Friday, December 29, 2023

Out of the Darkness: Opera Atelier’s Orpheus and Eurydice

Mireille Asselin as Eurydice, with Artist of Atelier Ballet Xi Yi, in Orpheus and Eurydice. (Photo: Bruce Zinger)

Life after death? The question is purely rhetorical in Christoph Willibald Gluck’s plucky retelling of the ancient Orpheus and Eurydice story. His 1774 French opera ends not – as in the original Ovid myth – in tragedy but in a triumph of love conquering all. As outlined in Ranieri de' Calzabigi’s 18th-century libretto, boy gets girl and lives happily ever after, uplifted by melodious music, song and ballet. Canada’s acclaimed Opera Atelier company, known for its historically accurate stagings of Baroque opera, amplifies the joy in Gluck’s dramatically divergent ending in an energetic production recently presented at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre.

Assembling an all-star cast of Canadian singers for their season opener, Opera Atelier co-founders Marshall Pynkoski and Jeanette Lajeunesse Zingg successfully transform Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice into a celebration of not just life but also the power of art to exist for eternity as a testament to the best of human achievement.

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

A Guilty Pleasure Without the Pleasure: Fair Play

Alden Ehrenreich and Phoebe Dynevor in Fair Play.

There’s nothing wrong with the kind of movie Fair Play purports to be, but there’s everything wrong with what it is. Written and directed by Chloe Domont, this thriller (which premiered at Sundance last January) came up in the media feed as a Netflix attention-getter, “guilty pleasure,” “nail-biter.” A few clicks revealed decent notices, one or two from critics who are not completely negligible, and the synopsis – two Manhattan stockbrokers, lovers and coworkers, enter into an escalating war of wills – sounded okay. Most of us are game occasionally for something flashy, sexy, dopey. Lifetime Network used to have an assembly line devoted to movies about trusting, open-hearted women terrorized by charming, hunky psychopaths; like any type of genre movie, they were enjoyable if you didn’t expect or need them to be other than what they were. Each new plot was a chewed-over regurgitation of the last, with every shift from romance to red flag, sex to psychosis blatantly telegraphed. Yet they were made cleanly and proficiently, without pretense of depth, but with the right degree of actorly exertion. They were televisual junk food of the kind abjured by only the most ascetic or snobbish of consumers, and Netflix has stepped into the breach: any time of year you can stream something on the order of Deadly Illusions, Dangerous Lies, or Secret Obsession.

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Interstitial Music: The Space Between the Notes

Arnold Schoenberg, MS 96.

“It’s all about starting in the middle of a musical sentence and then moving in both directions at once.” – John Coltrane

Man, we are a long, long way here from the dreamy and wistful harp pieces of the classical age, and it’s a fine thing too. In the hands of a masterfully gifted contemporary jazz composer and improviser such as Maria-Christina Harper, this historically tinged musical instrument acquires a whole new meaning. And the muscular heft to go along with it, as she pulls it further and deeper into the postmodern age, while still remaining true to the roots of its inception in a subtle way that honours her harp precursors, Dorothy Ashby in 1957-58, and Alice Coltrane in 1967-68. The blessing here is that on the new album release Passing By from Little Yellow Man Records, Harper (yes, in a delightfully charming piece of synchronicity, this edgy harpist’s name is actually Harper) is accompanied by the recently formed eponymously named Trio and joined by the restrained brilliance of Evan Jenkins on percussion and the fluid elegance of Josephine Davies on saxes. The results are stunning, in both their aggressive reach into a sonic future and their respectful evocation of a circuitous past. Together, they slam it.

Bygone days of the gilded age.

An instrument which sounded and felt so sweetly gentle in the hands of the younger son of Sebastian Bach in his Sonata for Harp in G Major, or enigmatic in Beethoven’s Six Variations on a Swiss Song, had even evolved eventually into a 20th-century modernist experiment in atonality in the visionary fingertips of Luciano Berio or Elliott Carter. But it was in the jazz canon that the harp suddenly assumed a truly startling arrival into Nowness, first in the still wistful but advanced Dorothy Ashby, followed by the cosmic vibrations of the great Alice Coltrane a decade later. And now we are permitted an even deeper dive into the Now, with Harper’s trio of ideally matched musical partners. Their debut release as a trio (which follows on the heels of her solo album Gluten Free and a duet album with lute player Yiagos Hairetis called Draft) features her uniquely tuned electric harp in tandem with her subtle sonic effects and bowing. I thought there was a bass player until I realized Harper was supplying it in her spare time.

The composer is here sharing space and time in an exemplary fused fashion with Jenkins and Davies. Far from this accomplished sax player and versatile drummer accompanying the harpist, however, here they are all engaged in a three-way conversation taking place in the space between their notes. Their jointly created music is perpetually beginning and ending at the same time, in keeping with that majestic insight expressed so well by Trane: the notion that sounds can be free enough to erupt from a shared centre (with the right partners) and then swiftly, or slowly, shift in either direction, towards a commencement or a conclusion, or both. This is interstitial music indeed, co-created according to what Trane also once referred to as “natural laws,” a sense of liberty within the form whereby content assumes its own austere gravitas, and I’m also reminded of his other amazing admonition, “Listen, you can play a shoestring if you do it with enough authenticity.”

Dorothy Ashby, 1958.

Alice Coltrane, 1968.

Maria-Christina Harper, Stavros Centre.

 The Harper Trio’s shared expedition into an exotic domain of melting away the sonorous time in between their notes, a constantly shifting sonic plateau that occasionally evokes the ambient poetry of Harold Budd or Jon Hassell, while still remaining embedded in a raw free jazz neighbourhood, is punctuated with emotive renderings that occur at the very edges of each instrumentalist’s impressive capabilities. Perhaps for that reason, I was struck by a visual depiction by the revolutionary composer Arnold Schoenberg, whose untitled ‘drawing’ on music composition paper features dramatic cut-out shapes periodically interrupting the flow of notes. Which is a virtual emblem for the music birthed by this talented combo (three musicians, seven pedals). These spaces, or silences physically removed from his notations, seem like a kind of echo in reverse of the Harper Trio’s interest in the subtle aural action taking placed in between the shared notes they are playing. This is music where the makers are leaning towards each other as performers.

Another of Trane’s characterizations, that of permission to play absolutely anything as along as it is also found in nature, is marvelously illustrated by the trio’s video for the title track, “Passing By,” performed together in a farm field somewhere, with spaces between the players mirroring the spaces between them in the album’s cover image, and, once again, of the spaces between the notes they emit together. Although I myself am personally at two with nature I do understand the fact that those who are at one with it find a symphony of sounds emerging from the lurking silences hovering around them when they sit in fields, or riverbanks or forests. There is clearly a pristine order in the disorder of sounds populating the natural environment, where simultaneous songs chirped by birds or insects all merge into one wavelength. Here, it’s almost a sonic storm of sorts, with notes, riffs, solos and melodies replacing the bird flock.

And so it is with the Harper Trio’s new album. The title piece in particular seems to embody that flight pattern between the performers, as do “Castle Hill Road” and especially “East Hill Meditation,” which feels to the bloodstream of the listener precisely like what its title suggests. In each case, the three players, each of whom is actually in the middle of their structural unit, all move in both directions at once (pace Trane) towards the other two members of the trio. The resulting shared murmur, a cluster of notes touching each other, a constellation of flickering sounds coming and going, is a veritable reverie for the ears. Sometimes, as in “Standing Alone,” there are big bonfires of silence embedded in the player’s interactions. While in “In Cairo/Grandma’s Coat,” the languid piece unfolds like a still smoldering campfire after the sitters have all gone to sleep. And “A Greek in Spain” spins a mesmerizing web of fine translucent threads as it slowly engages the trio in a subtle dance of instrumental intimacy of a sort one rarely encounters.

Harper Trio, 2023: Evan Jenkins, Maria-Christina Harper, Josephine Davies.

“A Greek in Spain” is also a piece that really breaks through to the other side. I don’t know how, but it’s as if a three-way love affair had been arranged between a flaming flamenco playing guitar and harp alternately, a tripping vagabond Art Pepper taking mystic runs and a lovely Max Roach stampede culminating back in the same quiet place everything inexplicably emerged from. While Ashby was lyrically daring in her tight combo setting, using only either her harp, a drummer and a bassist, or her harp and a flutist with no percussion at all; and while Coltrane was exuberantly insistent, propelled forward by the rhythm section of her late husband’s band, Garrison and Ali, Harper’s compositions and her deft, almost clairvoyant interplay with her fellow players plunge us headlong into the arms of what those two visionaries may have been pointing toward on the horizon.

Indeed, with this new triumvirate departure, which can accurately be called a selection of ‘cinematic soundscapes’, Harper and her fellow musicians take us to an entirely new place, even within the borders of what we customarily call the new music idiom. She has asked sincerely, “Why shouldn’t the harp have its own Jimi Hendrix?” and the resounding answer is, no reason at all. Time for lift-off. Also accurate is the assessment that their music combines Greek and Eastern scales with Western advanced jazz, creating a fresh sound for which she expresses the hope that it isn’t “too harpy” (don’t worry, it isn’t). Based in London, the trio first encountered each other in the seaside town of Hastings, where a quieter lifestyle pace enabled an unrushed exploration of the edges they could travel together musically.

“We knew we were onto something special from our very first rehearsal. It was an exciting and special moment,” Harper has observed, expressing some of the combined gratitude for the synchronicity of their first creative voyage. When you listen to The Harper Trio’s new ideally titled album Passing By, you too will be invited into the unique space and time they concoct together. Somewhere, Alice Coltrane is smiling. This group has picked up her mantle and carried it forward into a new and compelling territory: far from monastic in tone, they are a quantum-level trio, conversing in an interstitial language of subtle thresholds, as they recursively pass by our world.

Little Yellow Man Records

Harper Trio is:

Maria-Christina Harper, an award-winning, Hastings-based, jazz, avant-garde harpist, composer and songwriter. She is the first prize winner of the Wales International Harp Competition (2010), performing her own compositions on the electric harp. She studied the harp with an entrance scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music and released her solo album Gluten Free as MC & the 7 Pedals with Valentine Records. She was also part of the avant-garde folk duet Hairetis Harper, who released their album, Draft (Same Difference Music, 2020), which received exceptional reviews. Maria-Christina has toured or collaborated with many artists, including Katie Melua, Soft Cell, Anni Hogan, Alani, Jeremy Reed,, Richard Strange, Pete Long, Georgina Jackson, and Psarantonis,

Josephine Davis, winner of the 2019 Parliamentary Award Jazz Instrumentalist of the year, is a musical artist at the forefront of the UK contemporary music scene, pushing the boundaries of jazz with an emphasis on extended and collaborative improvisation. As a saxophonist she is known for her melodic focus, versatility and unique style, which has been described as “consistently inventive” (Jazzwise Magazine), “strong and authoritative” (The JazzMann) and “with winning immediacy” (MOJO Magazine). Now becoming equally known as a composer, her unique voice is a blend of classical, jazz and folk music, creating an intensely dynamic sound infused with the Nordic quality of her Shetland roots. Deeply influenced by the American composer Maria Schneider, Josephine was resident composer and tenor player for the London Jazz Orchestra from 2011-2016, and now has her own big band The Enso Ensemble.

New Zealand-born Evan Jenkins studied jazz at the Western Australia Academy for Performing Arts and soon after was named Drummer of the Year at the West Australian Music Industry Awards.  During this time, he played with the Western Australia Symphony Orchestra, and toured the country with the late, great Ronnie Scott.  He has been a resident of the UK (now based in Hastings) for over 30 years becoming a much in-demand drummer. An original member of The Neil Cowley Trio, Evan’s recording/live credits also include performances with Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Robben Ford, Tom Jones, Bert Jansch, and Ben Watt.

 Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the recent book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, as well as the biographies Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, 2018, and Tumult!: The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner2020, and a book on the life and art of the enigmatic Yoko Ono, Yoko Ono: An Artful Life, released in April 2022. His latest work in progress is a new book on family relative Charles Brackett's films made with his partner Billy Wilder, Double Solitaire: The Films of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder.

Monday, December 25, 2023

Appropriate: The Chaotic American Family

Natalie Gold, Alyssa Emily Marvin, Michael Esper, Sarah Paulson and Corey Stoll in Appropriate. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

A magnificent cast under Lila Neugebauer’s direction brings Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Appropriate to fierce, scrapping life in its Broadway premiere, produced by 2ndStage Theater. The play is the latest entry in the postmodern American family saga sweepstakes, following in the footsteps of such works as Sam Shepard’s Buried Child (1978), Christopher Durang’s The Marriage of Bette and Boo (1985) and Tracy Letts’s August Osage County (2007). These plays scramble the conventions of classic American family plays – and there are dozens of those, all circling around Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night – adding elements of satire, parody and knockabout humor as well as anti-realist styles like theatre of the absurd (present in both Buried Child and Bette and Boo) and surrealism. Like Buried Child, Appropriate catapults into surrealism in its final moments, though it also folds in a generous dollop of Southern Gothic. Jacobs-Jenkins has set it on a dilapidated Arkansas plantation after the death of the Lafayette family patriarch, whose three children have gathered on the day of the estate auction. And like Shepard’s play, which it alludes to repeatedly, and also like Bruce Norris’s great Clybourne Park, Appropriate circles around a family secret. The secret isn’t buried in the garden like the corpse of the incest baby in Buried Child or under a tree like the chest belonging to the Korean War vet in Clybourne Park; the Lafayette siblings discover it among their father’s mementos when they clean out the plantation house. It’s a scrapbook of photographs of lynchings that complicates further the legacy of a man who was already difficult in life – irascible, sometimes cruel but also full of contradictions. And at the end of the play we still don’t have a clear picture of him, not just because his children had very different opinions about him but also because the playwright refuses to provide a reliable explanation for the photographs.

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Fellow Travelers: Sex and Politics

Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey in Fellow Travelers. (Photo: Ben Mark Holzberg)

Matt Bomer has a personal triumph in the role of Hawk Fuller, a State Department official whose concealment of his gay identity turns into a devastating coup of deception in the Showtime limited series Fellow Travelers. Created by Ron Nyswaner, who wrote two of the eight episodes and the stories for two others and adapted from Thomas Mallon’s 2008 novel, it follows Hawk’s erratic love affair with Tim Laughlin (Bridgerton’s Jonathan Bailey), beginning in 1953. Tim arrives in D.C. straight out of college, still bound to his Catholic upbringing and his hero worship of Joe McCarthy. Hawk is cynical about both God and Tail-Gunner Joe, but he helps Tim land a job in the senator’s office while he pursues this somewhat younger man. Their complicated relationship, which they drop in and out of over the years, is intercut with its inevitable finale, when Tim, now a gay activist, is in San Francisco in the mid-eighties dying of AIDS.

Monday, November 27, 2023

The Turbulent Thirties: I Can Get It for You Wholesale and Spain

Judy Kuhn and Santino Fontana in I Can Get It for You Wholesale. (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

The composer-lyricist Harold Rome, who died in 1993, has been more or less forgotten, but he was one of the few Broadway songwriters who wore his leftist politics on his sleeve. He broke through in a 1937 revue called Pins and Needles that focused on the uneasy relationship between management and labor and was produced by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, whose members performed the sketches and musical numbers. How it managed to move from a tiny studio above the Labor Stage (the former Princess Theatre) to a Broadway house is something of a mystery, but counting all three editions, it ran for more than three years and made Rome’s reputation. His career spanned more than three more decades. A few of his shows were successful: the 1946 revue Call Me Mister, about returning servicemen; Wish You Were Here (1952), an adaptation of the Arthur Kober play Having Wonderful Time, set at an adult summer camp in the Catskills; Fanny (1954), based on a trilogy of French romantic dramas by Marcel Pagnol; and Destry Rides Again (1959), with Andy Griffith and Dolores Gray taking the roles played famously by Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich in the 1939 picture, a hybrid western-romantic comedy. (Destry Rides Again was the first show I saw on Broadway, when I was eight.) Until this season the only one that has been revived in New York, to my knowledge, is Fanny, which made it onto an Encores! slate in 2010 and proved to be just as bland and unmemorable as the original cast album indicated. It would be fun for someone to mount Wish You Were Here, which contains some lovely songs; Eddie Fisher made the hit parade with his recording of the title song. But don’t get your hopes up: in the original version the director, Joshua Logan, and the designer, Jo Mielziner, flooded the orchestra pit to create a swimming pool, which made even a pre-Broadway tryout tour impossible.

After the one-of-a-kind Pins and Needles, Rome’s most interesting musical was I Can Get It for You Wholesale (1962), which Jerome Weidman culled from his 1939 novel about life in Manhattan’s garment district. If musical theatre mavens know it at all, it’s for introducing Barbra Streisand, who played the indispensable secretary of the show’s protagonist, Harry Bogen, and brought down the house with her big number, “Miss Marmelstein.” (Bogen was played by Elliott Gould, nearly a decade before Robert Altman made him a movie star in M*A*S*H; Gould became Streisand’s first husband. And Streisand was among the singers who made the only recording of the score for Pins and Needles the same year, to honor the twenty-fifth anniversary of its premiere.) Perhaps Trip Cullman’s sharp-edged, sharp-witted production of Wholesale for Classic Stage Company, which closes December 17, will have the effect of bringing a woefully neglected musical to light. Weidman’s son John, who wrote the books for three of Stephen Sondheim’s shows – including, in this critic’s opinion, his finest, the 1975 Pacific Overtures – has reworked the original book, and never having read the original I can’t say how much he’s altered it. One change I could deduce by looking at the 1962 playbill online: he’s added an opening episode with real punch that dramatizes Harry’s first bitter experience of the tough (and anti-Semitic) New York streets, which, at about thirteen years of age, he has to navigate while delivering goods for garment manufacturers. Weidman, Cullman and the inventive choreographer, Ellenore Scott, have initiated this section with a dance number featuring the talented young dancer Victor de Paula Rocha as the young Harry and ended it with Judy Kuhn as Mrs. Bogen introducing the song “Eat a Little Something,” which didn’t appear until late in the second act in the original production. In this iteration that version of the song is a reprise, sung to Santino Fontana as the grown-up Harry.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Feeling Her Pain: Emma Bovary at the National Ballet of Canada

Hannah Galway and Siphesihle November in Emma Bovary. (Photo: Karolina Kuras/Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

Emma Bovary ran at Toronto’s Four Season’s Centre from November 11-18.

In the promo video the National Ballet of Canada put out in advance of the world premiere of Emma Bovary, choreographer Helen Pickett says that her intention was to get the audience to understand what the titular character – one of the greatest female creations in all of literature – is feeling. That undersells it.

A triumph of dance-theatre where every gesture is loaded with narrative meaning, Emma Bovary has more to do with how we feel while watching it. Much like Gustave Flaubert’s original mid-19th-century realist novel, the experience is vividly complex. We are riveted, repulsed, seduced, astonished, amused, horrified and ultimately sympathetic. Gratification is also part of the emotional mix. Together with her collaborator, the English theatre and opera director James Bonas, the California-born Pickett – a former Ballet Frankfurt dancer who has choreographed more than 60 works – has created an ultra-physical narrative ballet so potent it grabs you at your core.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Steve: Merrily We Roll Along and Here We Are

Daniel Radcliffe, Jonathan Groff, and Lindsay Mendez in Merrily We Roll Along. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Every time there’s a new edition of the Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical Merrily We Roll Along critics proclaim that this notorious 1981 failure has finally been fixed or that it was misunderstood in its time but now we can see clearly the gem that was always hiding under the unjust hype. I didn’t like the show from the first and none of the productions I’ve seen has changed my mind. But since I’ve written about two of them on Critics At Large, I’ll be brief here about my objections. I think that, like its source material, a 1934 play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, it’s disastrously misconceived: a play about a messed-up three-way friendship that begins when the three main characters – a composer and playwright-lyricist who were once collaborators and a novelist-turned-drama critic – are already middle-aged and moves backwards to their hopeful youth, by which time we dislike them so much that we have no sympathy left for the people they used to be. Furth’s book is as thin as rice paper and as phony as plastic, and only a few of the songs are worth much (mainly the two ballads, “Not a Day Goes By” and “Good Thing Going”). Ironically, the 2016 documentary Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, directed by the original Charlie, Lonny Price, in which (among other things) he listens to the resurfaced interview tape Harold Prince had him make when he auditioned for the part, works in precisely the way the musical doesn’t: it truly is about a man in middle age looking back on the naïve, hopeful kid he once was. It made me cry as Merrily We Roll Along had never come close to doing.

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Mickey and Joey: Sabbath’s Theater and Pal Joey

Elizabeth Marvel and John Turturro in Sabbath's Theater. (Photo: Jeenah Moon)

Devoted as I am to Philip Roth’s novels, I had trouble with his National Book Award winner Sabbath’s Theater, which he released in 1995. Its stylistic excesses in the service of underlining the sexual indulgences of its sixty-four-year-old protagonist, the one-time puppeteer Mickey Sabbath, whose career was sidelined by arthritis, defeated me; I put it down after a couple of hundred pages. It’s the only one of Roth’s many books I couldn’t finish. But maybe I should give it another try. Ariel Levy and John Turturro’s stage adaptation, produced by The New Group at the Signature Theatre with Turturro as Sabbath, is a majestic piece of theatre, notwithstanding the modesty of Jo Bonney’s production: three actors, two of whom, Elizabeth Marvel and Jason Kravits, play several parts; a small space containing a few props and an upstage screen for projecting a handful of evocative images (and in one scene Kravits’s silhouette); Roth’s 451 pages trimmed down to an hour and forty minutes of text without intermission.

Monday, October 30, 2023

Killers of the Flower Moon: Martin Scorsese’s Hobbled Epic

Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio in Killers of the Flower Moon.

Killers of the Flower Moon is great around the edges. Martin Scorsese’s movie, adapted from David Grann’s jaw-dropping 2017 account of the serial murders of Osage Indians in Oklahoma in the 1920s that enabled white men to secure their “headrights” – the legacy, shared equally among the community, of land rich in oil – is three and a half hours long and cost $200 million, and God knows you can see the money on the screen. The film, shot by Rodrigo Prieto, with production design by Jack Fisk and costumes by Jacqueline West, looks magnificent. The period reconstructions are dazzling and capture a cross-hatched culture, rich in visual irony, where natives, professing a faith that mixes Catholicism with the religion of their ancestors, dress in a combination of traditional garb and the flamboyant style of wealthy white men while they tool around in chauffeured Pierce Arrow roadsters and fly private airplanes. The opening scenes are lively and exciting, a circus-like montage of oil strikes and auctions and raucous general celebration that spills out of barrooms and restaurants into the streets of Fairfax, the Osage reservation town that has grown out of the oil boom. This is some of Scorsese’s best filmmaking – visually dense, outré, darkly funny. We barely have a chance to process the omnipresence of white men who have intermarried with the Osage women before it all turns sinister. The natives are dying in staggering numbers, some the victims in unsolved murders, others expiring from suspicious illnesses.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

In the Labyrinth: Picasso’s Graphic Work

Lucien Clergue, Portrait (1956).

“Mystery is the essential ingredient of every work of art.” – Luis Buñuel

Who and what do we see when we study the splendid photographic portrait of Pablo Ruiz Picasso captured by the esteemed Lucien Clergue in1956, when the Spanish artist was at the height of his powers? Having been adopted as a global cultural citizen beyond all mere geographical borders, the words who and what are both applicable in his unique case, as someone who was as vital and revolutionary in painting as his countryman Cervantes was in literature three hundred years earlier. So when Clergue memorialized that dramatic face, some four decades after the artist first reinvented the history of art at the turn of the last century, recasting it in his own image by collaborating with Georges Braque in the revelation of Cubism, and with roughly another two tumultuous decades still remaining in his titanic aesthetic mission, what sort of portrait telegram did the photographer manage to send us all in the future, and yet further into the future of the future? His portrait seems to whisper: behold, a living archetype.

Picasso’s elusive and mercurial character, a persona he appeared to perform as if he lived on a stage, still has the capacity to allure and amaze us. With good reason, and these powerful works on paper assembled here are an accurate indication of exactly why. He was a towering figure who looms large in both the art world and the world of popular culture, a gargantuan artist beyond most limits and even any definitions. Gazing at the overwhelming confidence in the awesome face of the man behind these prints, I am often reminded of the words of a favourite Brazilian author, Clarice Lispector: “He had the elongated skull of a born rebel.” I do hope so, Clarice, but all the landforms of his skull grew inward, like stalagmites, rather than upward and out. His Guernica painting from 1937 was one such interior landform, but then, so are his many masterful prints: each one is a mountain peak in reverse on paper, a spritely graphic Everest.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

The Child Is Father to the Man: Nowhere Special

Daniel Lamont and James Norton in Nowhere Special.

The Irish movie Nowhere Special came out in 2020 but never made it to these shores. A friend put me on to it, and I saw it in the only form currently available to North Americans – on an imported disc that you can only access if you have an all-regions DVD player. It’s a small, intimate picture about a working-class man named John (played by James Norton) who has been raising his three-year-old, Michael (Daniel Lamont), by himself since his partner abandoned them and moved back to her native Russia. Now John is dying of cancer. The film is about his struggle, through the services of an adoption agency, to find foster parents for Michael while he tries to figure out a way to prepare the boy for his departure. In some ways Nowhere Special reminded me of another recent small-scale Irish film I liked, The Quiet Girl, about a shy little girl whose parents send her to live for a few months with her aunt and uncle in the country before the birth of their fourth child, and who finds more love there than she’s ever been shown by her immediate family. The director of The Quiet Girl, Colm Bairad, has a more sophisticated technique than Pasolini, and the movie counts visual splendor among its virtues. Nowhere Special is closer to many TV movies that used to pop up in the seventies and eighties, but the writer-director, Uberto Pasolini, who based his script on a true story, barely takes a false step. His understatement suggests to me a kind of honor – a refusal to sentimentalize or otherwise falsify the difficult subject matter.

Monday, October 16, 2023

“The Great Gambon”: A Tribute to Michael Gambon

 Michael Gambon as the ailing writer in The Singing Detective (1986).

Michael Gambon, the towering English actor who died on September 27 at the age of eighty-two, had such a distinctive, jowly appearance that if he’d been born American and looked for work in Hollywood he certainly would have been typecast in gangster roles. He was lumpy and broad-shouldered and he had the long, rectangular face of a weary pugilist, with tiny eyes peeking out from beneath heavy, outsize lids and from above cheeks like thick pillows. Yet he had universes in him. He was born in Ireland but his family moved to London and then to Kent, where he apprenticed as a toolmaker. He caught the acting bug when, laboring on set crew for an amateur dramatic society, he was asked to play some small roles. Eventually he joined the Gate Theatre in Dublin under Micheal MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards and the Royal National Theater under Laurence Olivier, who was his role model – Olivier, whose physical and vocal transformations were legend, who could bury himself in a character. No one who looked like Gambon could help being recognized in part after part, yet his range was as staggering as that of any British performer of his astonishing generation, and his metamorphoses could be so miraculous that they seemed to trick the eye. In the role with which most moviegoers identify him, the Hogwarts schoolmaster Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series, which he took over in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in 2004 following the death of Richard Harris, he has the paradoxical look of a giant elf. Harris’s Dumbledore is other-worldly and wrapped in wonder; Gambon’s is Zen and self-amused – Yoda reborn as a lordly English eccentric whose white hair and beard complete him.

Thursday, October 12, 2023

Kevin Courrier: Five Years Gone

Kevin Courrier (1954-2018)

Five years ago today, on October 12, 2018, Critics At Large lost one of its leading voices, Kevin Courrier. Kevin was a writer, a critic, a teacher, a friend, a mentor, a prod and an inspiration. He led our site as a community of fellow travellers, his only goal to help each of us, in whatever way he could, in our respective journeys, not only as writers but as human beings. Kevin was a lover and a fan of all products of human creativity, with a special love of music, film, and television – and he approached all of it with wit, insight, humility, heart, and a uniquely critical eye. His expansive writing (articles, essays, books, and reviews) made his readers want to experience it all through his singular point of view. When he passed away, the world – my world – lost a light that has never been replaced. 

On this day, I thought I would share something from decades before I had met him, from his time as radio producer and host for CJRT-FM in Toronto. Here, in this interview with Leonard Cohen from 1984, we not only get a deep sense of Kevin’s sensitivity and intelligence, but one thing perhaps I miss the most: the gentle strength and presence of the man. And, most importantly, here we get a record of Kevin’s voice – a voice I would give anything to hear once again, in person, across a table, for one of our always far-too-long dinner conversations. 

Mark Clamen 

Critics at Large

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Tania Giannouli: The Future is Always Arriving

“Silence is the potential from which music can arise.” – Keith Jarrett 

Meteors are among the rarest objects on earth and have left a pervasive impact on our planet and civilization. Arriving amidst thunderous blasts and flame-streaked skies, they were once thought to be messengers from the gods, embodiments of the divine. Prized for their outlandish qualities, they are collectible as objects of art, desire and literary muses. The scientific community had only a reluctant embrace of their interplanetary origins but now has surrendered to one of their key attributes, the power to awaken a precious and near-forgotten human trait – the capacity for awe. The astute reader will see exactly where I’m going with this apparent digression: Tania Giannouli is a musical meteorite. The great jazz innovator Ornette Coleman once summed up an ideal approach to music. “The theme you play at the start of a number is the territory. And what comes after, which may have very little to do with it, is the adventure.” What a perfect place to begin to trace the trajectory of Giannouli, a talented composer, pianist, and, most importantly, solo performance artist.

Solo, the newest record release by this talented Greek musician, is also the next step in her ongoing journey into the origin of human-made sounds in a visceral location: an aural landscape situated somewhere equidistant between the heart and the mind. She is also a meteor inspired by a lengthy lineage ranging from both jazz and musique concrète to Scriabin and Tatum, yet I hesitate to say ‘influenced by’ simply because her approach is so distinctive that it reveals more of an open dialogue with the diverse constellation of composers who have nourished her unique sound. The muscularity of that sound shares a certain vibration with Keith Jarrett (especially with her latest venture into solo piano performance) while the depth of the sonic soul behind it has an alignment with the serial meditations of Terry Riley and LaMonte Young. If Sun Ra and Carla Bley went on a blind date with Cecil Taylor and Joanne Brackeen, their mythical love-child may have been named Tania.

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Lunar Eclipse: Facing the Darkness

Reed Birney and Karen Allen in Lunar Eclipse. (Photo: Maggie Hall)

The new play by Donald Margulies, whose wide range of works includes Sight Unseen, The Model Apartment, The Country House, The Loman Family Picnic and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner with Friends, is Lunar Eclipse, currently in production at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass. It’s a two-hander about an aging Midwestern farm couple, George (Reed Birney) and Em (Karen Allen), who sit together in a field and watch a lunar eclipse while they review their life together. As a workout for a pair of performers, it’s skillful – Margulies knows how to shape scenes for actors, and over the years I’ve seen some gifted ones go at his dialogue with considerable success. What I’ve never been convinced of is his ability to get far beneath the surface of a dramatic scenario, though some of his plays (Time Stands Still, Collected Stories) are more compelling than others. Lunar Eclipse is banal, but banality isn’t the worst crime in the American theatre, and the honesty with which he’s drawn his two characters holds you, even when the shifting of topics seems to click in like an old clock rounding the hour and the offstage voice signaling the phases of the eclipse underscores the conversational chapters. (I would have cut the voice-over.)

Monday, September 25, 2023

Misfire: A Haunting in Venice

Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot once again, in A Haunting in Venice.

A Haunting in Venice is the third Hercule Poirot adaptation written by Michael Green and directed by Kenneth Branagh, who stars once again as the impeccably mustachioed Belgian detective. This one claims to be based on a late (1969) Agatha Christie called Hallowe’en Party, but Christie’s plot has been uprooted and replaced with a completely different one; in fact, aside from the name of the murderer and the Halloween fête that opens the story, there’s no overlap. (The book doesn’t take place in Venice and it contains no haunting.) That’s rather weird but no loss, since it’s not one of her better mysteries. The problem is, the film alters it without improving on it. It’s a disappointment after last year’s Poirot, a juicy remake of Death on the Nile.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

At the Threshold: The Unmoored Dreaming

Album cover art: Bjorn Vandenneucker
“What is typical of our century and largely promoted by the media, is the general belief that everything that is broadcast or distributed must be instantly comprehensible. But that is an enormous misconception. It is rooted in the assumption that there is such a thing as an audience. We must correct this view and make it clear that people are individuals, each of whom is following a unique path toward learning and development and free to make personal choices. So let us be less eager to teach and to prescribe rules, and rather just say: ‘If you want to listen, you can; here are the recordings and scores. We give concerts; we will provide information. But whether or not you come or you are interested is your own business.”
– Karlheinz Stockhausen, “Every Day Brings New Discoveries” (1991)

New music, and I do mean new, has arrived in our space-time continuum. And poised, rather gracefully I might add, somewhere between the free jazz traditions of Ornette Coleman and Anthony Braxton, and the new music domains of George Crumb and John Cage. Yes, this is lofty territory, but these two composer-performers hold their own in the rarified atmospheres I’ve often delineated as soundtracks for an imaginary film, or national anthems for a utopian country. In this case, the country is a multi-cultural effort. The Unmoored Dreaming is a free jazz group consisting of Goncalo Oliveira, a Portuguese guitarist based in Den Haag, and Bjorn Vandenneucker, a double bass player and composer based in Brussels, that explores its mutually created repertoire in an expansive and open format. Open is the operative word here, since their charming music doesn’t so much begin or end as simply happen. And elegantly so.

The Unmoored Dreaming is also the title of their eleven-piece debut album, the result of what the duo call their “reinless traveling through sonic landscapes,” which was released on Bandcamp in April of 2023. As disparate as jazz and serialism might at first appear to be, the tangible and even haptic link between them is clearly the delivery of multiple tempos played simultaneously. The individual pieces in the recording from this daringly confident collaborative duo are also linked as in a suite of sonatas, though each work also stands comfortably alone on its own. Their partnership itself is also identified with and embodied by that evocative name, which captures the shared motive and aesthetic agenda of their initial release, recorded, mixed and produced by Manolo Cabras at Studio Noyer in Brussels.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Oppenheimer: The Center Does Not Hold

Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer in Oppenheimer.

Christopher Nolan makes his bid for movie posterity with Oppenheimer. His three-hour biographical epic of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist known as the father of the atomic bomb, is culled from a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, American Prometheus, by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, and transpires over more than three decades (from the mid-1920s through the late 1950s). Many of the roles, both major and ancillary, are taken by familiar, talented actors, and the film, shot by Hoyte Van Hoytema, who has lit all of Nolan’s films since Interstellar, is beautiful to look at. Oppenheimer is a serious effort but not, I have to say, a very good picture, though it contains one section, focusing on Trinity, the first detonation of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 1945 – the culmination of the research conducted by the Manhattan Project under Oppenheimer’s direction – that belongs in a good picture: it’s taut, gripping and suspenseful.

Monday, September 11, 2023

Tom Lake: Life Lived Under the Stars

Ann Patchett's new novel Tom Lake was published by Harper in August 2023. (Photo: Emily Doriot)

“There are the stars – doing their old, old criss-cross in the skies. Scholars haven’t settled the matter yet, but they seem to think there are no living beings up there. Just chalk – or fire. Only this one is straining away, straining away all the time to make something of itself.”

                                                                                         –  Stage Manager, Our Town, Act Three

When I think of Ann Patchett’s literary virtues, the one that stands out is her gift for storytelling. She has the jigsaw-puzzle magic for putting together plots that we associate with the nineteenth-century writers (especially, of course, Dickens). You never know where you’re going to wind up in a Patchett novel, but when you get there you think, “Aha! Of course.” By time she’s worked her final twist – she has a genius for devising endings – the reader is so deeply emotionally invested in the fates of the characters that, in my experience, closing the book takes an act of will. I’ve read almost all of Patchett’s novels (as well as Truth and Beauty, her heartbreaking account of her friendship with the late writer Lucy Grealy), and the only one that has ever felt rigged to me is her 2021 The Dutch House. I just didn’t believe in the actions of the characters – the mother who wanders away from her children for decades, the son who forces himself to attend law school, the daughter who is so fixated on the loss of her childhood home that she drags her brother back there over and over again to look at it from the perspective of an exiled voyeur. The book felt rigged, though she managed to produce her usual exquisite finish. In her new novel, Tom Lake (Harper, 2023), not a single moment feels less than absolutely authentic.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Fond Farewell: Alan Arkin (1934-2023)

Jeff Bridges and Alan Arkin in Hearts of the West (1975).

Alan Arkin died on June 29, two years after he was killed off on his penultimate gig, the Netflix series The Kominsky Method, where he played Michael Douglas’s agent and best friend, Norman Newlander; the show had begun, movingly, in 2018 with Norman mourning the loss of his wife from cancer. (Arkin’s official final employment was a voice job on the animated film Minions: The Rise of Gru.) Arkin dropped out of Bennington to perform in a successful folk music combo, The Tarriers, for which he co-wrote “The Banana Boat Song” – a calypso hit for The Tarriers but a bigger hit for Harry Belafonte. Then he trained in revue-sketch comedy with Second City before breaking through on Broadway in 1963’s Enter Laughing, for which he won a Tony Award. He launched his movie career three years later with the affable Norman Jewison farce The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, where he gave a very funny – and almost demonically controlled – performance as a Russian navy lieutenant who sets out to find a way to liberate his submarine when it runs aground in Gloucester, Massachusetts without igniting an international incident. Within the next few years Arkin was everywhere – in Murray Schisgal's The Love Song of Barney Kempinski on the TV anthology series ABC Stage 67; as the sociopathic killer who menaces blind Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark; as the deaf-mute protagonist of an adaptation of Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter; as Yossarian in Mike Nichols’s film of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22; in Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders, which he directed himself.

Thursday, August 24, 2023

Being the Best: Pop Journalism Comes of Age

Hachette Books, 2022; Hachette Books, 2022.

“How does it feel, to be on your own, a complete unknown, with no direction home . . .” – Bob Dylan

I suppose I’ve always been mystified, in an entertaining way, with our culture’s virtual obsession with the best this and the best that, as if selecting from the taste menu in arts, letters or music actually meant “I’ll have what everyone else is having.”  Maybe it does. Academy Awards, Tony Awards, Nobel Prizes, Grammy Awards, best car, best restaurant, best fashion, best wine, best hotel, and so on forever. Generally, of course, such a designation usually refers to most popular, and nowhere does popularity often equal quality as it does in the rarefied world of pop music. How it could it be otherwise, since the very name says it all? But I’ve never believed that pop meant disposable or frivolous; far from it, since pop, and especially great pop music, is quite often the most accurate gauge of what the French call mentalité, the state of mind of a culture. And pop, at the virtuosic and technically complex level of The Beatles, The Stones, Brian Wilson’s Beach Boys, or The Mamas and the Papas, is obviously an art form demonstrating admirable aesthetics. High-quality pop is invariably a mirror of our reality, regardless of how distorted or clouded by various biases that mirror may be. 

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

All Hail the Comic Muse

Mike Nadajewski and Kristi Frank in On the Razzle. (Photo: Emily Cooper)

This piece includes reviews of On the Razzle, Blithe Spirit and Village Wooing.

This summer the Shaw Festival has been bowing to the comic spirit. In addition to Shaw’s The Apple Cart and The Playboy of the Western World, which mix serious and humorous elements, the roster has included productions of four comedies from different eras: Marivaux’s The Game of Love and Chance (1730), performed outdoors in an improvised version – the only one of the quartet I didn’t get to; Shaw’s Village Wooing (1934), this season’s lunchtime one-act; Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit (1941); and Tom Stoppard’s On the Razzle (1981). In truth, the last of these can claim connection to several periods. It began in 1835 as a one-act English play by John Oxenford called A Day Well Spent, which the Viennese playwright and actor Johann Nestroy adapted seven years later as Einen Jux will er sich machen (He’s Out for a Fling). Thornton Wilder reworked it for Broadway in 1938 as The Merchant of Yonkers – a failure, despite direction by the legendary Max Reinhardt – and then again in 1955 as The Matchmaker, which altered the story about shop clerks out on the town by inventing the assertive, charismatic title character (played by Ruth Gordon on Broadway) and reconfiguring the play around her. It was filmed the following year with Shirley Booth in the role and featuring three talented young performers early in their careers: Anthony Perkins, Shirley MacLaine and Robert Morse. In 1964 The Matchmaker became the musical Hello, Dolly!, which, of course, ran for years. On the Razzle is Stoppard’s rewrite of the Nestroy, not the Wilder, so there’s no Dolly Gallagher Levi dashing around in aid of the young lovers while manipulating her sour-faced client into marrying her rather than the widow he’s after or the fictitious millionairess she’s promised him.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

The Playboy of the Western World and The Apple Cart: Flying High at the Shaw

Marla McLean and Qasim Khan in The Playboy of the Western World. (Photo: Emily Cooper)

In the preface to his 1907 masterpiece The Playboy of the Western World, the Irish playwright John Millington Synge writes, “On the stage one must have reality and one must have joy . . . In a good play every speech should be as fully flavoured as a nut or apple . . .” This dictum explains the play’s unusual style and texture, realism folded in with folk-fable imagination and humor and language so musical that it sings in your ears even when you’re just reading the text. Synge claims that he owes both the wildness of the narrative and the richness of the vernacular to his close attention to the way rural working-class Irish people speak (or did around the turn of the twentieth century).

Monday, July 31, 2023

Summer Musicals: Summer Stock and Gypsy

Corbin Bleu and the dancers in Summer Stock. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Summer Stock, released in 1950, followed a particularly unhappy time in Judy Garland’s life and career – after the deterioration of her marriage to the director Vincente Minnelli, after she made her first suicide attempt and was committed to a rehab center, and after M-G-M replaced her on Annie Get Your Gun with Betty Hutton. Yet it feels like a breather for her: though her weight fluctuated during the filming (in her last big number, “Get Happy,” she’s strikingly trim), her performance is ebullient and unstrained. It was her third and final pairing with Gene Kelly – the others were For Me and My Gal in 1942 (his film debut, after he’d conquered Broadway in Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey) and The Pirate, for Minnelli, in 1948 – and his warmth and virility, his earthiness and easy jocularity, always brought out an appealing vaudevillian quality in her. None of her other co-stars was so ideal a vocal match for her, and though it’s great to see her with Fred Astaire in Easter Parade (1948), especially in the “Couple of Swells” number, when she and Kelly dance together they seem to belong to the same club. Summer Stock (which Charles Walters directed) is lightweight, and there’s nothing much in the George Wells-Sy Gomberg script that hadn’t been done in previous backstage movie musicals like the ones Garland and Mickey Rooney co-starred in, or Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn. Garland plays Jane Falbury, who’s struggling to keep her farm from going under, and Kelly is Joe Ross, who persuades her to let him produce a show in her barn. But it never pushes the sweetness or the rural Americana, it has a fine supporting cast (except for Gloria De Haven as Jane’s self-centered sister: her acting is really awful), and Garland and Kelly’s scenes together are endearing.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Shy: The Life of Mary Rodgers

Carol Burnett and Joe Bova in the original Broadway production of Once Upon a Mattress (1959).

Mary Rodgers, the daughter of the legendary Broadway (and occasionally Hollywood) composer Richard Rodgers, wrote the music for the 1959 musical Once Upon a Mattress. Aside from The Mad Show, a downtown revue she contributed to that ran for a year, Mattress was her only hit show, but she worked on many other stage musicals that flopped (often out of town) as well as a handful of TV musicals. She also wrote the Freaky Friday children’s books, assisted Leonard Bernstein on the Young People’s Concerts on TV, chaired or served on the boards of many schools and other organizations, and raised five kids; a sixth died tragically in childhood. (One of them, Adam Guettel, is the composer-lyricist of The Light in the Piazza, which I join my Critics at Large colleague Joe Mader in calling the best musical written in the twenty-first century.) This life, which Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell would have pronounced “crowded with incident,” is memorialized in Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers  (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022), which Rodgers co-wrote with the current New York Times theatre critic Jesse Green and on which he provided the finishing touches after she died, at the age of eighty-three, in 2014. (Green was then reviewing plays for New York Magazine.)

Friday, June 30, 2023

Shining Through: Encores’ The Light in the Piazza

Anna Zavelson and Ruthie Ann Miles in The Light in the Piazza. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Director Chay Yew provides The Light in the Piazza, the final offering of Encores’ 2023 season, a slight spin on the 2005 original by casting the two lead roles with Asian-American actresses. Margaret Johnson, the role that won Victoria Clark a Tony, is now played by Ruthie Ann Miles, while her daughter Clara, a luminous Kelli O’Hara in the original, is newcomer Anna Zavelson.