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!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

A partnership of contrasts at Celebrity Series

Violinist Christian Tetzlaff. Photo: Giorgia Bertazzi.

The brilliant Christian Tetzlaff has been a regular visitor to Boston (perhaps too regular; last Sunday Jordan Hall was only two-thirds full) - but we've never seen him before with pianist Lars Vogt, a frequent collaborator of the violinist only now making his Celebrity Series debut. And their partnership proved a striking mix of sympathies and contrasts: Vogt has a plush, almost heavy touch at the keyboard, while Tetzlaff is known for the nearly virginal finish of his stroke. Hence there's a subtle tension at work in almost everything they do - but as the saying goes, opposites attract, and for a reason; by the end of this concert we understood the appeal of this partnership's buried musical stresses - and the artistic dividends they could yield.

The span of the program was immense, as it ranged from the classic to the modern, and the miniature to the mammoth.  First came Mozart's Sonata in B-flat Major (K. 454) which courted controversy from its opening chords. For Vogt clearly took the lead, with the piano at full stick, weaving a rich brocade to which Tetzlaff contributed glittering stitchery. This seemed (at least for the time being) a valid rebuke to the tinkling Mozart that has begun to dominate the concert stage, and Vogt's playing was always elegant - and intelligent; still, I felt the balance in the opening movements tilted too far in his direction. Tetzlaff soon came into his own, however, as he brought a sense of hushed heartbreak to the Andante and a forceful vigor to the concluding Allegretto, which both took at a breathlessly tripping pace.

Pianist Lars Vogt. Photo: Neda Nevaee.
The duo then leapt into the twentieth century with Bartók's titanic Sonata No. 1 (Sz. 78), a barnburner that's riven by a mad clash between romantic and modernist drama.  Here there was tension built not only into the styles of the work's performers, but into the composer's M.O. itself - for on the piano, Bartók sends rushes of late-romantic arpeggios crashing into impacted crags of dissonance, while lifting the violin into a keening song that quavers with gypsy whispers. The ongoing storm between these sensibilities conjures an overwhelming sense of tragedy, cut here and there by yearning dreams; the sonata's structure may ultimately be hard to fathom, but it's relentlessly gripping, and as you might guess, it's an all-but-perfect vehicle for Tetzlaff and Vogt. The violinist was feverishly committed, but almost scarily clean - this was how a musical martyr might play - while Vogt's touch turned morosely lush. It's a long piece, but somehow Vogt and Tetzlaff had the energy to turn the concluding Allegro into a ferocious dance, which at last collapsed in exhaustion. Thank God it was time for intermission.

The concert resumed with a second hairpin turn, this time from the maximalism of Bartók to the minimalism of Anton Webern, with his Four Pieces for violin and piano (Op. 7).  And here I can only say that either you're a Webern fan, or you're not - and perhaps I'm not.  I admit his miniatures are compact masterpieces, though, with stunning variety worked into their brevity. Alas, Op. 7 proved not only quite short but perhaps here was too consistently soft - I didn't feel Tetzlaff and Vogt conjured the various musical "spaces" that Webern devises; so his musical kōans competed with coughs from the gallery and conversations in the hall.  After the Bartók, it felt more like an anticlimax than a contrast.

This misfire was quickly forgotten, however, once Tetzlaff and Vogt sailed into Beethoven's Sonata No. 7 in C minor (Op. 30, No. 2).  This sonata begins in the fateful cadence familiar from the period of Beethoven's famous "Heiligenstadt Testament;" but it soon expands into sequences of unexpected lyricism, even lightness. And this variety seemed to serve as the touchstone of the performance: Tetzlaff brought a new warmth to the Adagio cantabile, and the Scherzo trotted like a dance, while the demanding Finale found a middle ground between these various moods.

The crowd called both back for an encore, of course - which turned out to be a delightful rendition of the finale of Dvořák’s skipping Sonatine in G Major (Op. 100). This charmer was met with such rapturous applause that on the spot they played the ravishing second movement, too.  Which closed this exciting musical afternoon on a note of exquisite sweetness. 

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Beckett takes a selfie

Steven Barkhimer as Krapp. Photos: Marc S. Miller
You could argue, I suppose, that the Fort Point Theatre Channel's effort to find a companion piece to Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape was very much of the millennial moment.

For Krapp basically amounts to a Beckett selfie, as its title character shares most of his author's attitudes and obsessions - and even bits of his own biography. Moreover the hero's habit of listening to his own life on tape clearly parallels Beckett's dramatic technique: Krapp even describes his taping ritual as a process of "separating the wheat from the husk" - and that's Beckett in a nutshell. As if to seal the deal, the Nobel prize-winner noted that the play's time frame was "a late evening in the future" (meaning his future).

Hence the desire, I suppose, to find a millennial selfie for the FPTC double bill "Reel to Reel" (which runs through tomorrow at the Factory Theatre).  Or rather - to be specific - a "woman-centric counterpoint" (FPTC's dreadful words, not mine) to this much-loved classic.

I know- ugh.  I'd much rather see one of the several plays Beckett wrote for women (Happy Days, Rockabye, Not I, Footfalls, etc.) - or Krapp himself performed by the right actress (I believe Billie Whitelaw did a version, and just btw, the play's premiere was designed by a woman, Jocelyn Herbert). To be honest, the lazy assumption that Beckett is somehow "gendered" or "sexist" just makes my teeth hurt - but on the other hand, as a feminist beard for sneaking a production of Krapp's Last Tape onto the boards, I guess this is a small price to pay.

And the good news is that this version, helmed by director Marc S. Miller, and showcasing local legend Steven Barkhimer as Krapp, proves a persuasive one. I've seen plenty of Krapps, and over its history the piece has attracted many a celebrated interpreter; John Hurt did a wanly literate impression some years back, while Harold Pinter was far more harsh, but wheelchair-bound; Brian Dennehy, for his part, conjured a broken bear staring at the bars of his cage. The definitive version, slightly shrill but deeply tragic, remains Patrick Magee's - Beckett wrote the role for him, and his performance, thank God, was eventually preserved by the BBC (the whole thing is up on YouTube, below).

At FPTC, Barkhimer approaches Krapp as the ruin of a somewhat-self-aware clown, which is hardly wrong - although it does lead to a slightly exaggerated version of the famous opening schtick with a banana. (To be fair, Beckett's well-known love affair with silent film clowns has led many an actor down this path.) But after this slight stumble, Barkhimer rights himself and settles into a quietly devastated groove, nailing moment after moment; I'm tempted to call this the most profound piece of acting I've seen on a Boston stage this season. Likewise Miller's direction is subtle, Rick Dorff's set is apt, and in a masterstroke, Ian W. King's lighting sends reflections from the rotating tapes over Krapp's tormented face, where they flicker like passing thoughts. In short, a memorable production on almost every count.

Patrick Magee, the definitive Krapp.

As for the companion piece, Skylar Fox's The Archives - well, with apologies to Ed Siegel, I'm afraid this was a fool's errand, but the results prove quite a bit better than I thought they were going to be - but does that count as a good review? I happen to be an acquaintance of the author, the rather-fantastic Mr. Fox, a talented young impresario (currently a student at Brown), who once wrote a one-act for the Boston Theatre Marathon that I still refer to as the funniest thing I have ever seen on a stage. He's also a driving force behind the ambitious (and well-regarded) Circuit Theatre Company; if I had to bet on our next rising theatrical star, he'd be on the short list.

So I was unsurprised to discover how cleverly he had updated Beckett in The Archives: here Krapp's last tapes have been discovered by a millennial mother-and-daughter team (at a tag sale, no less!). Sensing their import as the record of an entire life, they attempt to digitize them, musing on their own biographies in the process.  (There's also a librarian of a certain age on hand who coincidentally was a key player in Krapp's life - or lack thereof.)

Allison Smith builds The Archives.
These are quite brilliant gambits - and it's really no insult to say that any young author looks thin next to Samuel Beckett. But alas, it must also be said that Mr. Fox's cleverness can't quite vault him beyond the limits of his generation. Next to Beckett's broken poetry, Fox's millennials can only offer the likes of "Oh my God, I hope I like never regret any of these awesome life choices!" or lyrics that go "A thing is still a thing, it's just a thing, a thing . . ."  Ah, yes: the unnameable . . .

The upshot of all this is that we leave musing on the dearth of great playwriting today, and its possible causes. Krapp's Last Tape, for instance, is built on a Joycean epiphany of the cruelest kind, as its hero slowly paints himself into a harrowing vision of the waste of his own life. Indeed, you could argue that Beckett is basically attacking his own unconscious narcissism - for tellingly, when Krapp hears his taped voice announce an overwhelming artistic vision, he dismissively skips ahead - to listen again to a poignant memory of gently rocking with his lover in a punt. This, it seems, is the "wheat," while the grand artistic vision was just "husk" - which makes Krapp's Last Tape an unusual kind of selfie, to be sure.

But such an attack is all but verboten in the millennium, in which the modes of narcissism constitute our grounding cultural assumption, our lingua franca. Thus epiphanies (and tragedies) are impossible - and even though Mr. Fox nods toward satire as some aesthetic compensation, he doesn't dare actually go there (and a last-minute epiphany from a member of Krapp's own generation can't quite bridge that gap).

Still, none of this is actually painful because, as I said, we're impressed by the author's strategy, if not its outcome, and he has an ear for dialogue, minute-to-minute - and his cast likewise proves appealing.  Director Tasia A. Jones draws solid work from newcomer Allison Smith (above right) as the young archivist, and Sally Nutt captures a ruefully ironic tone as the librarian who assists her; meanwhile if Karin Trachtenberg struggles a bit more with the role of the troubled millennial mother, you sense that's because Fox has left at least one too many lacunae in her character. In the end, one leaves the efforts of all these well-intentioned young people convinced that their faults lie not within themselves, but in the stars of our current culture.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Bread of life

The actors of Not By Bread Alone.

Occasionally, a theatrical experience is truly unique. So extra-ordinary, in fact, that the normal tools of criticism fall useless before it - because through it we get close to basic questions of what the theatre truly is, and what it can hope to achieve. 

This happens to be the case with the remarkable Not By Bread Alone (through Sunday at ArtsEmerson), from the Nalaga'at Theater Deaf-Blind Acting Ensemble, whose performers are for the most part both deaf and blind, usually due to the genetic disorder known as Usher syndrome.

Yes. They're deaf and blind - although some retain traces of either, or both, senses.  And they of course still have full access to touch, taste, smell, and all the human sensibilities.  Still, the theatrical gap here looms large - for what is theatre if not communication via sight and sound? But much of what makes Bread so compelling is the ingenuity with which these artists surmount seemingly every obstacle to make a genuine theatrical connection.  They touch us - even if they don't see us.

Not that any of these brave souls is asking for pity. They understand what it means to have never seen a sunset, or their loved ones' faces - or even a beautiful blonde; but they are calm in their forbearance of these facts. (As we tremble in our seats and wonder whether we could ever summon so much strength.) What perhaps matters more to them is their human identity, their need to not feel "like a bag, or an object," as one puts it - and their need to cue us in to their desires, their inner life, and thus beat back the loneliness of the land of silence and darkness.

See what I mean about "basic questions"? To call this quest "existential" would sound awfully high-falutin', though, before the simplicity of the theatrical means employed here.  Perhaps "elemental" is a better word. For the show is set in a kitchen, after all - yes, the actors bake bread onstage (which we're eventually invited to share). And as those loaves rise in the oven, there's plenty of time for broad, exuberantly happy mime - you'll never see more joy in performance - as well as a litany of personal revelation: one by one, the actors step forward (aided by a quiet army of stage hands, and vibrational cues from drums) to conjure for us their dreams, which are mostly poignantly sweet pleasures and vanities. Zippora, for example, wants to see a movie while eating the biggest tub of popcorn in the world (and she gets to); Bat-Sheva imagines having her hair done by "Yuri," the most in-demand hair-dresser ever; and a longed-for trip to Italy sparks a whole delightful tableau vivant, complete with pizza, the Mafia, and a blessing from the Pope.

Sometimes, though, the actors just dance, or hold hands, or sway in swings, pondering, as one puts it sans any irony, "the beauty of creation." As a warm, delicious scent rises softly around us. To be honest, by the end of the evening (which closes with a wedding, the ultimate symbol of connection), it feels like a privilege to break bread with these performers.  And it bears mentioning that the whole piece doesn't just play as tribute to the talent and strength of its actors - or the inspiration of their director, Adina Tal, but also to the community in Tel-Aviv, where Nalaga'at is apparently thriving (and where they wittily run their own restaurant, the pitch-dark Black Out, with only blind waiters!). Not to mention the Jewish community at large; for the Hebrew dialogue, the sly humor and wisdom, even something in the lyrical passion for "the small moments of life" remind us constantly of a nation renowned for reaching out to all its members - even those who can be reached by touch alone.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Good news from Jerusalem

The Jerusalem String Quartet

At first I couldn't believe my eyes at intermission - indeed I had to look at my Celebrity Series program twice - the Jerusalem Quartet was really founded in 1993?

What - when they were seven?

Such was the youthful aura these four accomplished musicians projected in their gleaming, fashionably gray suits. My partner and I were quite sure none of them had passed the bellwether age of 30 - which explained, to my mind, the innocent glow of their playing: when the sun "rose" in their version of Haydn's "Sunrise" quartet (in B-flat Major, Op. 76, No. 4), it all but bloomed as it floated toward heaven.

No one whose heart had been broken, I reasoned, could possibly play a sunrise like that. And indeed, little of the worldly edge that's habitual in Haydn performance was evident elsewhere, either (even if "allegro" to these boys often meant a breathless pace). Somehow even at top speed, however, the tone remained reassuring: the Adagio was all soft clouds of drifting mist; the Menuetto, a lilting Ländler in which you could feel the warmth of your partner's arms. Even the Finale, which integrates earlier material into a deeper, fuller dance, seemed free of shadow. But that isn't necessarily wrong for Haydn. This was the voice of the faithful Haydn, the rustic Haydn - the Haydn of The Creation and The Seasons. And it was good to get in touch with him again.

Yet most of this quartet is actually well north of thirty - and moreover, as noted, they've been playing together twenty years. Which, come to think of it, perhaps explained the clean turn they made from the rosy glow bestowed on Haydn to the anxious, accusatory kick they delivered to Shostakovich's Quartet No. 12 in D-flat Major (Op. 153). Here the great Russian initially toys with a melancholy set of tone rows - which operate in a way like a sad shadow of Haydn's sunrise; but tonality eventually takes over (mostly), as tone rows can convey despair well enough, but are too abstract and feeble to conjure active malice, this composer's great theme - which tiptoes into the musical proceedings soon enough. Luckily the quartet understood all this quite well, and so gave the condemnatory phrases of the Allegretto a vicious punch. The atonal asides were then served as a sort of astringent poultice to the ensuing wounds - administered along with later laments, and cut by scampering dances that were darkly mischievous in Shostakovich's peculiar way. All in all, it was a convincingly chilly and mordant performance of this late work.

The quartet put on rose-colored glasses again, however, for the final half of the program, which was given over to Brahms' Quartet No. 2 in A minor (Op. 51, No. 2). And I have to admit the results were again ravishing - exquisitely balanced and focused, with a steady passion building throughout the work's substantial length. Indeed, perhaps things briefly got too passionate - lead violinist Alexander Pavlovsky snapped a string halfway through, leading to an unfortunate pause in momentum (violist Ori Kam meanwhile filled time with a light-hearted anecdote about another, unnamed quartet, and a string broken on purpose!). Still, even without this interruption, one could have been forgiven for feeling that some subtle anxiety, a certain Brahmsian angst, was this time missing from the mix.

So is the Jerusalem indeed our youngest "great" quartet? Well - the crowd seemed to think so; and let's just say I wouldn't bet against them; if they lack some final modicum of maturity, that may come with time - and they have everything else in spades. And in a way, they saved the best for last, returning to Shostakovich for their encore, with the master's lustily plucked transcription of a polka from one of his own ballets. Somehow even in this miniature, the composer captured something of the pleasurable tang of cruelty - only this time with a slyly hilarious wink. It left the crowd in high spirits indeed, and crying out for still more.