Thursday, October 30, 2014

Once More, With Feeling: The Smartest Horror Movies Ever Made

Every October, people begin asking for a replay of a Hub Review tradition - our list of "scary movies for smart people."  This is a bit last minute, of course, but there still might be time for you to download one of these from somewhere - so I've once more resurrected the litany: here are the Hub Review's Hints for a Highbrow Hallowe'en - the Smartest Horror Movies Ever Made.

Now I know what you're thinking - "highbrow"???  That word and "Hallowe'en" are two words you rarely see in close proximity.

I'm not sure why, however, because  horror movies have often been about intellectual challenge and experimentation. Indeed, the fresh tropes you find in the best of them often shape, and eventually become staples of, mainstream culture.

So don't worry, you won't find any multiplex cheese on this list - no Amityville Horror or The Blob - and of course you won't find any bad American remakes of foreign classics. (When in doubt with horror movies, always see the foreign original!)  What we have here is cherce, as Spencer Tracy might say - movies that run the gamut from a pleasant shudder to a full-bore freak-out, but which always have a compelling intellectual component.

So without further ado, and working more or less chronologically:

Cat People (1942) - Produced by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur, this thriller kick-started an entire series devoted to indirection and poetic mood. Simone Simone is some sort of Serbian lesbian/were-woman who turns into a panther when aroused - and hubby is an all-American innocent who can't understand why she's afraid to do the nasty. I know - killer pussy! It sounds ridiculous (and it is), but the panther attacks - particularly the one in which the beast slinks through the shimmering shadows around a swimming pool, above - are masterpieces of suggested menace. Also noteworthy among the Lewton classics: I Walked with a Zombie and Bedlam. (Warning: be sure to avoid the laughable 80's remake.)

Dead of Night (1945) - the scares found here feel prim today (and there's one weak attempt at "comic relief"), but the format - an omnibus of tales of terror - was very influential, and its circular dream structure was both the first, and probably the best, of its kind. Two Twilight Zone episodes - as well as the Final Destination movies - were drawn from its (superior) vignettes, but it's the final episode, about a dummy that slowly drives its ventriloquist mad, that remains hauntingly effective. 

The Night of the Hunter (1955) - Charles Laughton's only directorial effort, this very strange thriller-melodrama isn't so much scary as ominously hypnotic. Robert Mitchum makes a convincingly murderous "preacher" who's after some buried treasure - and his night-time pursuit of the children (above) who know its secret is probably the longest, and most dreamily beautiful, piece of surrealism in American cinema.

Les Diaboliques (1955) - Leave it to the French to work out the logic of the thriller to the nth degree; Henri-Georges Clouzot's gritty shocker introduced the "double twist" that would eventually become cinema's standard finale. But even before that closing shock, the movie is weirdly compelling in its sordid way, with little digressions into melodrama and even (seemingly) the supernatural. Other notable films by Clouzot: the grimly cynical Le Corbeau and Le Salaire de la Peur.

Eyes Without a Face (1960) - did we mention surrealism?  Georges Franju's morbidly poetic classic all but defines it. The repellent story is about a mad doctor (Pierre Brasseur) who surgically removes the faces of captured girls to replace the ravaged one of his daughter (Edith Scob); the visuals outside the operating room, however, are all about haunting juxtaposition and dream logic. The image of Scob's glittering eyes moving behind their mask is alone unforgettable (as are the calmly-filmed surgical sequences, it's only fair to warn you).

Psycho (1960) - yes, I know you've seen it, but it's the source of an incredible number of pop tropes - the psychotic slasher, the out-of-the-blue murder, the twistedly "innocent" (and probably gay) hero/villain, the cheap-o production design and even such touches as Bernard Herrmann's "slashing" strings have all become touchstones of the culture. But the movie also, believe it or not, has bizarrely tragic undercurrents, and formally, it fascinates for the way in which Hitchcock set up one of his standard romantic-thriller templates, then ripped away its surface to reveal the frightening impulses raging beneath. Related examples of this director's brand of erotic apocalypse: Vertigo, The Birds, the final coming-to-terms of Frenzy, and Michael Powell's florid companion piece, Peeping Tom.

The Innocents (1961) - Jack Clayton's take on The Turn of the Screw is not just the most literate horror movie ever made, it's one of the most literate movies ever made, period. Deborah Kerr is perfection as the repressed governess who may (or may not) be seeing ghosts, and whose preternaturally mature charges may (or may not) be possessed. The movie lacks suspense (the scene above is a rare exception to that rule), but makes up for it with the sheer beauty of its production design, the subtle craft of its dialogue, the superb acting even from the children, and the fact that every appearance of the ghosts is a poetic tour de force.

Don't Look Now (1973) - Nicolas Roeg's fragmented film can feel very self-indulgent - especially during its clearly-improvised scenes. But stick with it: the final sequence makes up for everything with both a satisfying scare and a strangely persuasive suggestion regarding the interpolation of past and present (one piece of the puzzle, above). Plus the movie features Julie Christie naked (alas, it features Donald Sutherland naked, too).

The Shining (1980) - The Divine Stanley's one foray into pure horror (if you don't count Clockwork Orange) sags in the middle, and never really manages to beef up Stephen King's superificial original with any depth, but its banal, brightly-lit look, its atmosphere of de-stabilized, floating dread, and especially its many chase sequences remain indelible. True, Jack Nicholson's over-the-top performance can seem either genuinely, or artistically, horrifying, depending on the day I see it. But once Kubrick drops his pretensions and gets down to business in the last act, he shows he's still got his mass-market chops.

The Vanishing (1988) - George Sluizer's deeply disturbing "thriller" follows both a young man obsessed with his girlfriend's disappearance and a local magistrate who has become similarly obsessed with the freedom to do evil. The film is a fiendishly intricate meditation on moral psychology, in which almost every shot "counts," and the acting is consistently subtle. But in the end, Sluizer's deepest theme is the inevitability of death, and our poignant denial of same - a theme which his climax drives relentlessly home.  Be warned, though - this film's finale is not easily shaken off.  Oh, another warning - do not see the American remake (even though it was helmed by Sluizer!).

Cube (1997) - Far from perfect, this chilling Canadian cheapie (opening gambit above) nevertheless operates as both a visually elegant shocker and a genuine brainteaser. Seven total strangers awaken to find themselves trapped in a maze of cubes, each filled with gruesomely deadly booby-traps; they slowly realize they're human guinea pigs in some enormous survival experiment. Which means there must be a means of escape. One of those satisfying movies in which plot secrets are revealed just as you, too, figure them out.

Funny Games (1997 and 2007) - Michael Haneke's doubly-filmed provocation (this time the "American remake" is a shot-by-shot reproduction; a key sequence in the slightly superior original is above) is for sensitive audiences perhaps the most grueling movie ever made, even though none of its violence ever appears on the screen. It's essentially the standard victims-in-a-lonely-place set-up, only this time the premises of genre are ruthlessly subverted and reversed to turn all the punishment on the audience itself. All thrills, indeed every form of catharsis is deliberately frustrated in one brilliant gambit after another - and weirdly, even when the movie goes all meta on us, it doesn't lose its overwhelming sense of dread; we remain in its grip - perhaps because we sense it has also captured something of the amoral millennial zeitgeist. Horror movies are sometimes the most intellectual movies around, and this is among the most challenging.

Cure (1997) - much has been made of "Japanese horror" over the past decade (Ring, The Grudge, and especially the skin-crawling Audition), but the early Cure, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's hauntingly oblique meditation on a kind of viral psychosis, remains the subtle avatar of the form (its disorienting opening, above). The final scene alone is a master stroke of offhand horrific suggestion. Related films: Pulse, Bright Future.

Irréversible (2002) - Gaspar Noe's X-rated reversed-time narrative feels like Memento gone to hell; at times it's as unwatchable as Saw, but it's never merely torture porn. Instead, it's got quite the stern intellectual spine. Not for the sexually faint-of-heart, however; this film pushes horror's conventional obsession with sexual disgust to its limit - it even opens with a brutal, seemingly endless murder in the depths of a sex club called "Rectum." Well, at least there won't be an American remake.

Also recommended, in case you've seen all these -

Ring - Japanese original only! Another case in which crude, cheap-o production design does wonders for the dumb, pulpy content.

The Exorcist - preferably not the Director's Cut (in general, the ruthless studio cut is always superior to the director's cut) - but if you must, you must. Either way, this enormous hit remains memorable for Ellen Burstyn's performance, a generally intense atmosphere, and a literally soul-freezing climax.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre - still packs a wallop, even in the days of Saw and Hostel, because it seems to tap into something obsessive in its depiction of Leatherface and his cannibal family.  Plus it boasts one of the most horrific surprises in all cinema, when dear old grandpa "wakes up."

Night of the Living Dead - Republicans rise from the grave to munch on Democrats in George Romero's gruesome 1968 cheapie, which features solid (white) citizens gorging themselves on entrails, and may count as the first nihilistic satire of American racism.  Indeed, just about every trope of the millennial zombie craze found its first form in this crude classic. (Full movie above.)

Bird with the Crystal Plumage - the movie that put Dario Argento and the "giallo" on the map, it pulses with an undertow of genuine compulsion, and makes explicit the genre's ancient conflation of violence and sex in scenes that themselves became fetishes for Argento's fans. The film also stamps the basic template for this director's entire body of work - a script burdened by bad acting (and only barely comprehensible anyway) is occasionally transformed by stretches of pure stylistic (and sadistic) bravura.  An even crazier, but still more visually inspired, offering from the same director: Suspiria.

The Masque of the Red Death - the best, and certainly most ambitious, of Roger Corman's Poe series from the 60's, it features literately fruity dialogue, a discombobulated (but amusing) moral debate, re-purposed sets from Becket, and, of course, thick, salty slices of ham from Vincent Price, served with relish to Paul McCartney's then-girlfriend, Jane Asher.

The Fearless Vampire Killers (above) - this haunting piece of ghoulish whimsy, also from Polanski, has its longeurs, but it's lavishly produced, features the suavest bloodsucker ever (Ferdy Mayne), and concludes with a brilliantly structured "dance of the vampires" (shot in almost a single take, above). And somehow the presence of the gorgeous, doomed Sharon Tate gives the production a terribly poignant resonance.

Rosemary's Baby - more a study in isolation - or even black comedy - than a genuine horror film, this Polanski masterpiece focuses, like much of the director's work, on how deep evil can work its will from behind a screen of quirky social intrigue. Related: the more hallucinatory Repulsion, which makes superb use of the lovely, but rather wooden, Catherine Deneuve.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (above) - this minor classic from the 70's has proved incredibly influential, from its tongue-in-cheek tone to its gorgeous production design. With its concept of serial killing as a form of performance art, Phibes has also inspired to some degree everything from Silence of the Lambs to Saw. And weirdly enough, the movie may also count as a musical (with dance sequences!; full film above). Related: the equally witty, Bad-Shakespeare version, Theatre of Blood.  The sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, is occasionally as inspired in visual terms as its predecessor, but is also choppier and more pointlessly vicious.

Alien - Ridley Scott's breakthrough, this subtly-acted creature feature is made compelling (like Phibes, and the forgotten Black Sunday) via its unforgettable production design. Watching it is like experiencing a drowsy piece of techno mumblecore suddenly torn open by gooey visions of sexual horror (the phallus dentatus at the core of the action was literally lubed with K-Y). Related: John Carpenter's best picture, the even-more-grotesque and memorably paranoid The Thing.

Scream - a horror movie that some claim morphs into a teen comedy; still, it's witty and smartly acted, and the perfectly-shot opening sequence kicks serious horror ass.

Finally - I have, I admit, ignored the great tradition of horror in the silent cinema.  Classics from this era include the seminal The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (complete movie above), Vampyr, Nosferatu, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Man Who Laughs.  Silent film is always best experienced (IMHO) with live musical accompaniment - but with some of these classics, the imagery alone is enough to send a chill down your spine in the dead of night . . .

Which leads me to the one new entry in the list:

Shadow of the Vampire - perhaps more of an morbid Actor's Studio in-joke than a true hair-raiser, E. Elias Merhige's weird tribute to/satire of Murnau's Nosferatu features a wittily ghoulish performance from Willem Dafoe as silent actor Max Schreck (Murnau's Dracula, here re-imagined as an actual vampire) along with, alas, a typically preening turn from John Malkovich as Murnau himself.  You could argue that the movie (crafted as it is) remains muted in its impact until the final scene - but this does suddenly transform the script's art-as-a-vampirism motif into a potently horrifying statement.

The Juilliard returns, with fresh faces

The Juilliard String Quartet: Joseph Lin, Joel Krosnick, Roger Tapping, and Ronald Copes.  Photo: J. Sherman

It has been years since we've seen the Juilliard String Quartet in these parts  - and to be honest, you might not have recognized the line-up that played Jordan Hall as part of  Celebrity Series last week, as first violinist Josephn Lin and violist Roger Tapping are all but brand new (Lin joined in 2011; Tapping, more familiar to Bostonians as a member of the Takács Quartet, arrived in 2013).

Certainly the many fans of this venerable brand needn't worry about any decline in its quality, though; if anything, Lin's incomparably light, tender attack brings a sweeter edge than ever to the quartet's famously subtle, probing sound.  Their programming (at least last week) was likewise along familiar lines - the concert was devoted to the Viennese tradition, with Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" balancing two offerings from the Second Viennese School, Webern’s Five Movements and Berg’s String Quartet, Op. 3.

With Webern and Berg cheek-by-jowl in the first half, and Schubert alone in the second, intermission seemed to span a stylistic chasm - although of course you can argue that Schoenberg and all his pupils lie curled within the bud of the famous second movement of "Death and the Maiden."  Still, Webern and Berg are almost more unlike than like: Webern is the gnomic mandarin who reduces passionate arcs into coolly sculpted miniatures; Berg, in contrast, weaves a highly keyed hysteria into an almost static, yet incomparably complex, latticework. Neither makes for easy listening, although Webern always has the virtue of brevity; inscrutable as his work may be, it's never long before it's over!

Berg is more demanding of the listener - and is often more frustrating; but it must be admitted the Juilliard illuminated his febrile torments with a searching, sympathetic light, and more warmth and transparency than usual.  And they did manage to suggest a link between Berg's fraught despair and the haunting song of "Death and the Maiden," which they played (of course) transportingly.  The first movement seemed to speed by, but the quartet took their brooding time with the second, to heart-breaking effect. More than ever here, Lin seemed first among equals, sending surpassingly tender melodic lines over the composer's more desolate ruminations. The quartet then turned and gave the rousing final movement its full valedictory force.

The crowd of course called them back for encores, but they only offered one: the lovely Largo cantabile from Haydn’s String Quartet in G, Op. 33, No. 5.  Rarely for Haydn, it's in a minor key, which perhaps cued the moody romantic treatment the Juilliard gave it - and for a moment, Schubert's shadow seemed to be cast backward in time as well as forward.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Farewell to the Factory

Michael Underhill prepares a gaggle of IRNE critics for the journey into Language of Angels. Photo by the author.

This weekend marks the last bow of the Factory Theatre, long a mainstay of the Boston fringe.

Which has more than a few local thespians - many of whom got their start here - heaving a heavy sigh.

Not out of nostalgia for the luxury of the place, though. Many (but not all) of the companies scheduled to perform here have found a foothold elsewhere in our theatrical landscape; but none of those venues can offer anything like the gritty atmosphere of the Factory. Bare bulbs, concrete floors, a crumbling brick proscenium - the Factory was too hard-edged and baldly minimal to even qualify as grungy. A serial killer might find it too dank and depressing for his hangout. So when you were playing there, you knew you were doing Theatre.

But at least the space's last tenants, Happy Medium Theatre, are giving their home base an eerily fitting send-off with Naomi Iizuka's postmodern ghost story, Language of Angels.  Although honestly, I didn't care much for the play; I rather liked the same author's Polaroid Stories, but this time Iizuka is undone by her penchant for willful collage - her script, after a strong, spooky start, soon dives down a rabbit hole of pointless time warps, convoluted narrative kinks, and teen-aged characters of such flat affect they seem thinner than the ghosts who haunt them.

The Happy Medium cast in a graveside valentine to the Factory Theatre.

Oh, well - the actors can't find their way out of Iizuka's labored labyrinth, but the design, at least, is a pleasure: Greg Jutkiewicz's lighting is striking, and movement coach Kiki Samko sends the cast bouncing all over the space. But the scenic design is what makes the production feel like a graveside valentine to its venue. Taking off from the play's setting (a seemingly bottomless cavern) designer/director Lizette M. Morris leads the audience on a spelunking expedition to their seats at the start of the show - a journey which winds its way through every grubby nook and cranny of the theatre. Along the way we get a chance to admire much mournful graffiti scrawled over the Factory's stony face by both current, and former, casts (see photo at top).  Like the theatre itself - and the theatre performed there - these sentiments will prove evanescent.  But then so will you and I, my friend.

So to the Factory Theatre - a friend to the fringe indeed - I bid a fond good-bye. And may somewhere, someday, another basement theatre bloom from a similarly hard, unyielding bud.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Masterly Monteverdi at BEMF

Teresa Wakim and Danielle Reutter-Harrah. Photos: Kathy Wittman.
Sigh. What has taken me so long to rave about the Boston Early Music Festival's transporting concert, "Monteverdi Madrigals: Songs of Love and War," which left Jordan Hall in rapture two weeks ago?

I'm not sure; perhaps people are right to say that something too evenly superb is somehow a little daunting to write about!  For BEMF's rendering of Monteverdi was indeed sublime pretty much across the board.

Which came as no surprise, actually, as Monteverdi is a BEMF specialty (which is why you should not miss the trilogy of opera productions the company is reviving this coming summer). The Festival by now can tap into an extraordinarily accomplished stable of singers - although this concert's roster was particularly dazzling: if you haven't heard Charles Blandy, Jason McStoots, Reginald Mobley (a newcomer, I think, to the Boston concert scene), Danielle Reutter-Harrah, Teresa Wakim and Douglas Williams sing early music, do not miss your next chance. And the performance of the instrumental ensemble, led by leading BEMF lights Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs on chitarrones, and featuring Robert Mealy and Julie Andrijeski on violin, was at least equally exquisite.

The works themselves were largely drawn from the master's eighth - and largest, and final - vocal collection, "Madrigali guerrieri, et amorosi," ("Madrigals of War and Love") - although many of these pieces stretch the madrigal form far beyond what many folks may remember from their brush with it in high school chorus. The haunting "Ogni amante è guerrier" ("Every lover a warrior"), for instance, showcases an extraordinary stretch of solo singing which is not only desolate but resolutely dramatic - indeed, throughout much of the selections from the "libro ottavo," one felt the tug of opera on the madrigal.

But perhaps drama is inevitable when a composer braids the lover and the fighter as tightly together as Monteverdi did here. Which isn't to say he gave short shrift to love's lush languors, or its laments; in fact "Ego flos campi" ("I am the Rose of Sharon," drawn from the "Song of Songs") and "Lamento della Ninfa" are both built on some of his most ravishing vocal lines. Nor does the solo singer dominate these later works - Monteverdi extends polyphony to almost symphonic levels, in fact, in portions of "Hor che'l ciel, e la terra" ("Now that Heaven and Earth"). Indeed, vocal variety might have been the hallmark of the concert - but the emotional tone often evidenced a rueful, lonely streak; Monteverdi's libro ottavo was actually something of a retrospective, and included songs written years prior to its publication in 1638.  But none are the musings of a young or innocent man.

Jason McStoots, Charles Blandy and Douglas Williams gear up for love - and war.

The world-weary undertow of these pieces, however, only threw the maturity of these performers into higher relief. McStoots and Blandy were at their finest in the witty "Gira il nemico, insidioso Amore" ("The Enemy, Insidious Love") while the more-aloof Williams found his stride as the quixotic knight of "Ogni amante è guerrier."  Meanwhile soprano and mezzo Wakim and Reutter-Harrah blended beautifully in  "Chiome d'oro" ("Tresses of Gold"), and opal-toned counter-tenor Mobley sculpted Ego flos campi into a luminous cameo.  At the same time the instrumental ensemble brought their familiar level of nimble mastery to selections from Castello and Falconieri (Monteverdi left behind no purely instrumental work). Here the standouts were violinists Robert Mealy and Julie Andrijeski, whose playing on Castello’s “Sonata undecima" was a marvel of sensitive partnership - which was perhaps the secret key to the success of the entire evening.

The next concert in BEMF's season features Kenneth Weiss on harpsichord, Nov. 1 at the First Church in Cambridge.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Mozart, marimbas, and magic

Pauline Malefane as the Queen of the Night. Photo by Keith Pattison

Mozart's Die Zauberflöte ("The Magic Flute") is not only immortal but universal; I think Boston last saw it set in a Mayan temple (at BLO) - but the humanity of this particular masterpiece is so apparent (and runs so deep) that it can work in any context, with any actors, anywhere.

Still, the new production from Cape Town's Isango Ensemble (at ArtsEmerson through this weekend) stands out from the crowd - perhaps most strikingly in musical terms. Re-christened "Impempe Yomlingo," the opera's orchestration has been arranged entirely (aside from the flute itself, which is here a trumpet) for marimbas, found objects, and other forms of percussion by Pauline Malefane and Mandisi Dyantyis (Malefane also plays the Queen of the Night with imperious pique, while Dyantyis conducts with sweetly swooning passion).

And the good news is that the marimbas are, indeed, magical. Their transporting tremolo is not so very far from what we imagine should be the sound of the magic bells that are pivotal to the plot - which Mozart originally scored for the now-lost "stromento d'acciaio" (literally "instrument of steel"). Whenever the marimbas are singing their silvery song, all is well with this Flute.

If you're a vocal technique geek, however, I feel I must add a note of caution. Many voices here are a bit stretched, and the yawning proscenium of the Cutler Majestic doesn't do anyone any favors (and sometimes exacerbates balance issues with the marimbas, which tend to resonate loudly in the cavernous space). Subtitles might have been a good idea, too - even though the text is sung in English, the South African accents sometimes proved a challenge to Americans unfamiliar with the text.

The group singing is better - often far better; the trios are charming, and the chorales (particularly for the men) are quite moving. The show is most compelling, though, when Malefane and Dyantyis dare to edge Mozart closer to Mozambique; the freer rhythms in the second half gave the performance an infectious energy, while the ululations from the Queen of the Night's forces were thrilling. (In general I wanted to hear more from Africa and less from Europe - Mozart will survive the trip, trust me, just as his half-dreamed plot survives its streamlining here.)

The production is also festooned with clever asides and witty grace notes. The costumes, for instance, mix and match ancient tribal motifs with nods to disco and even the Supremes. And while the dancing wasn't overly precise, it was always hearty - and it was simply amazing to see a soprano step down from a Mozart trio and throw herself into a performance on the marimba - for everyone in this cast did double or triple duty onstage and in the orchestra.  Indeed, a powerful sense of ensemble was evident throughout the show that's rare in the world of opera. And that's always magical.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Dancing on Lear's grave; or, Blow, winds! And pass the popcorn!

Joseph Marcell rages in King Lear.

The touring production of King Lear that Shakespeare's Globe opened last week at ArtsEmerson (where it plays through this Thursday) proved a true rarity: an unsatisfying production that nevertheless trailed paradoxical critical questions in its wake.

Not that many critics had any doubts about the show. In New York, Isherwood sniffed, and in Boston, Aucoin sadly shook his head. Neither gentleman could be mistaken for an intellectual, of course - nor would they want to be! - but egg-headed mandarins like Bill Marx were for once in accord with the mainstream mavens. This, they agreed, was a Lear largely undone by its performance style.

Sadly, though, none of these writers seemed aware of the internal contradiction at the bottom of their mutual position - roughly, that Shakespeare's tragedy wasn't done justice by the theatre of its day.

A proposition which is somehow not entirely convincing. (And almost certainly arrogant.) At the very least, I'd argue that any critic should (indeed, must) engage with the questions raised by a company's performance style before simply dismissing it.

But then I'm rather in sympathy with this particular company's mission - which I take as an attempt to connect with the public by re-invigorating the populist energy of the Elizabethan stage. For of course Shakespeare was enormously popular in his day, when his plays were generally performed in bright sunlight, before crowds much like the ones that today fill the bleachers at Fenway Park.  

But how does one reconcile the Elizabethan equivalent of hotdogs and popcorn with the intricacies of Shakespeare's verse, the unparalleled subtlety of his insights, and the thematic complexity of his construction?

It's a question most scholars have simply ignored - but which Shakespeare's Globe openly embraces. Although unlike the avatars of original practices in early music, this company only ventures halfway down its declared artistic path.  Yes, they ignore Wagner's innovation of dimming the house lights; and their actors openly interact with the audience before (and sometimes during) the show. Players also often double roles, and are expected to be able to sing, play an instrument, and even dance - indeed the company often concludes a performance (even a tragic one, like Lear) with a jig, just as the Elizabethans did. Still, as far as I know, female roles are not played by teen-aged boys on their London stage (although the company has often dabbled with cross-dressing), and questions of Elizabethan accent, rhyme, and rhythm are given scant attention.

So what Shakespeare's Globe is offering is a millennial revision of the Elizabethan experience rather than the thing itself.  But even within those limits, its tricks and tropes are often jarring.  Many critics, for instance, could not abide a King Lear that ended with many recently-deceased characters rising from the stage to join hands and cut a rug.  Somehow, these reviewers declared, this utterly compromised the tragic grandeur of the text.

Only scholars agree that's how the Bard himself did it. So Isherwood, Aucoin and Marx are basically saying that Shakespeare didn't know how to stage his own play.

Times do change: the Victorian view of Lear - John Gilbert's "Cordelia in the Court of King Lear"

And again, that's - well, a hypothesis, I suppose. A vulgar one, but still a hypothesis. A stronger case might be made that Shakespeare would have done away with certain Elizabethan stage traditions if he'd been able to - but even that is pure conjecture, and at least partly answered by the high probability that Shakespeare styled his scripts to match the resources and context available. (And remember that Shakespeare was not only resident author at the Globe, but also a supporting actor - so he may well have personally tripped the light fantastic after Hamlet and Lear).

This is an amusing thought - so it's no surprise Shakespeare's Globe is unafraid of embracing rueful bemusement in its tragic style. And yes, its actors do mix with the audience, much like their Elizabethan forbears, and throw themselves into multiple roles (sometimes in a single scene) with often no more disguise than a sly wink. They also play instruments, sing when necessary, and work the stage machinery in full view.  

But the idea isn't to ape (or anticipate) the alienation of Brecht; it is instead to openly conjure Shakespeare's music the way actual music is conjured by musicians who may be wearing anything, and performing anywhere, and can in no way be mistaken for the art they create. Thus there's no fourth wall at the Globe, no attempt at illusionism, and the actors are always actors rather than characters. Oddly, the ultimate effect of all this is almost anti-Brechtian - Elizabethan practices are far more ingratiating than alienating; they invite the audience to identify not only with the story but also with its performers. There's something about this that scrambles the postmodern critical consensus - and not just about Shakespeare, but about theatre in general.

Bethan Cullinane as Cordelia.  Photos: Ellie Kurtz.
And while many reviewers claimed that the concluding dance of this Lear negated its tragic impact, I wasn't so sure. Remembering one of Edgar's famous lines from the heath ("The worst is not, so long as we can say, This is the worst,") I wondered whether joining hands after Lear's passing didn't so much erase his loss as make it bearable (it's perhaps telling that Nahum Tate rewrote this most harrowing of endings after Elizabethan stage practices had been lost). T.S. Eliot famously believed that "humankind cannot bear very much reality," and it's quite possible Shakespeare was of the same opinion - and so afforded his audience some solace after their terrible glimpse into the abyss.

Still, the critics were on firmer ground when they pointed out that this Lear plumbed few harrowing depths prior to that final foxtrot. In the lead role, Joseph Marcell offered a bemusedly eccentric, sometimes overly-literal Lear - which began to click in his humble final speeches, but limned little of the harsh road to that humility.  Likewise Gwendolen Chatfield and Shanaya Rafaat made a superficial pair of evil sisters (although Rafaat found an intriguingly childish glee in Regan's sadism).  Bethan Cullinane brought more depth to Cordelia (at left), but her doubling as the Fool threw off few psychological or metaphoric sparks. 

The supporting men were better - sometimes far better. John Stahl's flinty Gloucester was the standout - his blind stumbles on the heath were heart-rending, and the tricky scene of his attempted suicide was completely gripping. Meanwhile, as his wronged son Edgar, the striking Alex Mugnaioni always seemed on the verge of a coherent interpretation without ever quite forging one (tellingly, his take on Poor Tom was likewise fluttery and peripatetic). A bit better was Daniel Pirrie's sallowly charming Edmund - although the performance didn't quite have the vicious snap it should; Pirrie was actually stronger in his snippy turn as Oswald.

In the end, then, the best criticism of this production is that director Bill Buckhurst didn't really trust Elizabethan stage conventions enough. My gut is that they can withstand more tragedy than he was willing to risk; I'm sure houselights and doubled roles and singing and dancing can successfully co-exist with far more intense and committed performances than were elicited here. (Indeed, a dance toward sunlight from the darkest depths of despair could be an unforgettable theatrical coup.) In their last visit, Shakespeare's Globe brought us a brilliantly staged Elizabethan take on Hamlet - perhaps the Bard's most bitterly witty tragedy. Lear, however, is a very different theatrical animal. In a way, its terrible pathos may represent Shakespeare's greatest challenge to the Globe's ethos - i.e., to his own ethos.  Let's hope that in their next production, they dare to truly take up that gauntlet.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Really, Sebastian? Really?

Titan's Venus of Urbino

Today's Globe features an essay from critic Sebastian Smee (sorry, it might be behind a pay wall) on the greatest art in New England - which is unfortunately burdened with a boomer-rock-band title ("Simply the Best"). Smee's list of the 50 finest works residing in our region, though orthodox, is certainly solid (mine wouldn't be much different). But he does make one mind-boggling claim about halfway through his piece:

The Shepherds of the Portinari Altarpiece
" . . . I want to remind people how incredibly blessed we are in this part of the world when it comes to great painting. The list here is as good, I believe, as a comparable list would be almost anywhere else in the world.  Only Paris, New York, and London might have an edge, and that is by no means certain."


Really, Sebastian - really?  Paris, New York and London might have an edge?

I mean, sure, "Go Sox!" But - really? You're going to put the MFA, Gardner, Yale and Harvard up against the Louvre and d'Orsay? Or the Tates, the National Gallery, and everything else in London? Ditto the Met, Frick, MOMA and the Guggenheim, et al., in New York?

Okay - why not! But I just got back from Florence - as Hub Review readers know - which is a little bit smaller than London, Paris or New York. And here's my list of the greatest paintings I saw there, in alphabetical order by artist:

Botticelli - The Birth of Venus, La Primavera
Caravaggio - Sacrifice of Isaac, Bacchus, Medusa
da Vinci - The Annunciation, Adoration of the Magi
della Francesca - Portraits of the Duke & Duchess of Urbino
Fabriano - Adoration of the Magi
Gentileschi - Judith and Holofernes
Giotto - Ognissanti Madonna
Uccello - Battle of San Romano
Lippi - Madonna and Child with Two Angels

Raphael's Madonna del Granduca
Michelangelo - Donni Tondo
Raphael - Madonna of the Goldfinch
Rubens - Portrait of Isabella Brandt
Titian - Venus of Urbino
van der Goes - Portinari Altarpiece
van der Weyden - Lamentation of Christ
Velazquez - Self-Portrait
Verrocchio - Baptism of Christ

Oops, those twenty are actually all in one gallery - the Uffizi.

And I hate to say it, but at least half of them are better than anything we have in New England (although the very greatest we have here belongs in their company). 

Meanwhile, over at the Palazzo Pitti, there are-

Raphael - Madonna del Granduca (at left), Madonna della SeggiolaPortrait of Agnolo Doni, Woman with a Veil
Titian - Christ the Redeemer
van Dyck - Cardinal Guido Bentivoglio
Verrocchio - Saint Jerome

And there are incredible frescoes all over town:

Fra Angelico - the frescoes of San Marco monastery
Ghirlandaio - Life of St. Francis, Santa Trinita
Giotto - the Bardi and Peruzzi Chapels, Basilica di Santa Croce
Gozzoli - Procession of the Magi, the Medici Palace
Masaccio - the Brancacci Chapel (with Lippi), and the Trinity in Santa Maria Novella
Pontormo - The Deposition from the Cross, Santa Felicita (detail below)

Pontormo, Deposition from the Cross

Again, all of these are as good as, and most are better (or just more important) than, anything we have in New England. 

Some of the sculpture in Florence.
And I haven't even mentioned the sculpture.

So let's get real, shall we?  Or do I need to catalogue the Louvre, too?  Seriously.  

Of course I love New England, and the MFA and our other museums. We are truly lucky to have an abundance of great art at our collective doorstep.

I'll go a little further: the case Smee could have (and should have) made is that here in New England - through a constellation of several great institutions - we have access to one of the broadest art collections in the world. Between the old masters in the Gardner and the impressionists and Americans at the MFA and Clark, and the modernists and random gems scattered elsewhere, there is a remarkable breadth of high art on display in New England. Few regions anywhere could match our range: there are wonderful samples of almost every period of "Western" art available, along with major collections of Asian art. And if you do throw in New York (which is only a brief train ride away), we're in art heaven.

Of course Paris and London could still have an edge.

But Florence sure doesn't.