lack of any over-arching structures, perhaps wore a bit thin by the end of the evening.  It was wonderful, for instance, to hear keyboardist Avi Stein give the glorious organ of the First Congregational Church a full work-out, but Nicolaus Bruhns' Praeludium turned out to be all sudden surprises, starts and stops.  Still, even late in the program there were wonders to take in, such as the stunning face-off between Mealy and violinist Julie Andrijeski (joint directors of Quicksilver) in a fierce little sonata from Johann Kaspar Kerll.  And I have to mention the seductive touch of Charles Weaver on the theorbo, which is probably the most softly sensual stringed instrument in existence. (Again - wow.) Still, the star of the evening was clearly violinist Mealy.  I admit he himself obviously agreed with that assessment, but if he served his solos with a small side of ham, where's the harm?  His sound is nothing less than heart-breaking, his interpretive thrust consistently of the highest order - and clearly he's aware he's only first among equals.  Together this stunning consort seems to be raising the bar for early music without even trying; certainly at the very dawn of the local season they have already essayed one of its most memorable concerts.