Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Complete Bard, Abridged (again!)

Brooks Reeves cooks up some comedy as Titus Andronicus.
Just as the swallows return each spring to Capistrano, so it seems The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) returns every summer to at least one of Boston's stages.

And why not?  It's a cute show, ideal for a college town (it was first designed for the Edinburgh Fringe), with enough insider winks mixed among its broadsides to keep both Shakespeare's haters and adulators happy. 

And thank God, it never wades into the shallows of all that Oxfordian foolishness; indeed, beneath its Beatrice-and-Butthead snark, the show evinces a clear desire to sneak a sense of the genius of the Man from Stratford under the current generation's cultural radar, and into millennial hearts and minds both innocent and ignorant of just how powerful great art can be.

And it helps that more often than not, it's just plain clever. My favorite bits in this valentine/raspberry to the canon are the snappy pastiches, like the mash-up of every comic gimmick the Bard ever borrowed into something like The Twelfth Night of Much Ado about the Merrie Wives of Venice (or whatever it's called).  I also always get a kick out of the chronicle of the history plays translated onto a football field (with the crown itself passed or punted over the gridiron of history).

I'm less tickled by the longer parodies of specific plays (although conveying Ophelia's confused state of mind through audience participation almost justifies an extended sojourn in Hamlet). And frankly these are not the most experienced Shakespeareans I've seen take on these sketches - so the yuks rarely have the wicked, knowing edge they can sometimes conceal. Still, the all-guy cast at Hub Theatre Company (no relation to the Hub Review, btw) always keep the blank verse bouncing along, and director Lauren Elias knows to keep the gags coming - and coming (the broader the better!) - so the show has a friendly, go-for-it vibe that's consistently beguiling.

The standout in the cast was William J. Moore - the gonzo gleam in his eye, coupled with a sexily goofball grin, brought a shine to every skit he was in. But not far behind was smart, fussy Brooks Reeves, while  Patrick Curran - though he struck me as a bit more of a stand-up comic than a true actor - definitely gave good "dude" whenever one of Shakespeare's heroes said something particularly stooped. I must also note that the stage management of this onslaught of drag and gags came off without a hitch, and the space - the cabaret at Club Café - proved surprisingly congenial. As a light, literate aperitif before a night of drinks and dancing (which was what was happening next at Club Café), it could hardly be bettered - and given that the Hub Theatre is committed to a pay-what-you-can policy, the price is right, too.  Through this weekend only.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Portraits by an artist as a young man (Jamie Wyeth, Part 1)

Jamie Wyeth, "Self-Portrait," 1969.
James Browning Wyeth (at left) - son of Andrew Wyeth, and grandson of N.C. Wyeth - never outgrew his childhood nickname, "Jamie."

And judging from his recent appearance at the MFA to open his retrospective there, "Jamie Wyeth," he never outgrew his fondness for knickers, either.

Which suggests there's a touch of Peter Pan to this third-generation scion of our first family of realist painters. Images like the one at right only re-inforce that impression: Wyeth was 23 at the time, but portrayed himself as younger - indeed, as almost adolescent. Diffident, sensitive, and sexually vulnerable, he's like a threatened waif out of Treasure Island or Kidnapped (which his grandfather famously illustrated in a career that kickstarted an entire dynasty).

What the painting also suggests - beyond a haunting theme of innocence lost amidst barbarism - is that the young Wyeth was one of the very greatest American portraitists. No less an eminence than Lincoln Kirstein declared him the best since Sargent, so it's no surprise there's a painting of Kirstein himself at the MFA that more than validates that claim - even though it's one of Wyeth's lesser achievements in the genre.  

"Portrait of Helen Taussig," 1963
Indeed, it's outshone by a half-dozen portraits that could rank among the most penetrating of the past century. Wyeth's notorious rendering of the eminent cardiologist Dr. Helen Taussig is here, for instance (at left) - an image so stark it shocked the good doctor and her colleagues at the time, perhaps in part because it had been painted by a 17-year-old boy (it was the young Wyeth's first commission - he only got it because there's wasn't enough cash available to cover his father's fee, to whom it had first been offered).  

Although to be honest, "horrified" might be a better word for the official reaction to the portrait. The indefatigable Taussig had been refused a degree by both Harvard Medical School and Boston University,  but finally was awarded an MD by Johns Hopkins, where she took up residency. During her tenure there, she suggested a technique that saved the lives of countless "blue" babies, and eventually became chief of cardiology. Thus her colleagues hoped to honor her with a standard slab of "great man" flattery - much like the many canvases that gather dust in the halls of hospitals the world over.  

But instead they got this piercing picture of troubled, but undaunted, intelligence - biographers have since confirmed that Dr. Taussig had just lost a patient prior to sitting for it, and Wyeth captured that inner blow almost exactly. It should also be mentioned that at this point in her career Dr. Taussig had gone deaf  - yes, she "listened" for the heartbeats of the babies in her care with her fingers. Somehow I was unsurprised to learn that; Wyeth's artistry had already painted in an unspoken backstory for her of repeated gauntlets and obstacles overcome.

Helen B. Taussig, by Yousuf Karsh
But that's not why the doctor who unveiled it wept in dismay (somehow she could not see the calm fire in the sparkling sapphires of the portrait's eyes). Her colleagues likewise called it "evil," and the hospital blanched at hanging it - so it was offered to the great physician as a gift. She in turn was gracious to Wyeth, but wouldn't hang the picture; for years it gathered dust in her attic instead of her office. 

Not everyone was so shocked by Wyeth's round, unvarnished rendering - in fact The Lancet judged it "a brilliant masterpiece" - but it still remained under wraps for the coming decades. Friends and colleagues even urged Taussig to destroy it (a more conventional compliment was eventually procured from celebrity photographer Yousuf Karsh, at right). 

Still, somehow the painting survived in the archives at Johns Hopkins, and slowly became better-known, although its MFA appearance marks the first time it has been widely seen since the day it was unveiled.  Which may be why curator Elliot Bostwick Davis holds it back till the last minute as a kind of artistic lagniappe - although to be honest, perhaps she also senses in its depths some of the richness that only the first half of "Jamie Wyeth" consistently supplies.

For this retrospective does seem to wander far from the power of such images as "Portrait of Shorty," below, another early triumph for this precocious painter (who completed this at age 17 as well, along with another masterpiece not at the MFA, the heartbreaking "Lester", which is worthy of Velázquez).

"Portrait of Shorty," 1963.
But if determination was the subtext of "Taussig," then irresolution shadows "Shorty," although Wyeth explores this very different theme with even deeper and more patient craft (indeed it would be hard to overstate the subtlety of this portrayal). The subject was a local "character" in Wyeth's hometown, and the young artist suggests his lowly status with calm economy: Shorty is unshaven, and clad only in a "wife-beater," although his physique is slack, and skin sagging; meanwhile the smoothly upholstered throne in which Wyeth has placed him seems to comment ironically on both his tattered clothes and sallow complexion, while whispering of a richness he has never known (and never will know - "Shorty," we realize, will always come up short). In fact, if you squint a bit, you may even see something like scornful laughter in the Rohrschach blots of the wingback's satin pattern. But beyond the chair itself, there is only blackness - a void which Shorty himself seems to both emanate from and scan with anxious uncertainty. Indeed, his haggard eyes are the most touching thing in the picture: they seem to anticipate some new humiliation from the universe.

"Jamie Wyeth," by Andy Warhol
It's yet another startling achievement from a basically teen-aged painter. But you may have noticed that every work discussed so far was executed before the artist's 25th birthday; and indeed "Jamie Wyeth" leaves one quite sure that the artist's early years were his heyday. Still ensconced in the supportive frame of his family, and couched in their artistic tradition, he was operating at a level that was almost vertiginously high, and yet - by the critical standards of the day - also ridiculously low. 

For Wyeth endured repeated critical drubbings throughout the 60's, just as he should have been coming into his own.  So perhaps it's no surprise that he was drawn into the orbit of Andy Warhol, the rising critical darling of the era (Warhol's silkscreen of Wyeth, at right).  But we'll consider that encounter, and its fall-out, in the next installment of this critical assessment.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Gloucester Stage floats some summer stock

The widow and the wiseguy at Gloucester Stage.  Photo: Gary Ng.


Summer stock still lives!

As a theatergoer, you may (or may not) be glad to know that - and of course "lives" may not be quite the verb I'm looking for in the case of Jack Neary's Auld Lang Syne, whose modest charms are currently spacing out the more ambitious productions at Gloucester Stage. Maybe "Summer stock is still mildly entertaining!" or "Summer stock is still a pretty good way to while away two hours on a hot night as long as there's air conditioning!" might be better opening salvos for this review.

Still, I have seen weaker new plays than Auld Lang Syne - its author has a talent for badinage, at least - although it must be said the value of this stock issue largely derives from its two stars, much-loved local acting couple Paula Plum and Richard Snee, who sell the rather predictable twists of Neary's plot with sure, subtle skill (and even swing his abrupt shifts in tone). Plum is the mousy widow from Southie who longs to join her departed husband in the hereafter; Snee is the wannabe wiseguy she hopes will help her on her way.  She's a good Catholic, you see, so suicide is taboo - but she doesn't want anybody to kill her while he's mad at her, either; meanwhile the hired hand, though he's been rehearsing for a whack job all his life, has some doubts about whacking someone quite this wacky, oh and another thing  . . .

You get the picture. It goes without saying that summer stock is long on exposition and short on development, but Neary pushes the envelope of dramatic delay so far that he all but tears it open; in fact we're almost an hour in before we get to anything like rising action - and then it's only a slight upward grade.

Still, the bright side of that strategy is that he only has to write half a play - and the upside for you is that you can come in late without missing anything. In fact my advice is aim for intermission, because things do improve in the second half, when Neary finally gets around to his actual exposition. Alas, we never reach anything like development, which is too bad, because the play's premise is a bit better than a mere gimmick; indeed, I kept thinking that if only the playwright had watched Plum and Snee in action, he might have been tempted to write them better lines! But Neary never explores the parallel ironies of these two basically wasted lives: the widow and the wiseguy (now there's a title for you) never achieve any new level of self-awareness, and they don't even build a real relationship (although Plum and Snee, through pure sleight-of-hand, may make you half-believe they do). And in a two-hander, those are basically your only options.

Oh, well. I must also report, however, that despite the script's shortcomings, many in the opening night audience at Gloucester were not displeased as the curtain fell. But I suppose it helped that the show was sprinkled with catnip for a Boston crowd of a certain age (if you remember Edith Bunker, and thought Nunsense rocked, you'll love this), and Plum and Snee do keep the ping-pong ball of the dialogue bopping lightly through the air. And under the capable direction of Doug Lockwood, both sketch in the backgrounds of their characters' journeys as well, even if this dramatic vehicle is basically stalled; Snee may actually have been the more compelling in this regard, although perhaps we've simply seen Plum go down this road too many times before. But then even a well-traveled path can be welcome if the destination is worthy. Maybe next time this playwright will provide one.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The suddenly shrinking fringe



The world of Boston theatre just got a little smaller.

For word has reached us that the venerable Factory Theatre, a long-time tenant in the rear basement of the famous "Piano Factory" at 791 Tremont, will close its doors as of October 31.  A widely circulated letter from Greg Jutkiewicz, who has been handling the space since 2007, states that the building's management has decided to push the theatre out to make room for "amenities like a fitness center, gated parking lot, and a concierge."  Ah yes - just what the South End needs: a gym and a concierge!  After all they're so rare in these parts . . .

Oh, well. Gentrification is an old story, but every time it's told, it seems to have fresh teeth, doesn't it. The loss of the Factory will hit Boston's fringe hard, of course, as the space, though spartan, was in a prime location - close to the T, and only a stone's throw from the South End's lively restaurant and bar scene.  So it's no surprise that almost every smart new theatre company with big dreams (but a smaller bank account) at some point played its famously rough-hewn "stage." Beau Jest Moving Theatre, Whistler in the Dark, and Mill 6 Collaborative all were resident companies at some point or other - and the T Plays and Tales from Ovid both debuted there. The Factory currently hosts Heart & Dagger, Happy Medium, Fresh Ink, and many other companies - all of whom are scrambling for new homes for the shows they had expected to stage there this winter and beyond.

The good news - and there is a bit of it - is that the fringe is already trying to respond, and they're a much more supportive, idealistic, and connected crowd than the mid-sized and large company scenes.  Dawn Simmons at the BCA is reportedly launching a "Factory Theatre Orphans" initiative, and the folks at ArtsBoston are said to be reaching out to alternative spaces. A few people are even mulling bringing this to the attention of the Mayor's office - after all, hizzonah has often said how important the arts are to the city - maybe there's a little political muscle that can be put behind that promise. Who knows? Sometimes a crisis can pull a community together - and that could be the silver lining to this latest blow to the fringe.

Of course there is one thing about the Factory that will be hard to replace  - the space's sheer grittiness. Its unvarnished bricks and cold concrete floor were like nothing else in Boston - so basic you couldn't even pretend they were "funky" or "shabby chic." They were just real - a painted flat didn't stand a chance at the Factory - which made the space ideal for Beckett (a memorable Krapp's Last Tape just played there), Caryl Churchill, and other playwrights with a raw or probing edge.

So the Factory will be missed by many beyond the local acting community - yours truly included. Even though I'm confident the fringe will weather this latest blow, I'll miss that brutish, blunt old space. Yes, I know there's no nostalgia like nostalgie de la bout - but then again, did anyone ever wax nostalgic for a stairmaster and a concierge? Somehow I don't think so. Wherever the migrant birds of the fringe next settle - and don't worry, we'll be tracking their movements on the Hub Review - let's hope they don't forget the lessons they learned on the Factory's rough proscenium.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Post-mortem: a Shepard stumble at Trinity

The fresh faces at Trinity can't save Shepard from his own bald symbology.  Photos: Mark Turek.

Dark theatrical clouds sometimes come with a silver lining (at least to those with a critical cast of mind), as the wrong turns a bomb inevitably takes can lead the right observer to startling insights into the text at hand. For a terrible performance is often as well-oiled a machine as a brilliant one: everything fits together perfectly - it's just all headed in the wrong direction. Turn the show's artistic vision on its head, and suddenly you see how the play might work ideally. I never really understood Shakespeare's Cymbeline, for instance, until I suffered through one of the most godawful versions of it imaginable; once my mind broke free from my appalled response, however, I was able to consider the inverse of the production's every misstep. As a result, now I feel I'm ready to direct it myself!

Although to be honest, such eureka moments are most satisfying when the text, though flawed, is still fundamentally worthwhile (like Cymbeline). I'm not quite sure I can make that claim for A Lie of the Mind, the Sam Shepard epic that was meant to form a triumphal arch over his achievement, but instead signaled the last gasp of his artistry. It did also, of course, win a Drama Desk Award (among others). But so it goes. The critics are always the last to know.

At any rate, Trinity Rep saw fit to revive the show (which closed last week), and this was a risk, to be sure - riskier still given the wild variability of its director's previous productions. Brian Mertes (the head of Trinity's directing program!) likes to paint with broad brushes, and bright, cold colors; the results so far have included a bracing Clybourne Park, and easily the worst production I've ever seen from this venerable theatre, a Crime and Punishment that played like Dostoevsky crossed with Breaking Bad on a Mardi Gras float.

Alas, most of the signature flubs of that C & P are echoed in A Lie of the Mind - self-consciously clumsy set design and air-quote acting chief among them. But to be fair, the collegiate symbology comes from Shepard himself, who in his magnum opus played Dr. Frankenstein with his own oeuvre: to make up the play's three-hour running time (cut down from over four, legend has it!) he simply stitched together pieces of his previous hits: you might call the resulting theatrical Tinkertoy Curse of the Fool-Child Buried in the True West.

But whatever you call it, don't go see it (you have been warned). Even in his heyday, people compared Shepard's plays to pop songs: punchy and raw, but also fragmented, simplistic - and best when brief. At some level the author must have understood there was something to this critique (I'm an admirer of his stronger work, btw). But alas, even though he longed to go long-form, Mind demonstrated beyond a doubt that he was simply unable to; for while he clearly thinks he's building some sort of surreal arc over a yawning American abyss, or perhaps even pondering some essential problem of the self, the flailing playwright only makes each and every one of his signature tricks cruder and more garish. This time around, for instance, the immature boy-hero wanders about in actual short pants, and likes to wrap himself in the American flag; the spooky, feuding parents are certified loons, incest isn't just suggested, it's all but enacted, and the damaged girlfriend is literally brain-damaged - and just as there are not one but two dysfunctional families wandering the landscape, not one but two carcasses get dragged onstage. I guess you could call A Lie of the Mind "Shepard on steroids." That is if you like 'em big and stupid.

Or perhaps Mind seems more mindless than usual because it's short on Shepard's strongest suit: his language is flatter than we expect here, and there's no grand, freak-out soliloquy like the ones that glue together Starving Class and Buried Child. Although to be fair, the script does boast about a half-hour of fresh writing: the scenes focused on the hero's brother, trapped with a rotting flesh wound in a snowbound cabin with his indifferent in-laws, do edge Shepard's themes toward newly-ghoulish comedy. Clearly the author's mojo hadn't entirely given up the ghost; he just didn't have the sense (or humility) to strip everything else out and pen another of his savage little one-acts.

The old guard is at lost as the new in A Lie of the Mind. Photos: Mark Turek

So to my mind, A Lie of the Mind represents an uphill battle for any company; still, Trinity has quite the track record when it comes to Shepard (some of their great productions of the early 80's still echo in my memory). They even have some of the same actors on tap. But alas, these vets have Brian Mertes as their director this time around, whose cartoonish sensibility seems to push them into every trap Shepard has unconsciously set. (Note to all directors of well-regarded acting companies: if things go south, we'll know it's your fault.) Meanwhile the fresher faces end up in pretty much the same place, although Britt Faulkner and Charlie Thurston somehow signal they're far better than their direction (their scenes together are among the few that click). It's hard to know how far everyone else could have gotten with a subtler approach, but I wouldn't rule out the possibility that A Lie of the Mind could hold the stage for much of its length (or at least not drive away about a quarter of the audience, as it did the night I attended).

So to recap: at the top of this essay, I did promise that through a process of critical inversion, I would be able to divine from this production an ideal version of Sam Shepard; thus, what follows are a few guiding principles for virgin directors of this great American playwright:

First - Shepard should be surreal, but not too surreal  - as soon as your production feels absurdist (much less self-consciously absurdist!) - you've gone too far; the gig is up, the game over.  Thus a Shepard set can show a kitchen table plunked down on a mesa, yes - but the details of both table and mesa must be believable; it's the realism of their co-existence that is key.  And even if you feel you can deconstruct the kitchen, you can't deconstruct the desert.  The West is always real in Shepard. (Hence the wall of fans that dominate this production only seems to comment on its own sense of afflatus.)

Likewise you shouldn't put quotes around Shepard's symbols: this only makes them feel balder. The acting works much the same way - heightened, but still tethered to naturalism; occasionally meta, but never mannered.  And certainly never overtly comic! (A central mistake here.)  There are one or two short Shepard efforts that are basically satires - and there's a wickedly bemused edge to many of his scenes; but all his major plays are essentially adolescent - and adolescents don't see themselves as funny.

Which brings me to my final point: what drives most Shepard plays, at bottom, is the characters' (I almost wrote the children's) desire to connect. It's a cliché, I know, but beneath all his surreal nihilism, this playwright is telling the same old sentimental American story of broken homes and broken hearts. If only we could have heard a little of it this time at Trinity!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Tiptoeing toward the drone wars

Confronting the drone wars: Lewis D. Wheeler and Nael Nacer. (Photo: Andrew Brilliant)

One of the frustrating things about our current theatre is its refusal to confront the really difficult questions of our age.  We wallow instead in paeans to diversity and inclusion - the hot topics of a decade or more ago; but when it comes to exploring the thorny issues of the millennium - such as the attacks on 9/11, and our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - our major theaters have mostly looked the other way.

So I welcome plays like Pattern of Life (from the New Rep, but at BU's Studio 210, through this weekend only), even if they feel self-censored and circumscribed. I figure at least we're tiptoeing toward the present day; and to be honest, in terms of its sophistication and craft, Pattern is by far the best new play the New Rep has done in - well, maybe years.

So local author Walt McGough is clearly a talent to reckon with - although here you can feel that talent is in shackles (which the author has partly forged himself).  Indeed, you sense him nervously plotting each and every forward step, and it's not hard to understand why; his theme - the use of drones to eliminate terrorist targets in the Middle East - is so very fraught politically. And it's fraught politically because it's so very hard to justify ethically. Indeed, fully treating our drone war would mean either pondering American foreign policy with an honesty we haven't seen since Vietnam - or finding some clever trick that allows the audience to never quite look in the mirror.

Alas, McGough takes the second, lower road, and relies on many such tricks to see him through. Thus he never considers the full ethical dimensions of drone warfare; instead he chooses to focus on its long-distance aspects, and capacity for mortal error. Which lets him off the hook when it comes to drone proponents' Minority-Report-like delusions of moral authority - not to mention our own collusion in the political situation that has bred so much terrorism in the Middle East. (To his credit, the playwright does treat the self-defeating aspects of assassination-at-a-distance - can't we call it what it is? - but only to a calculated degree.)

Still, targeted as its vision may be, Pattern of Life stands out from the generally cowardly theatrical pack, even if McGough only dramatizes two victims on either side of a drone strike (for yes, a drone's "pilots" are its moral victims). And even if his two protagonists never meet in the flesh, but only in dreams (or in some sort of hallucinatory moral continuum).

To be sure, this circumscribed frame does make Pattern of Life feel somewhat schematic. And while McGough has given his American character, "Carlo" (Lewis Wheeler) a recognizable, individual voice, his writing for "Pakmat" (Nael Nacer), a Pakistani who loses a beloved nephew to Carlo's trigger finger, feels far less authentic; Pakmat basically sounds like a pastiche of half the authors nominated for the Man Booker Prize.

McGough does scores his successes, though, thanks in no small part to a strong cast and sensitive direction from Bridget Kathleen O'Leary (one of the more thoughtful presences at the New Rep). Carlo's slow decline (once he has admitted to himself that he did see a young boy dash into the line of fire) is harrowing, and actor Lewis D. Wheeler charts the crack-up of this cocky cowboy of the "Chair Force" with memorable honesty. Meanwhile, if Pakmat's voice isn't quite convincing, his situation is - even as he grieves, local al-Qaeda operatives move in on him - and actor Nael Nacer all but embodies both the character's overwhelming pain and that frightening pressure.

So despite its flaws, Pattern of Life counts as a small step forward for the local scene. I certainly hope it's not the last play about the drone wars, but from where I sit, it will serve as one of the first. In a better world, with a truly free theatre, I can only imagine what we might hear from playwright Walt McGough.  In the meantime, I'll keep listening to him - and you should, too.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Yes, Smart People is sexy, but is it really smart enough?

Eunice Wong and Roderick Hill hook up for some hot identity politics.  Photos: T. Charles Erickson.

All good plays cast long shadows, so perhaps it's unfair to feel disappointed with Lydia Diamond's Smart People (at the Huntington through July 6) which is indeed smart, and often entertaining, but never quite emerges from the penumbra of Stick Fly, the playwright's hit of four years ago.

And the reason is clear: in Stick Fly, Diamond borrowed the sturdy structure of the "well-made" play, and kept her designated factotum (she inserts herself quite openly into every play she writes) confined to the dramatic sidelines.  But in Smart People, she pushes her witty mouthpiece front and center (even though she doesn't have all that much to do), and attempts a complicated, multi-focused dramatic arc even though she isn't all that good at structure.

Sigh. So we're left with a witty (but meandering) meditation on race and racism among the self-described smart set - which is diverting, in the way a lively cocktail party is; it just isn't a play. Which is too bad, because it could be a play so very easily - as Stick Fly proved, once she has an arc, Diamond is fluent and compelling line-by-line. But without a game plan, she tends to polish scenes to a high gloss, then set them against each other like puzzle pieces that don't quite fit. Which means any larger statement remains frustratingly out of focus.

Still, perhaps these days we should be happy with small successes, with correspondingly small stakes. And even if Smart People is a muddle when it comes to race, it often scores as a comedy of manners, for Diamond comes through (again) with a clever little sketch of an American class - this time, the academic class, which needless to say, is the milieu she swims in every day.

Thus even though the playwright's putative premise is the discovery that racism is hard-wired into our skulls (the script was inspired by research at Harvard), what actually holds our attention are the sculpted details of her characters' manipulative social behaviors. Indeed, the racist patterns Diamond anatomizes in sketch after sketch feel almost over-familiar - pop culture has already had its way with them. Yes, we get the obvious point that these episodes are abundant proof of the thesis that Diamond's researchers are inching toward - still, we've seen better on cable.

In contrast, Diamond's Harvard Club vignettes glitter with secret, sweet amusement.  The narcissism disguised as altruism, the conversations built of dueling correction, the etiquette that's basically an endless chess-match of competitive self-awareness - all these mores and more are etched with a scalpel in Smart People.

But the sharpest idea in Diamond's conceptual quiver ties the long climb up the academic ladder to the clever exploitation of racial profiling. Her Asian academic superstar, "Ginny Yang" (Eunice Wong), has a name that sounds like a Bond girl's, a personality cleft between geisha and bitch, and an M.O. that turns every social encounter into a permutation of the concubine dynamic. Thus while Professor Yang tears up over Asian women who have been victimized by submissive stereotypes, she also demeans the staff in every establishment she enters; and most intriguingly of all, she insists her victory lap round the tenure track depended on her ability to decry the geisha stereotype while subtly enacting it with her own professors. Hence Ginny privately submits to what she publicly resists; like so many "smart" (or at least hyper-articulate) people, gaming the system is what she does best.

The cast of Smart People interacts with their respective racial profiles.

And Ginny's certainly the smartest thing in the play - we long to spend more time with her.  So we can only imagine how dazzling Smart People might have been if Diamond had cast as cold an eye on her African-American strivers! But when dealing with them she offers nothing nearly as probing as the great scene in which Ginny weeps over a series of online shopping menus which offer her no actual person to abuse (and thus no way to validate her superior status). Indeed, Diamond seems to unconsciously withhold from her black characters a truly complicated internal landscape; so benighted as we are, we don't read them so much as "black" as blank; they don't even have their own voice (instead, they time-share Aaron Sorkin's).

And then there's the way Diamond fumbles her treatment of that disturbing Harvard research - as well as her portrait of its leader (here "Brian White," believe it or not). The playwright's "smart people" are all agog that innate cognitive structures (which as tribal mammals we almost certainly have) might yield outcomes like racial bias - to which I can only say, really? Now maybe I'm not that smart, but somehow I'm less surprised. Worse, Diamond only cursorily sketches her protagonist's decline into scientific OCD as he's met with blowback from an uneasy Harvard faculty. Oh, she makes a stab at a few half-hearted point-counterpoint scenes, but let's just say they're far from Shavian. And instead of developing her hero's descent dramatically, she just tags Ibsen's Enemy of the People, as if to whisper on the down-low, "This part of the play that I'm not writing?  Check out Ibsen - it's in there!"

Of course it's hard to grapple with a dialectic when you're simultaneously trying to write a date movie. Which brings me to my final point: Diamond doesn't even tie her characters together in the way her material demands: for them, the personal and the political seem entwined with the sexual, but never more than superficially brush the professional (which is where they live).  It seems obvious, for instance, that Ginny, once she is Brian's bedmate, should end up as one of the faculty asked to evaluate his research; but such a taut little twist is never even suggested - one somehow gets the impression it might have been too dramatic.

Oh, well. At least the Huntington has once again fielded an impressive cast - McKinley Belcher III, Miranda Craigwell, Roderick Hill, and Eunice Wong are all fluent in Sorkin, and all are just about pitch-perfect under Peter DuBois' detailed direction. Although to be honest, I found Craigwell and Wong slightly more compelling than the men; Wong at first seemed stiff, until we learned to read that as evidence of her constant calculations; meanwhile Craigwell was just endlessly charming; after watching her suffer through Mamet's Race last year, it was good to see her land a real break.

And frankly, given that we're facing Guess Who's Coming to Dinner at the Huntington this fall, Smart People may look clever indeed in the rear-view. Still, I wince to think of all the plays this theatre's oh-so-racially-sensitive audience has been missing. Why isn't Jackie Sibblies Drury, surely our most exciting new dramatist, on its main stage, for instance?  Why was it somehow decided that We Are Proud to Present a Presentation, etc., arguably the most challenging play of the year, would wind up at Company One (where it - well, we won't go there; but let's just say I've spent much of the spring explaining why We Are Proud to Present is indeed a great play).  I certainly have no argument with this theatre's commitment to themes of race and racism - but the real question is, does it think that its audience is composed of "smart people" - or not?  That's what I wonder.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Girl-on-girl action rocks Mozart

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Shepherdess (1752)

I'm late with an appreciation of Grand Harmonie's latest effort, a performance of Mozart's Il re pastore (The Shepherd King), which attracted an appreciative crowd to Harvard's Paine Hall last weekend. They were partly drawn, I imagine, by the chance to hear this rarely-performed opera seria, which dates from 1775 - just before the 19-year-old Mozart's stage breakthrough with Idomeneo. Well, that's what drew me, at any rate - but I found myself also treated to some spectacular singing from a posse of early-music stars, as well as an opportunity to touch base with a new (if not quite fully-formed) force on our period scene.

So it proved a lively and enjoyable evening, and left me much to ponder.  Top-of-mind was perhaps this opera's special place in Mozart's oeuvre - it's a charmer, to be sure, but hearing it cold, you might not guess it's "Mozart;" you'd merely think it was splendid, and by somebody who was obviously going places.

Okay - but what's missing, you might ask?

Jean-Baptise Greuze's purported portrait, 1764
Well, the divinely pure melodic line that marks Mozart's high achievement - and its peerless distillment of dramatic meaning - isn't quite there; but then we only miss it, really, because we know the later operas! Yet we also know Mozart slaved over Il re pastore - no doubt because it was created for an occasion of some pomp (a state visit to Salzburg by an archduke), and was based on an already proven libretto, Tasso's Aminta; so it clearly counted as both opportunity and challenge for the young composer.

Thus what we're listening to in The Shepherd King is a major talent still shepherding his own resources, and hoping to make a big, conventional splash. Although there are hints here and there of themes that would later spark his genius: the opera's twin couples prefigure those of Cosi fan tutte, while its central conflict echoes the imminent Idomeneo.  And certainly its most exquisite arias, such as "L'amerò, sarò cost ante," would not sound out of place in a later masterpiece - and the opera even closes with a remarkable ensemble. Indeed, at such moments we're all but itching to hear Mozart take the next, inevitable musical step.

Still, it must be admitted that much of Il re pastore, though transporting, is a bit generic. Aminta, a hunky, heroic shepherd, is in love with the beautiful, pure-hearted Elisa - although he's secretly the long-lost heir to the throne of Sidon (hardly a pastoral spot, as it's near Babylon, but never mind). The couple's royal secret is safe, however, until the well-intentioned King Alessandro overthrows the reigning tyrant of Sidon, and urges Aminta to take the throne - which would mean leaving the low-born Elisa behind with Lambchop. If the resulting conflict between love and duty sounds contrived to flatter a royal audience, well of course it was - yet Tasso's libretto ends up treating its theme with more depth than you'd expect, particularly in an ironic subplot that trips up an advisor of realpolitik in his own diplomatic web.  It's here that you most feel Mozart's voice about to break out in song - only it doesn't, not quite.

The same might be said about the performance by Grand Harmonie; this latest addition to Boston's period scene is obviously poised to go great places - but they're not quite there, not yet.  This was my first exposure to this new ensemble, and what struck me immediately was the freshness of a period sound that's driven by the horns and winds (I later discovered that these players were the founding core of the group). Indeed, listening to Grand Harmonie, I began to wonder whether our conventional early-music mode has become a bit lulled by the sad sighs of Lully and the baroque - in contrast, these guys sounded lusty and rhythmic and rustic; theirs was early music with a stomp, and I got the impression that they're also focused on less-trodden period paths from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Amanda Forsythe
Which was all refreshing, to be sure; but while the horns and winds were clearly in the driver's seat, they didn't seem to always have their hands on the wheel (or perhaps conductor Edward Elwyn Jones didn't). Jones kept things at a rambunctious clip - and that was good - but I felt as a result he sometimes ran a little roughshod over more subtly shaped passages (the orchestra only really slowed down for a sensitively-voiced solo from violinist Sarah Darling). And then to be honest, there were some intonation problems among the winds, as well as the to-be-expected fuzz from the natural horns (which are fiendishly difficult to play).

But all this was forgotten whenever the singers took the stage, for Grand Harmonie had assembled a galaxy of local vocal stars for this particular evening. Dominique Labelle, Amanda Forsythe, Teresa Wakim - these are the names you want on any early-music playbill, and all three delivered performances that ranked among their best. In the role of Elisa, Forsythe (at right) was in particularly fine form. Her melisma was pinpoint, her passagework beyond dazzling, her tone achingly pure - and you know in dramatic terms, she can play an Arcadian shepherdess in her sleep.

Dominique Labelle
Meanwhile, in the breeches role (literally) of Aminta, soprano Dominique Labelle (at left) shone just as brightly - indeed, if Forsythe had the sparkle of a tripping brook, then Labelle had the warm glow of afternoon sun; and while she didn't, perhaps, project the idealism of youth, her more-experienced persona gave Aminta's laments a touchingly world-weary tone. As you might imagine, this pair's love duets were breath-taking; indeed I'd say girl-on-girl action just doesn't get any better than this - at least vocally!

But wait, there's more: as Tamiri, a heart-broken pawn in the libretto's game of love and war, Teresa Wakim played silvery moon to Labelle's sun, with a ravishingly pure rendition of "Se tu mi fan dono." And her male co-stars weren't far behind: tenor Zachary Wilder has oft been seen in these parts, but rarely has he brandished the rich, ringing confidence he displayed as Alessandro. Meanwhile rising tenor Jonas Budris likewise brought an intensity to the Machiavellian advisor Agenore that we haven't seen from him before - although this young performer needed a subtler acting coach to draw out the mature resonances of the central twist in the libretto.  Like Mozart, and Grand Harmonie, Budris seemed poised on the cusp of great things.  So what can I say?  Stay tuned.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Jacques Brel is alive and well, but is his spirit?

The talented cast of Jacques Brel at Gloucester Stage. Photo: Gary Ng.

When Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris debuted at the Village Gate in 1968, its  title had an unspoken political resonance: for not only the Belgian troubadour, but also the spirit of the left so dear to his heart, seemed alive and well in Paris at the time: the Socialists had just united with the Communists to overthrow de Gaulle, and a wave of demonstrations, occupations and happenings soon culminated in the famous May "Events" that brought working France to a virtual halt.

But the idyll of liberation didn't last long; by July, after a symbolic sojourn in Germany, de Gaulle had returned to power. Meanwhile, in America, as race drove a wedge between the left and the working class, the collapse of the progressive movement was almost as abrupt - and far more violent.

So you could argue that Brel was in some ways a nostalgia piece from nearly its beginning - a kind of call-to-arms that was really a requiem for a pipe dream.  But today, almost fifty years on, this tough-minded little revue plays as so oblique to the culture that it's hard to read it even as nostalgia. Indeed, my guess is Brel himself would puzzle many a millennial, as he was not only politically and historically engaged, but romantically disappointed and dis-empowered - in fact his persona reads as utterly opposed to both the beaming pop queen of today as well as her mirror image, the self-pitying, "goth" loner.

For in the end, Brel was a realist; and in the millennium, we are all different brands of fantasists. Which may be why his oeuvre seems to echo from another era - maybe another universe - even though it should seem utterly up-to-the-minute: indeed, his acid promises about the cyclical nature of war, and the exploitive underside of all politics, seem about to come true all over again in the Ukraine and Middle East.

But okay - I can almost hear you muttering - what about the show?  Well, Gloucester Stage has developed a reputation for punching far above its weight in the musical theatre category, and this iteration of Brel (which runs through July 6) carries on in that muscular tradition.  You could argue that you don't really need great singers to put over these lyric-driven chansons (Brel himself was more a personality than a musical virtuoso), but Gloucester has fielded four of our best local vocalists anyhow: Shana Dirik, Jennifer Ellis, Doug Jabara, and Daniel Robert Sullivan share the honors here, and all four are more than up to the task.  (And they're backed by an exemplary band that teases a whole palette of color from Brel's simple musical figures.)

Still, you could tell that the Gloucester cast didn't quite know what to make of some of these songs (or perhaps what we will make of them).  For the American musical rarely "does" bitter - and almost never honestly engages with issues of class - so this experienced quartet seemed at something of a loss at first, and you could feel them instinctively trying to "sell" emotional moments that resisted such special pleading.  

The antic nihilism of the opening "Marathon," for instance, didn't come off at all, and "My Death" was a curious misfire. But gradually the spirit of Brel did begin to stir.  Jabara seemed to take most easily to the mode (if not all that easily to French!), and tore through "Amsterdam," a murderous ode to whoring, with memorable force.  Meanwhile Ellis found her feet in the haunting "My Childhood," and Sullivan scored with "Alone" and the wicked snark of "The Bulls." The most affecting performance, however, came from Dirik, who simply sang the hell out of "Marieke," one of Brel's most desolate love songs. And the whole company came together in the nearly-eerie "The Desperate Ones" and especially in the haunting finale, "If We Only Have Love." Ah yes - if only we did;  I suppose as long as we can still wish for that, then the spirit of Jacques Brel survives.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

A knotty new drama from Bridge Rep

Olivia D'Ambrosio and Deb Martin in Gidion's Knot. Photo: Marc J. Franklin.

Close followers of the local scene know that Bridge Rep, in just over a year, has established itself as an artistic leader on the fringe - indeed, you could argue they reliably meet (or beat) the acting standards of all our mid-sized companies.  

And their latest, Johnna Adams' Gidion's Knot, as directed by local acting light Karen MacDonald, will only burnish that reputation; indeed you could argue it's their most exquisitely acted production yet.

The case against the company, though, is that it tends to choose actor catnip over more deeply realized texts (unfortunately I missed their version of Pinter's The Lover).  And I think the promise, but ultimate frustrations, of Gidion's Knot will only burnish that reputation, too.

Not that the troupe shies away from controversy: in fact Gidion's Knot relentlessly pushes audience buttons by tagging hot topics like elementary school violence, bullying, and pre-pubescent sexual identity. Yet somehow the playwright can't quite sound the full depth of these themes; she gives her two actresses an emotional workout, that's for sure - but she leaves us wondering what, in the end, is her point (if she's got one).

The set-up is spare - a parent-teacher conference in an empty classroom. But the stakes are high: the two participants are both stricken, and from the first moments tragedy seems about to bead out of the air like a shower of tears. We gather that a sixth-grade student (the eponymous Gidion) has been suspended for penning a menacing poem - and then, shockingly, the boy committed suicide.  His mother is groping for clues as to motive; his teacher is hoping to avoid judgment - or even inquiry. Both are still in the throes of extreme grief.

And both Bridge Rep actresses are superb in their commitment to these challenging roles. Olivia D'Ambrosio makes Heather, the earnest teacher, sensitive yet defensive - and perhaps in the end utterly and unlikably conventional.  Meanwhile Deb Martin dares to make Corryn, the mournful mother, a prickly loner whose edgy sense of personal aesthetics (she's a local professor of ancient literature) probably has done her son no favors when it came to fitting in at school.

It seems that playwright Adams has it in mind to deploy this duo as both mirror and lens in an exploration of our conflicted attitudes toward childhood development, socialization and safety.  And at first she seems to have the guts to match her artistic ambitions.  The provocative poem she conjures from the dead Gidion's pen is blood-curdling (if not stomach-churning) - yet somehow compelling; and Adams deftly leaves a trail of clues among his classroom effects (avidly gathered and analyzed by his mother) as to precisely what torments drove him to his troubling cri de coeur.

I have to admit, though, that the play is sometimes marred by rather bald symbolism ("Gidion" is a bit much, particularly when a classmate is named "Seneca"), as well as a good deal of treading of dramatic water (Corryn's first entrance seems to take fifteen minutes). All the padding is all the more frustrating because in the end, Adams only goes so far, and lets both her leading ladies off the hook to some degree.  She never forces Heather to acknowledge the blind eye she has eagerly turned to the abusive situation simmering in her classroom; and she never makes Corryn admit that in the schoolyard of today, the vengeful violence of Beowulf has no place - and moreover, that she has been utterly ignoring her son's building trauma (indeed, perhaps she has even been fetishizing the pain that drives artistic expression rather than relieving it).  Needless to say, if Adams had dared to go the distance that her themes imply, she would have had more than enough material to fill out two full hours of stage time.

But instead, the playwright cops out with a final "twist" that leads her antagonists onto some kind of slightly-phony common ground. Oh well; another missed chance on the playwriting scene! It's too bad, because these two actresses are so emotionally committed, and MacDonald has done a scrupulously detailed job - and even the scenic design (by Esme Allen) is creative. I wish I could say that Adams has broken out of the development pack and penned a text that's worthy of her interpreters.  Maybe someday she will; but I'm afraid for the time being, once more the song on the new play scene remains the same.

Friday, June 13, 2014

A buon Giorno from Odyssey Opera

Baritone Michael Chioldi as Belfiore. Photo: Kathy Wittman
Watching Odyssey Opera's new production of Verdi's Un giorno di regno, it's hard to believe this charmer ever failed on its opening night - much less that it was then forgotten for well over a century!  Indeed, Un giorno's first-and-fatal bow put the young Verdi into such a funk he almost gave up on opera; luckily for us, the libretto for Nabucco changed his mind - although a reputation for being "bad" at comedy dogged the composer throughout his career.

Sigh. What can I say? Critics! I suppose you could argue that some of Un giorno feels like apprentice work - there are indeed a few simple musical (and dramatic) repeats to be found in its arc. But Verdi's budding genius is actually far more often evident. And while there may be no show-stopping arias here, there's a surfeit of fetching melody, as well as a luminous trio and an intricate quintet tucked into the first act alone. (Indeed, even though the opera is clearly framed as a bel canto effort, it's the ensembles that stick with you.)

So it's hard to understand what has taken Father Time so long to correct this particular error, but he has finally done so, and Un giorno di regno (literally "A Day's Reign," but usually translated as "King for a Day") is at last having its day.  Productions have been popping up all over, and we're lucky to have this one, even if it reigns for just one more night (tonight, in fact, is the last bow of its two performances, so hurry).

The "king" in question is actually a cavalier, one Belfiore, whose resemblance to Stanislaus, the King of Poland, has won him a tasty gig as body double for the monarch when he's off on secret missions. During one of these sojourns, while Belfiore is hanging at the crib of one Count Kelbar, handling the social calendar, he is suddenly drawn into not one but two forced-engagement parties - and one of them involves his main squeeze, the Marchesa del Poggio - who of course recognizes her own beloved in his new clothes, and wonders mightily why he won't intervene.

Of course Belfiore is bound by honor (and maybe law) to stay in disguise - so needless to say, hilarity ensues.  And I mean that - it's a very funny opera, a beguiling mix of skeptical commedia and lush romantic arias. It helps that stage director Joshua Major has a light, inventive touch, and knows his way around this kind of material.  But he in turn has been lucky in his cast - most of whom are gifted farceurs as well as talented singers.

At the center of the action is baritone Michael Chioldi, who cuts an appealing figure as the uncomfortably conflicted Belfiore - although you might be so bowled over by his voice, which is marked by not only deep color but surprising reserves of power, that you don't even notice his acting chops.  Chioldi faces stiff vocal competition, however, from tenor Yeghishe Manucharyan, who's perhaps too placid as Edoardo, the spurned lover involved in the other forced marriage, but who boasts a truly superb tone - he's blessed with a true Verdi tenor, sun-kissed and supple.

The leading ladies are in the same league. As Giulieta, who's in love with Edoardo but finds herself betrothed to the aging La Rocca, mezzo Jessica Medoff is all frustrated youthful bustle, and her vocals are almost as bright and bold - indeed, it's soprano Amy Shoremount-Obra's instrument that's actually flecked with more dusky complexity (although she can soar into coloratura territory with ease).  Shoremount-Obra is also, fortunately, an accomplished actress, and so both touches and tickles us with her portrait of the complicated Marchesa.

Around the edges of the production the news is also good: the chorus was warm and rambunctious (if not always precisely focused), while the reliable David Kravitz was, as ever, vocally resonant and dramatically witty as La Rocca. His comic scenes with local light James Maddalena proved particularly delicious, for the much-loved Maddalena remains a charming character actor; but someday we're all going to have to admit, alas, that at this point he only commands full vocal power at the bottom of his range.

Meanwhile the sets and costumes, though not opulent, were apt and evocative, and down in the pit conductor Gil Rose drew a beautifully pointed performance from the Odyssey orchestra.  After this and the remarkable production of Rienzi he mounted last autumn, it seems Mr. Rose hasn't allowed the recent closing of Opera Boston (his last major gig) to even break his stride.  Indeed, you could argue he's on quite a roll (both this and the Wagner would rank among the best of Opera Boston's work). Which is truly good news for Boston's opera scene - which is currently exploding, btw. If you doubt me, try to catch Un giorno di regno tonight - but if you miss it, Odyssey is presenting an entirely different operatic double feature tomorrow night, to cap their current festival.  And there's even more opera on tap this summer, from at least three different companies.  What gives, particularly in an economy that's supposed to be killing off opera companies across the country?  I don't know - but the city's operatic renaissance is definitely here, and you'd be a fool not to ride the wave while it's rising.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The comedy carries this Anything Goes

Danette Holden reaches musical heaven as Reno Sweeney.  Photos: Paul Lyden.


It's hard not to like the North Shore Music Theatre's current production of Anything Goes. After all, it's Anything Goes! - a virtual hit parade of vintage Cole Porter at his witty, bad-boy best.  And by now this theatre has locked in a dream team of musical theatre pros to revive the classics for them - once again we're treated to direction by Charles Repole, and choreography by Michael Lichtefeld, two of the very best in the business. And even though they've chosen the 1987 iteration of the musical's oft-iterated book, they've colored well within traditional lines: there's plenty of tap on tap, and the arrangements have an authentic 30's bounce. (In a nice touch, the show even opens with the voice of the composer himself, warbling from the piano.)

Yet somehow it's a little hard to love this version - speaking as one of this musical's greatest fans. Something about it doesn't quite gel until the end of the first act, when Lichtefeld's dances finally lift us to the heights we expect (as in his brilliant staging of "Blow, Gabriel, Blow," above).  Until then we can feel the cast hitting every note and beat with confident ease - they're all terrific singers and dancers - but they don't seem to have warmed up to each other for some reason, so things feel slightly mechanical.

Broadway vet Danette Holden, for instance, certainly has the chops to put over Reno Sweeney, the former evangelist who's now the headliner on Porter's luxe ocean liner; but when she claims she's carrying a torch for stockbroker Billy Crocker (Eric Ulloa), we don't feel its rueful, knowing heat. And Ulloa himself has trouble convincing us he has fallen hard for good-girl Hope Harcourt (the sweet but stern Alessa Neeck, with Ulloa at left); indeed this smashing singer, who tore his way through Bye Bye Birdie a few seasons back, seems a bit lost as Billy on several counts.

He finds his feet in the part's slapstick, though - much like the other comics on board, who generally fare better than the lovers. Understudy David Scott Purdy, for instance, charms as a rather fresh-faced Moonface Martin (the gangster-in-disguise who kick-starts the farcical subplot),  even as the brassy Alaina Mills polishes her hard-boiled moll to a bright shine. Meanwhile Michael Mastro puts a fresh spin on the old Terry-Thomas act as Evelyn Oakleigh, the British lord who mangles Americanisms so endearingly.

And of course in the end, this is still Anything Goes - which means you're treated to not just the title tune, but also "I Get a Kick Out of You," "Easy to Love,""Friendship," and "You're the Top," among others.  That counts as just about the top of American songwriting; and the band is tight, the voices strong, the dancers effervescent - so once the big numbers take over, the show sings just as it should.  I've seen Anything go down with more romantic feeling, it's true.  But this version can kick up its heels with the best of them.

Alaina Mills has her way with the dance ensemble.