Tag: theater Page 2 of 4

Review: Pichon & the DSO Reveal The Steel in Berlin

DSO Berlin

The Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin with conductor Raphaël Pichon, February 28, 2018. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

French Baroque music is a thing apart for many, whether or not they’re in the classical space. Just the phrase itself conjures up images of high wigs, corsets, buckle shoes, a coterie of nobility sitting by candlelight, heavily festooned and occasionally nodding off.

Raphaël Pichon stripped that image away, gently, with careful detail, in his concert with the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin (DSO) last night. The native Frenchman, who is also an established countertenor and the founder of the Ensemble Pygmalion (a group specializing in historical performance) brought a sinuous approach to the material, which retained a delicate quality that nevertheless became more and more fulsome as the evening progressed. Admire this lovely fine glass, Pichon seemed to whisper, but remember it’s as strong as steel.

Raphaël Pichon

Raphaël Pichon. (Photo: (c) Jean-Baptiste Millot)

With a program modelled on Baroque music theatre and featuring period-specific pasticcio (or pastiche), the evening was a lovely treat which featured some stellar and, occasionally very robust playing from the DSO. Pichon moved the orchestra beyond the merely ornamental, drawing phrases and sounds out that clearly anticipated the future opera sounds of composers like Rossini, Bellini, and Verdi.  This was not a concert about bold sounds and choices; it was, rather, a fascinating exploration of the pasticcio format highlighting the connective nature of inspiration, in both creation and presentation. Composers, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries, freely used, absorbed, and interpolated the work of each other into their own, mixing portions of both original and non-original composition freely; Handel, Gluck, and Johann Christian Bach used this technique in various operas, as did Mozart in his first four piano concertos. What we might think of as “stealing” today was merely artistic reinvention then. Add a layer of Baroque opéra-ballet theatre, with its format of prologue, three entrées, and epilogue, and you have the makings of a very satisfying evening.

While it may seem structurally daunting, nay even deadening, Pichon and the buoyant DSO ensured the evening was clear, involving, and musically concise. The program, which consisted of works by two French 17th-18th century French composers, Rameau in the first half, and Gluck in the second (with a Rameau piece to close), was dramatic and fiercely engaging. The orchestra brought a loving energy to the tambourine-tinged prologue to Rameau’s 1739/1744 opera Dardanus, extending that sense of careful control to Gluck’s “Danse des furies” (“The dance of the furies”) from his 1774 opera Orphée et Eurydice. Never one to luxuriate over phrases or lean too far into one section, Pichon teased out the undulating brass and woodwinds sections, perpetually in a dance; this suited the many ballet (/ ballet-influenced) works on the program, but it was also sonically satisfying to note the interplay between instruments, people, and conductor. This program wasn’t “pretty music” simply for the sake of it, but conveyed character, mood, and drama, without hitting its listener over the head or lulling them into passive listening.

DSO Fuchs Janiczek

The Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin with guest Concertmaster Alexander Janiczek and soprano Julie Fuchs. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

The clean lines of the strings section were especially refreshing and were led with charismatic aplomb by guest Concertmaster (and Baroque music specialist) Alexander Janiczek, who shared a special, convivial chemistry with guest soloist, soprano Julie Fuchs, a very last-minute replacement for the ailing Sabine Devielhe. Fuchs, making her DSO debut, soared in her delivery, but smartly paced herself with the material; opening with the prologue “Feuillages verts, naissez” (“Green leaves are born”), Fuchs worked gently around the softly luxurious flute work of Gergely Bodoky, wrapping phrases and gorgeously shaped vowels into sounds that introduced the evening with quiet grace. Her performance of “Viens, hymen” from Rameau’s 1735 opera-ballet Les Indes Galantes (The Amorous Indies) was shot through with both a suitably palpable sadness (which suits the character) as well as a steely clarity. By the evening’s close, Fuchs was in high-flying spirits, bringing a range of vivid colors to “Aux langueurs D’Apollon” (“The languor of Apollo”), from Rameau’s 1745 opera Platée, an innovation for its time in that it was a comic work. Fuchs playfully danced around both conductor Pichon (replacing him at one point on the podium) and Janiczek, modulating texture and bending vowels to create a memorable, comic, deeply felt performance that inspired smiles both on and off the stage. Merci and Vielen Dank, Raphaël, Julie, Alexander, and DSO!

 

 

 

 

 

Opera ≠ Church

Simon Schnorr as Don Giovanni in Jacopo Spirei’s 2016 production
for Salzburger Landestheater. Photo: © Anna-Maria Löffelberger

People come to opera with many opinions and ideas. If they’ve never seen a production, or have only caught tidbits online or the television, have gone at the behest of a significant other for a special occasion, or, they’ve worked in the industry their entire lives in some capacity, everyone has an opinion: It’s the greatest art form there is. It’s stagnant. It sucks.

In speaking with director Jacopo Spirei recently, it seemed as if he was highly aware of all of these opinions, and moreover, had spent considerable time with groups who held a diversity of ideas around the art form. It’s this awareness, I suspect, that powers so much of his directing work; the Florence-based director has a powerful desire to reach through all the baggage a person carries (whether artist or audience member), to present something new and very immediate. Spirei, as I outlined in part 1 of our chat recently, spent the early part of his career working with British director Graham Vick, whose own stagings of operatic works have attracted their fair share of fans and critics. Vick is a figure who firmly believes in community involvement, and in reinforcing the art form as an intrinsic part of society.

Spirei has a similar approach. He has a number of acclaimed productions under his belt, including Rossini’s comic La cambiale di matrimonio (The Marriage Contract) for Theater an der Wien (Vienna) in 2012; another Rossini opera,  the beloved La Cenerentola (Cinderella), for Festival Internacional de Musica (Cartagena) in 2014. He’s also worked with the renowned Co-Opera Co., helming productions of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) for the London-based organization. Spirei’s production of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte won the audience prize for best production of the 2012/2013 season at the Salzburger Landestheatre, and he also helmed Gluck’s The Pilgrims of Mecca (La rencontre imprévue, ou Les pèlerins de la Mecque) there in 2013. Spirei’s resume is long and impressive, and extremely varied.

As he mentioned in part one of my interview with him, the busy director has been behind a few versions of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, including a popular, acclaimed version of the work staged at the Landestheater in 2011, and remounted in 2016. He’s set to direct Verdi’s Falstaff in Parma at the Festival Verdi in October.

With his recent San Francisco Opera debut,  Spirei was tasked with re-envisoning Gabriele Lavia’s 2011 production of Don Giovanni. The director and I spoke just on the cusp of the production’s opening (on now through June 30th); thoughts about the dastardly deeds of the Don, as well as the centrality of women in Mozart’s famous 1787 opera, led to a broader discussion on opera attracting new audiences, the vital role of education, and the particulars of opera fashion. To go casual or not to go casual? Read on.

You recently told Newsweek that in Italy, opera is more about “pretty pictures”; I was reminded of the ongoing debate between new and old productions. Some people love the contemporary take on works; others feel there should be a return to beauty.

Director Jacopo Spirei.

Yeah the problem is, what is beauty? It’s such a wide concept. When something you put onstage doesn’t help the story or doesn’t tell us anything, it hasn’t got a thing to say, then it has no place on our stages — it’s very simple. In a way you have to tell the story that is in the piece, that is written down; that’s where you start from. Of course you do it through your own intellect and creativity, but you cannot start decorating it; it doesn’t need that. The art form is absolutely fine on its own. What it needs is to be alive. It needs absolute essence, which is the live performance.

The joint work the director does with the conductor and the singers is to lift the opera from the page, to take it away from what’s written and recreate it, reinvent it. There’s no such a thing as pretty show or an ugly show; there’s a good show or a bad show. That doesn’t mean in-period not-in-period; somehow it’s a fake problem. If the work is good and relevant and done with honesty, then it’ll get through. Some work is provocative, some not, sometimes it want to be thought-provoking and hit something; each (production) has its own definition of beauty and of art, which makes us grow and develop.

… and some productions aim to be purposely unpleasant.

If you think about Caravaggio and a lot of his stuff, they’re beautiful paintings with incredibly morbid subjects: people without teeth, rotting away; fruit disintegrating. There’s a reason it’s rough, with that very harsh lighting. Beauty is, first of all, a completely subjective thing — I like purple maybe you like red, you see what I mean — in those terms it’s one thing. There are different styles, there’s brutalism, there’s a more decorative style. What I said about Italy and opera is not the fact that beauty is wrong, it’s just, instead of it being the obsession it used to be for this country — I mean, even Pasolini his own own version of beauty! — the theater has stopped developing, and become just a showcase of pretty costumes and nice scenery.

You mean museum pieces?

Right. So then you don’t need to do new productions — (old ones) were beautiful and had a lot of money (put toward them), a fantastic costume designer, what more do you need in life?

Gillian Ramm, Laura Nicorescu & Tamara Gura in Cosi fan tutte from Spirei’s production for Salzburger Landestheater.
Photo: © Christina Canaval

The Met is grappling with this right now; the tension between those who enjoy what is called traditional stagings, and the group who say that’s boring and doesn’t move opera forwards.

First of all I think theater should be a leader, not a follower. The theater should lead an audience, teach an audience, make an audience grow, otherwise you end up with what TV has become, which is an endless number of reality shows, with no imagination, no creativity. In that sense the theater has to lead, in a way that works at every level; you have to show your audience a path and take them down that path. That’s one element of it, of course; the other element is the constant discussion about tradition. I find that very entertaining!

When we refer to “tradition” we’re basically referring to operas in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s a really narrow frame of time for almost 500 years of opera history. If you go and look at the operas written and performed in the 1920s and 1930s, the sets were different; if you look at some of the sets from the early music festivals, they did the most abstract, extreme productions that today would get completely trashed. We’re only referring to the system in the 1950s and 1960s, and little bit of the 1970s; what does it mean? Composers like Verdi cared so deeply about a piece, he would do anything to bring it to life. This debate on tradition, it means nothing!

What it is, is, it’s comfortable — and comfort is laziness. The comfort of it, it’s everything. Nowadays we live in a political world that is only looking backwards, thinking back at the supposed good old times, because we think we know what good old times were — but we never had good old times. Like, “oh remember the 1980s!”

Ines Reinhardt and Sergey Romanovsky in Spirei’s 2013 production of Gluck’s The Pilgrims of Mecca for Salzburger Landestheater.
Photo: © Christina Canaval

People romanticizing the past…

Yes! So we have to move forward; we have no choice. As human beings, there’s no going back.

Where does art and accessibility to newcomers, fit in? A lot of people have said to me that they find opera intimidating, they don’t know where to start, they think they won’t understand.

You’re absolutely right when you say “intimidated” — we just need to take the aura off it. It’s not a church, it doesn’t matter what you wear so long as you come and watch it. The San Francisco Opera is doing this thing where they’re showing the opera at the baseball stadium. It’s fantastic! I’ve been taking Uber cars around, the drivers all ask me where you from what you do, and when I tell them, they say, “Oh how cool, I’m curious!” And I say, listen if you want to see it, go to the baseball stadium, on thirtieth of June, you can see it, and they all say, this is great, cool!

The opening of the 2013-2014 Met Opera season; Eugene Onegin (with Anna Netrebko), broadcast live in Times Square.
Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

It’s like the Met broadcasting its opening night in Times Square — I’ve gone to that more than once, and it’s fun. People bring thermoses and sandwiches. 

Wonderful! Really, there’s nothing wrong with the art form, it’s fine, it just needs to be taken to the people. Of course, if the people don’t come to the theater, the theater has to go to the people, and find a way to go to the people, maybe not via the big institutions — you need the big institutions to keep the art form alive — but you also need the new world of young companies to bring the artform to the people and even take the people into the theater, or not, at least then it’s an educated choice. People can then reasonably say, “I’ve seen it and I don’t like it” or “Wow, that’s great!”

At least plant the idea…

Yes.

My attitude is, if you do want to come with me to the opera house, please make an effort to look smart; I like doing something special, and it’s nice to see people having the desire to do that. That doesn’t mean opera is snotty or elitist —dressing up doesn’t mean those things. I feel like we have to demystify the opera house as an overall experience, and that extends to fashion.

Absolutely. If a person says, “I’m not wearing a suit but I’m still going,” in a way, from my point of view, that’s the priority (getting them in). It’s like going out on a Saturday night: you dress up, but it shouldn’t feel like, “OH MY GOD I HAVE TO PUT ON MY BEST TUX!”

Simon Schnorr und Sergey Romanovskys in Spirei’s 2013 production of Cosi fan tutti for Salzburger Landestheatre. Photo: Photo: © Christina Canaval

But seeing jeans and sneakers sometimes frustrates me; I feel like we’ve coddled everybody, especially in North America, to constantly feel the need for comfort, throughout every single experience. It seems as you say, lazy. You can look smart casual, but that’s not the same thing.

Ah, sneakers and jeans, you see them everywhere. You can spend more on jeans than an actual tuxedo, D&G and Cavalli make some very fancy jeans! Times change, and all that develops, it’s absolutely fine, and again, one can like it or not like it. You have all the right to say, “If you come with me, look decent” — I don’t have a problem. What I think is crucial is to bring opera to the people, as well as people to the opera.

Nowadays, unless you live in Germany or Austria or a few other countries, you don’t grow up with music, it’s not taught in schools, the opera house is not a place where you go. I worked a lot in Germany and Austria, and it’s completely part of the culture. You take your kids to it, they grow up watching music and go to the opera and they are completely unfazed by it. They are not shocked, they have a relationship to culture; they know what they’re talking about when they discuss it.

It’s woven into the fabric of society there.

Yes, moreso than in Italy. I’ve worked so little in Italy; life has brought me outside. There’s a lot one has to say “no” to; it also has to do with the funding, (Italian companies) can’t really plan ahead because they don’t know if they will have money next year or how much money they might have. Italy has been cutting things regularly, every year, sometimes mid-season. So theaters are trying. It’s harder for sure — but Italy has also mismanaged money for a really long time.

And now it’s catching up with them?

Of course.

Hannah Bradbury, Raimundas Juzuits, Florian Plock, Kristofer Lundin und Lavinia Bini in Spirei’s 2016 production of Don Giovanni for Salzburger Landestheater. Photo: © Anna-Maria Löffelberger

It’s always the arts that gets cut first…

Always, and it’s the biggest mistake a society can make.

Education and arts are essential; theater is essential; if you study it, if you go, if you do it, you learn to be in somebody else’s clothes, somebody else’s problems, you start to empathize with those problems and become more tolerant and less judgemental, you are a better person. And being an audience in a theater makes you a better person also. It teaches you to be in a room packed with other people, and to really listen to something, not interfering with it or with others, but sharing an experience.

Try A Little Tenderness

Full cast of King Lear. Photo by Anthony Leclair 

King Lear is one of my favorite plays. The 1606 work examines ideas of family, responsibility, motivation, and obligation in a cutting way few other theatrical works do. The premise is basic: Lear, wanting to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, asks them to express their love. Goneril and Regan go over-the-top in their declamations, while the youngest, Cordelia, says she loves him “according to my bond, no more, nor less.” The former are rewarded for their proclamations; the latter, banished for her honesty. Therein ensues a monumental family tragedy, one that incorporates another family’s drama (a nasty one involving two sons, each from different mothers), and a dance of damaged children and hurting parents that spirals toward an inevitably tragic conclusion.

In light of my mother’s passing earlier this year, I wasn’t sure that seeing Lear live wouldn’t be a slightly painful ordeal. The dramas, the breakdowns, the unseemly machinations and manipulations, the reconciliation between Lear and Cordelia happening too late and being all too brief – Shakespeare’s great work was difficult for me to contemplate watching live. And yet something pulled me in the direction of Theatre Passe Muraille when I heard about the Watershed Shakespeare Festival Collective production

Ostensibly set in Upper Canada in 1837, director Rod Carley uses the theatre’s intimate surroundings to incredible effect, with a pared-down cast, simple set design (by Frank Vona), dramatic lighting (by John Batchelor) and sound effects (by Brian Nettlefold), creating a deeply moving portrait of a family in crisis. The tensions between the characters are brought to vivid life via stellar ensemble work, particularly the growing animosity between sisters Goneril (Maureen Cassidy) and Regan (Jennifer Ritchie), and their overall disgust with younger sister Cordelia (an endearingly earnest Kelsey Ruhl).  Joshua Bainbridge, who plays Edmund, bastard son to Gloucester (a fantastically earthy Charlie Tomlinson), offers a deeply fascinating portrait of deceit, using a combination of easy joviality and wide-eyed “integrity” to convince his father that legitimate son Edgar (Ethan Chapman) is up to no good. Hume Baugh is a bitingly angry Fool, frustrated as much with his master as with his own failing health (Carley’s production simply, powerfully answers the lingering question of what happens to the Fool), and nicely contrasts with Ethan Chapman’s sparky take on Edgar’s “Poor Tom” disguise.

David Fox as King Lear and Hume Baugh as the Fool. Photo by Anthony Leclair

The chemistry between the cast is indeed electric, a feeling intensified by the close quarters of the performance space itself; when Regan’s husband, the Duke of Cornwall (Jeff Miller), goes to forcibly remove Gloucester’s eyes, one winces more than usual — the players are only mere feet away, after all, and though there is no blood or gore, there is a visceral sense to the proceedings made all the more keen because of the immediacy of the players, their words, their conviction to the text and to the world director Carley has placed them in. This is a King Lear that feels very real, its family dramas and power plays disquietingly close, both literally and figuratively.

What powers much of this intimacy, outside of the space itself, is the central performance of David Fox, an actor perhaps best known for his portrayal of school teacher Clive Pettibone on the television series Road to Avonlea. His portrayal of Lear, by turns spitting orders and then stumbling over words, standing over an intransigent Earl of Kent (Tim Nicholson) and then doddering barefoot along wearing a crown of branches later, is shattering. Fox, who is 74 years old, uses his own gangly physicality to complete advantage, standing imperiously at the start of the work, and fumbling in a wheelchair by its end. He plumbs the depths of Lear’s failing health, mentally and physically, and bases much of the character’s outrage on a very real and palpable sense of damaged pride.

David Fox as King Lear. Photo by Anthony Leclair

This is, as many with aging parents will know, a very big thing with the elderly. Dealing with pride amidst failing health is no small matter. There was something so utterly familiar about the mix of vulnerability, confusion, shame, and theatrical show of pride in Fox’s performance of the old King, that more than once I found myself gritting teeth to control tears. A companion who joined me at the performance said something at the intermission about the ungrateful daughters needing to “humour” Lear, but, as I watched the second half, with each appearance of Lear revealing more and more of his fragility, all I could think was, tenderness is key. It is everything in dealing with a failing parent. Tenderness is what Cordelia offers, in abundance; the expression on Ruhl’s face as she interacts with Fox brims with this very quality, even as her character must swallow the deep grief at seeing his deterioration. We remember how our parents used to be, and it’s hard, if not impossible, to reconcile that with the small, sickly person before us; no matter how large a parent might’ve loomed in our lives, the fact they shrink, literally and figuratively, bowed before age and infirmity, is heartbreaking. This is what Cordelia deals with when she sees her father again, after he’s been rejected by his elder daughters and has wandered the heath in a storm. Time has sped up, only to be stopped, mercifully, in order for the two to beautifully, poetically reconcile. Seeing who he is, past the physical, and embracing it, as opposed to rejecting it, manipulating it, making a play based on personal want, is what makes Cordelia such a unique and moving figure.

Tenderness is the slow, gentle engine that allows great if quiet love to make itself known. It means putting our own ego wants — what we think the parent should be saying or doing or believing or choosing — aside. Tenderness only asks for and manifests in loving presence, little more. Anyone who’s experienced the deterioration of a parent, whether through illness or age (or both), will tell you it isn’t the easiest thing in the world, not by a longshot; one has to have Herculean levels of patience and fortitude, and, being only human, none of us can manage to be saintly 100% of the time. And when that parent has a moment of self-awareness, and asks for your forgiveness, as Lear does with Cordelia, there is really little to be said or done, but to hold hands, gently, and to simply be there, tenderly, as they make their way into another realm. King Lear reminded me of the importance of tenderness, earlier this year, and now, and moving forwards. All hail, King Tenderness.

Are You Not Entertained?

Inspiration has been hard to come by in these late November days. The greyness is thick, endless, unrelenting and unmoving, smug in its stifling tofu blandness. New tires spin aimlessly on a car that’s been flipped upside down and left to rot. Nothing goes forwards fast enough, if at all. To borrow from Beckett, “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes… it’s awful.” No kidding.

The bright spot -and it’s a weird bright spot -has been politics, specifically American politics. The race to the 2012 Presidential elections has been spectacularly theatrical, the personalities and behaviors ribald and riveting. Meltdowns! Mistresses! Racist rocks! Rocking racists! Bumps! Stumps! Ooops! Loop-de-loops! Since living in the United States, I just can’t get enough of its mad, bad, dangerous-to-know, good/bad/ugly aesthetic. An American-born, Canadian-living friend told me she thinks of America as bacon: it’s greasy, delicious, bad for you and good for your tastebuds. It’s addictive, unhealthy, and even the smell of it is enough to convince you that you need it. Without it, so many other things would just be boring, grey… depressingly bland. November forever. Ugh.
Yet it’s anything but bland in the world of Twitter. At every GOP debate, the microblogging site has resembled a hummingbird on meth: observations, opinions, fact checks, exchanges and retweets come at breakneck speed, with nary a moment to think twice. I’ve partaken and tried to keep up, @ing one person, RTing another, the new linguistics of a modern communication long and comfortably entrenched into my 21st century vernacular. More than an education, my enthusiasm for the spectacle of American politics has opened a door to connecting with some smart, witty, talented people, using a technology I couldn’t have guessed at ten years ago. Perhaps that’s the magic.
The sense of event-with-a-capital-E combined with all the elements of theater implies a shared love of real-life drama that in no way diminishes the seriousness of what’s being discussed. Online users are like critics’ unions, decimating, disassembling, disabusing and discarding, while offering credit where it’s due. But unlike theater-theater, political theater is a forum where the off-stage antics of its players are every bit as vital -in a theatrical sense -as their onstage performance. While some larger networks utilize the commentary of silly tweeters in far to serious a manner, it’s worth remembering that there are many credible, smart tweeters whose 140-character commentary blasts open new neural pathways, not to mention super-bright highways, along the freeway of 21st century American political life.
As if to match the velocity on that road, I find myself zooming by old interests. Trips to the art gallery replace the theater; the lecture hall goes before the symphony hall; the arena sits in lieu the club. Much as a reflection of my age, it’s a reflection of shifting routes in those neural pathways (though I should add, I still love the theater and the symphony).
But the combination of politics and tweeting has brought out a childlike sense of play, something long missing amidst the grey November days.
During a recent GOP debate that I began exchanging theatrical-esque theories on roles for candidates, especially within a (not altogether unsuitable) high school setting. My talented companion and I decided Rick Perry would be the boisterous gym coach who urges you to run faster even though your lungs are ready to explode, Jon Hunstman, the possibly-swoon-worthy English teacher who, by tossing off an insulting comment about your favorite poet, turns you off for life. Herman Cain would be the ever-frustrated business teacher who puts his hands on his head when the class gets too loud, while Newt Gingrich is the perpetually sour-faced math teacher who gives you a yelling-at whenever you ask too many seemingly-dumb questions. Michelle Bachmann would be the history teacher who’d assign you an essay and write you another one back if she didn’t like what you wrote. Rick Santorum would be the science teacher who’d argue with his own students, Ron Paul the classics teacher who’d go off on hour-long tangents and entertain student ideas about smoking in the caf.
Theater. Imagination. Possibility. Politics.
More, please. I love my bacon, and I’m not prepared to live without it.
Not now, or ever.

No Artificiality

A recent blog post on the organization A Work Of Heart was met with huge interest, and proved very popular across the internet. People applaud the marriage of creativity and commerce, because it doesn’t smack of the patronizing attitudes that so often dominate the conversation around aid.

Far too often there is a kind of smug arrogance over the role one may’ve played in some do-good initiative or another; one becomes more interested in our laser-pointed act of generosity to The Less Fortunate (who always, it must be said, remain nameless and faceless in their poverty) than in providing empowerment to achieve a livelihood not unlike our own. Western aid is often characterized by an agenda of righteousness, utterly lacking in awareness of history or culture. Self-empowerment, self-determination, responsibility and accountability… what’s that?

FELA! may have some answers. The mega-musical, produced by Jay-Z and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, revolves around the life and music of Nigerian artist Fela Kuti. While Kuti may have passed away in 1997, his work -and the show itself – underlines his political and artistic legacies for audiences, both white and black, Western and non-Western, in the 21st century. Kuti’s life revolved around politics and art, the hows and why and wherefores of the two intersecting, and the power created therein to affect real change, both in his short time on earth, and past it, for all time, for all Nigerians. Kuti’s sound is a musical smorgasbord of influences; he liberally mixed the sounds of indigenous African beats (namely Yoruba drums) with big American-sounding horns and twanging James Brown-style guitars. His work even betrays Middle Eastern influence; there’s a distinctly Klezmer mood in “Mr. Follow Follow” mixed in with the funky beats and bleating horns.
In FELA! the songs as used both as plot points and party anthems, and perhaps, both; the party becomes political, and the political becomes a party. “Water No Get Enemy”, “Expensive Shit” and “Zombie” are seamlessly interwoven throughout the piece, providing dialogue and narrative drive, along with groove and timeliness. The work may take place somewhere around 1977, but FELA! is less a period piece than it is an evocation of the power of music to empower a people and a nation. One nation under a groove, indeed.
Groove isn’t something that Toronto audiences immediately respond to in the theater, however. FELA! opened at the city’s Canon Theatre at the end of October, brought to Canada by Mirvish Productions. The show’s charismatic lead, Sahr Ngaujah immediately sensed some Canadian shyness during a recent Friday night performance, and he wasn’t pleased. The accomplished build the energy, doing call-and-responses, storming off the stage James Brown-style, and getting us on our feet to dance. Ngaujah also showed off his able improv abilities when, during one of his character’s asides chatting up the wonders of igbo (or marijuana), an eager audience member shrieked “Pass!” as he lit up what looked like a gigantic joint. Ngaujah looked up with a wicked smile, clearly delighted, and began riffing on the ups and downs of reefer-sharing. It was a warm, off-the-cuff moment that underlined the human heart beating at the center of FELA! as well as the steely resolve of its title character to play by his own rules, come hell or highwater.
As in Kuti’s life, the enemy in FELA! is the violent Nigerian government of the 1970s (and arguably, beyond that time period). On a larger scale, it attacks the endemic corruption of worldwide governments by corporate interests. The decision to have an unseen enemy, rather than actual physicalized figures, renders their evil deeds -the rape of Kuti’s “Queens”, the murder of his mother -more horrific, even as it solidifies Kuti’s defiance. Giant screens on either side of the stage portray various shots from the time and from the musician’s own life; scenes of mobs, arrests, beatings, of newspaper headlines, of shots of Kuti’s compound and The Shrine (the interior of which is the setting for the musical itself) provide a history lesson, but it’s wrapped in the pulsing sound of Afrobeat, the sonic hybrid Kuti pioneered and perfected. The production’s onstage band, including the talented Morgan Price (who does tenor sax solos) ups the energy ante, and provides able solemnity where needed. Captivating performances by the work’s female leads balance out the machismo. British actor Melanie Marshall does a stunning turn as Fela’s mother Funmilayo Kuti, her coloratura soprano soaring as she inspires her son even past the grave. L.A.-based actor Paulette Ivory is a force of nature as Sandra, Fela’s American wife. Whether she’s standing with hand on hip, head cocked, or belting out “Lover” in her strong pop-inflected voice, Ivory’s presence is, as we suspect with Sandra, one to be reckoned with.
Interestingly, Toronto critics, amidst their praise of the popular Tony Award-winning work, noted the lack of portraying Kuti’s polygamy, and the fact FELA! is lacking in physicalized bad guys – but those criticisms ignore what this work is really about: one man using his art to fight for change. The finale encapsulates the twin impulses toward art and politics that characterized Kuti’s life, combinining his untimely passing with that of other key political figures. It’s eerie -and eye-opening -to witness coffin after coffin being carried onstage and piled artfully in one corner, each coffin bearing the name of either a murdered figure (like Ken Saro-Wiwa), or a company (like Shell Oil) who must die so that The Shrine (aka Nigeria) might live. One understands more clearly the legacy Kuti left, not only for his own country, not only for his fans, but for people who are fighting for justice, dignity, empowerment, and respect.
Those issues are crystalline in their presentation, but they aren’t delivered with any didacticism or smugness. FELA! is too smart for that. Instead, the show is education via entertainment, enlightenment through electrical musical energy. The Torontonians at the Canon knew some of the songs, and could be heard (softly) singing the words or humming along. The subtext was understood, but they couldn’t help but get lost in the music. That’s the power of art, well done and well-executed. If only this marvelous Mirvish Production was playing longer than two weeks -this is precisely the kind of entertaining, electrifying, timely programming Toronto theatre needs. If you’re in the polite Canadian city, make time between now and Sunday (its closing day) to see FELA! -and make sure you shout, dance, and make noise. Not to be charitable – just because it feels so damn good.
Photo credits:
Top photo: Paulette Ivory and Sahr Ngaujah by Tristram Kenton
Middle photo: Catherine Foster, Sahr Ngaujah and Nicole de Weever ©Monique Carboni
Bottom photo: Sahr Ngaujah as Fela Kuti and the Broadway cast of FELA! ©Monique Carboni

Piano Heart

I don’t miss playing the piano. But I miss having a piano.

It was no easy thing to grow up in the shadow of a violinist and band leader, watched over by an opera aficionado, mocked by a large, grand piano parked like a monolith in the living room, its white and black keys jutting out like jagged, menacing teeth.

You don’t know what you’re doing! it always mocked, You’re just reading what’s in front of you! Anyone can do that!
Seeing 2 Pianos 4 Hands was an exercise in nostalgia. With its review of time signatures and keys, its lines about semitones and a syllabus, its portrayal of the dreaded Conservatory exams, the show, produced by Mirvish Productions and currently on at Toronto’s cozy Panasonic Theatre, gently, humorously reminded me of all the things I hated about my piano-centric past. When I began lessons at the tender age of four, I only knew it was fun to sit at a keyboard and go plunk-plunk-plunk. Over time, I derived a certain smug satisfaction from deciphering little black marks on a page. My considerably more-musical best friend across the street would come by and rock my staid classical world with his off-the-cuff, fast, fun, boogie-woogie improvisations and fancy-dancy pop tunes new and old. It irritated me because not only did it mess up the organized world of Bach, Beethoven et all the RCM presented, but it reminded me of what I could not do: play something fun, straight out of my head, without any little black squiggles for guidance. Music has an important role in my life, but it’s not an artform I can actively be a part of, because I am critically lacking in the one thing you need to make a go of it: real musical talent.
It was when I dropped formal music lessons that I realized visual and written arts come far more naturally to me than sonic ones. Writing, drawing, and photography are work -sometimes torturously so -but the kind of work I enjoy. I don’t revel in failure so much as get nervous at the prospect of throwing all my dirty laundry out for public scrutiny. It was bolstering, then, to see two men who, for all their success in other artistic disciplines, willingly reveal their shared failure at being full-time professional musicians. Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt, 2P4H’s co-creators, are good at a lot of things, mainly within the realm of performance -that includes acting, directing, writing, and yes, lots of very-able piano-playing. A pair of Horowitzes they are not, but then, that’s just the point. Not everyone can -or should -be.
2 Pianos 4 Hands paints a portrait of artistry frustrated by the relentless slings and arrows of reality. The show was first performed at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre in 1995, and has since gone on to play over 175 different theaters worldwide, including a six-month run at the Kennedy Center in Washington. The production is simple, with two huge grand, Yamaha pianos facing each other, and the leads kitted out in formal suits (including tails) and alternating characters: piano teachers, parents, their disgruntled childhood and teenaged selves. What could easily slip into saccharine territory comes crashing back into the sour zone, thanks in part to the duo’s finely-tuned sense of timing. Moments that could be difficult for non-classical music lovers to stomach (young Ted’s swooning over a live recording of Vladimir Horowitz at Carnegie Hall, for instance) are quickly given necessary shots of levity (an eyeroll here, a shrug there), elements that work in tandem with the innate chemistry between Dykstra and Greenblatt. The trust they have, in each other, the material, their abilities, the music, shows, and extends itself to both emotional scenes (like those involving a face-off between young “Teddy” and his strict father) and comedic ones (such as young Richard’s meltdown during a music competition), offering some far more than the warm-hearted fuzzies a memory show might imply. Artistic passion and brutal truths are dished out with equal vigor, making the final scene -of the two playing J.S. Bach’s Concerto in D minor, 1st Movement -all the more poignant. With the two pianos joined in one fussy piece of Baroque splendor, the line between music and theatre is rubbed away, with performer and performance becoming one expression of frustrated dreams, of altered plans, of new awakenings. 2 Pianos 4 Hands is one of those shows that makes you think, and feel, and remember, and hope, all at once. No small feat.
My child-like urge to plunk around on the keys bubbles up every now and again, minus the heavy weight of classical-music education squashing my innate creative curiosity. That’s the spark of where all my artistic (and journalistic) pursuits come from, after all- from that prickly-skinned, many-tentacled, multi-eyed, fast-swimming creature called curiosity. Part of giving in to that creature means enduring the occasional mental shit-kicking to keep at it, to commit, to sit in the damn chair until it’s done, and to go deeper and reach higher and be better. But what if you hit the glass ceiling? What if there is no “better”? Coming face-to-face with that reality is no easy task; acknowledging it in public, in front of a group of strangers, in the dark, on a stage, every night can be downright terrifying, a horror show of the highest order. But risk is good, and, in the realm of the arts, an absolute necessity. Risk keeps curiosity happy and alive. Kudos to Dykstra and Greenblatt -and to all the frustrated artists. Thank you for putting your risk on display. We hear, we paint, we write, we read, we see. Thank you for taking that risk. Thank you for the music.
Photo credits:
Top photo, Wikipedia.
Middle photo by Rick O’Brien.
2 Pianos 4 Hands photos courtesy Mirvish Productions.

Flippant Coward


Sitting in the grand velvet cushiness of the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto on a recent Sunday afternoon, I was struck by the theater unfolding around me. Ladies parading in all manner of frippery, many tottering on high heels their bridled, bejeweled hooves were desperate to break free of, wearing so many coatings of makeup and perfume as to be aromatically plastic, with cleavage hiked up to the neck and porn star pouts perfected.

The blonde woman behind me, in a black and white mini-dress several sizes too small for her frame and with towering hair that whispered of Moroccan oil and synthetic extensions, decided the time was right to voice loud opinions just as the lights went down.
“Why are they clapping?” she hissed as the over-eager audience broke out in applause when leads Paul Gross, and then Kim Cattrall appeared onstage.
“Shhhhh,” urged her suited, slick-haired seatmate.
“What?!” she continued, “They’re just onstage.”
“Ssssshhhhhhhh,” he continued, with some alarm.
“I mean, Gawwd, calm down, people,” she continued, unabated, “They’re just actors.”
“C’mon, it’s starting.”
“What?! People clapping? Jesus. They’re not in a marathon or something.”
Aren’t they? I wondered, smiling.
She finally shut up so the show could start, but it got me thinking.
Playing Coward is a kind of dance; doing him well is more of a marathon – albeit a well-dressed one involving martinis and silk pajamas and many, many well-placed, well-timed words. Cattrall and Gross are locked in a thrilling two-hour marathon of wills, hearts, words, and energies. This is possibly the most competitive production of Private Lives I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying something; I’ve seen this particular play well over a dozen times, on a few continents, and each time I’ve taken something a bit different away – but all those variations doesn’t erase the delicious rhythm of Coward’s words, nor his brutal portrayal of the chattering, wining, dining, whining, whipping, slipping, shouting, punching upper classes, and their awful, awfully funny, awfully familiar way of living and loving.
Richard Eyre’s lush production, currently running in Toronto through the end of October, was last seen in London’s West End. This Canadian run is a warm-up for the Broadway run that begins in November. New York audiences would be wise to put aside their notions of Coward as a pish-posh playwright full of puffery, and pay close attention to the vital physicality Eyre brings to the 1930 work. Private Lives revolves around the quarreling, querying, cooing, cuddling, and wholly caustic exes Elyot and Amanda, who run into one another while each is on their respective second honeymoons. Words and fists fly back and forth with equal vigor, making for an engrossing production that milks the gender wars while highlighting the importance of flippancy through deft timing and clear body language.

“Is all this sophisticated, feckless, irresponsible flippancy the stuff that will endure?” asked Tatler after the play’s 1930 premiere. Of course it has. Irresponsible flippancy will endure, has endured, and in so many ways, should endure. Private Lives is as known for its barbed witty flippancies, flung back and forth like jaunty shuttlecocks, as it is for its depiction of scary co-dependency in intimate relationships. Coward is a master of flippant verbiage, holding a brutal, dark mirror to the creme fraiche of everyday experience, exposing the rotting fish-smelling underbelly of polite society with a smile, a martini, and an invitation to dance amidst the detritus.

It’s important to keep this delicious sense of expose in mind when watching Eyre’s gorgeous, glimmering production. Set and costume designer Rob Howell’s tidy, boxy balconies of the First Act’s honeymoon scene are simply too polite, too neat, too orderly, for Coward’s co-dependent heroes. Their wrought-iron-meets-greenery nicety can’t contain such volatile lovers. The huge, circular Parisian apartment where they escape is equally telling in its beautiful design; it implies the maddeningly cyclical nature of their relationship, one marked by vigorous, fighting, freaking, and… well, you might fill in the blank. Amanda (Kim Cattrall) and Elyot (Paul Gross) are like the yin and yang of an angry, amorphous amoeba that, between sips of martinis and champagne, screeches I love you/I hate you even as the creature – this monstrous thing called a “relationship” -swallows itself whole, dividing, again and again, into something we all wish we didn’t recognize.

So where’s the relief? Ah, that’s easy. The vitality of flippancy is what powers much of Coward’s work, and it has its very-best, most shining, flouncy display and expression in Private Lives. Flippancy’s souffle-like texture is sometimes a better balm than the soggy bandage of dew-eyed, saccharine sincerity. As Elyot notes, “All the futile moralists who try to make life unbearable. Laugh at them. . . . Laugh at everything, all their sacred shibboleths.” Private Lives wants you to be laughing at the absurd. It demands it. Even when Elyot and Amanda leave their respective mates and vanish into the night… laugh! When they worry over their respective mates’ well-being and wind up making love… laugh! When Elyot strikes Amanda and she strikes him back, without restraint… laugh! Laugh!, the work dares us, voila, shibboleths! Encore, rire!
That isn’t to say domestic violence is ever hilarious or not a thing to be taken seriously, but it does ask the viewer to confront the sacred cows that amble across one’s perceptions of propriety, comedy, relationship and romance, and whence they all doth meet in the dark alleys of life. Such presentation also calls to mind the possible literary inspirations behind the figures of Elyot and Amanda. The play is a puffy, meringue-like counterpart to the heavy steak of other dueling-couples works; their leads the sweet profiteroles to the sour pickles of George and Martha, their verbal wordplay is no less clever than Beatrice and Benedict. There is most certainly a palpable sense of competition between Cattrall and Gross, one that informs and powers much of the energy behind this particular Broadway-bound production.
Of all the memorable Elyots I’ve seen – Anton Lesser in London, Alan Rickman in New York – Paul Gross’ interpretation is easily the most brusque. His Elyot seems entirely disinterested in the niceties of civil society, and engages in them only so long as they amuse him, or those around him. The dark violence of the character is underlined with Gross’ deeply physical performance, as he throttles Amanda in the Paris apartment where the newlyweds escape to reunite with one another. It should be noted, Kim Cattrall’s Amanda gives as good as she gets; hers is an equally brutish interpretation, and put beside Juliet Stevenson and Lindsay Duncan respectively, is easily the most masculine of Amandas. Oh sure, Cattrall charmingly swans about, first in a towel, then a gorgeous flesh-tone gown, then a swishy silk robe, and finally a prim, fitted skirt-suit – but these are all feathers on a wolf. As the play progresses, Cattrall spits out her lines with such a crescendo of venom you begin to wonder if she’d be better suited to the boxing ring. When Elyot berates her for promiscuity, pronouncing that it “doesn’t suit women,” she retorts, in full eff-you mode, hand on jutted-out hip, that it doesn’t suit men for women to be promiscuous. There was more than a small hint of Samantha in that line, the character from Sex And The City Cattrall is known for, and the line itself received a hearty cheer at the opening. One senses Cattrall’s Amanda is promiscuous less out of sheer lust than out of sheer rage at being born the wrong sex. Vengeance drives her much the same way it does her (ex-ish) husband, but she expresses it more through well-placed words and large physicality than in actions.
Indeed, flippancy is what makes the hurtful, hilarious, the painful, pleasurable, the unbearable, bearable. Richard Eyre’s production of Private Lives reminds us of this wisdom in bouts of brilliant shallowness and bold declaration. Much more than a writer of witty sex comedies with well-dressed people sipping martinis, Coward’s work is a witty sex comedy with well-dressed people sipping martinis -and saying really, really smart, wise things. Pay attention to the language, and how it’s used: to soothe, seduce, insult, insinuate, degrade, debase. Rarely do we see polite society reflected with so much venom; even more rarely do we see it dressed so well, and so heartily applauded by those who are being mocked.
I emerged from the Royal Alexandra Theatre thinking that we all probably have a bit of Amanda and Elyot about us. The couple behind me had taken off early -presumably to fight, to love, to spar with words and fists and flying drinks. In short, to live another day. Hopefully with a sense of humor, and always, always well-dressed.
All photos by Cylla von Tiedemann, courtesy Mirvish Productions.

Turn On The Dark

A documentary aired on television earlier tonight about the legendary Chrysler Building here in New York. It brought to mind the incredible sets of Spider Man: Turn Off The Dark. Apparently the famous landmark features prominently in the musical’s scenic design, by George Tsypin.

The troubled (and hopefully now, not-so-troubled) production opened tonight at the Foxwoods Theater. I’ve been following the show’s developments for a while, and was one of its biggest boosters, until actor Christopher Tierney suffered a serious injury last December. Then I just got worried. Then frustrated. Then angry. I followed, with some horror, the drama involving director / co-creator Julie Taymor being forced out by the show’s producers, in March. Things seemed very ugly and uncertain for a while, and it’s something of a miracle the show is finally opening tonight. I’m happy for everyone, though until I see it, I’m going to withhold judgment, and good or bad ideas. Still, I remain very curious.
Lastnight I somewhat quenched that curiosity, and joined a few hundred curious other folk to hear two of Spider Man’s producers, who are also its composers (and, oh yeah, mega-mondo big-ass rock stars), spoke in a public forum about the show, its problems, its challenges and its potential. The 92nd Street Y buzzed with energy as the 8pm start time came and went. The intimate auditorium brimmed with either super-excited super-U2-ers, or Broadway fans curious about what the Irish pair might have to say as newcomers to the Great White Way. Author Salman Rushdie was also present, along with a smattering of New York intellgentsia and longtime Y supporters, who sat in thoughtful silence, even as a small but annoying smattering of gushing female mondo-fans over-clapped and giggled at every little rock star face. (Note to self: next time there’s an empty seat beside Mr. Rushdie, take it.)
Interviewer Jordan Roth, President of Jujamcyn Theaters (the company behind shows like the award-winning The Book Of Mormon and Jersey Boys) and host of Broadway Talks at 92nd Street Y, asked the two about the attraction of the live stage. Edge rightly pointed out that “(U2) found its feet on a live stage”, while Bono noted that “there’s a thing happening in culture at the moment, where the live arts seem more important than the recording.” He continued:

It’s that inexplicable thing when you get a great performer and great material, and it can only happen in a live context. We were intrigued by it, and we’d seen some great shows like Les Miz and some of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s shows. We saw the chance to do something where we could take advantage of what we were playing around with in rock ‘n roll, and if it was the right project, it might be something we’d want to do.

I pondered this as I sat through the nearly-90 minute Q&A session, which was equal parts frustration (far too much uncritical fan worship) and fascination (body language indicating extreme nervousness for at least one of the composers), peppered with plenty of charm, sarcasm, and humor. The interview was a mix of casual and formal, focusing on U2’s creative output, and its connection with the experience of writing and producing on Broadway. Inane questions about “who do you think the next Gandhi will be?” aside (a fan question submitted earlier), it was, for the most part, an interesting mix of honesty, humor, and humility, offering a rare insight into the harried journey of composition and creativity from two very, very famous men.

Walking out of the Y at the talk’s end, I reflected on the power of live arts, and of theater especially. Sunday night saw my Twitter stream fill with people’s reactions and observations on the Tony Awards, which were unfolding in real-time. People were virtual fist-pumping, guffawing, loudly declaiming -it was a drama in and of itself -as they found a community of like-minded, live-loving souls whose whole existence seemed focused on the sheer pleasure of watching live people do rather ordinary things extraordinarily well. In the wired up world of the 21st century, there’s something awfully reassuring and simply good about going to the theater; there’s a certain kind of bond created, however unspoken, between audience and cast and crew -it’s a symbiotic relationship involving trust, tech, timbre, and sometimes even tap-dancing. MP3s, iPads, and fancy mobiles with a millions apps can’t compete -and shouldn’t. To see this kind of passion replicated on Twitter for the Tonys was an interesting experience; it’s the same phenomenon as during the Oscars, or any other awards show, or any other big event, for that matter. There’s a community -but it isn’t the same as live theater. Being part of a group of living, breathing, sweating human beings in the dark, watching other living, breathing, sweating human beings lit up and performing before you is a uniquely delicious experience, one that speaks to our common humanity and desire for shared, live experience.
Saturday night I was able to finally able to partake in this shared experience. I attended my first piece of theater since moving to New York, which felt like somewhat of a momentous occasion, even if I went in with mixed feelings about Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia. I completely overlooked that awkwardness in favour of the opportunity to see -no, experience -real live people onstage, playing. Playing roles, and beautifully, simply, playing. (As it turns out, David Leveaux’s production was so excellent, I’m now a confirmed Arcadia fan.) This is something I think the composers of Spider Man inherently understand; they have, for wont of a better word, been playing, literally and figuratively, onstage now for thirty-plus years. Transferring that energetic faith and exuberant zeitgeist for live performance into a real, concrete thing that serves the difficult, choosy twins of narrative and character is always an uphill struggle, especially if you’re used to composing within the fiercely competitive, pressure-cooker world of Broadway.
Lastnight, Bono admitted that the show still has “10%” left to improve on, and won’t close that gap for at least another two months. “In the end, The Edge and I have got good manners, we’re fun… but we are motherf***ckers,” he noted. There was steel in the singer’s husky voice, a characteristically Dublin-esque stare-down in his no-nonsense expression, devoid of usual charm, but with a bald, toothsome authenticity that made the comment -and its delivery -deeply affecting and entirely believable. That simple, blunt acknowledgement captured the sexy, succulent siren’s call of play and creativity, and her fraught relationship with the ugly, gargoyle-like nose-to-the-grindstone practicality that could only (and must only) be Lady Siren’s lifelong mate. What results is frequently personal, but when you’re in the performing arts, it winds up being writ large, up for debate, criticism, hounding, and eternal judgment. Such is the fate of such a union, of such a scary, scintillating, and in many ways, artistically necessary undertaking. A near-alchemical mix of faith and hard work sometimes open doors to new worlds -and sometimes not.
In the end, the mantra is simple: Work hard. Play hard. Live hard. That is theater’s call to all of us, however we may choose to weave our webs.
Photo credits:

Spider Man: Turn The Dark Off Photo © Jacob Cohl.
Bono / The Edge set Photo © Richard Perry / The New York Times.
92nd Street Y stage photo from my Flickr photostream.

Web Writing

My recent blog silence isn’t so much for lack of what to write about, but what to focus on. Choose one thing’ has been a constant mantra throughout my life. Social media has been both a blessing and a curse in terms of widening perspective and simultaneously driving home a tendency to un-focus; no wonder being on an airplane recently, with laptop purposely packed away, produced a weirdo mix of panic and relief.

Settling on one thing was enough of a challenge, but once I chose my topic, there were several developments that occurred with incredible rapidity, forcing updates and edits. And then, I had second, third, eleventh, twenty-eighth thoughts on posting it. I don’t like writing about things I haven’t seen, much less giving play to conjecture. But the drama at the center of the Broadway production of Spider Man: Turn Off The Dark has been weighing heavily on my mind -for the way it’s been treated in popular media, for the reports I’ve received from those who have seen it, from the things shared with me from those who’ve worked with its director, and, mainly, for my absolute love of the theatrical medium, and the close-knit family unit that squals, squeals and shrieks at its crying, bleeding, puking, unquestionably messy core.

As reported lastnight, director Julie Taymor’s role has been altered -or, to be frank, greatly diminished; the New York Times offered a “precipitous” headline on top of a solid piece of reporting, though the piece had a noticeable undercurrent of sadness that perfectly reflected my feelings at the situation. Theater is nothing but a sum of its creators/cast/crew parts, a singing, dancing Frankenstein monster that might provoke a few tears, jeers, cheers, but always, hopefully, a gilded memory framed in sighs, frills, & the tunes you’ll hum the next day. Show producers Michael Cohl and Jeremiah Harris along with composers Bono and The Edge felt Spider Man: Turn Off The Dark needed more neck bolts, some matching arms, a solid pair of shoes to walk in (though not of the “furious” eight-legged variety) and more smoochy time with the proverbial Mrs. Frankenstein. I briefly referenced the show in a past blog in which I attended The Fantasticks, and observed how low-tech it must’ve been to my companion, who’d been to the Foxwoods Theater not long before. I felt a little ripple of excitement spotting the ads and theater marquee recently. Something new is going on there, I thought. It’s hard, but so is life. So is theater. And to some, theater is life. Doctor Frankenstein had to work hard to imbue his creature with it.

The hyper-critical response to Spider Man: Turn Off The Dark is due, in part, to the starry names attached to the project; its composers are well-known rock dudes, while its director is the woman behind one of the most original pieces of theater ever produced. Famous rich people are easy targets, especially when it comes to a public spectacle involving putting one of American pop culture’s most famous (and beloved) figures onstage. Through death, bankruptcy, accolades, accidents, an addition, a withdrawl, and big, name-making snark, the show has chugged on, drawing big crowds and averaging good weekly totals. The ocean of words written about the show are a truer reflection of the lack of awareness in the general public for how theater works (or should work) and is less about the show itself, which most people who are writing (journalists aside) haven’t seen. It also shows an awesome ignorance towards the nasty politics of playing on Broadway, where artistic integrity and creativity are frequently last on the list of priorities for a Really Big Show (ROI is #1, in case you’re wondering). It all has to start somewhere -any show, large or small does -and once the germ of the idea has been sewn, the care and cultivation come when words first hit the screen. Setting: a bare stage, or, Setting: Peter Parker’s bedroom. Whatever the case, it starts with the words.

And the weak writing in Spider Man: Turn Off The Dark has been a source of concern for professional theater writers and audiences alike. This was the main complaint of my friend who’s seen it, and it’s been highlighted in the vast, bitter sea of sniping. I had a long conversation with a theater-producer friend recently, about the demands of staging a new live show, and about the pressures from investors, who frequently want to see a quick return on the money they’ve put out; with the pressure and intense public scrutiny this show is under, it seems at least plausible that the written aspect got overtaken by the fancier, much-more-hype-friendly-and-frankly-sexy special effects. He flies! He leaps! He lands on balconies! He’ll be swooshing over your head! As was pointed out in an informative article on theater-flying recently, flying = sales. Might it be a fair suggestion that Julie Taymor, for all her intense creativity, felt more pressured to focus on the visual (ie money-making) aspects of the show, and less on the actual writing? Maybe. Or maybe not. She had a decade, goes the accusation. She’d never written before. She didn’t want to make any changes. She was forced to walk the plank. Blahblahblah.

I’m left, after observing and following all these dramatic (and probably truamatic) developments, asking one small question: did anyone at the beginning suggest an outside voice (like a dramaturge) was needed? Or did the situation become like a cartoon snowball, rolling down a hill, picking up toboggans, trees, feckless bystanders, in its raging, manic race to inevitable explosion?

It’s all conjecture, and it’s worth remembering that much of what’s coming out now about the show is just that. Julie Taymor didn’t experience a soft landing, and I doubt anyone associated with the show will at this point. But we can only guess. It’s all a series of web-laced question marks. I’m going to hold off on making any firm judgments on Spider Man on Broadway until I see it. For the sake of everyone involved, I hope they, as a collective Dr. Frankenstein, can get their creature on its feet. Some of us still want to believe.

Update: the new opening of Spider Man: Turn Off The Dark is June 14th.

Middle photo credit:
Jacob Cohl / AP Photo /The O and M Co.

Battle Royale

After seeing Oleanna for the first time, it’s a challenge to try to describe its effects in any meaningful way. Has it changed the way I view women, men, academia, relationships, privilege, and language? Yes. But finding the words to describe it… well, I’m at a loss. And the play? It’s infuriating, exhilerating, inspiring, difficult, breath-taking and exasperating. It’s also important.

David Mamet’s 1992 work is a two-hander that takes place in the office of a university professor. It offers us three different scenes, each with student Carol and teacher John. The first Act finds Carol coming to John for help with the course he’s teaching; from there, it moves into decidedly greyer areas that explore notions of power, privilege, position, and persuasion. As with so many of Mamet’s works, the language is deadly, sharp, occasionally sadistic, if always mesmerizing.

Soulpepper Theatre Company in Toronto opened their 13th season with Oleanna recently. Yowls about ‘that isn’t Canadian!‘ aside (really? in 2011? “World-class city”, remember!), it’s important to note that the award-winning troupe’s last Mamet production (of Glengarry Glen Ross) was so successful, it was remounted, and then extended to keep up with audience demand. The show was a tour-de-force of acting, production, and direction, all singing in a sweet symphonic harmony of cuss words, tossed papers, and overturned desks. Now, with Oleanna (running at the Young Centre through March 5th), they’ve yet again given Toronto audiences both a performance treat as well as a production that matches the nasty bite of Mamet’s monster of controversy. Brav-f*cking-oh, as the snappish playwright might write.

A big part of the production’s appeal, along with designer Teresa Przybylski’s fascinatingly crooked set and director Laszlo Marton’s masterful direction, is the acting. Soulpepper co-founder Diego Matamoros plays John, with equal parts pity, fury, ignoble entitlement and patronizing candour. Actor Sarah Wilson brings fistfuls of fortitude, attitude, and deep, wide-eyed passion to her role as Carol.

Their onstage exchanges are quietly disturbing and brilliantly explosive, building from small hand grenades to a full-on Dresden-style bombing. You’ll leave the theatre devastated -which is exactly as it should be.

Sarah and I recently exchanged ideas about Carol, the play, and the power struggle therein. It’s fascinating to read her insights, even if you haven’t seen (or heard, or read) Oleanna; the ideas about privilege, language, high educaton, confidence, and expectations around female behaviour are especially thought-provoking not just within the context of higher education, but the worlds of finance, law, development, media, and even (gulp) the arts.

How did you think of Oleanna prior to your being offered the role?

I’d read Oleanna in theatre school, but I think it was in a flurry of play-reading, because all I really remembered was that it was controversial, that there was a great female part, and that there was a fight. So, not much history, but not much baggage either.

Your role in Oleanna is so different from the other roles I’ve seen you do. Is it exhausting to play? or energizing? A bit of both?

I find this play requires a lot of energy, but it’s about focus, not athleticism. I remember rehearsing Act 1 and just praying that we’d move the heck on to Act II. I mean, we’d be doing it all day, so that was certainly part of it, but Act III, once Carol has a cause and responsibility, can absolutely be energizing in a way that I don’t think Act 1 ever will be.

What sorts of things did Laszlo tell you to keep in mind in terms of approaching Carol? What sorts of things did you think were important?

In Act 1 (the first meeting), Laszlo was very clear that he didn’t want Carol to be self-pitying about not understanding the work. That she thinks that her inability to understand the course is his failure as a teacher, not hers as a student, since she’s done all the work he told her to do. It makes the communication gap between them much larger, since they’re now starting from different places: he thinks she’s failing as a studen, she thinks he’s failing as a teacher.

In parts of Act III, he’d tell me to be “sharp as hell.” That she doesn’t need to be gentle. Any time I softened at particular points, wanting, I suppose, to make it sting less for John, he’d tell me not to…she doesn’t have to be nice, she’s right. And she’s got a responsibility to her group, which is a far greater thing than either of their feelings. It’s interesting, because I wonder if something people react to about Carol is that she’s not sweet. She’s rarely charming, she’s not flirtatious…she just doesn’t act the way she’s ‘supposed’ to, in a way that might make her opinions more palatable. What if, as she told him that her group suffers like this every day, she cried? Would that make him understand? Why?

And we would talk about how she’s not evil, she’s not at all villainous… she’s right. Which was of course, extremely important to me. She says, “I don’t want revenge, I want understanding“, and I believe her. I understand her. Hell, I love her. I just wanted to make sure that I understood her, so I could do my best to act well.

There’s an obvious structure of Him-Talking-A-Lot that goes to Her-Talking-A-Lot. How much do you think this unseen “group” she alludes to plays a role in her moving into pseudo-confidence and articulateness? How much of it is genuine?

Carol’s speech does change dramatically from Act 1 to Act III, and I think that’s largely due to confidence. Confidence transforms a person. You look different, people see you differently, you sound different…once she finds the language to describe what it is that angers her so deeply, what she feels is so unjust, she uses it. In Act I, she wasn’t able to name it. It was foggy, and then, it was not. There are still words she doesn’t know, of course, because she’s new to this. She doesn’t know the word ‘indictment’, and she’s not ashamed to say so, which I think shows real confidence.

Again, it’s interesting to wonder what the difference would be if she said (like I very well might), “Sorry, sorry, can you tell me what indictment means? Sorry.” I don’t think I’d call what she has pseudo-confidence. I think it’s genuine. She’s doing her very best at this language game with a man who’s been playing it a lot longer than her.

As far as her group, it’s an interesting question. We talked a lot in rehearsal about how really, in the end, they’re both losers within these systems that provides some with privilege at the expense of others. The school is a system, patriarchy is a system, and her group may very well be another one, although I don’t think they’re a bunch of crazed students trying to take down John and any similar colleagues. I think they’re a group which shares the same hope and rage, and is trying to make the world better. Maybe she’s being used, maybe not. Maybe every system must be flawed. But I think as far as her confidence, it’s genuine.

Why do you think Carol has so much anger toward the Professor?

There’s a quote I came across that says, “Some people are born on third base and spend all their lives thinking they hit a triple.” Being from a lower economic class than most of her students, and certainly of John, Carol is aware he’s been handed things which she has worked very hard for. That’s all fine, and very possibly inescapable, but it’s infuriating that he doesn’t know it.

To be able to say that higher education is a joke is a privilege. He’s so blase about rules and how stupid rules are because he’s the one that gets to make them up whenever he damn well pleases, and ignore them whenever they don’t suit him. If you are not quite so economically or geographically lucky, you have to bust your ass to follow these rules, and then to be told they’re worthless… that makes you a chump. Every time he puts down higher education, he’s calling her, and everyone like her, a sucker.

Carol’s not a kid who was taken to the museum on weekends. There wasn’t a family ski pass. She’s just had to work harder than others, but then, after she’s busted her ass according to the rules (she says ‘You have no idea what it cost me to get to this school’), he changes them. Just because he likes her. It’s that easy for him. All because of privilege, “and he won’t know it.” I swear, in many ways I think Carol’s incredibly patient and generous with him. I’d try to stab him in the neck with a pen half a minute into Act II.

My point is that it’s a larger issue for Carol. He said and did what she complains about because of this basic belief he has that he is entitled. And his entitlement means she, and her group, get thrown under the bus on a daily basis. And so she asks, “What gives you the right?” Which is, I think, more than fair.

There is a strong hint that Carol is a survivor of sexual assault. How much did you try to fill in the blanks of her past?

So hard to say. I mean, it’s never specified, but do I think she’s been through some kind of sexual assault? Yeah, I do. Hell, statistically, it’s very, very possible. She reacts very strongly to being touched, twice. As far as filling in the blanks, it was more important for me to think about money, and what a college education means to someone whose family doesn’t have any. What enormous pressure that is…she begins some sentences, like, “How can I go back and tell them the grades that I…” which, like all the other half sentences, I needed to finish.

You’ve worked with Diego now a few times -did that make working with him here? That fight at the end is super-intense…

This is my third show with Diego, and I guess we’ve known each other several years now. It made everything easier. We’ve seen each other work, we know how Laszlo works, and it just means that in a two-hander like this, the process (both rehearsals and after opening) can go further than it otherwise might. In a play like this where there’s so much intensity, it’s really nice to be able to be relaxed with the other actor.

How much do you think Mamet wanted people to take “sides” -or at least react This seems like a play that wants a strong reaction…

I’m just guessing, of course, but I think that if Mamet wanted you to take sides, it’s just so he could pull the rug out from under you a minute later. I mean, there are clearly two (or three, or four, depending how you count ’em) big red buttons pushed in Act III, which I think are absolutely there to make you react very strongly.
But then, you judge, you make your decision about who is the good guy and who is the bad guy, and there’s that last button, and who do you cheer for then? Who is right, and why? And what gives you the right to decide? It’s this endless, maddening string of questions. That’s my favourite thing about the play, really. Anything you think about it…whether you love it, hate it, love or hate Carol, love or hate John…you have to ask yourself why, and you’re confronted with how blatantly your opinion is shaped by your own privilege, or lack of it.

Photo credits:
Illustration by Chris Silas Neal
Oleanna Production Photos by Bruce Zinger
Photo of Laszlo Marton from LaszloMarton.net
Photo of Sarah Wilson by Sandy Nicholson

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