Thursday, June 30, 2022

Ain’t Misbehavin’ and B.R.O.K.E.N code B.I.R.D switching: Something About Race

Allison Blackwell, Jarvis B Manning Jr., Maiesha McQueen, Arnold Harper II and Anastacia McCleskey in Ain't Misbehavin'. (Photo: Daniel Rader)

The 1978 revue Ain’t Misbehavin’ walked away with the Tony Award, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and the Drama Desk Award and jump-started the careers of Nell Carter and Andre De Shields. It also introduced Fats Waller, composer and ragtime pianist, to a new generation of music lovers. Richard Maltby, Jr., who conceived the show and directed the original production, compiled Waller’s signature songs and some less recognizable ones in a tribute to the musical Harlem of the twenties, thirties and forties. I remember being startled by the number of tunes I already knew but had no idea Waller had written – often with Andy Razaf as lyricist. I could identify him as the composer of “Honeysuckle Rose” and “The Joint Is Jumpin’” and the title song, but I hadn’t associated him with “Squeeze Me” (lyrics by Clarence Williams), “I Got a Feeling I’m Falling” (co-written by Harry Link, with lyrics by Billy Rose), “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now” or the iconic “Black and Blue,” the unforgettable Louis Armstrong cover of which plays a vital role in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

Monday, June 20, 2022

Transitions: The Secrets of Dumbledore and Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen

Jude Law and Dan Fogler in Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore.

The third chapter of the Fantastic Beasts series, The Secrets of Dumbledore, begins with an exquisite piece of fairy-tale storytelling.  In the forests of China, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) – the English magizooogist (i.e., scholar of and caretaker for magical creatures) at the center of the narrative, set in the 1920s – oversees the birthing of a calf by a rare equine animal known as a Qilin, pronounced Chillin. The mother has a woven golden mane and a face like a mask; her tender calf is skeletal, a golden glow pulsating through his fragile skin. When the minions of the series’ villain, Gellert Grindelwald, attack, felling the mother, Newt struggles to save the baby Qilin, but he fails. He has to watch, helpless, as the calf is kidnaped and the mother expires, a single tear rolling down her cheek. It’s only then that Newt sees what everyone has missed in the chaos:  that she actually gave birth to twins.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

White Knight: The Batman

Zoë Kravitz as Catwoman and Robert Pattinson as Batman in The Batman. (Photo: Jonathan Olley/Warner Bros.)

In his 1957 architectonic study Anatomy of Criticism, structuralist Northrop Frye sketches a taxonomy of literary heroes. Those of the Mythic mode, he argues, are gods: they’re superior in kind to other characters and to their environment. They defy the laws of nature and possess divine gifts. Examples include Zeus, Bacchus, and Shiva. In a tragic narrative, they die. In a comic one, they rejoin the heavenly realm. (The Christian narrative is neither tragic, nor comic, but ironic: Christ is crucified, yet raised to the Father on the third day.)

The heroes of the Romantic mode are superior to others and their environment only by degree. Their actions are marvelous, but they themselves are human beings. In tragedy, their deaths are elegiac and tied to the decay of the created order (think Beowulf). In comedy, they ride off into a pastoral setting (e.g., the cowboy in a Western).

Following this schema, contemporary superheroes dwell in a gray area between the Mythic and Romantic modes. Some, like Superman, are gods – different from us in kind. Others, like the X-Men, are mortals but possess mutations that give them supernatural powers. And still more, like Iron Man, don’t have genetic enhancements so much as advanced technology, making them more Romantic than Mythic.

Monday, June 13, 2022

Tease: Andy Warhol in Iran

Nima Rakhshanifar and Henry Stram in Andy Warhol in Iran. (Photo: Daniel Rader)

The first play to be mounted on Barrington Stage Company’s St. Germain stage in three years is a two-hander, Andy Warhol in Iran, inspired by the artist’s 1976 trip to Tehran to snap Polaroids of the Empress Farah Pahlavi, the Shah’s wife, in preparation for painting her portrait. (Barrington Stage commissioned the piece, which is one of several new plays promised in this post-COVID season.) The two characters are Warhol – played by Henry Stram, who appeared in Richard Jones’s productions of The Hairy Ape and Judgment Day at the Park Avenue Armory – and a revolutionary named Farhad (Nima Rakhshanifar). Farhad is part of a group that hatches the idea of kidnaping Warhol from his hotel room and holding him hostage as a way of telegraphing their cause. Their scheme isn’t worked out very well, and neither, I have to say, is the plot of Brent Askari’s play, where the kidnaping is implausibly amateurish (Farhad wields a toy gun painted to make it look less obvious) and Warhol continues to cower in fear even after he figures out that he’s in absolutely no danger.

Friday, June 10, 2022

Headtrip: Everything Everywhere All at Once

from left: Stephanie Hsu, Michelle Yeoh, and Ke Huy Quan in Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Theories of the multiverse go as far back to ancient Greek philosophy, though we associate them today with the hard sciences. Part of the discussion, historically, involves speculation about whether ours is the best of all possible worlds. Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (one of the most important early modern philosophers) made this idea the cornerstone of his work The Monadology. There, the German polymath addresses theodicy, or the problem of evil. He speculates that the world we inhabit must be the best of all possible worlds, since God – who is good and who could have chosen to make any world he wished – made this one. The presence of evil, then, must have some mysterious, salutary effect – perhaps contrasting goodness for us, so we appreciate it all the more. In a world without evil, he surmises, we wouldn’t be able to recognize goodness, since it would just be the banal, uniform state of affairs. A fish doesn’t notice water unless it’s thrown on land.

Monday, May 30, 2022

The Goodspeed Reopens with Cabaret

Aline Mayagoitia as Sally Bowles in Goodspeed's Cabaret. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

One of the most exasperating developments of the last several decades of theatre is the rewriting of classic plays and musicals, because the originals simply disappear – it’s as if they never existed. In the twenty-first century the alterations have mostly come out of an attempt to make the texts more palatable to contemporary audiences, which have a tendency to cheer every time a character in an older setting makes an anchronistic comment transparently inserted to produce precisely that response. Audiences are increasingly being manipulated into becoming Pavlov’s dogs, salivating when someone on stage in a show set in the forties or fifties sounds as if they’re describing Trump. Will we ever again get to see a revival of A Streetcar Named Desire that ends the way Tennessee Williams wrote it, with Stanley beginning to make love to Stella to distract her from the institutionalization of her sister Blanche, rather than replicating the unconvincing ending of the (otherwise magnificent) Elia Kazan movie, where Stella rushes upstairs to Eunice and the audience pretends that she’s actually thinking of walking out on her husband? It’s hard to believe that 1951 audiences didn’t see that rewrite for exactly what it was: a sop to the Production (Hays) Code Office. Now audiences, shamelessly coddled by recent versions of the play, are encouraged to believe that Stella has suddenly acquired a feminist consciousness.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Otherworldly: The Haunting Icons of Fatima Franks

Red Army II, 2022 digital print on metal, 48 x 48 inches.

“Art ceases to be solely a form of self-expression alone in the electronic age. Indeed, it becomes a necessary kind of shared research and of internal probing.” – Marshall McLuhan, Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting (1968).

1. Singularity

The powerfully evocative and resonant works of Fatima Franks are encountered by the entranced viewer as a truly nuanced hybrid of Eastern and Western traditions. In fact, it strikes me that they reveal a salient truth about the artistic urge to make images and our human appetite to absorb them into our nervous systems as a kind of remedy to the stresses of everyday living: the fact that there is no East or West in the immersive dimension of dreams. I instinctively refer to her otherworldly visions as icons, but not in the liturgical and canonical sense of that word, rather in the neutral sense of being iconic: a picture, image or other representation residing in analogy. She is also a visual storyteller par excellence.