Saturday, February 21, 2015

Breath-taking Beethoven, and immature Mozart, from Egarr and H&H

Beethoven at about the time of the First Symphony.





















Last weekend the Handel and Haydn Society performed a fascinating concert that may, in the end, have disproved its own thesis - but was often breath-taking nonetheless. But by now we're used to that kind of thing in programs conducted by Richard Egarr, one of the most exciting talents on the period scene, and probably among the most compelling conductors on the planet. Certainly Egarr has a way with the Handel and Haydn players that no one else seems quite able to match; under his inspired touch, the orchestra reliably pulls together into a gleaming period-music machine. This time their take on Beethoven's First Symphony was not only passionately polished but also superbly nuanced; indeed, Egarr seemed to work innumerable succinct insights into the great Ludwig van's first foray into grand symphonic form. And despite a late wobble in the trombones, the orchestra sounded almost as good in Mozart's nearly-first Mass (the "Waisenhaus," K.139) - written when the composer was all of twelve.

But then that in a nutshell was the "concept" of Egarr's concert - a compare-and-contrast between two "First Endeavors" (as the program text put it).  Only the playing field here was hardly level; in 1800, the year of the First Symphony's premiere, its 30-year-old composer was well on his way to "becoming" Beethoven; but at 12 years of age, the pre-pubescent Amadeus was very far from "becoming" Mozart. Much of the "Waisenhaus" is preternaturally brilliant - but in total, the Mass is something of a mess: striking but disjointed, sometimes oddly voiced, and generally unfocused and meandering. Yes, Mozart was a genius even at 12 - but he was also only 12!

Richard Egarr
Beethoven, in contrast, is quite the picture of discipline - at least on the surface - in the First, which is sometimes mistakenly viewed as a classical warm-up to the great breakthrough of the Third. But even the First is pregnant with Beethoven's ultimate symphonic vision - and it was Egarr's clear intent to highlight the subversive content hidden within its conventional form.

Its first movement, for instance, begins with a typical Haydnian joke - it opens not in the announced C Major, but apparently in the closing cadences of some other key - and the symphony slowly finds its way to its own harmonic center. In Haydn's hands, of course, this would have been a musical bon mot, a theatrical coup; but Egarr seemed to know just how to suggest the underlying mood of abstraction that Beethoven intended, that hint of questioning symphonic basics rather than just wittily riffing on them.  Somehow an experimental subtext likewise blossomed in the scherzo that scampers out of the minuet, and the hesitantly climbing scale that tumbles into the opening theme of the final movement.

And the orchestra seemed to rally to Egarr's vision. The string section had never sounded more cohesive, I thought - it seemed to sing as a single choir - and Stephen Hammer's oboe has never been more fluidly expressive; perhaps most importantly, Beethoven's distinctive balance between the flutes, winds and brass was here close to perfection. Even timpanist Gary DiPerna came into his own with a  precisely rolling thunder. It was the kind of performance that drew applause between movements - even from people who should know better; and the symphony closed to a stunned, anticipatory silence, followed by cheers.  It had been literally breath-taking.

This Greuze portrait is believed to be of Mozart.
In contrast, the Mozart often intrigued, but didn't quite compel (although I admit I felt a little silly for being seduced into imagining that it could!). As mentioned, the "Waisenhaus," named for the church it consecrated, is all over the place (like Beethoven's First, it's not even always in its announced key - it's more often in C major than C minor).  But there are certainly inspired moments throughout: the Kyrie opens gorgeously, for instance, and there's a beautiful, solemn swell in the Credo that's remarkable.  But there's also an exuberant, almost incoherent variety elsewhere - arias and fugues pop in and out of loudly declamatory choral statements; the 12-year-old shows you just above everything he can do (which is a lot).  And to be honest, I wasn't entirely taken with Egarr's handling of the chorus - it was skillful, but a little too monotonously insistent; Harry Christophers reliably finds a subtler dynamic in his choir. The soloists fared better, particularly soprano Sonja DuToit Tenglad and alto Emily Marvosh, who were ravishing both in their solos and duets.

Still, there are touches in the "Waisenhaus" that betray the signature of Mozart's mature genius (such as his imaginative use of the trombone). All in all, I was glad to become acquainted with the piece.  I was also pleased to hear the Society's youth choruses again, in a credible version of the Kyrie and Gloria from Haydn's Missa brevis Sancti Joannis de Deo (which is wonderful, btw - I wish we'd heard all of it!).  My only real disappointment with the concert was that not too many period music fans braved the winter winds to hear it. So let's hope when Egarr returns (and I'm sure he will), he'll be met with better weather!

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Beasts hop to it in this year's panto

Elizabeth Pearson, Erin Eva Butcher, and Michael Underhill get their panto on.  
























Hub Review readers know by now I'm a big fan of the Imaginary Beast's winter pantos - but I confess it's getting hard to "review" them, because Beastmaster Matthew Woods hews so ardently to the template of this tradition that basically it's the same show every year. So the 2015 edition, Kerplop! The Tale of the Frog Prince (through tonight only, at the BCA) proved as charming as usual, and seemed to enthrall the kids in attendance just as expected.  

In case you don't know, the "panto" is an eccentrically British mix of fairy tale and burlesque, in which cross-dressing is the norm, audience participation is key, a few fresh pop tunes get a re-boot, and whimsical fancy sells moral maxims to the 5-to-8-year-old set (even as winking double entendres sail over their heads). I could spend more time analyzing its curious appeal (and why it resonates in the millennium) - but really, it's just a hoot, for both actors and audience, so why bother?  Like most of the Beasts' pantos, Kerplop! runs a little long - but the kids never seem to mind, and something about the format's devotion to nonsense at all costs does help banish (or at least lift) the winter blues.  So even if you don't have kids in tow, you may find a panto is just the thing for what ails you this February.

Molly Kimmerling and Amy Meyer inspect Jeremiah the bullfrog. Photos: Michael Underhill and Cameron Cronin.
For the record, Kerplop! has a bit more political cogency than usual, what with its amphibious hero battling the environmental poisons of the evil "Aquanetta" (and "Go Green!" joining the audience rallying cry of "Boo-hiss-boo!"). I likewise sensed an extra dash of imagination in the set (by Candido Soares and Woods himself, who as Aquanetta chewed the scenery he'd helped design) - and I should mention, I think, that the show's graphics (by Elizabeth Pearson and Jill Rogati) were the best yet for this troupe (and that's saying something, as brilliant imagery is a Beast hallmark). Of course Cotton Talbot-Minkin's costumes, it goes with saying, were awesome as ever, and integral to the whole show's success (this year's highlight was the Queen of Little Puddle's Alice-in-Wonderland get-up). And another shout-out must go to the choreography, by Kiki Samko, Cameron Cronin, and Joey Pelletier, which included a hilarious underwater ballet that nailed the famous "Dance of the Cygnets" from Swan Lake.

Elsewhere the Beast held to their usual high standards; after all, by now they have been doing pantos for years, and their expertise is a given. So it was good to see stalwarts William Schuller, Amy Meyer, Molly Kimmerling, Noah Simes, Mike DiLoreto, Cameron Cronin, Michael Underhill and Elizabeth Pearson once more strut their panto stuff in a variety of roles.  Of course Joey Pelletier (as ever) stole the show as Her Majesty, the Queen - but he got stiff competition from relative newcomers Erin Eva Butcher, who shone in the part of Princess Aurelia, and Michael Chodos, who threw himself with appealing abandon into the machinations of the slimy Leech. If you can't catch this merry band today, however, don't feel too bad - they'll no doubt be back next year. And if you are a committed Boston theatergoer (and even if you aren't) the annual Beast panto should definitely have a place on your must-see list.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

A play close to Perfect

A perfect cast for A Future Perect.  Photos: Cragi Bailey.


Ken Urban's A Future Perfect (at SpeakEasy Stage through this weekend) comes saddled with some heavy baggage: its playwright is white and male.  And (I'd guess) straight.

So even though he clearly has one of the subtlest, smartest dramatic voices to come out of the Huntington's playwriting fellowship program, he never got much traction locally (indeed, I believe now he's based in New York); I guess the politics of the local scene were just against him. But perhaps the advent of Perfect means that's about to change (another of his recent plays, The Awake, was a hit in the Big Apple); at any rate I hope so.

Which isn't to say that Perfect is, in fact, perfect - but it's often close. And certainly its core is wonderful: although Urban covers familiar ground - a quartet of aging hipsters facing up to pregnancy, commitment, and career compromises - his central couple, Claire and Max, are observed with such balanced precision (and their dialogue is so naturally inflected) that their story comes off as fresh and immediate. It must be admitted, however, that Urban's treatment of his second duo, Alex and Elena, is less convincing; they feel slightly "constructed" to dramatic specs (or at least Elena does), and Urban sometimes seems to push them around like pieces on a thematic chessboard.

Still, even with Alex and Elena, Urban scores some surprising insights; and when he doesn't, at least he tiptoes up to the tricky (but honestly pondered) conflicts between the career track and the parent track - not to mention the clash between holding onto your ideals and paying rents in Williamsburg or Park Slope. In  what may have been my favorite moment in the play, for instance, Max quits his job at PBS rather than acquiesce to Koch-Brothers-style censorship of a script (for a puppet show!) about the Iraq War.  So he has to depend on Claire's income - which comes from marketing digital devices from an Apple-like corporation, and turning a blind eye to the plight of its wage-slaves in China. Shilling for George W. Bush or Steve Jobs - they both count as moral slumming; but Max, confidently hip to his garage-band core, never seems to realize that.

Brian Hastert and Nael Nacer bond as a band.



Not that Urban ever presses such issues too hard; he simply lets the ironies accrue around his characters (like the accessories in their yuppie den, accurately imagined by Cristina Todesco). But given the persuasive acting on tap here, that's more than enough - for director M. Bevin O'Gara has once more drawn a suite of remarkably deft performances from a sterling cast. Local star Marianna Bassham somehow convincingly juggles Claire's many internal contradictions and impulses, while newcomer Brian Hastert makes man-boy Max a winningly easy-going emotional support (and foil). Likewise the reliable Nael Nacer brings a gentle shine to the emotionally stumbling Alex (who is utterly flummoxed by the prospect of fatherhood), and young Uatchet Jin Juch evinces remarkable poise in the role of Annabelle, a polite but confidently self-absorbed child actor for PBS. Only Chelsea Diehl struggles a bit with Elena, who's somewhat underwritten (even though her character is often in the political cross-hairs of the play).

The cast is so strong, in fact, that I found myself wishing (o rare!) that the action might last longer (certainly Urban too quickly calls it a wrap in his final scene). Many topics fly by that one feels could be further developed: the easy, band-mate camaraderie that seems to be accessible to men but not women, for instance - as well as prickly, rarely-voiced questions of educational and attitudinal "class."  I was also aware, however, that something in Urban's distinct voice depends on suggestion rather than explication; so perhaps I should be careful what I wish for, and simply savor the subtle pleasures of this perfectly beguiling play.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Ripped from the headlines at the New Rep

Esme Allen and Lewis D. Wheeler in Muckrakers. Photo: Andrew Brilliant.

I'd never argue that Muckrakers (at the New Rep through this weekend) is a perfect play - but it's still the kind of script we need to see more of.  Zayd Dohrn's one-act is clearly modeled on the exploits of Julian Assange, the besieged "editor-in-chief" of Wikileaks, which in 2010 published the largest data dump of classified material ever leaked from the US military (the cache included the now-notorious "Collateral Murder" video, which Wikileaks claimed depicted US soldiers intentionally targeting Iraqi civilians and journalists).  

The leaker was one Private Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, a troubled Army intelligence analyst who was struggling with sexual identity and gender issues while working 14-hour shifts in a bunker in Iraq. In his isolation Manning had been interacting for weeks with unidentified Wikileaks personnel by encrypted chat - but it was only when he claimed credit for his leaks in exchanges with another hacker that he was arrested and tried on various charges, the most serious being "aiding the enemy." Many argued at the time that no clear enemy was in fact aided by his leaks, which for the most part only embarrassed the United States - indeed, some observers have pointed out that a few of his leaked cables sparked protests which coalesced into the Arab Spring. Nevertheless, prior to his trial Manning found himself held in solitary confinement in a 6-ft-wide windowless room, under conditions widely regarded as inhumane. Now identifying as "Chelsea," he was eventually found guilty on all counts, and is currently serving a 35-year sentence in Ft. Leavenworth (he is eligible for parole in 8 years, and has sued for gender re-assignment surgery - a portrait "as he would wish to be seen" is below).

A portrait of Chelsea Manning by Alicia Neal
Julian Assange, for his part, was technically protected from prosecution as long he was merely a passive conduit for the leaks. The relevant chat logs - which came to light at Manning's trial - were inconclusive as to the identity of his Wikileaks interlocutor (and Manning would not reveal it, if in fact he knew it). Of course Assange's apparent belief that he could dodge retribution proved naïve; the Obama administration quickly began to prepare a case against him, and reports circulated of a sealed indictment - but before that effort came to a head, Assange was dogged by accusations of sexual molestation (technically "non-consensual behavior within a consensual sexual encounter") from two women in Sweden. To avoid these charges, he sought political asylum at the Ecuadoran embassy in London - and he's still holed up there, a virtual prisoner (below).

From these suggestive facts playwright Dohrn has spun a fairly taut little two-hander, in which "Stephen" (Lewis D. Wheeler) a high-flying Assange-like activist, spends a fraught night with the nubile "Mira" (Esme Allen), who runs her own "agit-prop news source" dedicated to full disclosure.  Mira is hosting Stephen after a gala for some edgy journalism nonprofit because - well, because said organization couldn't afford a hotel room. But it's clear from the moment the couple enters her grungy digs - with Stephen practically staggering in his loose tux, while she's all cool command in a shimmering sheath - that Mira has her own private agenda.  Of course Stephen has one, too - like Assange in Sweden (if you believe the allegations) - he wouldn't object to a little groupie sex.  But with one false move over the course of the conversation with his romantic quarry, he knows he could face charges over his interactions with the gay Andy Stanton, the Bradley-Manning factotum now imprisoned for leaking classified documents to his organization.

Assange at the window of London's Ecuadoran embassy in 2012. He's still there.
It's a neat set-up, and Dohrn skillfully diagrams the political positions that define his two characters. Even while horny (and possibly culpable), Stephen still conveys a mature and sympathetic awareness of the fact that even crusaders have their contradictions, and that absolute disclosure isn't something that anybody wants (or that society could withstand). Mira, meanwhile, evinces a kind of blind millennial faith in absolute openness and total 'accountability.' What Dohrn doesn't do, however, is endow Mira with the psychological depth to explain this fixation; he gives her a back-story, yes - which might be enough at the multiplex, but isn't quite enough on the stage. Nor does he conjure much guilty drama from the possibility that "Stephen" did, indeed, play on his informant's loneliness to seduce him into leaking those documents.

This leaves the actors, and director Bridget Kathleen O'Leary, in a bit of a quandary, it's true. Still, I think O'Leary might have drawn a more disturbed psychological aura from the talented Esme Allen, whose Mira is perhaps too consistently all clipped confidence; we should, instead, feel unspoken issues banging around within her at various junctures. Wheeler has the easier role on that score, and generally inhabits it believably - although I felt even he could have done with an extra dram of sleaze sloshing around in his performance, some hint of a shiftiness deeper than that of the typical horny celebrity.

That said, I can't help but applaud O'Leary (and the New Rep) for mounting this bracing script at all (and kudos to the cast for going the distance when it comes to the disrobing that goes with all that disclosure). To my mind, plays like this should be being dashed off all the time, almost like songs, and mounted with the urgency of a telegram from the front.  For in these troubled times, perhaps the politics are the thing, not the inner psychology - indeed, perhaps it's a form of critical cowardice to not face up to that. And Dohrn - who was raised by members of the Weather Underground! - certainly knows his way around political irony and issues of "direct action." So I look forward to hearing more from him, and of course more from Ms. O'Leary (whose production of Pattern of Life last fall was another memorable political statement) - as well as her admirably committed cast.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Durang and Disney and Chekhov at the Huntington

The cast of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Photos: Jim Cox












Playwright Christopher Durang has protested that he didn't intend to write a commercial vehicle when he penned Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (at the Huntington through this weekend), but the cash registers have been ringing for him anyhow, now that the script has nabbed the Tony for best play, and productions have spread across the country. And it's easy to see why the show is popular, particularly in its polished production at the Huntington. Vanya and Sonia, etc. is highly crafted (if not at all structured), tags just about every accepted liberal totem there is, and best of all, delivers a steady stream of knowing bemusement - and even the occasional belly laugh.  The icing on the cake is that it's sprinkled with nods to works of art that only college graduates know about - so not only are its jokes often in-jokes, but it's also easy to pretend Durang's pastiche is somehow in the same league as its references.  Which isn't at all the case - although to be fair, the play does seem to be getting at something in its first act, even if that impression fades over the course of its second; you do leave Vanya and Sonia with a genial grin - just not much more.

Of course for many that's enough. By the time the curtain falls, I think most audiences members will have realized that Vanya and Sonia, like its title, is more a string of funny bits than an integrated statement.  But who cares, really?  Certainly not the critics (who have all loved it).  And maybe not even me; for at this point perhaps Christopher Durang has earned his payday. He has never actually penned a deeply imagined, fully crafted play, not in the classic sense; but his tone of self-conscious comic horror has been widely influential; in fact maybe half of television comedy is indebted to it (indeed, he might be the most imitated playwright alive). And after the misfire of the bravely pointed Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them, I can't really blame him for playing things safe this time around.

So just in case you haven't heard, Vanya and Sonia is a kind of mash-up of the comedies of Anton Chekhov, leavened with a saccharine shot of (yes) Walt Disney. Durang's conceit is that his central trio of middle-aged siblings were all named after Chekhov characters by their literary parents, and so, perhaps inevitably, are now wasting away on the family estate in Connecticut. Oh, except for Masha - who actually escaped to Moscow, in a way, by becoming a successful movie actress. She has since supported  Vanya and Sonia for years; but now that their parents are gone, and her asking price has begun to drop, Masha has decided to sell the estate out from under her sibs. Which she announces even as she is dressing them up to play the Seven Dwarves to her Snow White at a costume party (at top).

Tyler Lansing Weaks as Spike.
That's basically the whole plot. Of course that's "basically" all there is to The Cherry Orchard, too; but where Chekhov spins a web of subtle insights around the denizens of his drama, Durang mostly just spins references as one-liners.  He does borrow a few larger tropes from Uncle Anton (a big house party forms the crux of the second act, for instance) - but he also deviates from his template in one key respect: the wild inflation of The Cherry Orchard's Yasha into the eponymous Spike (the scrumptious Tyler Lansing Weaks, at left), a boy toy who's always stripping down for our delectation, and who is clearly only keeping Masha as his sugar mama until he gets his big break.

If Durang has anything to say, it's something to do with Spike, and the way the childishly polymorphous American pleasure principle that he represents (basically sex mixed with Disney) contradicts the Chekhovian pathos the people he seduces are hoping to conjure in their lives. But Durang somehow can't quite bring this conflict into deep dramatic focus. He does give Vanya a funny tirade over how pop culture used to be civilized - and even courted high-cult in its way. Which is true enough - and a nice rhetorical gesture (even if it amounts to little more than nostalgia).  But it ain't real drama.

Oh, well! I myself had a certain weakness for Mr. Weaks, and like Vanya forgot these quibbles whenever he came bounding onstage in a speedo. He proves a witty comedian, too, and neatly nails Spike's bone-headed audition for "Entourage II." But here the comedy laurels must go to Marcia DeBonis, who is fearlessly frumpy as Sonia, the second sister who is at first haplessly unhappy, then poignantly alive when she finds her own wit in a wacky impersonation of Dame Maggie Smith (trust me, it sounds weird, but it works). Meanwhile Martin Moran makes a subtle and level-headed Vanya, even as Haneefah Wood exuberantly chews the scenery as Cassandra, the clairvoyant household help who's prone to such opaquely passionate pronouncements as "Beware Hootie-Pie!" There's only one unsatisfying performance, in fact, and it's simply a case of an actor trying too hard: Candy Buckley is often appealing as the sweet, vain Masha, but pushes her character's tunnel vision so hard she sometimes seems out of breath.

Still, her performance is sketched with many witty touches, like the production itself (David Korin's set, for instance, ever-so-subtly references Snow White's cottage from the Disney cartoon). I did feel, however, that director Jessica Stone had sweetened the script with at least a spoonful more sugar than necessary. True, her version remained close in spirit to that of the Broadway premiere (directed by the dear, departed Nicky Martin, who was once the guiding light at the Huntington). But the rather more sarcastic Trinity Rep version last season I felt hewed closer to Durang's customary tone - which made the play seem a bit more bracing. So in the end, even though I'm glad Christopher Durang got his payday, I think I'll welcome the return of a bit more edge to his writing.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Short cuts: Midsummer and The Best Brothers

I'm late with comments on Apollinaire's Midsummer and Merrimack Rep's The Best Brothers - and alas, that's basically because I didn't have too much encouraging to say about either one.

Courtland Jones and Brookes Reeves.
Midsummer has already closed, so I'll be brief - this was a case of a talented cast being undone by a play so mediocre I struggled to stay awake through its short running time. In fact I'm not sure I succeeded, I may have missed a scene - which slightly surprised me, as at first I thought playwright David Grieg was toying with an interesting premise: his two leads described the madcap antics of the weekend they fell in love even as they acted them out. This promised a few intriguing conceptual wrinkles in what looked like (and eventually proved to be) a pretty standard version of the Britcom/gritcom/romcom template that has replaced the classic screwball comedy. 

But first a word about these new millennial vehicles; in the new screwball comedy, the beautiful-but-stuck-in-a-rut girlfriend generally plays the straight man (gone are the free female spirits of yesteryear), and her immature swain induces all the comic complications; meanwhile the whimsical tropes of the tradition (road trips, disguises, pet leopards) are replaced by awkward sexual humiliations and brushes with various underworlds and sub-cults (from which usually, at the finish, someone is "redeemed").  In Midsummer, Grieg painted strictly, and rather mechanically, by these numbers, aside from his unusual framing device - which, alas, came to nothing. I kept expecting some competitive perspectives on his couple's shaggy-dog love story to emerge; I would have been happy if even a hint of How-I-Met-Your-Mother self-awareness kicked in.  But - zip.  Nada. Zero.

Still, the gorgeous Courtland Jones and the versatile Brooks Reeves were appealing enough to make the tedium go down easy; they even almost managed to sell Gordon MacIntyre's godawful songs. But I will say that even though I'm an admirer of director Danielle Fateux Jacques, the driving force behind the intrepid Apollinaire, I felt she didn't attend to the director's key job in any romcom, particularly one as weak as this: we never saw the precise moments at which Jones and Reeves fell genuinely in love.  Grieg was no help in this regard, it's true; but when it comes to romantic comedy, somehow love has to find a way.

Meanwhile, up at Merrimack, the talented Charles Towers was similarly trying to breathe life into another problematic new play, The Best Brothers by Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor.  To be honest, I think I dozed off in this one, too; sorry about that - I am getting older, and perhaps I'm slowly turning into a reincarnation of the late critic Caldwell Titcomb, who softly snored through everything he saw.

But in my own defense, I seem to still be able to stay awake and focused through real plays (like Vanya and Sonia, etc., at the Huntington, or A Future Perfect at SpeakEasy) - but I guess in my dotage I'm just likely to nod off through the sorts of gestures toward a real play that people like MacIvor (and Grieg) contrive.

Photo: Meghan Moore
For in The Best Brothers, much is hinted at, but little comes to real dramatic fruition. The action, such as it is, follows two secretly competitive siblings, Hamilton and Kyle, whose mother Bunny has just died beneath the crushing weight of a drag queen named Piña Colada, who fell on the poor woman from a passing Gay Pride float. Clearly from this unlikely, quasi-symbolic event the playwright hopes to spin a bemused take on accepting the surreal and humiliating vicissitudes of life - something that one brother, the straight-laced (and just plain straight) Hamilton obviously has trouble doing. Gay brother Kyle, of course, rolls more easily with such surreal punches; and as we watch, the underlying tensions between these two come to a slow boil through petty squabbles over things like the obituary and who-mom-loved-best - although predictably, Hamilton eventually learns to accept Kyle's oh-don't-sweat-the-small-stuff attitude (particularly when it comes to who deserves to be loved and who doesn't).

Now honestly, I long for the day when it's the hetero guy who's looser and more hip than the gay guy (something I've observed plenty of times in real life, I assure you) - but I guess that's still a few decades off when it comes to what audiences will accept on the stage. I should also mention, however, the "third" brother in the mix - Bunny's greyhound, Enzo, who represents all that's untrainable about life and love, or something like that. We quickly grasp that Bunny loved Enzo best, despite his many foibles - and this unspoken fact, along with the obstreperous dog's fate, becomes another bone of contention, if you will, between the sparring brothers.

But alas, we never see the mysteriously endearing Enzo, and MacIvor has trouble pinning down the source of his appeal.  Likewise the author's episodic structure keeps undermining the momentum of his script, and his tactic of having each brother impersonate Bunny in turn comes off as, well - just oddly opaque. Although to be fair, none of these gambits play to this particular director's strengths - Towers is better known for his handling of darker, more haunted drama than his light touch with comedy. Perhaps as a result, everything here plays as slightly subdued - although the subtle turns by stars Michael Canavan and Michael Kux (above) are certainly up to Merrimack's vaunted acting standards. The show was apparently a hit up in Canada - so perhaps this production simply counts as a misfire. I will say this much - Ivor does express what's it like to share (or be forced to share) the exasperating love of a dog; and lovers of any and all breeds are sure to warm to that.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Patriot act

Photo: Mark S. Howard

Karen MacDonald's evocation of celebrated Texas columnist Molly Ivins (in Red Hot Patriot, at the Lyric Stage through January 31) is so luminous and thoughtfully crafted that it almost disguises the fact that the theatrical setting of her star turn isn't quite as "kick-ass" as it would like to be. And the problem isn't just that the script (by former journalists Margaret and Allison Engel) occasionally plays as a patchwork of punchy quotes (although sometimes it does). No, the deeper, more poignant issue with Patriot is that the play feels far more like a requiem than a celebration; for the woes of the millennium have kicked the whole foundation out from under this late columnist's calculatedly charming act.

Which isn't to say that her sane, salty wit has gone missing from the piece. Quite the contrary - it's there in abundance; and MacDonald knows just how every line should land. What's more, with her newly auburn locks and spanking-fresh cowboy boots, MacDonald, if not quite a dead ringer for Ivins, still seems to be packing just about everything you'd want in a good-old-girl liberal firecracker.  (She even nails an upper-crust East Texas accent.)  But an autumnal tone still suffuses the piece; if Ivins first comes off as raising hell at a defiantly jubilant wake for Southern liberalism, by the end she seems to be lighting a candle for herself.

I admit I partly identified with Ivins' plight because I recognized in her the remnants of the lost liberal tradition of what I think of as my hometown - Houston, Texas (although I was born in New York City, I was raised on the Gulf coast). Of course I didn't move in the Ivins' social circle - Molly grew up in the ultra-moneyed River Oaks district (in fact her father was president of the company that employed my father), where she mixed with the Bushes and their ilk. And while this gave her nascent liberal leanings a definite focus and edge, it also bestowed on her a certain sense of decorum.  I know this sounds funny given that she named her dog "Sh*t," and was famous for her colorful invective; but beneath her exasperated barbs there was a generous poise to Ivins - a kind of faith in there being some civic and social space in which liberals and conservatives could come to terms, laugh at the failings of both parties, and maybe even work things out.

But I hardly need to tell you that all that is gone. Indeed, Ivins' political children - cable stars like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert - all operate on the unstated principle that our current situation is hopeless, that the benighted right can never see the light, and cannot be persuaded of anything. Melting glaciers cannot convince them of climate change; and gay marriage to them still looms like a threat. Thus satire has gone meta - perhaps even double meta, as its reformist raison d'être no longer has any culture purchase.

Although that doesn't mean it's no longer fun. Certainly Ivins was a hoot throughout her career, and most of her best bon mots are assembled here. She was, after all, the one who dubbed Dubya "Dubya" - and then nicknamed him "Shrub" to boot (having known him as far back as high school, she had an unshakable faith in his imbecility).  But probably her most pungent writing was devoted to the politics of her home state - as she once put it, when the legislature convenes in Texas, "every village loses its idiot." And it's not hard to understand why she got such a kick out of all those good old boys gone bad - there's something innocent about the cupidity of Texas politicians, something nearly exuberant about their stupidity.

This was the fuel that kept her Mark-Twain-like mojo going - until, of course, breast cancer took her from us all too soon. But perhaps Ivins understood herself that her time was passing. There's a touching moment toward the close of Red Hot when Ms. MacDonald ruefully acknowledges what anyone of a certain age knows to be true of American politics: that hate has taken over. And once that has happened, satire in effect becomes a mode of nostalgia. Which was what filled my heart as the curtain fell on Karen MacDonald's beguiling performance.