Monday, April 29, 2013

Critical corruption in two keys (Part I)

The temptations of Anton Ego . . .


A few eyebrows around town rose (slightly) in reaction to a recent whine from Bill Marx on his website The Arts Fuse.  In an April 22 post titled "Why is Boston's Arts Coverage So Bland?" the self-professed persona non grata opined that:


Marx went on:

You will rummage long and hard on WGBH and WBUR (broadcast or online) to find a critical word amid the depressing line-up of puffy interviews, rewritten publicity releases, and earnest proclamations of “stunning seasons.”

In contrast, Marx announced, his Arts Fuse 'scribes' were "passionately encouraged to be wrong-headed, hysterical, opinionated, stubborn, ecstatic, and pretentious, but never, ever uncompromisingly insipid."

But of course this is Bill Marx talking, so the call to arms inevitably modulated into panhandling:

For those who believe that arts and culture deserves trustworthy and thoughtful criticism and reporting, there is an alternative—The Arts Fuse. Please contribute to our first-ever advertising campaign, via the tops of Boston cabs, to support our mission by getting the word out about our reviews and coverage.

Okay, now maybe that's a fair sales pitch.  You give me your money, I'll give you "trustworthy and thoughtful criticism."  Or, in a nutshell - "I'm Bill, trust me."

But (surprise, surprise), if you actually check out the theatre reviews in the Arts Fuse, you find they're stuffed to the gills with pull quotes like: "Searing . . . rich and layered . . . shocking relevance . . . small missteps but delightful . . . absolutely worthwhile seeing."  In short, the usual middlebrow marketing lubricants; indeed, if you charted the most recent Arts Fuse reviews on a graph (I won't bore you with another Excel spreadsheet), you'd find mostly raves or near-raves, with even the most critical review doing a 180 at the last minute to announce that the play in question is "absolutely worthwhile seeing" - despite, apparently, an earlier laundry list of caveats.  (The music pieces are even more monotonous; of the five most recent reviews, all were raves.)

So I'm not sure what kind of snake oil Marx thinks he's selling. I don't disagree with his critique of the likes of the Globe or WGBH and WBUR - they are indeed too full of puffery and PR (WGBH in particular). The part I don't get is how he imagines he's any better than they are.  It's true that he personally has always been a bit brighter than the average bear at the Globe or Phoenix. And as my friend and fellow blogger Art Hennessey sometimes reminds me, we both do check out a review on the Arts Fuse if it's by Marx himself; he always provides an emotionally pinched but intellectually informed take on the piece in question.

Well, I should say literarily informed. Marx has always been an insightful book reviewer, and he's obviously very well-read; the idea that this qualifies him to opine on the performing arts is a kind of quaint prejudice that he has never really outgrown simply because it would be inconvenient to do so. Beyond that, there's the problem that he's hardly original (in six years I've sketched out more fresh ideas than he has in thirty), and reliably throws softballs to Harvard, and has little to offer beyond boilerplate about "critical standards" and "thoughtfulness." But he does have something of a voice, and he obviously is desperate to be confused with Edmund Wilson - and this ambition gets him somewhere on the page.  

The problem is that Marx rarely writes for his own site. Instead, he publishes people who happily write for the likes of the Globe, WGBH and WBUR (those dens of PR and puffery!) whenever they get a chance, and whose Fuse work is only marginally subtler than their output elsewhere. Marx does pick up the occasional worthy piece by blogger (and, full disclosure, friend of the Hub Review) Ian Thal, but generally when he showcases an untried talent, it's soon embarrassingly apparent that the writer is a critical naïf, and groping for credibility, much less a plausible perspective.

And whatever you want to say about the Globe these days, it has reached a high plateau in terms of pure style - it's probably better written now than it has ever been (or at least better than it has been for the past thirty years - when Marx himself appeared in its pages). People like Sebastian Smee write so superbly, in fact, that it hardly seems to matter that they have nothing to say - they say so very little so very, very well, you hardly care!  Meanwhile Marx has yet to discover even a single new stylist, and seems unable to develop one.

So editing is hard, and grooming a critical voice even harder.  Which may be why Marx seems to be trying to fool potential donors with a variant of the old bait-and-switch; he's basically branding his site with his own reputation, when it's actually stuffed with weaker writers, and their weaker writing. In effect, he promises that if you donate to the Arts Fuse, you'll get Bill Marx - but instead you get Terry Byrne.

Perhaps even more damaging to his case, however, are rumors on the theatrical Rialto that murmur Marx is in effect "selling" reviews to arts organizations. Marx even obliquely nods to these whispers when he claims that he is "not beholden to the advertising dollars that come in from arts organizations."

Okay.  I'm not sure what that means (or even could mean).  But I've heard now from three separate sources that Marx has made explicit quid-pro-quo offers to local presenters along the lines of "If you give me a donation, I'll give you a review." So in effect, it's pay-to-play over at the Arts Fuse (although I doubt Marx has ever stated the rules of the game quite that baldly). I won't argue that Marx has explicitly promised a positive notice for cash; but does he have to?  These sorts of arrangements, like the one that Scott Heller at the Times effected to promote Frank Rich Jr. (which Marx himself poked fun at recently) are always accomplished as unspoken understandings.  Trust me, journalists are expert at hanging questionable dealings on slender ethical threads; and as long as no one says anything, the whole crap game stays confidently afloat.

Thus even sans explicit instructions, Marx's writers are pumping out the puffery, as noted above; so any of the presenters whom Marx approached could look over his site and realize,"If I give the Arts Fuse a  donation, there's a four-out-of-five chance I'll get a rave."

And those are pretty good odds. So by the standards of this fallen world, there's no reason for Marx's money machine not to hum along quite comfortably. Given his endless (and I mean endless) jibes at the mercenary instincts of producers, these moves make him the height of hypocrisy. But like most operational hypocrisies, his system has a built-in deniability that makes it workable.

The more salient question is - why should you contribute to his scheme? I understand why arts organizations would, of course.  But why should readers pony up their hard-earned cash for an uneven, second-rate imitation of what they can get elsewhere (often still for free)? It's obvious why Marx is making a big push right now - with the Phoenix having just folded, there may be a window online for something like its older incarnation to rise from the ashes on the web.  But clearly, even with a claimed stable of some 60 writers, Marx hasn't nearly reached the standards of the vanished world of alternative publishing. His reach seriously exceeds his grasp.

Plus there are other contenders in the race to co-opt our critical discourse.  Here in Boston, in fact, Marx is facing stiff competition from Polly Carl, resident den mother at Howl Round and the Center for Theatre Corrup - sorry, Theatre Commons!

But we'll consider Ms. Carl, and her plans to kill criticism with kindness, in the next installment of this series.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

If the performance you had tickets to was cancelled, or you missed it because of recent tragic events . . .

. . .  remember local theatres still need your support!  What better weekend than this one to make sure you see that show?

Friday, April 26, 2013

Looking at The Large Bathers

The Large Bathers by Paul Cézanne



Paul Cézanne may be unique among great painters in that, well - he couldn't really paint all that well.  

I know that sounds paradoxical; perhaps even oxymoronic. Yet it's quite obvious Cézanne had little natural gift for the art form he was determined to master. It's true that put to the test, he could eke out a solid figure study (as he did in art school); but anyone can see his heart wasn't in it - as soon as he could, he reverted to the thick, bulbous caricatures that came to him naturally.

The flip side of this lack of facility, however, was that Cézanne was never tempted by art-star showiness (a trap that in different ways snared Sargent, Picasso, and Dalí). There would be no easy success in the salon for him; and so he began a long, (almost) solitary trudge toward remarkable insights into how painted images operate, how they can be de-stabilized, and how the resulting abstractions hint at new metaphors, and unspoken questions.

Take The Large Bathers, for instance (above), which since February has been on loan to the MFA, where it has graced the wall next to the museum's major Gauguin (a melancholy comic strip which is certainly in debt to Cézanne, but may not be flattered by comparison with him).  When you look at these Bathers, however, it's best to look hard (I've visited the painting several times over the past few weeks; it returns to Philadelphia on May 12). For it's startling how many subtle optical tricks Cézanne has embedded in this seemingly "primitive" image.

The piece is clearly (though perhaps coyly) posited as a work-in-progress -  even though the artist had been working and re-working it for years (he died with it still in the studio). Despite a half-decade of attention, however - Cézanne's process was famously slow - unpainted patches still make up much, if not most, of key figures (so the canvas is as nude as they are), and the image as a whole is laced with mysterious lacunae. The seated woman on the left, for instance, is missing her head (it takes a while for most people to  notice this, such is the suggestive power of the composition), and it's unclear what, exactly, these "bathers" are up to, anyway.  Are they washing, perhaps?  Or drying their clothes?  It's hard to tell, for the object of the central trio's attention has likewise yet to be called forth from the canvas; Cézanne only supplies a flat glyph that might be intended to read as "motion" (Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and Nude Descending a Staircase may derive entirely from these gestures, btw).

Larger aspects of the picture are similarly unstable - the supine nude staring toward what would be a traditional "vanishing point" is wittily floating in some alternative perspective, while the object of her attention could either be facing us, or turned away.  And beyond the vaulted "frame" of trees, the background landscape is surprisingly evanescent: we can make it out to the left, but it vanishes entirely on the right.  Has it been occluded by foliage?  Again, hard to say, because Cézanne's leafy surround blends directly into his sky; the same luminous carpet of strokes serves for both.  In the end, the landscape has vanished from the right-hand side of the picture simply because it doesn't have to be there.

So The Large Bathers operates as a kind of essay in a new mode of pictorial illusion - one in which the painting persuades us even though much of it isn't there. But perhaps the solidity of Cézanne's structure renders irrelevant the gaps in his pictorialism; the sacred arch of the trees, the soft pyramids of figures - these could underpin a Titian or Poussin, and they anchor and reify what would otherwise be a series of half-realized suggestions. It's almost as if the artist is testing how little he can actually reveal while convincing us he is showing us something in its entirety - which only allows him to leave his actual content ambiguous.

But what is that content?  Here is where an atmosphere of almost wistful depth begins to emanate from The Large Bathers. As with all death-bed statements and famous last words, it's hard to resist the temptation to gaze into its surface and find there a mirror of many of Cézanne's life-long concerns.  Certainly here we can perceive something of the heavy deliberation of his early work - only now operating in a luminous palette that hints at his famous interactions with the sunny Pissarro. The image's tricks of perspective likewise recall the later still lifes, as does the curious sense of the "solidity" of everything on display (even those things that aren't fully painted!). Somehow, we feel, Cézanne's entire technical development is referenced or conjured in this work; it's essentially his Tempest.

The subject matter itself is likewise poignant. There is little sensual playfulness in Cézanne's oeuvre (he once confessed his Catholicism made him uneasy painting from nude models); when sex does rear its head, it's usually in paintings with titles like The Rape. Thus his  nudes splash about in an entirely different manner from Renoir's - and in a river of tears, probably; so it's no surprise The Large Bathers conveys a sense of erotic melancholy, even alienation, rather than joy.

Which only makes one wonder whether the details of the picture aren't so much unpainted as being erased; perhaps Arcadia is fading, and these goddesses are ghosts. Needless to say, for Cézanne, who was always possessed by the solidity of things, by their very thing-ness, this haunted quality is something extraordinary.  No wonder then that the indistinct figure - his face mostly bare canvas - who stands at the center of the image, on the far shore, is looking, Janus-like, in two directions at once: backward at the garden of Eden, and forward to the little bourgeois town that beckons from the horizon.  Meanwhile Diana and her nymphs stare after him, but do not wave or call; perhaps they know modernity means saying good-bye forever.

And yet given all this, it's strange how the painting seems to quietly glow somehow.  Perhaps for Cézanne it was a kind of sunset.  After all, he died working on it. It was quite literally his last farewell.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Where the Wilder things are

Photo: Cotton Talbot-Minkin

Matthew Woods and his Imaginary Beasts are without question the most daring theatrical programmers in the city - and maybe the world.  Indeed, Woods seems innately averse to the known theatrical quantity; he has an almost relentless taste for the obscure - I can't think of anything I've seen by the Beasts (aside from their winter pantos) that has been anything less than a rarity.  A typical Beasts season will lean heavily on Gertrude Stein, or Witkacy, or Meyerhold - and not even on their best-known stuff.

It sounds like a formula for commercial suicide; and certainly the Beasts aren't yet packing in houses. But like many on the intellectual edge of the fringe, they have slowly built a following, largely because despite the incredible range of his projects, Woods finds in all of them a mirror of his own eccentric perspective.

Indeed, next to Woods, just about every director in Boston looks hopelessly derivative.  He may be the Hub's only theatrical original, and certainly the only local director whose work depends utterly on a literal vision: in a Woods show, the movement, staging, costumes and lighting coalesce with a rare unity. But how to describe the ethos at their core?  For an Imaginary Beasts production is indeed a curious thing; the tone is whimsical, but its underpinning is strict; the atmosphere is usually one of surreal, magically sublimated innocence, like that of a forgotten daydream from childhood - but a sense of formal inquiry always moves beneath the sophisticated "simplicity" of the action.  Lewis Carroll and Gertrude Stein; puppetry and nursery rhymes and pantomime; these are the lodestars of Woods and the Imaginary Beasts.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Lost in the trees

The place beyond the pecs . . . Ryan Gosling in Pines.
It is hard, I admit, for me to argue with Ryan Gosling when he takes his shirt off. As he does immediately in the man-candy opening of The Place Beyond the Pines, Derek Gianfrance's damp ode to fathers and sons, the empty spaces between them, and - well - other stuff that's a little hard to parse, but also, I'm sure, very sad.  Argue I must, however, with the accolades accorded Mr. Gosling, even though there are plenty of other shots - in which he merely lets his bleached-blonde locks and deep blue eyes do his acting for him - that left me a little weak in the knees.

My, my, I thought to myself.  What an awesome talent.

Okay, I'm beginning to sound like a gay Gene Siskel (though unlike him, I don't actually review with my you-know-what).  Besides, I do think Gosling's talented, although it's clear he's coasting on his (considerable) physical charisma in Pines, in which he plays a kind of peroxided angel on wheels, who makes a living calmly enacting Wall-o-Death motorbike stunts in a traveling carnival.  That is, until he hooks up again with a one-night stand (a poignantly restrained Eva Mendes) in upstate New York, and realizes that the little boy she's raising must be his own.

This awareness sparks a transformation in his character, "Luke" (I know, I know), who leaves the carny life for a minimum-wage job in Schenectady (which roughly translates as "the place beyond the pines" in Mohawk, in case you're wondering).  Luke only hopes to be near, and hopefully provide for, his young son - so when these frustrated ambitions lead him to drift into robbery and petty crime, well - let's just say his sins are easy to forgive.

So far, I admit, so good; and for a while, The Place Behind the Pines operates as a kind of downer melodrama elevated by reticent naturalism.  The skies are always gray in Schenectady, where hopes are always broken, so we can feel in our bones that this is no world for virtue - and as the script inches forward, the slightly grainy photography begins to seem soggy with tears we haven't shed yet, but know are in the offing.

Indeed, they come halfway through, as Luke is gunned down after a robbery gone wrong by Bradley Cooper (Schenectady is thick with A-list looks, it seems), a young cop on the rise, and possibly on the make.  Cooper's character, however, is racked with guilt over the killing (even though he sustained a wound in the confrontation, as Luke did fire at him); and these emotional screws tighten when "bad cops" on the squad (with Ray Liotta in the lead, naturally) entice him into nabbing a "hero's bonus" by finding and keeping much of the money that Luke stole (touchingly, he hid it within his son's crib).

Not bad, but hardly in Ryan Gosling's league as a screen object.
It's here that Pines lifts off into intriguing thematic complexity, despite a slightly blank and self-conscious performance from Cooper (who's hardly Gosling's equal at relaxing into his screen persona).  We can feel that the moral positions of thief and policeman have overlapped, and when Cooper (left) turns to his father, a retired judge, for help in extricating himself from his entrapment in corruption, we also sense Gianfrance's gestures toward father-son dynamics could be headed for some sort of pay-off.

But no such luck.  To be honest, from the start we can sense the director and his two screenwriters haven't always been connecting the dots of their plot; indeed, the reticence of the film has sometimes barely disguised the fact that we've been quietly hustled from one contrived climax to the next.  And when the film abruptly leaps a generation to sketch in how the sins of the fathers will be visited on the sons, things really fall apart, and we lose track of whatever fateful thread Gianfrance thinks he has been spinning.  It doesn't help that one member of the second generation (the pouty Emory Cohen, a kind of teen-age Bacchus) looks and acts nothing like his putative parents (the wiry Dane DeHaan is more convincing as Gosling's gosling), while a shift in references from the New Testament to Greek tragedy comes off as slightly ridiculous (the kids are portentously named "Jason" and "AJ" - Ajax, perhaps? - and one is from the city of Troy).

Still, most reviewers have showered Pines with honors, and I suppose it's still a cut above most indie fodder. Yet one leaves it more puzzled than anything else - and frustrated by the perception that if Gianfrance had only wrapped his movie about two thirds of the way through, it might have teased us with trailing, unresolved moral questions, and we would have forgiven the various gaps in its logic that only loom in the third act. Oh, well!  To Gianfrance, I suppose such issues hardly matter; judging from his press, he has already been officially designated a rising talent.

Only it seems to me he still has a good way left to rise.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Can we all stop pretending about Ryan Landry now?

You did have to be a little cuckoo to believe the hype. Photo(s): T. Charles Erickson.

























Okay - we've all sat through "Ryan Landry's M" now.  And we've all seen that the Huntington made a big bet, blew the bank on it, and gave Landry everything he wanted.

And we also know by now that the show is no good.

So - can we stop pretending Ryan Landry is a playwright?

Please?

I'm not sure how this whole thing got started - although I'd say old Louise Kennedy (remember her?) basically got the ball rolling. And in a way, I admit if I didn't have a personal dislike for this particular auteur, I could find something poignant in the whole build-up-and-bust cycle we've just witnessed.  Or at least, I could find something touching in Landry's own apparent awareness that he's out of his league and over his head at the Huntington; the guy actually turns his anxiety over being unable to come up with a real play into a central motif of - well, whatever the hell "Ryan Landry's M" is.

But first - the (by now ritual) full disclosure. Something like four years ago, when this blog was still young, I asked Landry's troupe, the Gold Dust Orphans, for press tickets - and was refused on the grounds that I was not "a legitimate reviewer."  I mentioned this on the blog.

First came a direct threat from Landry's own email account:

"Give me one more reason to react to your bullshit... just one ... and you'll sincerely wish you didn't."

Then came a barrage of abuse from other Orphans and their fans:

"I will find you and hurt you . . . We hope you get AIDS and die . . . YOU SUCK!!!! . . . what would your boss say if he knew about your blog . . . "

It went on and on - dozens of emails - climaxing with another missive from Landry himself that closed with - well, you can read it here.

Now I'm a big boy, and I've hardly spent the last few years looking over my shoulder, dreading the sight of a giant drag queen armed with a clog. But at the same time, pathetic as his outbursts may have been, I haven't forgotten what I'd learned about Ryan Landry  - so I was quite loathe to drag myself to this queen's big premiere.  It seemed like a lose/lose - I doubted M would be any good, but that probably meant setting off another series of flaming email attacks; and if it was good - well, it would have been pretty depressing having to write a rave for this jerk.

But the Huntington kept asking, people kept wondering if I'd write about it, it was obviously going to be an "event." So in the end I went (I admit I was mildly curious about it myself).

Fifteen minutes in, though, I was breathing a sigh of relief; I would be spared having to pen a positive notice, much less a rave! Even though, at first, "Ryan Landry's M" is a punchy, dirty little skit (albeit toned down from his usual fare). Which only reminded me that what Landry does best is write strings of gags. Which he drapes over existing scripts. The results are, in my opinion, hit-or-miss; but there's always at least one boffo moment in a Landry sketch. It helps that his design team provides witty stage business on the fly - and on the cheap, which is important in that it resonates with the anything-goes, improvised tone of the show as a whole (if you ask me, the guys on his production team are the real geniuses over at the Gold Dust Orphans, and the Huntington's glossier, more "professional" work in M feels wrong somehow).

It also helps, of course, that Landry suffers from sexual tunnel vision in an amusingly childish way (a typical Landry "play" is basically a kiddie show with dildos). And his audience is reliably in a let's-make-mudpies kind of mood, so the scene over at Machine (his habitual haunt) usually has a giddy vibe of mutually infantile re-inforcement.

Which is fun as far as it goes, and I know it gives the repressed, middle-aged reporters at the Globe a thrill, but again - there are only so many ways you can goose the usual suspects. When Landry's targets are wide ones - fatuous or self-serious, or in denial, or simply dishonest - then his tawdry punches land, the inflated icon is punctured, and the skits really sing.

Karen MacDonald as Peter Lorre, kind of.
But when it comes to Fritz Lang's classic M - well, M isn't fatuous, self-serious, in denial, or at all dishonest. There's no diva concealed in it, no sentimentality, no grandiosity - it's far more self-aware and cooler in its irony than anything Ryan Landry has ever written (or ever will). Indeed, Lang's vision of a tormented child-killer, and the cruelly amoral society that hunts him down, is one of the most devastating social critiques ever put to film. The movie already skewers rigid social and sexual norms; it already deflates moral sanctimony.  Basically Lang is way ahead of Landry, and in M he dryly undermines not only everything the Gold Dust Orphans attack, but also everything they are about.  Next to M, it's Landry who looks fatuous and in denial, which may be why his version of M tends to de-fang it, and sand down its subversive edge.  He actually tries to make M look bourgeois.

Lang's classic is also, just btw, one of the most innovative movies ever made, and although it certainly has its longeurs, much of its imagery (the child's balloon caught in power lines, the leitmotif of "In the Hall of the Mountain King," the tracking shots of the killer marked with the letter "M") remains indelible. Such masterstrokes are, of course, hard to parody - so generally Landry simply lifts them, in half-homage.

But there's a further problem - to Landry's usual audience (and the Huntington's, too), M is obscure. Its influence has been pervasive, but only cinephiles watch it now; its references are too deeply buried in the culture for Landry's techniques to reach. (Which may be why the stage design relies quite a bit on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and why the soundtrack borrows from Hitchcock.)

What all this means, in the end, is that for much of M, Ryan Landry is on his own. He has to write a play. I suppose he painted himself into this corner intentionally; he may have chosen M precisely because he sensed it would set him up for either triumph or disaster.

Well, what happened was disaster, although one alleviated by occasional laughs, as his skitmaster side sometimes leavens his own pretensions with a few raspberries. Landry fills stage time with all sorts of dated fourth-wall antics; he throws constant wrenches into Lang's action, or tosses in quotes from The Blue Angel (by now another obscurity) to slow things down; he conjures out of nowhere a screwball comedy couple (the capable Ellen Adair and Paul Melendy) to charm us with open-ended questions about what they're doing on stage anyhow (yet Landry wrings nothing from the culture clash he thinks he has set up). Or he just drags in good old Orphan alumnus Larry Coen, or new comrade-in-arms David Drake, both capable comedians, to work the crowd for awhile.

Through all this you can all but hear the clock ticking toward 90 minutes, when we know the whole debacle can end. But weirdly, there is a good, if half-baked, idea banging around in M. Landry seems to identify with the Lorre character (this only re-activates creepy ideas about gay people, if you ask me, but whatever), and so turns his child-killer into an auteur - indeed, into a playwright within the play, who can actually adjust the script at will.

Now this could have led somewhere interesting, I admit. We do wonder why the hunted criminal can't simply re-write himself a happy ending on the spot, of course - but we're willing to ignore such contradictions if the play can get at something about how this villain/victim might rationalize to himself his own triumph (or his own defeat). What do society's outlaws tell themselves about themselves if and when they can get away with their crimes? It's an intriguing theme.

Adair and Drake in The Blue M
But alas, Landry only uses his one good idea as a pretext for more dramatic delay and  obstruction. Karen MacDonald gives the role her all (it's actually her most intense work in some time) but she's investing herself in something that leads her nowhere. Don't worry, she sends herself to hell at the finale (remember what I said about the script being bourgeois), but her decision is barely dramatized, and how it actually maps to the rest of M remains a mystery.

Of course it's no mystery why the Huntington programmed this bomb - Landry comes with a built-in audience (indeed, before the bad reviews dropped, they'd added performances to the run).  No doubt the company hopes Landry could become a cash cow for them, à la Harvard's Donkey Show. But how about we all wait till he has actually written a play before we hand him over a theatre again?  Just a thought.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

White zombies, and the best new play so far this year, at Trinity Rep

Rebecca Gibel and Darien Battle get their Walking Dead groove on. Production photos: Mark Turek.
























White terror.

Let's admit it, that's what stalks us these days.

It's the ghost haunting the attack on the Boston Marathon (surely foreign terrorists would have claimed credit by now).  It's what shadows the Newtown tragedy, and most every other massacre on the network news (and there's almost one a week now, isn't there).

White men with assault rifles.  White men with bombs.  White men with gavels.

It's getting scary.  (Almost as scary as it has always been for black folks.)

Hence the re-purposing of the zombie to this new reality.  The undead once stumbled through exotic, racist dreamscapes (sometimes lushly-rendered ones).  But in 1968 George Romero neatly flipped the zombie brand with his (still potent) Night of the Living Dead, a tale of hungry white Republicans chowing down on a lone African-American hero.  A decade later, Romero went himself one better, sending his white zombies staggering to the mall - but slowly the rejuvenated genre lost its political edge, to either fresh paranoid targets (AIDS, etc.) or pure gross-out potential.

Obama changed all that, however, and brought the Romero formula back center-stage.  Suddenly America was confronted by a black man as its only real statesman of stature; intelligent, calm, responsible - basically Atticus Finch reborn - he drove racists crazy (indeed, just today an anonymous letter containing poison was sent to the President). And suddenly white zombies were everywhere. Zombie movies, zombie marches - even a zombie cable series! All at once, the walking dead were at the heart of the millennial zeitgeist.

And now, after many scrappy fringe efforts, we have our first "serious" play channeling all this undead energy in Jackie Sibblies Drury's Social Creatures, through this weekend only at Trinity Rep.  And to my mind, it's well worth a trip to Providence.  You could argue (as some have) that Drury's gorefest is too indebted to genre conventions: a wary band of survivors has holed up in (yes) the actual Trinity Rep, in actual real-life Providence, as some inexplicable plague rages outside.  They're basically all stereotypes (aging hippie, uptight yuppie, crotchety old coot), and they're inevitably overwhelmed by predictable threats from without and within.

Jackie Sibblies Drury
But if you made that argument, you'd be missing the point. For there's a fresh, unsettling edge to Drury's script that lingers with you - and visibly disturbed the audience on the night I saw it in a way you rarely see audiences troubled anymore.  In short, while Ms. Drury's play may be formulaic, this is at least partly intentional - and at any rate, you can sense through its lens that she's the real thing: a fresh theatrical voice already far stronger than most of the millennial brat pack.

Perhaps part of her punch comes from her sneaky, insinuating technique: her ragged little band apart, for instance, has unconsciously chosen new, white-bread sobriquets (Mrs. Smith, Mr. Williams) for their new social roles; they long for white normalcy, and when an African-American stumbles into their enclave, they immediately dub him "Mr. Brown" - "I know what you're thinking, but it's just so easy to remember!" they explain. Drury also has an eye for more deeply embedded detail: all the squirrels and rabbits have vanished, for instance (and even the trees are slowly dying), but the rats are doing just fine, thank you very much - which is why her characters panic whenever they see a member of the rat race (perhaps they're the ones carrying the plague).

But what exactly is that unnamed scourge? It's here that Social Creatures nibbles at the audience's assumptions.  Unlike The Walking Dead, or even George Romero, Drury openly treats her illness as metaphor; there's no mutated virus responsible, no bug from another world.  What happened, as the traumatized Mr. Brown explains, is that one day in a department store, "Some white lady couldn't get the dress she wanted in the right size, and suddenly she just ripped the salesgirl's face off."  Then another lady in the store went just as crazy, realizing that "now she could do whatever she wanted."

And so the plague began.  It was all about retail.

It's a clever gambit, one that neatly links the racist critique of Romero to the political chic of so many young millennials; this is a libertarian nightmare, one in which old moral and religious constraints have been shed, and white people have gone mad as a result.  For after all, what is the zombie but a consumer? Stumbling around mindlessly in the free market of human flesh, forever hungry for more "content," zombies don't merely reflect racism but also the market-driven rapacity of the new world (and Internet) order. (Indeed, there's even a dark hint here that official racism once constrained, rather than enabled, our basest instincts.)

Alexander Platt discovers the worst in Social Creatures.
Thus you slowly get a sense of the playwright's subtle game: she wants to reproduce the conventions of The Walking Dead while simultaneously subverting them.  And so she gives the audience quite a good time, serving up generous helpings of black comedy with some effective grindhouse chills, before whispering her true theme to us sotto voce.

Still, the play's not perfect.  Drury seems more assured in her portraits of women than men, so sometimes there's an air of Fried-Green-Tomatoes cliché to her action.  But at the same time she seems a little unsure of what to make of, or do with, her most intriguing character, the power-yuppie Mrs. Jones (a poignantly determined D'Arcy Dersham) who desperately, if tyrannically, tries to keep her tribe together against all odds (she sadly tells her self-absorbed husband, "I always thought you would be braver"). The other polestar of the play, damaged emo-waif Mrs. Smith (a perversely effective Rebecca Gibel) is likewise a bit blurry, hinting at far more than is ever theatrically realized; is her decline due to drugs?  Trauma? Mental illness? We're never sure, although it's highly amusing that it's she who succumbs to the zombie bug first (it's like watching Taylor Swift go cannibal). I should also add that the onstage violence isn't always convincing - even if the ensuing geysers of hemoglobin usually are.

But the acting at Trinity generally carries us over these quibbles, and to be honest, the entire ensemble, under the assured hand of artistic director Curt Columbus (who commissioned the script), is remarkably robust: Alexander Platt (at right, last seen in Ch'inglish at the Lyric) nails his nihilistic, suburban middle manager, and there's more compelling, witty work from Nance Williamson, Janice Duclos, Timothy Crowe, and the terrified Darien Battle.

Of course in the end, what most people may bring away from Social Creatures is Drury's daring with the gory tropes of the grindhouse (and be warned, the play includes a cannibal battle royale complete with squirting jugulars). But what stuck with me was its pathos - not the pathos of the zombie apocalypse, but the pathos of the refugees' pitiful attempts at being, well, "social creatures." In their spare time, they record long lists of groups they once were a part of; and tellingly, Eugene Lee's battered set is held together by nothing but duct tape. But is duct tape enough to keep the twin terrors of racism and libertarianism at bay?  Ms. Drury poses the question cleverly, but doesn't offer any answers.

Stephen Colbert says it better than I ever could . . .



Thank you, Mr. Colbert!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The day after

A woman prays amid the carnage on Boylston Street. Photo: John Tlumacki.



For Boston yesterday, it was like 9/11 all over again.

Shock.  Horror. Disbelief.  That sickening sense of encountering naked human evil, glaring suddenly from a happy crowd on a sunny day.

Yes, the scale was different - only a handful of deaths, and a hundred or so injuries against the thousands on 9/11. But tell that to the family of 8-year-old Martin Richard, the little boy who lingered at the sidewalk to hug his dad as he crossed the finish line.  Today, Martin Richard is dead. And his mother is fighting for her life; his sister is hospitalized.  To his family, like the families of all the victims - many of whom suffered horrific, life-changing injuries - the tragedy is unthinkable in its scale and scope.

And somehow there's an extra twist, isn't there, in targeting a ritual so closely tied to hope, camaraderie, and idealism.  Martin Richard's father worked long and hard to be at the Marathon that day, and his family was there to cheer him on.  I have no illusions about the scrappy underside of the Boston Marathon (although it's certainly no darker than that of the Olympics, or any other large human endeavor).  And I can't pretend I still look forward to its annual appearance on the calendar - indeed, I probably registered a faint irritation with it yesterday morning, as the T was slower and more clogged than usual.  Long gone are the days when I was drawn to the finish line (although for several years, when I was working in the Pru, I would have been found on Patriot's Day very close to the spot where the second bomb went off).

Of course thousands - hundreds of thousands - of Bostonians could say the same thing.  The Marathon is a touchstone of the city, a defining experience, something you have to see while you're here, at least once.  Which is another reason why turning its finish line into a slaughterhouse strikes somehow at the very heart of my hometown - at what's best about it, at what it loves about itself, at what it's proud of, and is worth being proud of.

What happened yesterday was a desperate, sad bid to change all that.  To kill that spirit.  To instill horror and hatred in us, perhaps to excite awe, perhaps to incite revenge, perhaps merely to claim some sort of sick celebrity in the dark circus that our media culture has become.

But all that doesn't matter.  Justice - yes; we must find those who did this dreadful thing, and they must pay. 

But there can be no justice in this world.  That is the most heart-breaking thing about it.  There is no way to make the perps pay enough for there to be justice.  And we can't let ourselves go to the same dark places we wandered after 9/11 - particularly as we don't know whether terrorists (and if so which terrorists?), or some insane "lone wolf," are responsible for this tragedy.

And yes, let's even remember - the deaths of innocents are commonplace in this fallen world. American policy has even been responsible for more than a few.

Martin Richard
But a little boy named Martin Richard had nothing to do with any of that. He was just at the Boston Marathon to hug his dad. I suppose what I'm saying - even as I tear up while I type this - is that we must always remember Martin, and how his young life was snuffed out, and his family so cruelly attacked.

But we must also remember why he was at the Marathon. What it stands for. That we are a City on a Hill - or hope to be.

Martin would have wanted us to remember that.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The horror, the horror

The scene at Copley Square.


My close friends have all called in, the kid from our lab who was running has tweeted he's safe, I've posted on Facebook and e-mailed the family that I'm okay.

So just overwhelmed with horror right now.  Overwhelmed by the horror.

By the way, Vera Stark isn't a very good play

The talented women of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark. Photos: Johnathan Carr





I've long maintained that the celebrated Lynn Nottage is more pedagogue than playwright - and I think that after seeing By the Way, Meet Vera Stark (at the Lyric Stage through April 27), few could disagree. For this time the author is quite openly at the lecture podium, laser pointer in hand.  It's true she ribs her lesson plan a little (or rather the academics from whom she's cribbing), but this cannot disguise the fact that Vera Stark is full of familiar, self-indulgent conceits - and as a dramatic construction it's pretty rudimentary.  Still, you could argue that as PowerPoint, it sometimes sings.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Variations on Vivaldi at H&H

Ian Watson at the keyboard in a previous Handel and Haydn performance.

As the old joke goes, Vivaldi didn't write five hundred concertos, he wrote one concerto five hundred times.  Okay, not entirely fair - but in a nutshell, that's the problem with many a program devoted to the oeuvre of the "Red Priest" (the red-headed Vivaldi's vivid nickname) who may have contributed more to this particular musical form than any other composer; the works are always wonderful at first, but by the end of the performance a sense of relentless similarity inevitably sets in.

Last weekend the Handel and Haydn Society largely dodged that problem, however, with its "Vivaldi Virtuosi," a cannily curated concert that contrasted works by the "Prete Rosso" with lesser-known lights of his era - and at the finale, threw aside the early concerto's "fast-slow-fast" regimentation entirely for a beautifully integrated set of variations by Francesco Geminiani on the familiar theme of "La Follia."

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The final question about the Final Solution?

The cast of Lebensraum - Photo: Natalia Boltukhova

In case you hadn't noticed, another intrepid small theatre troupe has joined the fringe - the Hub Theatre Company of Boston (no relation to the Hub Review, btw).  And, as you might expect by now, their programming is far more daring than anything you'd expect from one of our major companies.

Indeed, first up from the Hub is Israel Horowitz's provocation Lebensraum (in German, roughly, "Living Room"), which takes direct aim at the question that has haunted international relations since the world first learned of the Nazi regime's "Final Solution."

In brief - can the Jews ever forgive the Germans for what they did?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A class in Callas-ness

Amelia Broome channels the divine Maria.


Theatre is about dreaming.  Dreaming big.

But there are limits.  And I think everyone involved in Master Class at the New Rep was dreaming just a little too big.  I am certainly a fan of its star, Amelia Broome, and I've generally admired the work of its intelligent director, Antonio Campo-Guzman - but neither seem to have faced the bottom line about Terrence McNally's valentine (or is it a raspberry?) to the great Maria Callas, undeniably the most fascinating diva of the twentieth century.

And that bottom line is: this show is nothing without an actress/panther who can prowl the stage with the same ferocity and neediness as Callas herself.  The role can't be a stretch.  It can't be an exploration.  It only exists as an apotheosis.  

But Amelia Broome, talented as she is, is much more pussycat than panther; indeed, she's known for projecting a gracious, maternal warmth.

Now, for all I know, Callas might have projected gracious warmth as well. But that's not what Terrence McNally has written; his Master Class is hardly a portrait of Callas in all her complexity - it's not even an accurate transcript of Callas as pedagogue (there are videos of her classes available which bear no resemblance to McNally's script).  It is, instead, a naïve sketch of Callas as drag queen, a kind of gay fantasia on operatic themes in which Callas-the-queer-icon always trumps Callas-the-actual-person. This is, shall we say, rather a narrow perspective, and without a galvanizing presence to animate McNally's puppet diva, his conceits grow repetitive, and long stretches of the script read as vulgar or simplistic.


Callas in mid-flight - Norma in 1957.

So this is not Terrence McNally's strongest play (yet it still won a Tony - sigh, only in New York!). Still, his conceit has some resonance, because there's a reason gay men revere Callas the way they do - and it all has to do with the braided power and vulnerability that come with self-transformation.

Maria Callas was born Sophia Cecelia Kalos (in Manhattan, not Greece) to an overbearing mother and weak father, who adored her older, slimmer sister (check, check and check on the gay-cliché crib sheet, btw).  She began her singing career as a somewhat chubby contralto - probably.  Frankly, nobody dares classify Callas's voice anymore, because she steadily pushed her range up to mezzo, then soprano, then coloratura territory seemingly through sheer force of will - rather as certain gay men tweeze and corset their way into out-sized visions of femininity. What's more, Callas drove herself into the most punishing vocal territory, mixing and matching roles that would make any voice teacher faint (in one famous season, she swung from Wagner's Brünnhilde to Bellini's Elvira in a matter of days).

Broome attempts to cast Callas' spell.
In the end, the voice was sui generis - indeed, Callas seemed to have several voices, including a strong baritone (she could sing from F below middle C up almost three octaves). But intriguingly, there was no clear line between any of these modes, and for her, the traditional "break" between head and chest voice didn't really exist (just as binary gender doesn't exist in drag). What's more, her sound was somehow inhumanly pure, and yet at the same time subtly unstable; what gave her performances a special thrill was the sense that the whole vocal edifice might topple off its heels at any moment.

And indeed, Callas ultimately destroyed her instrument; some claim her dramatic weight loss (she starved herself down to a glamorous sylph) was what, shall we say, tipped the scales; others claim the devastating end of her affair with Aristotle Onassis (who moved on from one trophy "wife" to another, Jacqueline Kennedy) was what sent her into a personal and artistic tailspin. But whatever the reason, her soprano began to collapse when she was in her late 40's (which is what makes the idea of her giving a master class rather ironic).

So it's no surprise that McNally couldn't resist sending the divine Callas, musically mute but in eternal high dudgeon, stalking through a heterosexual voice class like some diva-saurus rex. And there's fun to be had for a while, it's true, as she lays waste to the clueless fashion disasters who wander into her lair. But in the end, the vulnerability of her sense of self (and will), and her subsequently cruel "instruction," is all McNally has up his sleeve in dramatic terms - and it's enough for a sharp little one-act, but hardly a full evening.

Still, Broome does her best, and is generally diverting, if never entirely convincing (you can almost feel her suppressing her true self); she does fail, however, to make the swooning psychological breaks McNally has written into the play work.  But these are really the nadir of the script anyway; indeed, as Callas growls about Onassis' "uncircumcised Greek cock," whatever distance still exists between McNally's fantasies and the diva herself is erased, and we wonder whether she's staggering through memories of La Scala or the Ramrod.  But elsewhere in the cast the news is good, and so is the singing. The standout was tenor Darren Anderson's powerful turn, but Lindsay Conrad and Erica Spyres also acquitted themselves well.  (Spyres is a known quantity, of course; the surprise was Conrad's bumptiously amusing stage presence.)  Meanwhile Brendon Shapiro all but embodied the classic self-effacing rehearsal pianist, while the exasperated Michael Caminiti made every walk-on count.  Still, in the end, this was hardly a masterly Master Class - indeed, it made you wonder whether without a diva on hand to match Callas, this script is worth reviving.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Okay, okay, here are my thoughts on Clybourne Park (Part 2 of a series)

Work of art or house of mirrors?  The SpeakEasy version of Clybourne Park.  Photo(s): Craig Bailey.


Every single theatre acquaintance I've bumped into over the past month has asked me the same question:

"When are you going to write about Clybourne Park???"

Sometimes people said,  "You are going to write about Clybourne Park, aren't you?" or "You didn't already write about Clybourne Park, did you?" or "I didn't miss it, did I?"

A few emails simply cut to the chase: "Clybourne Park?" was all they said.

But no, you haven't missed it - even though I did already write in depth about Clybourne, in a widely noted review of Trinity Rep's savage production last year.  But I understood that I had to write about it again - people were actually yearning for it.  For one thing, everyone knows I'm the only writer in Boston who dares to write honestly about questions of race in the theatre - plus I'm one of only a few local critics with any insight into dramatic mechanics. Those points were particularly salient because the vast majority of my friends, it seemed, were hesitantly trying to vocalize a common feeling they were hoping I would validate. As one put it:

"It seems like a really good play.  But it really isn't, is it."

And what can I say?  You're all quite right.  Clybourne Park seems like a really good play - but it isn't, not really.  Instead, it is an "important" play - and there's a big difference between an important play and a good play.

Still, the SpeakEasy Stage production (which recently closed) was undeniably a strong one - it honored the work's "importance" in an astutely dignified way, and often - but not always - disguised its flaws. That is what it was designed to do, and it clearly succeeded in its objective.  (It certainly snookered almost all the Boston critics.)  The Trinity Rep production was in a way more intriguing - it cast the play as polemic - in effect a sardonic riposte to Hansberry's text, or at least its comfortable, classic status; and thus it sank its teeth into the dark snark at the core of Bruce Norris's authorial tone.  The trouble was, this led to a dead end, because Norris doesn't really complete any kind of artistic or politic arc in his action, and the buried "secret" driving his plot feels like a complete non sequitur to his racial themes.  Thus after a roaring act-and-a-half, the Trinity Rep version abruptly ran out of steam, and sputtered to a frustrating stop - which led me to wonder whether the mainstream "race play" was already "written out."

But at SpeakEasy Stage, director Bevin O'Gara was - well, cannier in manner and method, although it has crossed my mind that she may have actually been simply disinterested in the script's political particulars.  To her, you felt, Clybourne Park operated as kind of figurehead, like one of those bare-busted ladies on the prow of a ship, for a certain theatrical movement of which she sees herself as avatar; its individual features or flaws were of secondary concern.  Indeed, it was mounted as an indirect companion piece to the simultaneous revival of A Raisin in the Sun (from which its plot is derived) at the Huntington (where O'Gara works as an associate producer). And given that production's rather sentimentalized tone, clearly what counted was that Clybourne convey a vaguely progressive posture despite itself (indeed even though it often feels like a sarcastic shrug of despair).

Thus O'Gara's was a kinder, gentler Clybourne Park -  a transformation which she effected by making it an actor's Clybourne Park, focused on sympathetic, naturalistic detail rather than debate (after all, O'Gara, and SpeakEasy Stage, just don't do debate). This approach was somewhat compromised by the fact that a key role in the production was miscast; but the actor in question, Thomas Derrah, is so technically skillful that this issue, like so many in the script itself, was successfully disguised.

Of course O'Gara's version inevitably stalled, too, like Trinity's - although so much more slowly and subtly that I think many observers never even felt themselves drifting to a stop. Perhaps more importantly, it was pushed into rough alignment with Raisin, its source material  - indeed (in a move that made you wonder about some level of meta-collusion between the two directors) the Huntington's Liesl Tommy brought onstage the ghost of the deceased patriarch whose death kick-starts the plot of Raisin - as if to openly reference the dead son who haunts Clybourne.

But do those particular reflections really make sense (even if they're what Bruce Norris had in mind)? Probably not - indeed, I'd argue Tommy's gentle but forced gesture violated Hansberry's intents, and the suggested parallels with Clybourne were just fuzzy anyway.  Thus inevitably, more discerning theatre-goers left both productions with the troubling sense that they'd been  - well, slightly hoodwinked.  And in a way they had; Raisin and Clybourne are opposed, not parallel, works.  One (Raisin) is far greater than the other, but oddly, the weaker play attempts to undo the optimism of the stronger; and any attempt to suggest that they orbit each other in the way that Norris's two time frames do in Clybourne is (I think) an inherently misguided strategy.

What's past is prologue in Clybourne Park.
Of course perhaps all this is simple coincidence. And to be fair, O'Gara's approach had one great virtue: it drew out the incredible detail that Norris has worked into his mirrored diptych of two eras, and the modes in which racism was and is secretly honored, but officially denied, in each (the approach is neatly summed up in the photoshopped "mirror" of two sets of characters, at left).

Still, this mirroring should really only be a means toward an end - and it's that end, that climax, that's missing from Clybourne Park.  Yes, racism has survived A Raisin in the Sun, and even the Civil Rights Act - but in what form, really, has it done so? That, you feel, is the question that would have pre-occupied Lorraine Hansberry, had she not been taken from us at such an early age - and while Norris nods toward it, he seems unwilling to answer it.  Instead, the playwright lets his many reflections take over, and Clybourne Park becomes a house of mirrors rather than a work of art.

But if Clybourne Park isn't actually a work of art, is it at least an interesting cultural artifact, a kind of unconscious aesthetic symptom? This is an intriguing argument, and one that the rapturous critical reception to O'Gara's production seems to validate.  And which I'll consider more deeply in the third part of this series.

Monday, April 8, 2013

A night to remember

Miss Cook in action.
I spent Saturday night this past weekend with an old friend, Barbara Cook (at left). No, Miss Cook doesn't know me personally - just as she doesn't know the two or three thousand people who also crowded Symphony Hall for her Celebrity Series concert.  

But it seems as if she does; such is the intimate magic of her singing style.  It sounds almost funny to say that the greatest torch song singer alive is now 85 years young - but it's true.  It's also true, I suppose, that Miss Cook's sunny soprano has grown dusky with the years, and so she no longer attempts the high notes of signature tunes like "Ice Cream" (in days gone by she could even hit the coloratura heights of "Glitter and Be Gay").

This hardly matters, however; indeed the slow retreat of her voice to its warm, golden core has only brought a poignant glow to her singing.  For time cannot touch the essence of Miss Cook's appeal, which simply transcends questions of range or even technique.  For this lady doesn't seem to sing a song - she just lives it; next to her, every other vocalist on the planet seems to be trying a little too hard.

Whence comes this legendary magic?  I'm not sure - no one is - and I don't think you can bottle it, as Miss Cook's recordings, wonderful as they are, can't convey the luminous aura she projects from the stage.  As a sentimental old song begins to bloom in her hands (and they always do, however familiar they may be), and she gazes out into the crowd, it soon seems as if - as the old cliché insists - everything and everyone in the concert hall has vanished but the two of you.  And maybe the piano.

At least that was the trick she accomplished with Hoagy Carmichael's gorgeous "The Nearness of You" - a song she has only recently added to her repertoire (yes, at 85 she's still working on new material).  It was enough to leave her co-star for the evening, the noted jazz guitarist, vocalist and band leader John Pizzarelli, briefly speechless. And could you blame him? Poor Mr. Pizzarelli! The son of legendary guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, he's a brilliant and wide-ranging talent - a fabulously nimble instrumentalist and a lightly witty singer. He's also, of course, "the Foxwoods guy" (a star-making gig he no doubt regards today with some degree of rue) as well as a major concert draw in his own right; and he and his crack quartet (brother Martin Pizzarelli on double bass, Tony Tedesco on drums, and the lightning-fingered Larry Fuller on piano) are tighter than a duck's - well, you know. 

But the bemused Pizzarelli knew somehow that in Miss Cook he was up against something bigger than all of us. I think somewhere, she knows it too. Hence, perhaps, the long good-bye (she's got club dates booked well into the future); she doesn't want to give up - and we don't want to give her up. Indeed, at the finish, people cried out for just one more tune, even though with pianist Ted Rosenthal she had already delivered a bouquet of flowers from the American songbook - "I've Got the World on a String," "The Very Thought of You," a wickedly droll "Makin' Whoopee," "We Three," and the lesser known (but Grammy-nominated, in Shirley Horn's haunting rendition) "Here's to Life."

She also happily dueted on a snappy "I Got Rhythm" as well as a sweet "Just You, Just Me;" and Pizzarelli had his solo moments too, including a charming version of the list-song "Rhode Island," and a quietly moving take on, yes, "As Time Goes By" (he included the forgotten, but utterly wonderful, lead-in verses, which refer to Einstein!).  And to be honest, I thought I could sense his influence on Cook; her phrasing on Saturday was ever so slightly looser and syncopated, ever so subtly more conversational. We all got a sense of this in the penultimate sing-along, "Shine On, Harvest Moon," as well as the encore, Lennon's "Imagine," sung sans amplification, in a gentle nod to the ideals that have quietly informed Miss Cook's career.  Yes, she has always been a dreamer; by the end of the night, so were we all.  And what we were dreaming was that we'd someday have the chance to hear her give another concert like this one.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Spellbound casts its spell

A moment of stillness in Downshifting.


You don't have to be a dance critic to sense immediately the appeal of Spellbound Dance Company; Italy's leading modern troupe (currently re-branding itself as "Spellbound Contemporary Ballet") boasts dancers with a startling level of technique, led by an artistic director (Mauro Astolfi) with a signature style and a taste for high concept and big ideas.  These virtues were all evident only minutes into the company's current Celebrity Series appearance (which closes tonight at the Schubert). What took longer to register was a slight frustration with Spellbound's final statements; the company holds you spellbound all right, in a sexily urbane kind of daze; but by the end of the night, you may find that, like a sleepwalker, you've wandered far afield and been left without a map.

Still, for many the sheer pleasure of watching Spellbound in action may be enough; and no one could argue the company isn't easy on the eyes - I had a hard time not just leaning back and ogling blonde punk angel Michelangelo Puglisi, for instance (and I've got nothing against hunky Mario Laterza or Giacomo Todeschi either!). What's more, there was a frank, nearly-sexual sense of physical contact between these men which is unusual in the uptown dance world.  As for the alluring women - Maria Cossu, Marianna Ombrosi, Alessandra Chirulli, Giuliana Mele, Gaia Mattioli, and Sofia Barbiero - they were likewise sexually self-aware players (no ingénues here), with knowing personae that were, perhaps, more complex and streaked with pain than their male partners'.  Although surprisingly, the women (Alessandra Chirulli was a stand-out) cut their sharpest profiles in their more sardonic moments, as in the brand-new She is On the Ground, a sunny stretch of Italian sex comedy (set to the ironically sweet accompaniment of viols) that was not only the most successful dance of the concert, but also reminded you why this country was the home of commedia dell'arte.



Elsewhere the program was more somber; Lost for Words (excerpts above), for instance, seemed to eloquently circle questions of frustrated communication without, ironically enough, ever quite coming to a point itself.  A key problem was that while the soundtrack for Words was largely a spoken text about withdrawal, the choreography was more concerned with struggle.  Like much of the international dance community, artistic director Astolfi is focused on bringing to the swiveling, unstable vocabulary of break and street dance the formal rigors of ballet; and at this, he and his company succeed brilliantly, minute-to-minute.  Long passages of Lost for Words are thrilling free-for-alls, full of dodges and pops in which the incredibly flexible dancers lock and interlock and "flare" while cantilevering off each other; sometimes they seem to be manipulating each other like puppets (in what I took as a key piece of symbolism), at others they're practically moving through each other in morphing waves of physical form.  

At its best, the sheer virtuosity of all this is dizzying, but it's dogged by the perennial problem of street dance; like many a b-boy or b-girl, Astolfi conjures a potent attitude, but struggles to shape a statement.  He's a master of improvisatory group dynamics (indeed, Spellbound was initially devoted to improv), but teases only disconnected vignettes from the heaving tide of the work, and his penchant for leaping between musical styles, and to spoken word and back - all while maintaining a sense of choreographic independence from his accompaniment - only means the dance has even more trouble coalescing.  Indeed, you could often feel Astolfi trying to maintain a kind of distance between "pure" movement and musical structure - which years ago was a totem for the Cunningham/Cage crowd - but frankly, I thought he could simply use more of the discipline that musical structure can provide. Still, Lost for Words is heavy with a potent, if vague, sense of tragic poignance (and of course its very theme is the inability to truly communicate, isn't it).

The same issues haunt the more low-key Downshifting, although this time around longer narrative strands do hold us in their thrall, and connections seem to be growing into something like relationships by the end of the dance.  Over its course, a group of twenty-somethings - partly dressed, and partly undressed, in a mix of casual attire and pajamas - seem to "fall" out of their orderly existences, and begin to grope toward some kind of transcendence, and each other, in a series of interlocking duos and trios (it seems the dance was once done in nudie pink tights - we didn't get that in uptight Boston, too bad!). Like Lost for Words, the piece seems poised between frank, physical contact and a kind of inner, lovelorn sigh.  There's a deep theme there, I think, that could be more than enough to build a company around - and Mr. Astolfi certainly has the company already (and in Marco Policastro's striking, architectonic lighting, seemingly designed to recall the heyday of Italian futurism, there's a signature look to his staging, too).  Which is why we look forward to falling under Spellbound's spell once again sometime soon.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

A beauty of a Beauty from Boston Ballet

Jeffrey Cirio and Misa Kuranaga, the perfect couple.
To turn from Boston Ballet's "All Kylián" program of two weeks ago to the lush embrace of Tchaikovsky's The Sleeping Beauty is to experience a dizzying kind of high-cultural whiplash.  For while the Kylián program tiptoed up to (and perhaps over) the cutting edge of modern dance, Beauty conjures a retro-classic version of a ballet classic. Actually, make that a classic retro-classic ballet classic - for you'd need an archeologist to fully excavate all the layers of dance development embedded in this sumptuous production. The choreographers listed on the program tell the story all by themselves - Petipa; de Valois; Ashton; the sobriquets of a full century of ballet aristocracy. No wonder watching this dance is like peering through the pentimento of one genius to the portrait of another, etched on the palimpsest of a third; the very history of ballet seems to sleep within this Beauty.

It must be admitted, however, that the weight of history can make the second, and most imperial, of Tchaikovsky's famous trio of ballets seem almost too stately - especially in the Prologue, in which for awhile it's the plot that slumbers.  Or maybe it was simply that at the performance I attended (for once I missed opening night), the divertissements by the various fairies who visit Princess Aurora's christening were essayed in a rather desultory manner by recent graduates of the corps.  But the production quickly came together with the entrance of star Erica Cornejo as the wicked Carabosse (below right) - you know, the one who lays down the curse that Aurora will someday prick her finger on a spindle and sleep forever. Zooming onstage in her badfairymobile, Cornejo hardly danced a step, but nevertheless all but smacked her lips as she chewed  on David Walker's opulent scenery.

In this version of the tale, the Lilac Fairy (no, I'd never heard of her either) somehow has the power to cut back Aurora's life sentence in dreamland to just twenty years - after that, she can be awakened by a kiss.  Luckily, of course, lonely Prince Désiré (hmmm), who's just the man for the job, happens to be wandering by with a hunting party at the right moment, and the rest is - well, ballet history.

Erica Cornejo vamps it up as Carabosse.
It's hard to believe, I grant, that real poignance could be wrung from such a libretto, but of course The Sleeping Beauty, like most fairy tales, taps into deep psychological tropes, and its basic theme - the destruction, then redemption, of feminine innocence - resonates through the culture.  And the Ballet has been lucky in its casting of Aurora -  indeed, there's a classic performance set within this classic production. Misa Kuranaga, a porcelain presence with one of the company's lightest, cleanest techniques, has danced Aurora before, and always to acclaim.  But now she seems to have reached some lustrous new identification with the role; she isn't "interpreting" Aurora, she simply is Aurora.  Kuranaga soars through the ballet's famous technical challenges (including the punishing "Rose Adagio," in which she must remain frozen on point for an eternity); but more importantly, whenever she is onstage, she awakens a kind of luminous joy in Th Sleeping Beauty that makes it transfixing.

And it's hard to imagine a more perfect partner than Jeffrey Cirio, who has always been adorable, but whose technique seems to have been building by leaps and bounds from year to year; you feel you can almost see him growing artistically, like some sprouting adolescent.  Now he has a technical sheen to match Kuranaga's, and has become quite the romantic lead, too - his sudden swoop into melancholy when left alone during his hunting party, for instance, was a triumph of subtle emotional suggestion. And there are few danseurs in the Ballet who can rival him as a responsive, supportive partner; indeed, his final swan-dive catches of an utterly trusting Kuranaga elicited gasps from the audience.

Misa Kuranaga and the corps in The Sleeping Beauty.  Photos: Rosalie O'Connor


Well, that right there is reason enough to see The Sleeping Beauty - if you have Aurora and Désiré, you are, as they say, in business.  But wait, there's more in this particular production; in the famous "garland dance" of the first act, for instance, the corps made up for its seeming indifference in the Prologue.  Meanwhile Lia Cirio made a sweetly determined Lilac Fairy - all motherly concern above, calm steel below - and in the triumphant third-act divertissements (in which characters from other fairy tales drop by to party down) there were impressive turns by John Lam, Adiarys Almeida, and Ashley Ellis in a courtly pas de trois, as well as an amusing double hissy-fit by Bradley Schlagheck and Kimberley Uphoff as Puss'n'Boots and the White Cat.  More striking still were Dalay Parrondo and new soloist Avetik Karapetyan as Princess Florine and the Blue Bird; Karapetyan made a pretty muscular avian, but he and Parrondo shared an intriguing, teasing vibe - she was seemingly all frail temptation, he all languid power.  Together they brought an intriguing note of exoticism to this grand paean to innocence regained.