Thursday, April 24, 2014

Clubbing with the Don at BU

Don Juan in clubland, prior to Hell. Photos: Oshin Gregorian

Local opera fans know that performances at BU's Opera Institute can dazzle, so I wasn't surprised to see close to a full house for their Don Giovanni last weekend. And I think the crowd left satisfied, although this version of Mozart's masterpiece was a bit more uneven than some Opera Institute productions I've seen.

Not that BU didn't pull out all the production stops this time around. Director Daniel Pelzig updated the setting to modern clubland, and BU's student designers went to town with the concept (see above); Andrea Nice devised a set of shimmering curtains and high-tech black, while Jessica Elliott drew all manner of dramatic effects from pulsing lines of LEDs.

And Pelzig's staging was always fluid and inventive; but alas, the club scene can't quite encompass the full dimensions of Mozart and Da Ponte's grand anti-hero. Somehow the directorial concept seemed to diminish the Don into a generic club dude - and a crudely brutal one at that (which meant that Donnas Elvira and Anna were subtly diminished, too). Perhaps this was understandable given what dating women must contend with in the millennium; these days Donna Anna would be "seduced" with rufies, and the morning after would be deleting dick pics from her smart phone. But that only means that millennial date culture (or do I mean rape culture?) is of a lower order than Mozart's anti-hero demands - or deserves.

For in the end, if this great rake is to hold our attention - especially our moral attention - he must seem more than just Tucker Max in Armani. (Because who cares if Tucker Max goes to hell?)  And to be honest, Pelzig didn't dare to give his concept its full due; surely a modern-day Don Juan would lure his conquests with lines of coke or hits of E - which could have made for some very intriguing duets! But everyone in BU clubland for some reason seemed to be just saying no on performance night.

Isaac Bray woos Kelly Vigil in Don Giovanni.
Still, occasionally the concept resonated, and certainly the performers understood their roles! At Friday's performance, baritone Isaac Bray made a convincingly arrogant lothario (he certainly had the looks for the part), and his vocal performance was solid and secure, if not always perfectly projected. His many love interests were likewise appealing; as Donna Anna, soprano Kelley Hollis made the biggest impression of the night with a glorious tone that was always glowing, if marred by a few intonation problems at the top of her range.

And while Hollis took the singing honors, Audrey Hurley took the acting ones, with a brilliantly witty turn as the spurned Donna Elvira; Hurley is also blessed with a strong lower range, so if she can learn to soften her upper register, she will be an operatic force to reckon with. 

To be honest, however, I may have been most taken with the singing in the supporting roles: Zack Rabin brought a burnished tone and solid comic chops to Leporello, while Benjamin Taylor and Kelly Vigil, gifted singers both, all but stole the show as the troubled couple Masetto and Zerlina.  And I must mention one non-student performance: BU eminence James Demler made a memorably commanding Commendatore; indeed, I've rarely seen a finale to Don Giovanni that chilled quite as deeply as this one. When Demler's stone fingers gripped Bray's haughty hand, the fires of Hell suddenly felt palpable, although somehow freezing cold.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Nicholas Phan makes more fans at Celebrity Series

Tenor Nicholas Phan: a millennial Michael Fierstein?
From the moment he takes the stage, tenor Nicholas Phan (at left) seems to straddle two contrasting worlds of vocal performance.

For there's something casual as well as classic about him - his boyish good looks and bedroom eyes (the kind that whisper I'm singing this song just for you), inevitably tilt his performance toward the speakeasy rather than the salon. Indeed, if Phan leaned against the piano ever so slightly - or loosened his tie just a bit - you'd half-expect him to launch into  an American standard rather than a German lieder. And during his Celebrity Series performance last week, I sometimes found myself wishing he'd croon something by Gershwin rather than Schubert, so easily does he mix that comforting cocktail of wit and sentiment perfected by the likes of Michael Fierstein.

Gershwin wasn't on the program, though; Schubert and Britten were. And honestly - is lieder only a cabaret, old chum? Well, Phan intermittently made a persuasive case that it is. Although he's still a young singer, and so sometimes coasts on his own charisma; his technique isn't fully mature, and there's still something unsettled about his upper register, which occasionally sounded hooded last Thursday.

But the core of his voice is exceptionally strong and well-suited to lieder - not, perhaps, kissed with sun, but built of supple maple, inlaid here and there with cherry. And his German is so well-dicted it's almost lyrical - he convinces you (as Schubert does) that Deutsch ist eine musikalische Sprache.

Whether Phan convinces you of the depth of some of these songs is another argument - he's certainly getting there, but as romantic experience doesn't seem at all fraught for him, some of his Schubert came off as superficial. The opening "Frühlingsglaube" ("In Spring") for instance, lacked  genuine vulnerability, and he glossed over the pain in "Der Musensohn" ("Son of the Muses") while missing entirely the rapturous death wish in "Ganymed." And when Phan accidentally skipped ahead in "Frühlingssehnsucht," this led to a self-deprecating chuckle, and a joke from the pianist (the coolly capable Myra Huang) that "Nobody would have known!" Maybe so - and the moment itself was charming; but it left behind a glib echo.

Phan did better when he had exterior (rather than interior) drama to work with. "Frühlingssehnsucht" eventually built to a satisfying emotional pitch, and the most ambitious piece of the set, "Viola," proved its strongest. This extended ode to a fallen flower is almost epically structured, and while it sounds a bit much on paper, Schubert's musical inspiration is unfailing, and Phan conjured a winning mix of poise and escalating intensity.

The tenor then turned to Benjamin Britten, with whose work he is closely associated - and it was immediately clear why. In Britten, desire should be mixed with distance, and sympathy with irony, so Phan's presence suddenly felt specifically tailored to the material; and there was an added resonance to this handsome gay man essaying these particular songs, which had their premiere with Britten on piano, while his lover, tenor Peter Pears, did the vocal honors.

It also helped that the song cycle in question, Winter Words, is so terrific (arguably one of Britten's finest). The texts are drawn from Thomas Hardy's volume of poems of the same name (and if you don't know Hardy's quirkily muscular verse, I encourage you to get acquainted with it), and these were clearly selected with subtle care to construct a thematic arc reflecting the composer's own obsessions: the evanescence of evil and innocence in a fallen world, and the strange place of music in our lives as both at the core of our experience and an eternal thing apart. Intriguingly, at the center of the cycle we find a wryly poignant ode to a choirmaster (perhaps a factotum for Britten himself?), who is sung to his final rest by a choir of shades.

Even here, however, I didn't agree with all of Phan's decisions ("Midnight on the Great Western," for instance, struck me as far too forceful), but the tenor's own presence hinted at the homoerotic allure of some of these poems, and his wryly phrased takes sounded just right for the lighter texts, while calmly restraining the pathos of the darker ones. Phan wrapped the program with several folk songs arranged (exquisitely) by Britten - this tenor is hardly a rustic, but then neither was this composer; at any rate the most moving of these proved the familiar "'Tis the last rose of summer," while the wittiest was the sly satire "The ploughboy."  The crowd - clearly all Phan fans by now - called the singer back for two encores, one from Schubert ("Die Taubenpost") and another from Britten ("Greensleeves"), this time to reversed artistic effect: the Schubert proved far more straightforward and cleanly expressed. Two virtues which seem to be the keys to Mr. Phan's considerable talent.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Brahms on the double from Hamelin and Ax

Two pianos, four hands, one sensibility. Photo: Robert Torres

Marc-André Hamelin returned to Celebrity Series last weekend in a concert haunted by doubles. The program was even comprised of two sonatas - the latter one scored for two pianos, for which Hamelin was joined by a second virtuoso, the brilliant Emmanuel Ax.

But of course what counted artistically was that two presences - Clara Schumann and the great Ludwig van - shadow these two works, particularly the first in the program, the Piano Sonata No. 3, in F minor.  Beethoven, needless to say, always haunted Brahms; his achievement loomed over the later composer as both inspiration and challenge. Clara was a lesser influence, but became a major player in his emotional life once Brahms moved into the Schumann household, after husband Robert's famous leap into the Rhine. He remained there for two years, during which time it was widely believed he not only shared Clara's home but also, eventually her bed.

The third sonata was completed during this complicated time - which its almost contradictory complexity seems to reflect. It's a sprawling work that all but battles itself until a crashing finale that seems to bring something (perhaps Beethoven?) finally to rest; tellingly, Brahms never wrote another sonata for solo piano, even though he completed this one at only twenty. Thus perhaps it's no surprise that its climax only comes after an extended musical wrestling match in which snatches of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and "Les Adieux" sonata can be glimpsed amid the fray.

But Clara often drifts through the music room, too, and while Hamelin's command of the clarion salvos fired at Beethoven proved nothing less than amazing, it was his tender conjuring of Clara that made for his most memorable playing. The famously melting Andante was nearly trembling in spots, and the Intermezzo seemed more hushed than usual in its mystery. He was also brilliant at hanging onto melodic lines that rippled from one hand to the next (and then back), even through dense thickets of competing chords. I did feel that the finale was almost relentless in its ringing attack - and you could argue that in Hamelin's rendering, Schumann and Beethoven never really shook hands; but most of the crowd clearly felt otherwise - and in the end, in terms of sheer pianistic prowess, it was hard to imagine a more commanding performance of this demanding work. 

Only a pianist at the level of Emmanuel Ax, in fact, might have given Hamelin a run for his money - so it was wonderful that Ax himself turned up to supply the second pair of hands required by the Sonata for Two Pianos in F minor (Op. 34b) - another sprawling giant, but one with a curious genesis. The work began its life as a double cello concerto, in fact - but you probably know it better as a quintet for strings and piano (which we have thanks to Clara's intervention).

And truth be told, I doubt this version will ever supplant that one in the popular imagination. But the double piano version certainly has its moments, particularly in the Andante and the following Scherzo, where there's a call-and-response dynamic that the more variegated quintet lacks. And elsewhere there's a reliable thrill in the many precise hand-offs from one virtuoso to the other, as Brahms shifts focus from one keyboard to the next.

Hamelin played at full-stick, while Ax's piano was lidless (see photo at top) - which seemed to achieve a precise balance between the two instruments. And the performers themselves remained in such perfect synch, their double dynamic was so very seamless, that they often seemed to merge into a single-minded but four-handed performer, a super-player on a super-piano, if you will.  Occasionally, it's true, the resulting cascades of notes coalesced into unyielding screens of sound; but more often than not, a single will seemed to be skipping from one keyboard to the next - a very intriguing effect indeed. Sometimes there's just nothing like pure technique, is there - particularly when it comes in pairs.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

A fond farewell to Whistler in the Dark

Photo: Chris McKenzie
It's rare that a closing night seems to open a hole in our theatre scene.

But that's the case with Far Away from Whistler in the Dark, the fringe company led by Meg Taintor for the past nine years, which itself goes dark after this production (which closes this weekend at the Charlestown Working Theatre).

And I think everyone understands the reason why. I've long argued that our larger nonprofit theatres - particularly those attached to our major universities - have abandoned the cutting edge of the drama. Yes, the professors have abandoned the intellectual; the Huntington is reliably middlebrow, and the A.R.T. probably counts as lowbrow at this point. So to find theatre for thinking people, you have to turn to the fringe - and more often than not, that meant Whistler in the Dark, which championed challenging work from the likes of Howard Barker, Biljana Srbljanovic, and Will Eno before these playwrights were well known in America. They also regularly produced the Greeks (o rare!) and scored a major hit with a daring aerial rendition of Tales from Ovid. Caryl Churchill, arguably our greatest living playwright (whom neither the Huntington nor the A.R.T. has ever produced), likewise became a specialty, with the Whistlers scoring penetrating productions of Fen and Vinegar Tom, among others.

And through its nine seasons the company developed a signature style - spare, smart, and raw - while remaining engaged not only with their audiences (to whom they offered pay-what-you-can pricing) but also the Boston theatre community (Taintor was a prime mover in organizing the Small Theatre Alliance of Boston).

But I suppose all good things must come to an end, and for whatever reason, Taintor has announced the closure of the company. Her final season has been devoted entirely to Churchill, and specifically to the minor works or rarities of her oeuvre; indeed, even though Far Away is probably the most substantial of these, you could argue that it's essentially a long-form sketch. But it's a sketch that conjures a web of disturbing ramifications, while never insisting on any single interpretation (a Churchill hallmark) - and so it serves as an intriguing introduction to the fragmented late phase of this endlessly experimenting playwright.

Of course Churchill has often toyed with questions of time and space in her writing, but this time she kicks out  the conceptual foundation of her script; indeed, by the end of the suggestively titled Far Away, we're as far away from "reality" as her characters are. The play opens with a midnight conversation between a frightened girl, Joan (portrayed, in classic Churchillian fashion, by an adult) and her soothingly authoritative aunt. Joan has just seen some sort of organized violence in her back yard - but her aunt assures her that nothing is amiss, that the bloody victims she glimpsed being loaded into a lorry were actually being "helped." Joan at first protests, but slowly accepts this explanation, and then begins to incorporate its cognitive dissonance into her nascent world view.

For the next time we see her, as a young adult, Joan has fully embraced the fabric of social illusion (again, an important Churchill trope), and is eagerly pursuing a career as a fashion designer in what amounts to a fascist dictatorship.  Her specialty is hats, and we watch as her bonnets, at first basic, grow ever more florid, as her skills increase - and as she banters with a fellow climber about the petty corruption of their industry. When we discover the eventual use of her creations - as decoration for prisoners being marched to execution - we may be shocked, but Joan isn't; instead she's merely miffed that her glorious hats must meet their end (along with their wearers) - although one, at least, has won a prize, and will now hang in a museum. (This inspires a po-faced meditation on the evanescence of art.)  We then catch up with Joan seemingly a few years later, when she seems positively unhinged, babbling about a world in which all of nature seems at war. She and her friends argue about which animals to trust (no need to fear the deer - "They've been with us for weeks!"), and worry that even the elemental forces of the world are now being "recruited." The Bolivians have been militarizing gravity, we're told, and the race is on to master darkness and silence as weapons.

Caryl Churchill - playwright or prophet?
Of course what has given Far Away much of its resonance is the accuracy with which Churchill, like a handful of other artists (Kushner, Haneke) predicted the paranoid strain in post-9/11 culture. Our denial of institutionalized torture, the accommodation of the police state in popular art, the way in which the world is now forever mobilized, forever surveilled, amid a "war on terror" which in fact terrorizes - these are all discernible in the folded dramatic bud of Far Away; the play is almost eerily prescient. But Churchill is after something a bit deeper than cultural diagnosis - she is clearly attempting to trigger something of the same destabilized sense of reality in her audience, to reproduce the state in which her characters exist. (Could the natural world really be turning against us? It seems more and more likely, doesn't it!)  Only she hopes to use the technique consciously, to illuminate the way in which ordinary people have been enlisted in the totalitarian, the way in which we have all eagerly signed up with Big Brother.

At Whistler, director Taintor's production certainly gets these points across, but so sparely that perhaps the play doesn't evince the spooky atmosphere it could achieve.  Deeper production resources might have made the parade of the damned more convincing, for instance (although in a nice touch, they're drawn from the audience, and Cotton Talbot-Minkin's millinery is awe-inspiring as ever). And while the acting - from Becca A. Lewis, Lorna Nogueira (both pictured) and Bob Mussett - is certainly detailed and committed, it doesn't quite conjure the claustrophobic sense that we're somehow watching only three people in wildly different permutations, at wildly different points in time. (So are we perhaps trapped inside young Joan's head throughout, as there's a weirdly childish vibe to much of the action? It's possible.) Lewis is the stand-out as Joan (particularly in her initiating scene) but even she doesn't quite convey her character's internal development from resistance to complicity - and then crazed advocacy.

But all this only underlines how much more support Whistler should have received over the years from the community - including the critical community (yes, even me). Inevitably the deepest resonance of this production is one that the playwright hasn't quite dramatized, but would have deeply understood - the echo that lingers after the silencing of a theatrical voice that has always spoken for sanity, clarity, and honest political exploration. The question that remains is - will someone (anyone?) take up the Whistler mantle? Who will guide us through the dark now? I'm hoping maybe the deer will.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Takács gets "even" with Bartók

Geraldine Walther, Edward Dusinberre, András Fejér, and Károly Schranz. Photo: Keith Saunders

We seem to be awash in Bartók these days - with a great deal of attention suddenly lavished on his six quartets. Indeed, there's enough local performance of these dark little gems currently scheduled that you'd imagine it must be a centennial year for this composer, or at least some sort of anniversary.  But you'd be wrong: it all just seems to be an intriguing alignment of the modernist stars.

Not that I'm complaining. I'm happy to brush up on my Bartók, even if, as I've noted previously, he's hardly easy listening. Indeed, when the players of the Takács Quartet (violinists Edward Dusinberre and Károly Schranz, violist Geraldine Walther, and cellist András Fejér, above) paused to unconsciously wipe their brows in the middle of their recent Celebrity Series concert, I had to sympathize - I felt as if I'd been working almost as hard as they had, mentally, just keeping up.

And there was something about that honest whew! moment that spoke to the specific character of this quartet - and their calm commitment to care, economy, and craft.  In a way the the strings of the Takács cut against the grain of this highly-strung composer; for whenever Bartók gets a little hysterical, the Takács remain unruffled - they're sympathetic but objective about the disaster that seems to loom just beyond his trembling treble clef. Indeed, they're all about balancing the fraught emotion of these pieces with their intricacy, and sense of conceptual exploration. And given their own Hungarian heritage, they have an almost off-hand ease with the folk inflections that give such piquant color to this composer's modernist manner.

Which may be what continues to persuade me - with apologies to the other estimable talents taking up these musical challenges this season - that the Takács may be the gold standard in Bartók quartet performance.  I admit this may be partly due to personal prejudice: I like structure, and I enjoy hearing it illuminated.  Which may also explain why I'm warmer to the "evens" of the six Bartók quartets (2, 4 & 6, played in this performance) than the "odds" - which the Takács essayed a few weeks ago: their structure is challenging, yes, but more accessible than the almost-too-swift-to-perceive permutations of, say, Quartet No. 3.

The man in the mirror: the composer in 1928, a year after completing Quartet No. 4.

Indeed, you might argue that some of the "evens" are engaged in a subtle dialogue with their nearest "odd."  Certainly No. 2 feels like a meditative response to No. 1 - cleaner, clearer, and less densely contrapuntal, and somehow more accepting of the frustrated romantic energy that animates this composer's first effort in the form. Appropriately enough, the Takács drew a haunting mood from its mournful stretches, while still teasing a new sense of argumentative unease from the brooding final movement.

They brought a richer, more autumnal palette to bear on the conceptually ambitious No. 4, whose "outer" movements build a palindromic arch around a central episode of exquisitely drifting mystery. Indeed, the piece seems to operate almost as a statement of self-assessment - a kind of calm look in the mirror (as above), with more anxious modes - a scampering Prestissimo, a dancing Allegro pizzicato tinged with gypsy - framing a fundamental uncertainty. Here the quartet did full justice to the misty core of the work, and in its jauntier stretches turned the forceful "Bartók pizzicato" into an angry thwack!; they also gave the slashing cries of the final movement a searing edge; overall, this was their most remarkable playing of the evening.

If the closing performance of No. 6 felt inevitably like a bit of an anti-climax - well, this may be built into the texture of the work itself, which boasts this composer's most exploratory structure yet. A single theme is repeatedly taken up by one member of the quartet in each movement, then is teased into contrasting forms (a whimsical march, another lustily plucked dance) over its intriguing course. The final meditation on this melody, however, is among  Bartók's gravest statements - literally; his "eternal" theme loses loft and comes to rest, then seems to move beyond acceptance toward literal death (Bartók learned of his mother's passing during the composition of this piece, and immediately darkened its closing cadence). Again, the Takács made this devastating journey with little melodramatic fuss. But they refused an encore, despite the pleas of the adoring crowd; for after all, they had just conjured a sense of that end from which there can be no returning.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The revolution will not be dramatized

 Christina Pumariega shares a laugh with Marianna Bassham. Photos: T. Charles Erickson.

The disappointment that greeted Melinda Lopez's Becoming Cuba at the Huntington on opening night was muted, I suppose, but nevertheless ran deep (official denials in the press notwithstanding). Although "dismay" may be the better term. For Lopez has been getting a lot of support from many quarters since her fledgling effort, Sonia Flew, soared from the Huntington to productions around the country ten years ago. But honestly, she has been mostly sputtering since that highly praised debut, and a decade is a long time to wait for a second major play from a young writer. So it was quite frustrating to see that while Sonia did actually fly, Lopez can't seem to get airborne this time; it's not that she crashes and burns, exactly - it's more that she never lifts off.

And the causes driving her failure to launch were clear to many in the audience - who no doubt were likewise aware of the long development process behind this jumbled assortment of nascent dramatic notions.  For not only has Becoming been a decade in the begetting, but this is its second coming, so to speak - it premiered to mixed reviews in California last summer. But apparently that gentle rebuff hasn't led to a coherent revision: Cuba is static for its first half, then limps along in its second, thanks to several sensational but disconnected episodes that never quite coalesce into a plot.

Ah, plot. The spurned stepchild of the development process, always playing second fiddle to political correctness. Whenever I ask myself, "Why don't plays actually develop in development?" a lack of attention to plot always looms as a likely answer (and predictor of failure). In Becoming Cuba, the issue is particularly acute, as Lopez's set-up - an embattled pharmacy (with a lovely proprietor torn between political sympathies) in besieged Havana around 1898 - offers as many opportunities for suspense and taut construction as Casablanca provided, well - Casablanca.  

But the playwright ignores all these - or perhaps lacks the craft to respond to them (Sonia Flew also suffered from disconnected tangents) - and substitutes instead an identity-politics schema which she muses on at length: her uncommitted heroine maps to both the Old World and New, and is entangled with both a Cuban rebel (her half-brother) and an American journalist (her half-lover). What's more, as if to fill in a gallery of stereotypes, ghosts of Cuba past drop by to dispense political platitudes: conquistadors, lost boys, and even Havana's equivalent of Pocahontas have their moment in the sun, or at least the spotlight, to deliver some sardonic stand-up to the gringos.

Chris Tarjian and Pumariega go through the motions.
What can I say - my cup overflowed with teachable moments, but I hungered for a few dramatic ones. And the lesson plan proved slowly paced at best - I often longed for the little "beep" that would cue Mrs. Lopez to change the slide. And those with an abiding interest in our neighbor to the south should go forewarned - the playwright has unearthed no little-known incident or ironic coincidence from the historical record. So if you have more than a passing knowledge of the Spanish-American War, Lopez has little to impart; and if you don't, you probably don't care all that much anyway. (Likewise the hints at parallels with present-day intrigues remain vague at best.)

Oh well; as if to add insult to injury, the production itself is flaccid - often miscast or misdirected, and completely mis-designed. It's very rare that everything goes wrong at the Huntington, but I guess this is just one of those perfect storms. Director M. Bevin O'Gara has drawn neither pain nor passion from her leading lady, the gorgeous Christina Pumariega, who manages a poised indecision but little else.  And Chris Tarjian, her supposed swain, doesn't seem to have been clued in to his heart-throb status; there's no spark between this American hero and his Cuban heroine. Local light Marianna Bassham is another wash as the nervous aristocrat who may be suffering from syphilis (that thud you just heard was a heavy symbol hitting the stage). But to be fair, the rest of the cast manages better - sexy Juan Javier Cardenas is a Latin match just waiting to be struck, which makes you wish Lopez could figure out what to do with him; likewise Rebecca Soler gives a lusty punch to every scene she's in, and young Brandon Barbosa proves as charismatic as an old pro.

But alas, these are all supporting players, and their theatrical fire is snuffed out on their respective exits, as the playwright returns to her endless ruminations. Weirdest of all is the miscalculated design. The Huntington is famous for its sets - but designer Cameron Anderson provides an elegant abstraction that only plays to the author's abstracted attitude, and conjures nothing of the actual Havana. One wonders, therefore, what sort of "Cuba" Lopez imagines her characters are "becoming." Certainly not a flesh-and-blood one.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Beasts have a ball with Molière

Beth Pearson takes a ride on love's carousel.  Photos: Roger Metcalfe.

Molière, like Shaw and so many other great comic writers, is now a rarity on the Boston stage. But fans of the French master should take heart - Matthew Woods' Imaginary Beasts have made a small tradition of performing obscure Molièriana - and if there's any justice, their latest, Lovers' Quarrels (an early comedy in a recent verse translation by Richard Wilbur), should prove one of their biggest hits.  For it's among their most vibrantly funny and accessible efforts: Woods' signature whimsy brings a sparkling sheen to the script's high commedia style, and almost his entire cast is hilariously accomplished; meanwhile the design (as always at Imaginary Beasts) is close to a tour de force. It's easily the most entertaining evening on the local boards - charming in that deep way that only classic theatre can achieve.

And frankly, to my mind the text itself is of considerable interest, so I'm surprised it's not better known. Le Dépit Amoureux (technically "The Amorous Despite") was Molière's fourth play, and dates from the close of his provincial period - just before the royal performance that established him in Paris. So it has clear ambitions as a kind of audition designed to bridge the gap between commedia efforts like The Flying Doctor and the more sophisticated surfaces of high court comedy.

The first complete English translation, 1739 
But it was only his second effort in verse - so yes, it scans here and there as a little rigid. But as the plot progresses, you can hear the playwright's distinctive voice shaking free of poetic convention; indeed, I'd argue there are scenes in the latter half of Lovers' Quarrels that are a match for the masterpieces (and it goes without saying that Richard Wilbur's translation is brilliant, as always).  So we should not only be grateful to Woods and his Beasts for giving the city what amounts to a Molière premiere, but also for illuminating a key episode in this playwright's development.

We should also just be thankful for such a good time. Woods has shaken off the spooky shadows of last fall's "Hairy Tales" with a vengeance; here he's in the pink - often hot pink - and has chosen the carousel as his metaphor for love's roundelay. And just for good measure, he has flooded the stage with balloons and bouncing balls to boot. (Indeed, by the finale, a beach ball about eight feet across rolls onto the stage to squash the characters beneath their own airy ridiculousness.) The company doesn't waste too much time on the intricately absurd plot - there are actually two switched babies in this one, as well as girls-dressed-as-boys and a wedding-in-disguise - so don't worry if you can't always track what's going on (I couldn't); we all know where it's headed in the end, so my advice is just enjoy the ride.

Because it's a truly delightful ride. Many of the Beasts are working here at the top of their game - stalwarts Joey C. Pelletier and Amy Meyer go at their parts hammer-and-tongs, while the witty Beth Pearson and the doleful William Schuller stretch out satirically as they never have before; even relative newcomers Bryan Bernfeld, Erin Eva Butcher and Anneke Reich quickly find their feet. Special mention, however, must go to Cameron Cronin for his brilliantly dyspeptic turn as the much-put-upon Mascarille, and Lynn R. Guerra's loose-limbed Beast debut as the acrobatic Ascagne (I'm always impressed with Guerra, who has long been a leading light on the fringe, but I think she may have been born to play commedia). All these talented folks are given able support by fellow Beasts Will Jobs, Melissa Walker and Michael Chodos in numerous roles and walk-ons; all together, this is the most charming ensemble in town, and their efforts are far closer to the spirit of true commedia, I think, than much of what we've seen lately on larger stages.

I'm afraid I must also bore you with a round of praise for costumer Cotton Talbot-Minkin (here assisted by Erica Desautels), who blends Watteau and Maxfield Parrish to superb effect; the witty sound design by Woods himself and Dierde Benson is likewise always amusing. It's some measure of the inspiration at work here that Woods can incorporate all kinds of contemporary music cues into his mix (even Ennio Morricone gets a nod) while keeping faith with the classic spirit of Molière.  But then that sort of freedom is often a hallmark of true vision, isn't it.

Having a ball with Molière: William Schuller, Cameron Cronin, and Amy Meyer. 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Double Dutch at ArtsEmerson

Yannick Greweldinger and Silke Hundertmark in Lebensraum (Habitat).

Lebensraum (Habitat), at ArtsEmerson through this weekend only, manages the curious trick of simultaneously seeming strange and familiar.  Its creator, Jakop Ahlbom, has been a leading light of the Dutch theatre scene for some time (even though he's Swedish), and has become known for a unique mode of performance drawn from mime, acrobatics, and stage magic (but little spoken text). Here he claims to have been inspired by a minor Buster Keaton classic, The Scarecrow, but it turns out this has only supplied the inspiration for his set and opening scene - a long, brilliantly orchestrated schtick built on the Rube-Goldberg-like "conveniences" that make single-room living possible. In Keaton, for instance, a record player must double as a griddle - here a day-bed flips up into a piano, etc., etc.

But in fact there are doubles everywhere. Ahlbom has split Keaton into two personae - one a bit sensitive (Yannick Greweldinger), the other more autocratic (Reinier Schimmel).  And there are two doors, as well as two windows - which open onto a jet-black void, and so double as mirrors or screens. And we note the lebensraum, or "living room," that these two inhabit comes equipped with two musicians (the Dutch duo Alamo Racetrack, below), whose psychedelic, wallpaper-like-suits make them seem to emanate right out of the set, like a soundtrack personified (and, btw, amplified).

The members of Alamo Racetrack.

The whole set-up makes explicit what was only implicit in Keaton's original - that we're inside a kind of divided masculine mind, which is itself curiously alienated from the surroundings it's driven to manipulate (tellingly, there's only one toilet for these two, but it's out in the open - a bald reminder that they're a little too anal).  At any rate, Ahlbom soon abandons Keaton for a new scenario, stitched together from Frankenstein, Tales of Hoffmann, Metropolis, and maybe The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, that mixes slapstick, surrealism, and sleep-walking in about equal measure.

For this pale, precise duo have taken their yen for automation to the next level by building an actual robot - and a female one at that (the petite Silke Hundertmark). This perky automaton is of course utterly vulnerable to their every clinical whim - in one weird scene, they shove her breasts aside to do a variant on the old surgery-and-sausages routine (while she just grins). Yet she's also strangely unstoppable as she wreaks havoc on her two creators, and wrests from them control over their own lives. Indeed, she eventually precipitates a kind of full-bore psychological crisis, which is only resolved when one of the Keatons leaps right through the walls of his own personality - and seemingly through a member  of Alamo Racetrack - to conjure a new, more natural habitat for himself and his pretty companion.

As you may have guessed by now, although Ahlbom's staging is brilliantly ingenious, you could argue he doesn't actually have too much new to say in Lebensraum; its Euro-kink touches, and general aura of surreal fetish (unless you're from Cambridge, you may not want to bring the kids) feel fresher than its recycled plot. Even Alamo Racetrack, talented as they are, feel a bit too much like David Byrne gone double Dutch.  

What's more striking is the sheer precision of all the non-stop comic action (see the hijinks above if you doubt me), which is not only remarkably fluid but also strangely stiff, as if everyone were sleep-walking through a mutual dream. Greweldinger and Schimmel prove fearlessly po-faced acrobats, and Hundertmark is even more extraordinary. With fascinating subtlety she invests her rigid Olympia with a dawning sense of self-awareness, even while mutely enduring all manner of violence and violation; indeed, her placid, painted-on smile ultimately seems unnerving: through microscopic motions too tiny to track, Hundertmark's expression inches from eager innocence to vengeful experience. She alone is reason enough to catch this intriguing Dutch treat before it leaves town.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Love and Folly at Merrimack

Photo: Meghan Moore
Merrimack Rep's production of Lanford Wilson's Talley's Folly (through this weekend only) has by now garnered a large bouquet of critical praise. And there's a good reason why - it's a solid production, with appealing actors, and what's more, it's gorgeous: set designer Randall Parsons conjures a romantically ruined boathouse that's literally florid in its decay, and Paul Hackenmuller's lighting lovingly charts the slow steeping of twilight into night.  It's not too much to say that Merrimack has built an all-but-perfect frame for this late-70's Pulitzer Prize winner.

Nevertheless, a skeptical itch scratched at me throughout its length.  To be blunt, I'm not sure Talley's Folly is really going to last - or rather, I'm not sure that it should last; the downtown twist that Lanford Wilson gave William Inge has felt thin to me for a while now, and I don't foresee it feeling any thicker in the future. Indeed, this time around, Talley's felt more contrived than usual, and its flattery of knowing Broadway attitude a little more bald.

And not because of any serious gap in the acting - indeed, this is one of those occasional cases where solid performances actually throw into relief the hollowness of the script they're supporting.  Director Kyle Fabel elicits scrupulously detailed turns from the talented Kathleen Wise and Benim Foster (above left), who carry the play as two lonely hearts who find, or finally allow themselves to find, late love amid the seeming ruins of their lives; the dynamic Foster in particular is almost over-attentive to every quirk of his character (a fish-out-of-water Jewish bachelor who has set his cap for a shiksa goddess of the South).

But I have to admit that both these artists limit themselves to interpreting their script line-by-line, when I think the success of this - well, upscale sitcom, although I know it's rude to call it that - depends on its performers bringing to the stage reserves of urgency (and fear of defeat) that Wilson hasn't really bothered to write in.  He's not big on believable context, either - his evocation of the 40's feels lifted from Life magazine, and the "South" he conjures is one long false front as seen from Central Park West.

Indeed, the author mostly just maneuvers his lonely but prickly protagonists into position for a big reveal, while padding out his 97-minute runtime (yes, it's announced from the stage) with dozens of time-killing tricks, including a pointless preamble that is actually rewound and repeated. To be fair, that big reveal is indeed poignant, and there's certainly enough material for a good one-act in the improbable alignment of these two wounded souls, who at the last minute dodge the unhappy fate that a harsh world has arranged for them. Clearly such gentle re-assurance is enough for a lot of people - it's even enough to win a Pulitzer, apparently. And perhaps there's a valuable lesson there for critics of all eras; in the end, Talley's Folly argues that real theatrical ambition may be its own form of folly.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Lost and found in Mendelssohn's stacks

Aisslinn Nosky leads the Handel and Haydn players through Mendelssohn's library. Photo: James Doyle.

It's easy to see the appeal of a program like Handel and Haydn's "Mendelssohn's Library" (which played last weekend at Jordan Hall and Sanders Theatre) - especially its appeal to period music lovers.  For the great Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (his full name) was not only highly influenced by the music that came before him, but was also perhaps the first period music advocate. Indeed, we probably wouldn't know half of what we know of Bach without him (hard as that may be to believe). So a concert drawn from his personal scores counts as a kind of dream-come-true for any serious period-music pedant.

But Mendelssohn's reputation has its flip side (perhaps even its down-side): this particular genius was so entranced by the past that many have argued it held him back. And there was certainly a conservative cast to his style, along with an oft-expressed personal distaste for the romantic excesses of his own generation (don't worry, they sniffed right back).

So there's much to unpack in the thesis at the core of this concert - if said thesis had been clearly explicated, that is. But I'm afraid under the guidance of concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky (she of the flaming hair and even more fiery playing) things at Handel and Haydn got a little muddled, at least on opening night, although splendid musicianship (including a brilliant turn by Nosky herself) did eventually shine through some initial murk.

Her curation of the evening was certainly solid - the selections Nosky chose from the stacks included Handel and Vivaldi, as well as (of course) J.S. Bach and C.P.E. Bach (one of his best, the Sinfonia in B-flat Major, Wq. 182/2).  Unfortunately the actual execution of one or two of these works was uneven, and didn't seem to shed much new light on Mendelssohn. We all know there's a mix of baroque, classical and rococo (that's C.P.E. Bach's brief period, btw) undergirding this composer's achievement, but the specifics of their correspondence to the early (very early) Violin Concerto in D Minor remained vague, as the work itself plays chiefly as a sparkling showcase for its soloist (but more on that later).

And to be honest, sometimes the playing at H&H suggested subtler questions of historicity; in a nutshell, Nosky led most of her program in a high-energy, millennial style - but is our idea of period performance the same as Mendelssohn's? One sometimes wondered - and indeed, Nosky definitely adjusted her approach when tackling Mendelssohn himself.  So was she possibly missing the element in these earlier works that seduced the young composer? Yes, his structural debt to them is obvious (particularly in his juvenilia) - but you don't need a performance to prove that; you would hope that in concert something more elusive, something akin to the sources of the composer's voice, might come clear.

You couldn't argue, though, with some of her interpretive choices; her take on Vivaldi, for instance (Concerto in G Major, RV 151, "Alla Rustica") proved particularly potent.  Played with unrelenting force, the simple blocks of its Presto and Allegro seemed to almost blur into a hypnotic drone; suddenly hints of Philip Glass and John Adams, rather than Felix Mendelssohn, seemed to hang in the air!  Nosky's take on Handel's Concerto Grosso in B Minor (Op. 6, No. 12) was perhaps less compelling, but still respectable; this time its lilting dance had an unusually muscular thrust, which felt a little pushy in the Largo movements, but worked splendidly for the hurtling Allegro.

It was in the key work by Bach (the familiar Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor, BWV 1043) that the program suddenly hit some serious chop.  There had been a few intonation issues early on (the gut strings of period instruments are notoriously sensitive to temperature and humidity), but these suddenly seemed more prominent, just when pitch counted the most; for like so much of Bach, this concerto depends on precisely-intertwined musical voices.  Worse, these melodic lines began to slip slightly out of synch as well as pitch - perhaps a piece like this is simply at the limit of what a conductor-less ensemble should attempt.

These problems were at least somewhat occluded by the duet between Nosky and Christina Day Martinson, Boston's two leading ladies of period violin.  But while Martinson struck me as gently suggesting some subtle ripostes to Nosky's need for speed, this never quite coalesced into a statement; and frankly a superstar showdown, however friendly, isn't quite right for Bach anyhow. Then a peg seemed to slip on Martinson's instrument, so there was a frustrating lull in the whole performance - the upshot was that both ladies were outplayed in the end by the lower end of the string section: the cellos (Guy Fishman and Sarah Freiberg) sounded fine, and the bass line from Pippa Macmillan was the chunkiest I've ever heard outside of a night club.

The composer at 12.
Luckily, things turned a corner after intermission, when the lesser work by the lesser Bach, C.P.E.'s Sinfonia in B-flat Major, came off as far more polished than the masterpiece by his father.  Suddenly the ensemble was playing with lightly balanced coherence, and Nosky seemed to revel in the clever effects and sudden contrasts of the rococo style: the Adagio was punctuated by hauntingly clean cello plucks, and I nearly giggled at the 0-to-60 zoom that kicked off the Presto.

The ensemble held to the same high level for the capstone of the concert, Mendelssohn's rarely-heard Violin Concerto No. 1, in D minor, which I suppose will live forever in the shadow of its much-later, much-loved cousin in E-minor, but which is ravishing in its own right.  Indeed, what strikes one immediately is the silvery spill of inspiration that pours forth from it. The composer was only 13 years of age when he completed it (a portrait at 12, at right), and the concerto seems to almost embody the spirit of youth and fresh musical invention. What's more, Mendelssohn's distinctive voice - his lyrical felicity, his warmth and nervous lightness - can already be heard sounding in many of its passages; and was even Mozart so freely himself so early?  One also wondered whether it mattered at all what exactly was in Mendelssohn's library - surely a talent like this could have made something brilliantly fresh out of anything.

Needless to say, Nosky herself was dazzling in her many quicksilver solos, and her own spritely person - in her tailored, masculine jacket she might have been a musical Peter Pan - somehow conjured a haunting connection with that of the lost youth of this charming composer.  Mendelssohn was of course primarily a pianist, but he was conversant with the violin; could he have lavished the bedazzlement of his first concerto on himself? At times, watching and listening to Nosky, it was hard to fight the feeling that she was conjuring something of the composer's very presence as she performed.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Rich performances lift the value of Rich Girl

Sasha Castroverde and Joe Short make love (or do they?) in Rich Girl.  Photos: Mark S. Howard.

There's been a trend of late in playwrights (mostly female) "updating" classics by (mostly male) authors to reflect what we imagine are our new feminist norms. 

But most of these have been awkward misfires (Theresa Rebeck's flubbed stab at A Doll House is the avatar of the form) - which may raise doubts among the open-minded as to whether human nature has really changed all that much (or whether millennial modes are up to the job of portraying such shifts if they have indeed occurred).

I'm on the fence, however, about Rich Girl (now at the Lyric Stage), Victoria Stewart's gloss on the Henry James classic Washington Square - which Hollywood previously gave the women's-picture treatment in 1949, with William Wyler's melodramatic The Heiress (see YouTube below). Olivia de Havilland won an Oscar for her performance as the film's unlovely and unloved heroine, Catherine Sloper (even though the idea that Olivia de Havilland could be either unlovely or unloved was pretty laughable); the rest of the dream cast included Montgomery Clift as the handsome cad who's after her fortune, and Sir Ralph Richardson as the heartless father determined to teach her a hard lesson in love.  And intriguingly, the score was by Aaron Copland, of all people (although he refused an Oscar on the grounds that Hollywood had tampered with his work). Like I said, pure class all the way, and the picture, though slightly stiff, is still a good way to while away a rainy afternoon.

The finale of The Heiress.

Wyler also gave James a swift kick in the climax by concocting a conclusion (see above) in which Catherine vengefully turns the tables on her scheming swain. This sequence is probably what people remember best from the movie, so it's no surprise playwright Stewart has tried to hang onto it in Rich Girl - while at the same time attempting to replace Wyler's high melodrama with something like a hip comic mood.

But it's that knowing tone that gets the playwright into trouble. Whatever its flaws, the James original is unafraid to call a spade a spade; Catherine's suitor is definitely shifty, and her father is an unreconstructed villain, who's all but openly hostile to his daughter (as her beloved mother died in childbirth). And by the time he's through with her, Catherine's own emotional potential is as stunted as his own; so Washington Square isn't so much a potboiler as a mordant meditation on the inability to love.

But in Stewart's update, the villain's gender has been switched - it's the mother of Catherine (here "Claudine") who has made the family fortune, as a Suze-Orman-like money guru stalking the studios of PBS. Rather obviously, therefore, Mom can't have died in childbirth; instead, in this version she was herself abandoned while pregnant  - a very different pretext for the ensuing plot, as suddenly protection becomes the excuse for her daughter's punishment.

Now this is an intriguing twist on James - but in the end, it too must lead much the same place: the re-infliction of abandonment on an innocent child by a wounded parent. But Stewart can't quite bring herself to analyze Mom as mercilessly as James anatomized Dad; she tiptoes up to her feminine battlements, but just barely peeks over. Indeed, she riddles "Eve" (really?  Eve?) with so many lacunae that the role becomes almost a puzzle; the revelatory showdowns that would make the character click never quite materialize, and she becomes a cipher but not a sphinx.

Stewart fills the resulting gap in her story with a lot of witty comment on capitalism that likewise never quite coalesces into a theme. Eve, for example, babbles on - with unintentional irony - about the supposed equivalence of money and self-worth; meanwhile Stewart undercuts the caddishness of James' grasping seducer by making him the director of a struggling theatre company (ha!) who needs Claudine's fortune to patch a hole in his budget. (And who could be against funding a non-profit with Suze Orman's ill-gotten gains?) Stewart is equally soft on Claudine herself; James nearly satirizes his heroine in places, but Claudine hangs onto her weary humanity despite everything - which allows the playwright to dangle before us the hope that in her new incarnation, she may dodge her predecessors' lonely fate.

The talented cast of Rich Girl on Brynna Bloomfield's elegant set. Photo: Mark S. Howard

I can't argue all these smart twists and turns aren't fun; but in the end they only amount to a side show next to the central conflict between Claudine and her mother. Still, as side shows go, this one's diverting, thanks to a capable cast and witty direction by Courtney O'Connor. The standout performance comes from the magnetic Celeste Oliva, who throws herself with infectious abandon into the role of the executive assistant who tries to steer Claudine toward love (or at least its facsimile). But honestly, I thought Sasha Castroverde's Claudine - here rocking a purple wig - was just as appealing. Castroverde has risen through the ranks at the Lyric, and she's a wonderfully droll comedienne; as a result, both Claudine's awkwardness and poignant self-awareness are always in clear focus. I was also impressed by newcomer Joe Short in the role of her seducer; Short is a handsome lug, but perhaps doesn't have quite the soap-opera steaminess the part could use. But he's a quick study and a versatile talent - and so a welcome addition to the Lyric stable. Alas, the similarly talented Amelia Broome does stumble slightly as Eve, but honestly, I almost felt she was hamstrung by Stewart's writing (or the gaps therein).

As for the playwright herself - well, Rich Girl may not be quite solvent dramatically, but somehow I left it convinced that Stewart has talent. She certainly has the wit to write a great comedy of manners - but does she have the guts? It's a question that looms in my mind about many of the new plays I've seen by female playwrights. Why is there never any blood on the floor? Why have women seemingly abandoned Caryl Churchill's scalpel? Where's the female Mamet, or Pinter - or even Stoppard, much less James? Did Arthur Miller back away from the battle between Biff and Willy Loman?  I don't think so. These men wrote villains - or at least antiheroes. They didn't retreat from conflict by claiming that everyone has a valid perspective, and so why can't we all just get along? That attitude makes for peace on the college campus, yes I know. But it doesn't make for great drama.

Monday, April 7, 2014

It's IRNE night!

Yes, the biggest free party of the theatrical year kicks off tonight at the Cyclorama at 7:30 pm - with your help, of course! (Indiegogo campaign supporters, this means you!).

And this year there's an added surprise - local light Davron Monroe will be recognized with the first Bob Jolly Award, which was established in trust by the late, great Mr. Jolly to honor achievement in the Boston theatre with a $2000 stipend.  Mr. Monroe, a stalwart of the musical theatre scene, starred opposite Bob in his final production, The Mikado, at the Lyric Stage.  So join us as we honor Davron, honor Bob, and of course honor all the talented artists who have contributed so much to Boston theatre!