Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Uncanny Kingdom: The Enigmatic Art of Mowry Baden

Marsupial, 2013, by Mowry Baden. (Steel aluminum fabric rubber. Image: VAG)

Mowry Baden, curated by Grant Arnold, Vancouver Art Gallery: March 9-June 9, 2019.

Ever since the French invented a mechanical device called the camera in about 1840, visual artists have been liberated from the tyranny of mere pictorial representation. Likewise, sculptors, who are best described as making three-dimensional drawings in space, have been offered the authority to leave behind the pedestal in favour of incorporating everyday life into their tableux. And no one has taken that liberty of expression to heart with as much consistent passion and creative commitment as Mowry Baden, originally from Los Angeles but since 1971 a resident of Victoria, British Columbia, from where a steady stream of emotionally compelling and intellectually rigorous works have issued.

Monday, July 15, 2019

The Lehman Trilogy: Intimate Epic

Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles, Adam Godley in The Lehman Trilogy. (Photo: Stephanie Berger)

I’ve never seen anything quite like The Lehman Trilogy, currently in a limited run at the Piccadilly Theatre in the West End after opening at the National Theatre last summer. The Italian dramatist Stefano Massini conceived it as a five-hour radio play and then it was produced on stage in Paris and Milan; Ben Power’s adaptation runs for nearly three and a half hours and is performed entirely by three master actors, Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley, under the magnificent direction of Sam Mendes. They play the Lehman brothers, Henry, Emanuel and Mayer respectively (and in order of age), German-Jewish immigrants who land in America in the middle of the nineteenth century and settle in Montgomery, Alabama, where they open a clothing and fabric store that blossoms into a financial empire. But Beale, Miles and Godley also play all the other characters, major and minor, in the enormous saga of a company that withstood the Civil War and the Great Depression, and helped to reshape and redefine the financial world. The Lehman Trilogy is an epic for three actors, who tell their story as they re-enact it. The style is, of all things, Reader’s Theatre, that generally deadly approach to dramatizing novels and narrative poems – but this time around it’s vibrant, electric, mesmerizing. This is one of the best evenings of theatre I’ve ever experienced.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

What We Talk about When We Talk about Anime Logic: Your Name (Kimi no Na wa / 君の名は, 2016)

A scene from Your Name (Kimi no Na wa / 君の名は, 2016).

I want to talk about anime logic and why it's not the same as plot holes, using a number of examples, but mainly looking at Your Name (Kimi no Na wa / 君の名は, 2016).
Let's get the obvious out of the way: Your Name is not an absolute triumph. In fact, I agree wholeheartedly with director Makoto Shinkai when he says the film is "imperfect" and that the production process could have used more time (that is, more money). Narratively, we can separate the film into three acts: set-up, reversal, resolution. (Hegel , anyone?) While the reversal is a bit boring, and the resolution is downright melodramatic, the set-up is a shining gem. We all expect body-swap stories to create fish-out-of-water comedic situations (which I personally detest because the protagonists create so many problems for the hapless people around them), so it's a pleasant surprise when the continual body-swapping between city boy Taki (Ryunosuke Kamiki) and country girl Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi) leads them to work together to keep calm and carry on with their lives – and it's satisfyingly funny to see them keep meddling in each other's lives anyway.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Summer Musicals: Rock and Roll Man and The Light in the Piazza

The cast of Rock and Roll Man: The Alan Freed Story. (Photo: Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware)

Rock and Roll Man: The Alan Freed Story is a new jukebox musical, currently in a Berkshire Theatre Group production at the Colonial Theater in Pittsfield, about the DJ who coined the term “rock and roll” and helped to promote what had been called “race music” and kept off white radio stations. Freed was a tireless supporter of African American artists like Little Richard and Chuck Berry; when their songs were covered by white-bread singers like Pat Boone, he refused to play the white versions, and he featured them prominently in the concerts he produced. But his career was shattered in the late fifties by payola and copyright scandals, and he died from the effects of alcoholism at the age of forty-three, in 1965. (You can see him in cameos in the mid-fifties movies Rock Around the Clock and Don’t Knock the Rock, as well as a few others; Tim McIntire played a character inspired by him, memorably, in the nifty 1978 Floyd Mutrux picture American Hot Wax.)

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

People Among the People: The Public Art of Susan Point

Artist Susan Point. (Photo:: MonteCristo)

It’s all a question of scale. Recently on the West Coast we had the great opportunity to experience two sides of the widely accomplished and acclaimed Coast Salish (Musqueam) artist Susan Point. Her intimately scaled gallery works were showcased at the first solo show featuring her in the Okanagan Spindle Whorl, at the Kelowna Gallery, while her large-scale public artworks were celebrated in a remarkable new book, People Among the People, released by Vancouver-based Figure 1 Publishing, with insightful texts by Robert D. Watt and Michael Kew.

Both the interior gallery drawings, paintings and sculptures and the large exterior public space commissions by this gifted artist share an attention to indigenous motifs and an interactive spirituality for which she has been rightly recognized over the last thirty years or so. Ironically, the gallery exhibit has a bigness of heart while the public works featured in Watt’s book have a gripping intimacy which often belies their grander size.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Berkshires Season Openers: Outside Mullingar, A Raisin in the Sun and A Human Being, of a Sort

James McMenamin and Shannon Marie Sullivan in Outside Mullingar. (Photo: Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware)

John Patrick Shanley’s 2014 play Outside Mullingar, which opens the Berkshire Theatre Group summer season, is a quirky romantic comedy set in the Irish countryside, and I’d say it’s two-thirds of a very good play. In the opening scene, an ornery widowed farmer named Tony Reilly (Jeffrey DeMunn) and his forty-something son Anthony (James McMenamin) have their next-door neighbors, Aiofe Muldoon (Deborah Hedwall) and her daughter Rosemary (Shannon Marie Sullivan), over for tea following the funeral of Aiofe’s husband. Anthony has been taking care of the farm for years and expects to inherit it, but unexpectedly his father reveals that he doesn’t think he loves the property enough and proposes leaving it to an American nephew. The resulting back-and-forth reveals that Rosemary and not her mother owns a tiny parcel of the land that blocks the Reillys’ access to the sea, and that, due to a gripe she has nursed against Anthony since they were kids, she has no intention of selling it back to them. We also learn that she has been in love with him all her life, and that holding onto the land is her way of holding onto him – though only, of course, if Tony can be persuaded to reconsider his plans for the disposition of the farm.

This section of the play recalls Chekhov’s one-acts, especially The Proposal, though it contains Shanley’s trademark off-kilter humor and his fondness for tall tales. But in the fourth scene it seems to stall. Upon his deathbed, some time after he’s reconsidered his plans for disinheriting his son, Reilly Sr. shares an intimate confessional moment with Reilly Jr., and it’s sentimental – not a word I’d apply to any of the three scenes that have preceded it. It’s also extraneous, except perhaps to signal the narrative shift away from the older characters to the not-quite romance between Rosemary and Anthony. By the next scene Aiofe, too, is dead, and we get a courtship of the two younger figures reminiscent of Lanford Wilson’s Talley’s Folly, where the characters have to uncover and then eliminate the obstacles that stand in the way of the happy ending. But the process takes too long and the obstacles are silly ones.

Despite its flaws, the play is engaging – especially in Karen Allen’s skillfully shaped and impeccably acted production. All four of the actors do fine, distinctive work, and the somewhat meandering nature of the last two scenes is countered by the chemistry between McMenamin and Sullivan. McMenamin, who played George in David Cromer’s celebrated Our Town at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York and was in the ensemble of Anna D. Shapiro’s revival of Of Mice and Men on Broadway, is one of my favorite character actors: he buries himself so completely in his roles that, though he’s a handsome, rugged man with a broad, recognizable face, from play to play he barely seems to be the same actor. I enjoyed everything about the show, including John McDermott’s set and the way it accordions in and out for scene shifts. A BTG season always proffers surprises; this one, coming right at the outset, makes you feel very bright about what might follow.

Mandi Masdon, S. Epatha Merkerson and Nikiya Mathis appear in A Raisin in the Sun. (Photo: Joseph O'Malley) 

A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway in 1959 and earned its place in the history of American drama: it’s the first major play about the struggles of an African American family, in this case trapped in a Chicago ghetto, and the work of a black female playwright, Lorraine Hansberry. I’ve always found it a little dull, on the page and even in the famous 1961 movie version, in which all four of the talented stars of the stage production (Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee and Diana Sands) repeated their performances. But I think it can come alive on stage, and for the first half of the Williamstown Theatre Festival production it mostly does. The director, Robert O’Hara, has coached the cast to overlap their dialogue, which works against the banality of Hansberry’s dialogue and gives it an electric, lived-in quality. Francois Battiste, who plays Walter Lee Younger, the angry, restless and impulsive son of the widowed matriarch, Lena, and Mandi Masden, who plays his wife Ruth, make it clear from the opening minutes that this marriage has a strong sexual core, and there’s an erotic tension between Walter’s college-age sister Beneatha (Nikiya Mathis) and one of her suitors, an African classmate named Joseph Asagai (Joshua Echebiri), that actors and directors don’t generally get at. And then there’s the amazing S. Epatha Merkerson as Lena. Everyone I know loves watching Merkerson on her TV series (Law and Order, Chicago Med), but you don’t know what a powerhouse she is unless you’ve seen her in the TV movie Lackawanna Blues or on stage. She gave a heartbreaking performance in a Broadway revival of William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba a little more than a decade ago, and she’s a commanding and utterly authentic Lena.

In act one these features more than compensate for the production’s shortcomings – a clumsiness in the staging (though the scenic design by Clint Ramos is excellent); intrusive, distracting music cues; and a tendency to indulge the actors in their big moments that damages the rhythm of some of the scenes. This is mostly a problem in Battiste’s drunk scene before intermission, but only Merkerson is immune – her instinct for the dramatic shape of a scene and her generosity as a performer keep her completely grounded. And though it isn’t ineffective, there isn’t much point to O’Hara’s choice to insert an expressionistic element with imposed scenes hovered over by the ghost of Lena’s dead husband – whose $15,000-dollar insurance policy, paid for (we’re told over and over again) with the blood and sweat of a selflessly toiling African American working man, Walter hopes will finance a liquor store he wants to open with some buddies and Lena decides should finance their move into their own house in Clybourne Park, a white neighborhood.

But the second half of this Raisin begins badly and gets worse and worse. O’Hara gives up even trying to orchestrate the scenes or maintain some stylistic integrity. A scene involving an interfering neighbor (Eboni Flowers) feels like it comes out of a bad TV sitcom; in this context the character seems Martian, and because the audience is encouraged to find her a hoot, the point of the interlude – that she represents a ghetto-bred parochialism and reverse snobbery that fight against the efforts of a black family like the Youngers to find a better life for themselves – is lost. When we meet Walter’s friend and prospective business partner Bobo (Walter Miller), he comes across as so obviously disreputable that O’Hara appears to have missed – or ignored – the fact that when their third (unseen) partner runs off with the insurance money that Lena has finally decided to let Walter handle, Bobo is just a much a victim. Most dreadful of all is Walter’s big meltdown, where he shows his family how weak he is. O’Hara stages it as a Brechtian interlude in which Battiste, whose acting has become insufferably hammy by this time, goes into a minstrel routine addressed to the audience while his poor co-stars are stuck in shadow behind him, delivering their lines as if they’re the only people involved in the show who still understand that the style of the play is unfettered American realism. The minstrel stuff O’Hara has grafted onto the scene contradicts the text.

So does the showpiece finale, where, as the family prepares to move to Clybourne Park despite the efforts of the neighborhood committee to buy them out, the set breaks apart and a scrim flies in showing us the front of their new house with “NIGGER” scrawled across it in red paint. Hansberry ended her play on a hopeful note, though she had to fudge a metamorphosis for Walter in order to push it through. The last note is sounded by Lena’s exit holding the plant she’s kept alive in their ghetto apartment. It’s a trite symbol, but it works – and it’s consistent with the rest of the text, which is about a black family fighting to conquer its obstacles to finding a better existence. It’s clear from the covert threats of the representative of the neighborhood committee, the only white character in the play (played here, not very well, by Joe Goldammer), that it will be an uphill battle – but the ending isn’t cynical or sour. You can write a sequel to A Raisin in the Sun that details the complications of what followed – and someone has: Bruce Norris with Clybourne Park, the best play written by an American, in my estimation, in the twenty-first century. But O’Hara’s hammerhead interpolations don’t enhance Hansberry’s play; they violate it. The audience at the matinee I attended, no doubt convinced by the aggressiveness of the production that they were seeing something important, gave it the obligatory standing ovation.

Antonio Michael Woodard and André Braugher in A Human Being, of a Sort. (Photo:Jeremy Daniel.)

The other season opener at Williamstown, on the smaller Nikos stage, is also about race. A Human Being, of a Sort, a new play by Jonathan Payne, is based on a shocking true incident, the exhibition of a Congolese pygmy named Ota Benga at the Bronx Zoo in 1906, and it gives audiences a rare opportunity to watch another brilliant African American actor known mostly for his TV work, André Braugher, live on stage. (His last theatrical appearance was in The Whipping Man at City Center in 2011.) Braugher, a mesmerizing presence, plays Smokey, a poor man sent to a Tennessee prison farm for three years for stealing some apples from a street vendor and recommended to the zoo’s director, William Temple Hornaday (Frank Wood), for the job of caring for Ota Benga (Antonio Michael Woodard). If he satisfies his new employer, Smokey will prove that prison has rehabilitated him. If he fails to, he’ll be sent back to the prison farm.

I loved watching Braugher and several of the other actors: Keith Randolph Smith, Jeorge Bennett Watson and especially Sullivan Jones as three black ministers who mount a campaign against the exhibiting of Ota Benga in a cage. (Woodard’s and Wood’s performances are less impressive, and I can swear I’ve seen Wood give precisely this performance before, and more than once.) But A Human Being, of a Sort isn’t a play; it’s a collection of scenes in which actors talk at each other. And since you get half the point the moment you see the cage marked Primate House – that’s not meant as a criticism of the set by Lawrence E. Moten III – and the other half as soon as the moralistic, bureaucratic Hornaday interviews Smokey for the job (another black man in a cage, though this one isn’t visible), all the play can do for the duration is tell you over and over again what you’ve already figured out for yourself. It isn’t the fault of the director, Whitney White, but play goes nowhere. The epilogue, a flashback to the discovery of Ota Benga by a white hunter named Samuel Philips Vender (Matthew Saldivar, whom I liked very much as Mucha in Bernhardt/Hamlet, utterly wasted here), provides one more leaden irony to guide us out of the theatre.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Love in a Fallen City: Transit (2018)

Franz Rogowski and Paula Beer in Transit (2018).

The German Fascists are taking Europe by force. Cities are closed off and raids are carried out block by block. If you disagree with the new regime or don't have your papers in order, your best bet is to get yourself to Latin America (the U.S. doesn't want you), but with no flights, you'll need a ship ticket, and transit visas for each place the ship stops en route. That entails long lines at various consulates, all while the number of ships at port dwindles one by one. Welcome to present-day France.

Or is it? One of the stand-out aspects of Transit (2018), written and directed by Christian Petzold, based on the French Resistance-era novel by Anna Seghers, is the ambiguity of time. There are security camera footage and modern-day police gear, but no lighters or televisions; people write letters instead of email, with not a computer or smartphone in sight, and yet petroleum products are ubiquitous. The editing (by Bettina Böhler) and cinematography (by Hans Fromm) has the languor of a historical drama, but the lens and lighting mostly evoke the mood of a psychological thriller. Which brings up some questions: why is protagonist Georg (Franz Rogowski) on the lam? How is he connected to Paul (Sebastian Hülk) and Heinz (Ronald Kukulies), who may or may not be part of a resistance movement (which may or may not exist)? And who is the narrator (Matthias Brandt), who's ostensibly telling the story as Georg has related it to him, but whose voice-over sometimes isn't reflected in the on-screen action? On top of all these is the biggest question: will Georg make it out alive?

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Glitter Bomb: Rocketman

Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman.

The Elton John of the 1970s was a rock phenomenon that dominated airwaves and album sales unlike any other act of the time. His songs were a potent mix of gospel, country, and blues, and his ballads could have an almost ineffable beauty. John’s piano playing could be rumbling and syncopated as in “Take Me to the Pilot” (from the 1970 Elton John album, his debut in the States), or cascading and driving as in “Grey Seal” (from 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road) or the opening of his cover of The Who’s “Pinball Wizard.” On John’s early albums, producer Gus Dudgeon provided a sound both spare and elegiac, fronting the star’s keyboard playing and employing a judicious use of strings that often soared but (almost) never cloyed. John’s songs and outrageous onstage presence, heightened by over-the-top costumes, equal parts camp and drag, connected with the audience, and Bernie Taupin’s maddeningly opaque lyrics caused the teenagers of several nations to spend hours puzzling over them while the records played on their turntables. (John’s songwriting was never as good when he tried any other partner.) Elton John the rock star could make a huge crowd boogie with abandon.

When John retired from touring for two years in 1977, he also ceased using Dudgeon as producer, and he never again achieved the artistic excellence of those wild years. Record sales ebbed as well. He made headlines in 1980 by performing in the Soviet Union, and I saw him in the same year at L.A.’s Universal Amphitheatre, a relatively intimate venue, accompanied only by himself and percussionist Ray Cooper. (It was my very first rock concert.) John continued to release albums after ’77, but at a much slower pace, and nothing really caught fire, until 1983, when a brand-new medium, the music video, and a softer, easy-listening sound made John a star again, starting with “I’m Still Standing,” from the album Too Low for Zero. (It’s rather astonishing how good John was pre-1977, and how bad most of his music has been since then.)

Monday, June 24, 2019

Rutherford and Son: Imitation Ibsen

Roger Allam in Rutherford and Son at London's National Theatre.. (Photo: Johan Persson)

Roger Allam delivers a flawless performance as the icy, single-minded North Country industrialist John Rutherford Sr. in the National Theatre production of Githa Sowerby’s 1912 play Rutherford and Son. Allam is an actor’s actor. I saw him last season as quite a different sort of rich man, the warm, voluble John Christie, the founder of the Glyndebourne Opera Festival, in David Hare’s The Moderate Soprano, and the two characters are so utterly unalike you can scarcely believe they’re created by the same man. The film critic Pauline Kael wrote of Jane Fonda as the prostitute Bree Daniel in Klute that when she walks toward the camera it’s Bree and not Fonda you see coming toward you, and that’s the way I felt about Allam in Rutherford and Son: he’s sealed himself inside the character, and the completeness of the portrait is mesmerizing, in the way that a great Rembrandt or Monet portrait is.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Forbidden: The Strange History of Censorship

Photo by Valentin Kopalov.

“All the desires we try to suffocate will drown in our soul and poison it. The only way to get rid of a temptation is give in to it.”– Oscar Wilde
Several friends of mine on Facebook have recently been ensnared in their corporate policies around censorship and the enforcement of so-called “community standards.” The irony here is that in two specific cases, one of a charming freelance model and the other of a roguish lover of freelance models, both posted images that contained . . . wait for it . . . nipples, or more accurately, female nipples. For this they were punished, if that is the right word, by being forbidden to post, share or even comment on anything for a varying duration. All because of something everyone in both genders has?

Yet another irony is the fact that the roguish fellow was more fond of posting images of various male hunks in different degrees of undress, with almost always a not-so-subtle emphasis on their admittedly admirable chest muscles, and yes, an abundance of nipples . . . but male nipples. And those were never in doubt or questioned at all, yet when he posted one of a female model, even one that was totally elegant and in good taste, boom. And this also unfolded in a virtual world where the social media network had no objections whatsoever to spreading Russian lies, right-wing extremist propaganda, racist hate content and misogynistic tripe. How paradoxical.

Monday, June 17, 2019

The Starry Messenger: Adrift in the Universe

Matthew Broderick in The Starry Messenger. (Photo: Mark Brenner)

I seem to be temperamentally drawn to Kenneth Lonergan’s plays and movies: his wry, bemused dialogue makes me laugh, and I’m captivated by his characters, even when he can’t quite situate them in fully worked-through scenarios. The Starry Messenger opened in New York ten years ago, with Matthew Broderick, a Lonergan favorite, as a New York astronomy professor enduring a mid-life crisis and Lonergan’s talented wife, J. Smith-Cameron, as the hero’s long-suffering wife, and didn’t attract much attention. The play, resurrected for London’s West End with Broderick repeating his performance and Elizabeth McGovern as the wife, stumbles around – it has only eight characters but four hinged plots, and at the end of nearly three hours Lonergan still hasn’t worked out the structure or completed satisfactory arcs for the main ones. But it’s warm and compelling, and even the plot developments you know are mistakes generate something you can hold onto.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

L'art pour l'humanité: A Bread Factory, Parts I and II (2018)

George Young, Trevor St. John, and Janet Hsieh in A Bread Factory, Part One (2018)

The question of the power of art is an ancient one. Confucius said, “If you do not study the Songs, you will be at a loss as to what to say.” And Plato had such a powerful view of the performing arts that he banned all poet-singers from his ideal Republic for fear their work would override people’s reason. But under the utilitarian logic of our contemporary neoliberal society, the question “What does art do?” has been reduced to a mere shadow of its storied history: “What can art do?” Writer-director Patrick Wang’s A Bread Factory (2018), four hours split right down the middle into two parts, ambitiously attempts to answer this question, not intellectually with auteur-surrogate characters spouting exposition, but performatively and cinematically, juxtaposing the contrast between bean-counting life and expansive humanist living in almost every one of his vignette-like scenes. Most audacious of all, the film doesn’t rest on its Manichean haunches; instead, it humanizes even the supposed antagonists, offering us the formal victory of art in the face of its thematic defeat.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Arthur Miller in New York and London: All My Sons and Death of a Salesman

Benjamin Walker, Tracy Letts, Annette Bening, and Hampton Fluker in All My Sons. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

All My Sons was the first play Arthur Miller had produced on Broadway, in 1947, and for me, at least, it’s the only one that works. Death of a Salesman, written two years later, makes loud proclamations about the American dream, but its argument is confused, and Miller is so careful about maintaining a vague Everyman quality for Willy Loman – choosing a symbolic name rather than an ethnic one, even though the rhythm of the lines sounds distinctly second-generation Jewish-American, and not even detailing exactly what Willy sells on those New England road trips – that the realism grows blurry. (One of the qualities Dustin Hoffman brought to the role when he played it on Broadway in 1984 was an embrace of the Jewishness Miller worked so hard to bury. He was brilliant, though the delicacy of the performance didn’t survive into the clumsy TV movie version directed by Volker Schlondorff.) Miller has big, Ibsen-like ambitions in All My Sons, which is no less than an indictment of the American way of doing business, which he pits against the values he believes were embodied in the sacrifices made by American servicemen in the Second World War. But he’s very specific about what Joe Keller does: he runs a company that manufactures key components in a variety of complicated mechanical items, and during the war he and his partner and neighbor, Steve Deever, turned out cylinder heads for bomber planes. When the process developed a flaw and a batch of the heads came out with cracks in him, the plant covered up the mistake and twenty-one pilots crashed and died. Joe put the blame on Steve, protesting that he was home sick with the flu that day and Steve acted on his own, out of fear of losing the government contract. And though in fact Joe told him exactly what to do, a jury exonerated Joe and sent Steve to prison. All My Sons is set during the twenty-four-hour period, three years later, when Steve’s daughter Ann – once the fiancée of Joe and Kate Keller’s older son, Larry, a pilot himself who went missing around the time his father came to trial – and her brother George return to the Midwestern town where Joe’s plant is now making more money than ever, and the truth is revealed.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Small Island: The National Theatre Works the Room

Gershwyn Eustache Jr. and Leah Harvey in Small Island at London's National Theatre. (Photo: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)

This review contains spoilers.
Small Island, on the Olivier stage at London’s National Theatre, clocks in at three hours and fifteen minutes and feels more like a miniseries than a play. (Indeed it has been a BBC miniseries, starring Naomie Harris, Ruth Wilson, David Oyelowo and Benedict Cumberbatch.) Adapted by Helen Edmundson from Andrea Levy’s multiple-award-winning 2004 novel about Jamaicans struggling to make lives for themselves in World War II and post-war London, it takes the entire first act – an hour and forty-five minutes – to set up the parallel between its two protagonists, one black and one white. The black heroine is Hortense (Leah Harvey), an obstinate, intractable Jamaican schoolteacher whose mother gave her up to be raised by foster parents in Kingston, where she believed the child would have a more rewarding life. Hortense is so desperate to get out of Jamaica – to London, where she assumes she can land a teaching job – that she steals Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustache Jr.), who fought with the British Armed Forces during the war, from her best friend. She offers to pay for his passage to London on the Empire Windrush (which carried Levy’s own parents from Jamaica in 1948) on condition that he marry her and send for her once he’s established himself. The white heroine is Queenie (Aisling Loftus), who comes to London from the country in the late thirties to live with her aunt and work in her news-agent’s shop, marries the sexually repressed Bernard Bligh (Andrew Rothney) and moves in with him and his father Arthur (David Fielder), who emerged from the First World War so shell-shocked that he stopped speaking. When war breaks out and Bernard joins up, Queenie moves back to her parents’ farm in Lincolnshire and waits for her husband to return, but the army sends him straight to India in 1945 on a peacekeeping mission, where he disappears mysteriously. To keep solvent she opens her home to military boarders, including, at different times, Gilbert and Hortense’s cousin Michael (CJ Beckford), the earliest object of her romantic attention, with whom Queenie has a love affair that awakens her both sexually and emotionally. When Gilbert returns to England on Hortense’s dime in 1948, he moves into the working-class London area where Queenie has opened a boardinghouse, and that’s the cramped, seedy and largely xenophobic neighborhood to which he welcomes Hortense.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Last Night in Marienbad: Dancing the Elusive

Christopher House and Jordan Tannahill in Marienbad. (Photo: Ömer Yükseker)

To access Marienbad, a mesmerizingly teasing dance work whose week-long residency concludes tomorrow night (June 1), you enter Winchester Street Theatre through a side entrance instead of the usual front door. It’s the first clue that what is taking place inside the converted Cabbagetown church that for years has served as home to Toronto Dance Theatre has upended the normal run of things.

A two-man physical and psychological tour de force, Marienbad – likely named for the 1961 Left Bank film about an affair that may or may not have happened – unfolds not on the flat-floor black stage that normally serves as the romping grounds for TDT’s often sprightly dances. It stomps, jogs, zigs and zags down a cascading tier of stairs located where the audience typically sits.

Monday, May 27, 2019

The Flamingo Kid: Bare Bones

Alex Wyse, Jimmy Brewer, and Ben Fankhauser in The Flamingo Kid. (Photo: T. Charles Rickson)

In The Flamingo Kid, the new musical premiering at Hartford Stage, with music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Robert L. Freedman, an impressionable Brooklyn teenager named Jeffrey Winnick (Jimmy Brewer) spends the summer before college – the summer of 1962 – as a cabana boy at a posh Long Island club. There he loses his virginity to a beautiful, grounded UCLA freshman (Samantha Massell) and gets swept up in the lifestyle and values of her uncle, a car salesman named Phil Brody (Marc Kudisch) who is legendary for his finesse at gin rummy. The book, like the screenplay of the 1984 Gary Marshall movie on which it’s based, pits Jeffrey’s real father, Arthur (Adam Heller), an honest, industrious plumber who wants his son to get a college education, against Brody, who is all flash and offers the kid the appeal of an entrée into the high life – though it’s clear to us that, to Phil’s brittle, unhappy wife Phyllis (Lesli Margherita) and the rest of the El Flamingo clientele, Jeffrey will always be “the cabana boy” (whose shapely ass the sex-starved women are forever ogling or pinching). The material, set firmly in the world of New York Jews, is all about class – and it’s rigged. We don’t have to be told that Phil cheats at cards just as he cheats on his wife, and that Jeffrey, who’s a good kid, will ultimately expose him (while he slaughters him in a legit card game) and choose his father’s square, unvarnished life over Brody’s superficial one, which is both morally and emotionally vacuous. If the seductive car salesman weren’t such a transparent phony and Jeffrey’s parents (his mother, Ruth, is played by Liz Larsen) weren’t so solid and decent – if we could sympathize with the boy’s restlessness with his Brooklyn roots and his fascination with Brody – then the musical (and the movie) might be more than a pat fable. But even Karla, Jeffrey’s girl, is drawn to the Winnicks the moment she meets them and appalled at his insensitive treatment of them.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Forest of Memory: The Provocative Art of Dana Claxton

Cultural Belongings by Dana Claxton, LED Firebox, 2016.

I'm influenced by my own experience as a Lakota woman, as a Canadian, a mixed blood Canadian, and then my own relationship to the natural and supernatural world. Taking that whole bundle of experiences, it all goes in to the artwork, I think that's where the multi-layering comes in, because I've had a very multi-layered life.
– Dana Claxton, 2007

As a person of mixed heritage, Dana Claxton is practically a living mirror of the nation superimposed over the existing nations that were already here in the first place, especially her own uniquely personal family history of indigenous displacement and migration. As such, perhaps her fascination with the hybrid nature of parallel realities comes to her almost as a genealogical birthright. This fact certainly helps to clarify our deep appreciation of her as someone existing at the heart of intersecting forces and the crux of competing cultures, and maybe it explains why she’s such an effective ambassador between seemingly disparate dimensions.

So when she picked up her first camera at the age of sixteen and began to view the world around her, it now seems only natural that she should have tried to bring into focus the many layers that formed her own character. Born in Yorkton, Saskatchewan, and raised in Moose Jaw, Claxton is descended on her mother’s side from Kangi Tamaheca and Anpetu Wastewin, who were among the large group of Hunkpapa Lakota who followed Sitting Bull as he walked from the United States to Canada after the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Sentimental Journeys: Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, Burn This, Doris Day

Michael Shannon and Audra McDonald in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. (Photo: Deen van Meer)

I’ve been skipping productions of Terrence McNally’s two-hander Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune for decades – I didn’t see Kathy Bates with F. Murray Abraham or with Kenneth Welsh in the off-Broadway version in 1987, or Edie Falco with Stanley Tucci in the last revival, in 2002 – but I opted to see the latest one, on Broadway, with Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon. It’s a lousy play, an American variation on an English kitchen-sink drama that begins with a pair of lovers in bed naked, having sex, and then takes a couple of hours to show them opening up to each other in other ways. The (stock) idea is that they’re both desperately lonely but he’s willing to acknowledge it and she isn’t, and, attempting to persuade her that she should see him as more than a one-night stand, he’s got his work cut out for him because emotionally she’s closed down. It’s an unconventional courtship drama with the same basic structure as Lanford Wilson’s Talley’s Folly (1980), which takes a far more inventive approach to the man’s effort to win over the cautious, distanced woman – and which has far more interesting characters. Talley’s Folly is a comedy with serious undertones; Frankie and Johnny tries for loopy romanticism but ends up glum and monochromatic, though with a sentimental ending.

Friday, May 17, 2019

The Museum Must Be Decolonized: The First Monday in May (2016)

A shot from The First Monday in May (2016).

The first Monday in May is when New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art holds its annual Met Gala to raise money for the museum, especially for its Costume Institute; the Gala also serves as the opening night of a fashion exhibition at the Met. The First Monday in May (2016) is a documentary about the preparation for the 2015 iteration of this event, when the exhibition was China: Through the Looking Glass, on the influence of China on Western fashion, in cooperation with the Met’s Department of Asian Art. It turned out to be a record-breaking exhibition.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Dust Bowl: Oklahoma!

 Rebecca Naomi Jones and Damon Daunno in Oklahoma!. (Photo: Teddy Wolff)

Daniel Fish’s new, stripped-down production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, which has moved from St. Ann’s Warehouse to Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre, is being hailed as brilliant and revolutionary, much like the original 1943 version, even though that didn’t do anything that the 1927 Kern and Hammerstein Show Boat (or for that matter, the 1940 Rodgers and Hart Pal Joey), hadn’t done before and better.

Revolutionary? Let’s start at the end: in this Oklahoma!, after the cast has sung the title song, our heroes, the bronco-buster Curly (played by Damon Daunno, so slight he looks like he’d split in two if he ever sat astride a horse) and Laurey (a very angry Rebecca Naomi Jones) are dressed in white for their wedding, when Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill) crashes in and offers Curly a gift, conditional upon his getting to kiss the bride. Jud and Laurey French-kiss, despite Jud's having previously tried to rape her and threatened her and her family. Curly opens the gift, and it’s a gun (not the booby-trapped “Little Wonder” traditional to stodgy stagings of yore). Jud then stands about ten feet in front of Curley and spreads his arms. Curly shoots him. Curly’s gun is rigged so that Curly (yes, Curly) is spattered with copious amounts of blood, his face crimson and dripping, his white (modern-dress) cowboy suit now mostly red, with a significant portion of blood spattering his bride. Jud is still standing. The rest of the eleven-person cast, who have been sitting around in chairs watching this, intone the next four or five minutes of dialogue with no affect. “Is he dead? He looks dead.” (Uh, he’s still standing, so no, he isn’t dead.) After too much of this, Judd goes upstage and lies down on the floor. Aunt Eller (the redoubtable Mary Testa) then bullies the local marshal and judge into a kangaroo-court trial that finds Curly innocent by reason of self-defense; the ensemble reprises the title tune; and as they sing of the grandness of the land they belong to and the new union they hope to join, Laurey sobs in sorrow, others writhe in misery, some stomp in anger, and Curly plays the guitar in his blood-stained clothes. All is corrupt, all is unclean, all is rot.

Wait, what?

Monday, May 13, 2019

Tootsie: In Name Only

 Julie Halston, James Moye, Santino Fontana, Lilli Cooper, John Behlmann in Tootsie. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

The new musical of Tootsie, with a book by Robert Horn and music and lyrics by David Yazbek, has “smash hit” written all over it. It’s slick and rapid-fire. The veteran director, Scott Ellis (who’s also represented on Broadway this season by the revival of Kiss Me, Kate at Studio 54), and his expert cast build the farce perfectly, so that the more complications that are piled on top of the premise – actor Michael Dorsey (Santino Fontana), whose temperament has made it impossible for his agent (Michael McGrath) to land him jobs, finally gets one by presenting himself as a woman, Dorothy Michaels – the funnier it is. Rather than set the story in the period in which the movie was made, the early eighties, Horn has contemporized it. There are #MeToo jokes – Michael’s wry aspiring-playwright roommate Jeff Slater (Andy Grotelueschen) quips that in an era when women are literally seizing power from between the legs of men, Michael is risking infuriating everyone by pretending to be female. There are jokes about sexual fluidity – when Michael, forgetting momentarily that he’s in drag, kisses his co-star, Julie Nichols (Lilli Cooper), whom he’s fallen for, instead of scaring her off since she’s not gay, she likes him so much that she decides to try to be gay. It’s all very up to the minute, and the audience at the Saturday matinee I attended screamed with laughter. I would be dishonest if I said that I didn’t have a pretty good time, too. But I haven’t the slightest idea what the hell this Tootsie is about.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Permanent Witness for the Defense: The Legend of K.

The ultimate anti-author, ca. 1919.

A review of the new book by Benjamin Balint, Kafka’s Last Trial, from Norton, Penguin/Random House.

“A book should be the axe for the frozen sea inside of us.” – Kafka, 1904

“Where faith is lacking, everything seems bare and frigid.” – Max Brod, 1920
If the subtitle of the fascinating new book by Benjamin Balint, Kafka’s Last Trial (from Norton, Penguin/Random House), about competing cultural agendas sounds like the name of a mystery novel about Erle Stanley Gardner’s famous defense attorney, that’s because it does almost read like a classic Perry Mason plot: “The Case of a Literary Legacy.” And indeed, there are even some characters in this real-life story of courtroom drama who feel like the erstwhile Mason, Hamilton Burger, Lt. Tragg, Paul Drake and even Della Street. There are detectives, combative litigants, accusations of false ownership, desperate pleas, outlandish nationalist claims, ill-advised decisions, questionable motives and selfish assumptions abounding.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

From the Musical Theatre Canon: The Music Man, Kiss Me, Kate and Lady in the Dark

Ellie Fishman and Edward Watts in The Music Man. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Meredith Willson’s The Music Man became a classic as soon as it opened on Broadway in 1957, with Robert Preston in the role of “Professor” Harold Hill, the scamming salesman who transforms a pre-World War I Iowa town – and himself – in the course of persuading the locals to purchase instruments and uniforms for a children’s band. Willson, who wrote book, music and lyrics, did as much to develop the archetype of the American snake-oil salesman as Eugene O’Neill had in The Iceman Cometh, though his version was sweeter and came with a bona fide happy ending. (Preston recreated his career performance in the 1962 movie version.) Revivals of the show are generally good news: Susan Stroman’s opened on Broadway in 2000 and ran for two years, and it was so glorious that I saw it twice, once with Craig Bierko playing Hill and once with Robert Sean Leonard, who was even better than Bierko. (Eric McCormack played the role between Bierko and Leonard.) I’m looking forward to seeing Hugh Jackman in the part next season.

In the meantime there’s an exuberant new production at the Goodspeed Opera House, directed by Jenn Thompson and choreographed by Patricia Wilcox, with Goodspeed veteran Michael O’Flaherty doing his usual yeoman service as musical director. The Music Man is the ideal show for Goodspeed – big-boned, spirited, infectious, with a lot of wonderful ensemble numbers that show off the way imaginative staging can make a limited space feel like it’s being expanded from the inside. The choreographic high points of this production are “Marian the Librarian” in act one and “Shipoopi” at the outset of act two. But even the staging of the barbershop quartet numbers, especially “Lida Rose,” counterpointed by “Will I Ever Tell You?,” the most tuneful ballad Willson wrote for Marian (Ellie Fishman) and introduced by the four men (Branch Woodman, C. Mingo Long, Jeff Gurner and Kent Overshown) strolling down the theatre aisle, is tremendously satisfying. The show moves from scene to scene in a graceful arc aided by the scenic designer Paul Tate dePoo III, whose inventions compensate for his single mistake, an unfortunate (and anachronistic) painted backdrop more or less in the mold of the American regionalist Thomas Hart Benton.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Art Therapy: Welcome to Marwen

Steve Carell and Merritt Wever in Welcome to Marwen.

The almost universal disdain with which Robert Zemeckis’s Welcome to Marwen was met on its Christmas release aroused my curiosity, but by the time I had a chance to check it out it had vanished. There had been no press screenings and though it was award season, no screeners were sent out. One might have thought that Zemeckis’s name or that of Steve Carell, who plays the lead, would have rescued it from its ignominious demise, but I had to wait until it came out on Amazon Prime to catch up with it. And it turns out to be so good that the stench around it seems like a bad joke. It’s based on the true story of Mark Hogencamp, who was attacked in 2000 by five men at a bar in his hometown in northern New York and abandoned for dead; he survived, but his memory was wiped and he had severe PTSD. His strategy for dealing with it was to construct a doll village on his property that he called Marwencol in which the characters, mostly versions of Mark and women friends from his life after the attack, are reimagined as Allied warriors of the Second World War holed up in a village in Belgium. Hogancamp became known for his photos of Marwencol – and they provided him with a livelihood. The story is familiar to art-house mavens from Jeff Malmberg’s memorable 2010 documentary Marwencol. What Zemeckis brings to it is real directorial finesse and invention – not to mention Carell, in a sensational performance that’s the best thing he’s done thus far.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Dialectics False and True: Captive State and A. I. Rising

John Goodman and Ashton Sanders in Captive State (2019).

Look, some films are just garbage; that’s just a fact. But sometimes when you go dumpster diving you find something that, when looked at from just the right angle, isn’t so much garbage after all.

Captive State (2019) is ambitious and has no lack of “the vision thing.” Writers Rupert Wyatt (who directed) and Erica Beeney attempt to portray a Chicago succumbed to alien colonization by telling the story of Gabriel (Ashton Sanders) and the morally murky father figure he doesn’t want at all, collaborationist Detective William Mulligan (John Goodman), embedding them within a larger plot about an insurgent cell bent on hitting the aliens where it hurts. But – here’s the thing – the audience identification is whipped around from Gabriel, who’s the actual non-collaborationist here, to Mulligan, who’s the hinge of both plots, and back, once Mulligan starts to shake down Gabriel’s apartment building to look for him.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Sound and Fury: King Lear

Jayne Houdyshell and Glenda Jackson in King Lear. (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe)

Of the thirteen or fourteen professional productions of King Lear I’ve sat through, the current Broadway revival, directed by Sam Gold and starring Glenda Jackson, repeating her London comeback performance in the title role, is the worst. It grinds on for a grueling three hours and thirty minutes without, as far as I could tell, any concept to unify it. Gold has given it a contemporary setting. The handsome set (by the gifted British designer Miriam Buether, whose recent credits include To Kill a Mockingbird, The Jungle and Three Tall Women) is black and gold, with a long banquet table midway up the stage that is meant to evoke the regal elegance of the various castles – Lear’s, Albany’s, Gloucester’s – where much of the play takes place, especially in the first half. Much of the time the actors, including those who are not called on for the scene at hand, sit at the table or, more often, on chairs around the periphery of the stage; this is certainly the most static Lear of my theatergoing experience. Gold hasn’t shown much talent for staging in the past, and with twenty actors on the stage he’s truly at sea. He lets them meander or shoves them into corners of the stage; in the opening scene, where almost everyone in the ensemble gathers to witness Lear’s division of his kingdom among his three daughters, the presence of a signer (Michael Arden) cues us that one of the actors is deaf but because he has almost no lines in the scene and he’s been placed in the middle of a clump of actors, I couldn’t tell which one until several scenes later. (It turns out to be Russell Harvard, playing the Duke of Cornwall.) When Lear wanders out into the storm, an abstract gold backdrop flies in. Since there are exterior scenes in the latter half of the play, after the backdrop has flown back out again, there doesn’t seem to be much reason for the shift beyond framing the heath and hovel scenes – and since, confusingly, this section of the play includes one exchange that takes place inside Gloucester’s castle, even that idea isn’t followed through.

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Interpretation of Dreams: On the Beach at Night Alone

Kim Min-hee in On the Beach at Night Alone (2017).

There seems to a a trend of metafiction in South Korean arthouse. Before Burning (2018) there was On the Beach at Night Alone (Bamui Haebyeoneseo Honja / 밤의 해변에서 혼자, 2017), by Hong Sang-soo and starring his real-life mistress (now partner) Kim Min-hee as Young-hee, a former mistress of a great Director (Moon Sung-keun). It’s also a slow burn, with the central affair merely hinted at for most of its running time. But Kim gets two stupendous set-pieces, all facilitated by alcohol, and she burns it all down.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Real Tesla: How Visionary Eccentrics Transformed Our World and Why We Need Them to Do It Again, Please

Nikola Tesla’s lab in Colorado Springs, calmly making environmental electricity in 1901.

Review of the new book by Richard Munson, Tesla: Inventor of the Modern, released Fall 2018 by Norton, Penguin/Random House. 

Nikola Tesla could have been elected President of The Outsiders Club, if such a thing existed. One of the most gifted and strange individuals who ever lived, his inventions transformed our world and his visions have continued to inspire other great minds for generations. I guess given that is an affirmative review of a serious and important book about a grand thinker, I shouldn’t really start out with the crucial disclaimer that: This is about the real Tesla. This has nothing to do with that twerp Elon Musk who stole his name to brand his company, after more or less stealing the core notions of an electric automobile that Nikola had conceived ages ago, but to whom no one paid any attention. What the hell, there, I said it.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Us: Cheap Stuff

Lupita Nyong'o, Evan Alex, and Shahadi Wright Joseph in Jordan Peele's Us.

The first few minutes of Us, written and directed by Jordan Peele, before the opening credits are spooky and unnerving. A little girl named Adelaide (Madison Curry) wanders away from her family on the beach in Santa Cruz; she’s drawn into a fun house where she sees her mirror image – only the twin is facing the other away. This Magritte-like image is startling; it’s also the best thing in the movie by far. As soon as Peele catapults us some three decades into the future, where grown-up Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is back in Santa Cruz vacationing with her own husband (Winston Duke) and kids (Evan Alex and Shahadi Wright Joseph), and the home they’ve rented is invaded by malevolent, scissors-wielding replicas of themselves, Us sinks to that lowest common denominator of horror devices, a series of jump scares.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Jack of All Fates, Master of None: Mr. Nobody Ten Years On

Jared Leto and Diane Kruger in Jaco van Dormael’s Mr. Nobody (2009).

There’s nothing in the world more terrifying than a restaurant menu. I stick to a handful of oft-frequented establishments precisely to avoid the vertigo of too many options. It’s not that I’m afraid of ordering the wrong thing – just the opposite: Everything looks so equally good that I can’t pin down a standard against which to differentiate them. I often joke to new friends sitting across the table in exasperation that menus open up an existential abyss within me, forcing me to reconsider the very ideas of “choice” and “value.” I used to think that knowing what every dish tasted like would help me make a decision. Then I saw Jaco van Dormael’s Mr. Nobody, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival to a ten-minute standing ovation a decade ago this September.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

The Mustang: Soothing the Savage Spirit

Matthias Schoenaerts in The Mustang.

The first images of The Mustang, of a herd of wild mustangs racing vainly across a western expanse while choppers buzzing overhead round them up and vans cut off their escape route, is reminiscent of scenes from the great 1953 Albert Lamorisse short White Mane. It’s a hell of an opening: majestic and unsettling in equal parts. And it lays the groundwork for the story, which juxtaposes one of these magnificent wild creatures, a restless, apparently unbreakable horse named Marquis (pronounced “Marcus”), with a violent criminal named Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts, Gabriel Oak in the 2015 remake of Far from the Madding Crowd) who’s just been released into the general prison population at the Northern Nevada Correctional Institute after years in solitary. In his session with the prison psychologist (Connie Britton), Roman refuses to answer her questions; he looks like he’s about to implode, and he very nearly does – though she’s a veteran, firm and fearless, so his resistance to her doesn’t impress her. (Britton only has two scenes in the movie, but she makes the most of them.) Finally he gets out “I’m not good with people,” so she assigns him to outdoor work. Where he ends up is the Wild Horse Inmate Program, whose director, Myles (Bruce Dern), with the help of an inmate handler named Henry (Jason Mitchell), teaches prisoners to tame mustangs so they’re fit to be auctioned off for a variety of purposes, including border patrol. The Mustang is about how Roman and Marquis, in effect, tame each other – after a very shaky start. Roman gets so exasperated with the horse’s reluctance to let himself be subdued that, in an astounding scene, he beats him with his fists until Myles has him dragged off. Myles, not surprisingly, proclaims that he never wants to see this inmate again, but Roman manages to redeem himself in an emergency and is re-enlisted in the program.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

The Art of Interviewing Artists: John Grande’s Art, Space, Ecology

Published by Black Rose Books, 2019.

“There is no such thing as seeing any object or event without the act of seeing being affected both by cultural context and by the personal life experiences of the individual viewer. Every formulation of what an image means or contains is going to be culturally inflected, not just once but twice. First at its source. Then at the point where it is received.” – Edward Lucie-Smith
I first personally encountered the astutely incisive work of John Grande, apart from knowing of his extensive and impressive history as a critic and curator, when I interviewed him at CJRT-FM Radio in Toronto when I was the resident art critic there. It was about 1994, and we engaged in an informative and illuminating discussion about his then-new book Balance: Art and Nature. On the surface, it was about what had commonly come to be called ecological art, often either in large scale sculptural installations in a natural setting or else visually referring to nature and its collision with our cultures. Beyond eco-crisis however, it was also a celebration of art as embodied meaning: a haptic experience involving both human touch and intellect in harmony with each other.

I call it a discussion because though ostensibly in the traditional radio format of questions and answers designed to elicit background on the author and art which could both challenge and entertain the listener with only our words to guide them forward, towards the writing and images it celebrated, it was more. True, it was an interview, but it was also a dialogue, a conversation, an exchange of both energy and ideas, and even a linguistic map capable of achieving what the classical Greeks called ekphrasis: the evocation of the visual experience using language as a device to elucidate understanding of how a certain art work feels. Art is designed to alter our perception of the reality in which we find it, and some critics can clarify that alteration.

Therefore it was with a combination of professional and personal pleasure (twenty five years after I first interviewed him) that I came upon Grande’s newest book and found in it a range of his own insightful interviews with twenty important contemporary artists about the origins and intentions of their work. The title of Art Space Ecology: Two Views/Twenty Interviews, tends to capture some of its context and content in an ideal manner. The two views are, first and foremost, the perceptual and conceptual frameworks brought to bear by an encounter between a great artist and a great critic, and secondly, the new territory opened up between their relative positions and perspectives. This is top-shelf ekphrasis in action, folks.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense: Slapstick Trio

Eddie Korbich, Chandler Williams, and Arnie Burton in Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

I fell for P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels when I was twelve or thirteen and a friend who’d succumbed before me passed one onto me. I believe it was Right Ho, Jeeves (published in the U.S. as Brinkley Manor), and I was thoroughly smitten – by the sublimely ridiculous plotting, the cast of caricatures, the distinctive language of the upper-class and upper-middle-class eccentrics, and above all the relationship between Bertie Wooster, the fumbling, cracked-brain young protagonist and his unflappable, endlessly resourceful valet Jeeves. Around the same time I discovered that Wodehouse and Guy Bolton had written the books for a series of Jerome Kern musicals in the late teens and the twenties – the ones that preceded Kern’s ground-breaking collaboration with Oscar Hammerstein II, Show Boat – and he became one of my literary heroes.

Robert and David Goodale cottoned onto the Jeeves books (there are eleven, in addition to several collections of short stories) in their twenties and Robert fashioned two of them into one-man shows, the second directed by David. Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, their third adaptation, which Hartford Stage is producing currently, is a three-hander in which Bertie (played by Chandler Williams) relates the story of The Code of the Woosters, the sequel to Right Ho, Jeeves, acting it out with the aid of Jeeves (Arnie Burton) and Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia’s manservant Seppings (Eddie Korbich). The conceit of the play, which has been staged by Sean Foley, is that Jeeves provides the theatrical appendages, like a set that either he or Seppings rotates with the aid of a bicycle, while the two men between them play all the other roles. That is, Perfect Nonsense is a play in the mold of the fantastically successful 2005 adaptation of The 39 Steps, where the audience watch the actors shifting madly from one role to another with not only comic pleasure but also the appreciation we’d accord a magician’s sleight of hand or an acrobat’s dexterity.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Breaking Down Conceptual Binaries: Maborosi (1995)

Makiko Esumi in Hirokazu Kore-eda's Maborosi (Maboroshi no Hikari / 幻の光, 1995).

Grief is a many-faceted thing. I’ve often felt that mainstream portrayals treat it like an illness to be gotten over, rather than what it really is: a new state of being. It becomes an indelible part of one’s life, not necessarily a bad thing or a good thing, just another thing. (The explosion of the good/bad experience binary is one of the groundbreaking aspects of Inside Out [2015].) This is one of my biggest issues with First Man (2018) and, in retrospect, Manchester by the Sea (2016). Maborosi (Maboroshi no Hikari / 幻の光, 1995), the Ozu-tinged fiction feature debut of current art-house darling Hirokazu Kore-eda, is a detailed and deeply empathetic portrayal of one woman carried along by the passage of time, bringing her grief with her.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Musical Evenings: I Married an Angel, Choir Boy, Spamilton

Sara Mearns and Mark Evans in I Married an Angel. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

I Married an Angel is the sixth musical by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart to be revived by Encores! The original production opened on Broadway in 1938 at the midpoint of an amazing string of hit R&H shows between 1935 and 1942 that came on the heels of their half-decade at M-G-M: Jumbo, On Your Toes, Babes in Arms and I’d Rather Be Right preceded it and The Boys from Syracuse, Too Many Girls, Pal Joey and By Jupiter followed it. (Only Higher and Higher, in 1940, was a disappointment at the box office.) I Married an Angel had initially been planned for M-G-M, an adaptation of a Janos Vaszary farce about the union of a man and a (literal) angel. (This was the era when Hungarian plays found a home in Hollywood, and some of them, like William Wyler’s The Good Fairy and Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner, were wonderful.) Jeanette MacDonald, who had just had a success with Love Me Tonight , with its ebullient R&H score, was set to play the earthbound angel. But the project was abandoned, and by the time they resurrected it for Broadway they had taken on a new collaborator, George Balanchine, who’d staged the dances – and ballets – for both On Your Toes and Babes in Arms. So the role of Angel was reconceived for a dancer, Vera Zorina, whom Balanchine himself married during the New Year’s Eve performance.