While he disappears

In today’s Wall Street Journal I report on two important shows that I saw during my recent trip to Chicago, Chicago Shakespeare’s King Lear and the Court Theatre’s Native Son. Here’s an excerpt.

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In Chicago Shakespeare’s modern-dress production of “King Lear,” directed by Barbara Gaines, Larry Yando plays the mad old king as a snarling, capricious Frank Sinatra buff who has one foot caught in the quicksand of dementia. If you think that sounds gimmicky, think twice: Mr. Yando and Ms. Gaines have given us a colossal “Lear” whose sheer visceral impact is unrivaled. Watching it is like staring down a typhoon.

tn-500_lear2Mr. Yando is well known to Chicago playgoers for his fearlessly forthright acting in Writers’ Theatre’s “Dance of Death” and the Court Theatre’s “Angels in America.” Even for him, though, this is a career-clinching performance, noteworthy not just for its unflagging intensity (he is fully as potent in the first half of the play as he is after intermission) but also for its textured complexity. Great violence alternates unpredictably with great tenderness in Mr. Yando’s Lear. At once frightened and frightening, he lashes out with startling physicality at his family and followers to cloak the slow crumbling of his consciousness, making all the more terrible the question that he asks of his Fool: “Who is it that can tell me who I am?”

Ms. Gaines is equally well known for the imaginative integrity of her high-concept Shakespeare stagings, and this “Lear” is exemplary of the virtues of her populist approach. Working closely with Lindsay Jones, the sound designer, she has woven Sinatra’s recordings into the fabric of the play, using “Angel Eyes,” the Matt Dennis torch song whose haunting last line is “’Scuse me while I disappear,” as a recurring motif that foreshadows to wrenchingly apposite effect Lear’s final disintegration….

“Native Son,” Richard Wright’s 1940 novel about a young black man from Chicago who recaptures his lost masculinity by killing a rich white debutante, is so inherently dramatic that several adaptations have made it to the stage, starting with the now-legendary Mercury Theatre version by Orson Welles and John Houseman that ran on Broadway in 1941. Now the latest version, adapted by Nambi E. Kelley and directed by Seret Scott, is being performed to stirring and timely effect by the Court Theatre.

The challenge of dramatizing “Native Son” is that the book relies on third-person narration. Ms. Kelley has responded by splitting Bigger Thomas, the protagonist, into the “real” Bigger (Jerod Haynes) and an alter ego (Eric Lynch) who gives voice to his suppressed inner thoughts, a convention similar to that employed by Brian Friel in “Philadelphia, Here I Come!” It’s a convincing theatrical illustration of the way in which Bigger emasculates himself by hiding his simmering rage from the white world, and Messrs. Haynes and Lynch fit their dynamic performances together like the two sides of a freshly minted coin….

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To read my review of King Lear, go here.

To read my review of Native Son, go here.

The trailer for Chicago Shakespeare’s King Lear:

Frank Sinatra sings “Angel Eyes” on The Frank Sinatra Timex Show in 1959:

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The case of the satanic philanthropist

facade_completeIn today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column I discuss the critical and political contretemps stirred up by the opening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new David H. Koch Plaza. Here’s an excerpt.

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If you’ve walked past New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art lately, you’ll have noticed the brand-new plaza in front of the building with the Beaux-Arts façade that is home to America’s greatest art collection. Whenever alterations are made to a familiar structure, opinions usually vary widely and sharply. But one view is currently drowning out all others: Several art critics are miffed by the fact that golden letters emblazoned on the Met’s new twin fountains identify the site as the David H. Koch Plaza, in honor of the trustee who wrote the $65 million check that paid for it in full….

These critics, and others like them, appear to have at least as much of a problem with Mr. Koch as they do with “his” plaza. Why? If you pay any attention to politics, you won’t need to be told that Mr. Koch, the ninth-richest man in America, is the junior half of the notorious Koch Brothers, who give huge sums of money to right-of-center politicians and causes….

In our bipolar age, political purists are increasingly disposed to raise a stink whenever arts groups accept gifts from sources deemed by said purists to be unworthy. This tendency initially manifested itself in the case of tobacco companies like Philip Morris International that supported the arts. No doubt the company’s commitment to what it calls “corporate social responsibility” was in part an attempt to divert attention from its less-than-socially responsible products. Nevertheless, the fact of its generosity is not to be ignored—or despised….

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Read the whole thing here.

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In case you’re free on Monday…

298ca073292837f9527c4d1273aedf86_posterI thought it might be worth reminding you that I’ll be making a public appearance on Monday night as part of Project Shaw’s staged reading of George Bernard Shaw’s Village Wooing, a little-known comic two-hander written in 1933. I’ll be sharing the stage of Symphony Space with Jefferson Mays and J. Smith-Cameron, of whose fabulous talents regular theatergoers doubtless already aware. They’ll be doing all the acting, thank heavens. My sole function will be to read the stage directions out loud in my most mellifluous voice.

Symphony Space is at 95th Street and Broadway. The show starts at seven p.m. on Monday. To order tickets or for more information, go here.

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A little list

Stan_Getz_Captain_MarvelJerry Jazz Musician, a web-based magazine out of Portland, Oregon, that describes itself as being “devoted to jazz and 20th-century America,” has just published a symposium that asks the following question: “What are 3 or 4 of your favorite jazz record albums of the 1970′s?” The participants include (among others) Michael Cuscuna, Eliane Elias, Gary Giddins, Bennie Maupin, Marc Myers, Tierney Sutton, and me. Not surprisingly, our choices ranged very widely.

To see what albums we picked, go here.

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So you want to see a show?

Here’s my list of recommended Broadway, off-Broadway, and out-of-town shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews (if sometimes qualifiedly so) in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.

Cabaret (musical, PG-13/R, closes Jan. 4, reviewed here)
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
BxwClM8CIAA3kJLLove Letters (drama, PG-13, closes Feb. 1, reviewed here)
Matilda (musical, G, reviewed here)
Les Misérables (musical, G, too long and complicated for young children, reviewed here)
Once (musical, G/PG-13, reviewed here)
This Is Our Youth (drama, PG-13, closes Jan. 4, reviewed here)

The Fatal Weakness (drama, PG-13, closes Oct. 26, reviewed here)
The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)

Arms and the Man (comedy, G/PG-13, closes Oct. 18, reviewed here)
When We Are Married (comedy, PG-13, closes Oct. 26, reviewed here)

American Buffalo (drama, PG-13, closes Nov. 8, reviewed here)

The Sea (black comedy, PG-13, closes Oct. 26, closes Oct. 12, reviewed here)

The Doctor’s Dilemma (serious comedy, G/PG-13, closes Oct. 3, reviewed here)
Travesties (serious comedy, PG-13, closes Oct. 3, reviewed here)

The Wayside Motor Inn (drama, PG-13, closes Oct. 5, reviewed here)

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Almanac: Eric Hoffer on fear

INK BOTTLE“You can discover what your enemy fears most by observing the means he uses to frighten you.”

Eric Hoffer, The Passionate State of Mind and Other Aphorisms

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Snapshot: Martha Argerich plays Chopin

TV CAMERAMartha Argerich plays two Chopin mazurkas, Op. 24/2 and Op. 41/2, on German TV in 1966:

(This is the latest in a series of arts-related videos that appear in this space each Monday and Wednesday.)

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Almanac: Joseph Conrad on turning sixty

INK BOTTLE“Sixty is not a bad age—unless in perspective, when no doubt it is contemplated by the majority of us with mixed feelings. It is a calm age; the game is practically over by then; and standing aside one begins to remember with a certain vividness what a fine fellow one used to be. I have observed that, by an amiable attention of Providence, most people at sixty begin to take a romantic view of themselves. Their very failures exhale a charm of peculiar potency. And indeed the hopes of the future are a fine company to live with, exquisite forms, fascinating if you like, but—so to speak—naked, stripped for a run. The robes of glamour are luckily the property of the immovable past which, without them, would sit, a shivery sort of thing, under the gathering shadows.”

Joseph Conrad, “The Inn of the Two Witches” (courtesy of Lance Mannion)

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Lookback: a movie you’ll never see

LOOKBACKFrom 2004:

In Network, the American public is so hungry for the spin-free frankness of a seemingly honest man that it embraces a TV anchorman who goes off his rocker in the middle of a newscast. (That’s what makes the film so provocative, by the way. In the hands of a West Wing-type screenwriter, the anchorman would have been presented as a Christ-like figure, but Chayefsky leaves us in no possible doubt that Howard Beale really is off his rocker.) Imagine, then, a film about a present-day public figure who screws up in a big way, calls a press conference, admits his errors, and throws himself upon the mercy of the public….

Read the whole thing here.

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