lies like truth: April 2009 Archives

Summer's on the doorstep so I wanted to take the opportunity to highlight a few Bay Area performing arts events that I'm excited about:

San Francisco International Arts Festival: Despite having its budget slashed by the City of San Francisco a few months ago, this year's SF Arts Festival still has some treats in store. The international lineup includes Sasha Waltz & Guests (Germany), the Akhe Group (Russia), Ranferi Aguilar & Los Hacedores de Lluvia (The Rain Makers, Guatemala) Cho-In Theatre (South Korea), Smita Nagdev (India) and that Gamelan Sekar Jaya, ROVA Saxophone Quartet, Bond Street Theatre in collaboration with Exile Theatre of Kabul, Jeff Curtis/Gravity, Scott Wells & Dancers and Ana Nitmar with Ixim Tinamit (People of Corn). The Festival runs from May 20 - 31.

Porgy and Bess at San Francisco Opera: Gershwin's beloved opera had its San Francisco premiere in 1977. This acclaimed new version directed by Francesca Zambello and starring Eric Owens and Laquita Mitchell runs from June 9 - 27.

Best of Playground Festival: PlayGround, a Bay Area nonprofit that develops and presents new plays, presents its 13th annual Best of PlayGround Festival at San Francisco's Thick House theatre. The festival features seven fully-produced new 10-minute plays by such writers as Daniel Heath, Kenn Rabin and Geetha Reddy, each of which has been written in the last several months within a four-day timeframe (from a given prompt). In addition, the festival presents readings of new full-length plays commissioned by PlayGround. Best of Playground runs May 7 - 31.

Faust Part One: One of the Bay Area's most intriguing theatrical auteurs, Mark Jackson, premieres his ambitious new riff on Goethe's Faust with the Shotgun Players at Berkeley's Ashby Stage. Jackson's epic focuses the action on the triangle between Faust, Mephistopheles, and the beautiful Gretchen. The dramatist is also co-directing and starring as the titular character in the work. The play runs from May 20 - June 21.

Robert Lepage's The Blue Dragon: Cal Performances presents the Canadian theatre-maker's exploration of modern China. The production stars Lepage himself, Marie Michaud, and dancer Tai Wei Foo and runs from June 9 - 13.

Fuku Americanus: Intersection for the Arts and resident theatre company Campo Santo present the world premiere of Fukú Americanus inspired by Junot Díaz's Pulitzer Prize Winning novel 'The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao'. Developed and directed by Campo Santo's Sean San José, and co-directed by The Living Word Project's Marc Bamuthi Joséph, Fukú Americanus is a tale tale about family histories, ancient curses, migration and ill-starred love.

Boxcar Theatre's Ion: As part of its free theatre initiative, San Francisco fringe theatre company, Boxcar Theatre, is presenting a free, roving, three-person production of Euripides' domestic comedy Ion at various locations around San Francisco on three Saturdays in May. Runs from May 9 - 23.

Stale Magnolias: Last, but not least, I have to mention playwright Sean Owens' upcoming drag theatre homage to the 1980s screen romance. Featuring one of the Bay Area's most luminous drag performers, Jef Valentine, the show will no doubt send theatre-goers rushing to have their blue rinses and perms at the Glama-Rama salon in the Mission District, which Owens has co-opted as a setting for the play. Stale Magnolias plays from May 2 - June 14.

The above are just a smattering of the Bay Area theatrical offerings hat caught this performance junkie's eye. I could go on, but I have other deadlines to fry. It's going to be quite a summer.
April 30, 2009 7:47 AM | | Comments (0)
I've been "collecting" films about choral singing lately. As I was watching Lawrence Dillon and Eric Jansen's moving 2006 documentary about the gay and lesbian choral movement, Why We Sing! I realized that many of the films made about choral singing -- whether non-fiction or fiction -- have one thing in common: They're as much about community activism as they are about music.

Take Why We Sing! for instance. The movie focuses on the GALA Choruses' (Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses) 7th International Choral Festival in Montreal, Canada where more than 5,000 singers and 160 choruses gathered to sing. The interviews and songs (many of the latter having a protest or spiritual theme) delve into the personal lives of the performers and choir directors and connect their experiences to several issues on the public's mind today such as same-sex marriage, religious views on gay rights and the emerging transgender rights movement.

The style of the documentary is rather heavy-handed in places. When a gay singer at the festival is attacked one night in Montreal, the filmmakers interview him and other members of his choir before showing us a full-length rendition of the song that the choir sing in defiance of the brutal act: They dedicate a rousingly hokey song about how a Jewish family is persecuted by some of the Christians who live in the same town to the victim of the hate crime.

Although the segment is a bit mawkish, it's still powerful. Most importantly, it gets across the point that choral singing is about much more than making music as a group. It's an act of solidarity. It builds community. The people who sing in these choirs believe that they're engaging in activism by singing. They see their music as a path to improving not only their own lives but also the lives of those around them.

Here are some other films about choral singing that make a similar point about choral singing and community:

Young @ Heart

We are Together: The Children of Agape Choir

The Choir

Les Choristes

Master Singers: Two Choirs and a Valley
April 29, 2009 8:11 AM | | Comments (2)
I recently applied for a grant to help support my activities as a performing arts blogger from a Bay Area-based organization that funds theatre artists and companies. Before I applied for the grant, I asked the the grant's leaders if I would be eligible to apply. They told me that as a theatre critic, I would indeed be eligible to apply under the "artist" category, which I thought was very forward-thinking of them. "Yes, you are eligible...You would want to define yourself in terms of being a "theatre artist" (personally, I feel theatre journalist fits that bill)," the grant-giving organization's director wrote to me in an email. So in the spirit of experimentation, I applied for the grant.

The experiment, somewhat unsurprisingly, failed. Even though I'd be told I was eligible to apply, in the end the grant's panelists decided not to consider a theatre critic as an artist, so my application was deemed eligible. The rejection letter I received from the grant-giver last week stated that my application could not be considered because a theatre critic is not, according to the panel, an artist. "The panel reluctantly ruled your application ineligible because it appeared that you are not a theatre artist..." the grant-giver wrote in my rejection letter.

All of this raises interesting questions about where arts critics fit into the arts spectrum these days -- if they fit in at all. With old media dying and new media still trying to figure out a way to make ends meet, journalists of all kinds are looking for different ways to feed their commentary beyond the old paradigm of the salaried newspaper/magazine/television/radio employee.

It's true that the changing media landscape has made high quality writing about the arts less prevalent today, perhaps, than it was in the past. But just as hacks are not a novelty -- they've always been around -- so beautifully-composed, thoughtful writing about culture is still to be found in plentiful amounts. Oscar Wilde thought of critics as artists. Why can't grant givers do the same?
April 28, 2009 8:08 AM | | Comments (3)
Why are classical music radio shows often so turgidly presented? They generally fall into two camps.

The first is very serious, with the host showing-off how much knowledge of obscure record labels and arcane musicological esoterica he or she knows, as in "A. Schmendrick's Salutation to Wodin in D-Flat minor composed in 1965 employs Fermat's Last Theorem in bars 368 to 392, which brings to the fore the composer's deep-seated childhood mistrust of paleontologists."

The second is very vapid, with the host putting on a creamy, shampoo-ad-style voice and using lots of alliteration, as in "Comfortable, Casual, Classical: Music Just The Way You Like It."

Last night, when I got to guest-host, for the second time, Sarah Cahill's Sunday evening classical music show on NPR, Then & Now, I decided to take a third path. I made bad puns ("Let's get a handle on Handel"), said "cheers!" and asked my guest about dressing up for a gig in Georgian military costume.

In the middle of the show, while a track by Debussy was playing, I asked my board operator what he thought of my approach. "I like it," he said. "But maybe you're laying it on a bit thick."

Of course, he's probably right. I'm not saying my way is necessarily better than ways one and two. But hopefully, once they stopped rolling their eyes and groaning, I kept my listeners entertained.

Post Script: On the subject of bad classical music puns for an unashamed radio host, reader Chris Baker contributed the following priceless avalanche of word play (thanks Chris!):

That's just the tip of the Schoenberg. Haydn seek. I went out for a drink last night, and all I heard was gossip and some Bartok. I don't like ice cream, but I love Schubert. Mahler?!--I barely know her.
April 27, 2009 9:29 AM | | Comments (1)
images.jpegStephanie Blythe forbid audiences to follow along with the words for the song cycle she performed last night at San Francisco's Herbst Theatre alongside members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. The American mezzo-soprano asked he event's producer, San Francisco Performances, to refrain from printing out the text from Alan Louis Smith's Vignettes: Covered Wagon Woman in the program notes. She wanted to see our faces, we were told by San Francisco Performances' director, Ruth Felt, at the start of the program. Concert goers were invited to pick up copies of the text, culled from the Daily Journal of Margaret Ann Alsip Frink, a 19th century woman who chronicled the arduous and exciting journey she made with her family from the east coast to the west in 1850, from the lobby after the performance.

The news was greeted by cheers from some audience members. I didn't feel strongly about the decision one way or another. Though the cheers somewhat surprised me as so many people who go to recitals tend to spend their time with their heads buried in their programs, diligently following along with the words. The notes often serve as a crutch for those who find the music boring or confusing. I would have thought that Felt's announcement would have caused more panic than adulation.

Blythe's decision turned out to be a terrific one. I don't think I've ever been able to give such full and undivided attention to the words a singer sings in recital in the past. Even when the text is in English (as it was for Covered Wagon Woman) I tend to glance down at the program notes in order to make out what's being said because the enunciation isn't necessarily very good. But Blythe cares so much about the words that she imbues every single syllable with precisely the right emotional emphasis to communicate her meaning fully to her listeners. As a result, I understood exactly what Blythe was singing. Plus, she was so involved in the character she was portraying -- Margaret Frink, the pioneering author of the Journal from which the cycle's text is taken -- that her acting subtly reinforced the scenes Blythe painted and story she told. I was entranced.

Smith's music also helped the audience to pay attention to the words without needing the crutch of a printed text. The texture of the musical lines constantly changed but whether it was lush and full or sparse and eerie, it never masked the singer and always underscored the emotional content of the text.

I hope more performers take a lead from Blythe and omit textual inserts from concert programs. This makes most sense for English-language songs in the English-speaking world. But it might also work for foreign-language repertoire too. If she hasn't done so already, I challenge Blythe to try this out.

April 24, 2009 8:51 AM | | Comments (0)
Other People's Opinion Syndrome (OPOS for short) is a common complaint among arts lovers. OPOS is the problem of letting yourself be swayed or influenced by what people are saying about a particular work of art before you go and experience it for yourself. Inevitably, our impressions of a film or piece of theatre, music, dance or exhibition can't help but be affected by the expectations that we've built up in our minds based on other people's reactions to the work of art. If we hear an artwork is absolutely unmissable, we often end up feeling disappointed; if everyone tells us to avoid experiencing a piece like the plague and we end up going along anyway, we can sometimes be pleasantly surprised.

Critics don't generally have to deal with OPOS because they tend to experience new work when it's fresh out of the gate. In many respects, their words become the bedrock of OPOS.

But my position is slightly different. Because I work as a theatre critic for a weekly publication so don't have to file a review overnight, and have a great aversion to opening night performances for a variety of reasons (which you can read about here if you're interested) I tend to experience plays and other events later in their runs than my colleagues. Even if I make a point of ignoring all reviews until I go to see a show, sometimes it's impossible not to find out what people are saying about it before I pitch up at the theatre.

I was away from the Bay Area in Europe for two weeks before going to see War Music at the American Conservatory Theater last week and was hence able to come at the production unblemished by OPOS. But this is rare. In the case of Lloyd Suh's new play at the Magic Theatre, American Hwangap (a still from which is pictured above) this wasn't the case. By the time I went to the theatre to check out the show last night, no less than three local critics had shared their opinions verbally with me in passing, and I had also read a short review of the play in my own paper which had been assigned to another critic in my absence.

I find myself having to deal with OPOS all the time, so I've tried to develop strategies to take in the opinions I hear and read while minimizing their influence. I actually love finding out what other people think of works of art, even if I haven't experienced them already, which is why I occasionally sneak a peak at reviews prematurely and occasionally strike up conversations with regular theatregoers and critics about their thoughts on a particular show when I still haven't made it out to see it for myself. I just try to remember that I often disagree with what my fellow critics (and others) think which helps me to approach the theatre-going experience with, I hope, fewer preconceptions. It's taken me years to develop this skill, however, and I can't claim to have mastered it fully yet.

Last night's performance of American Hwangap was particularly interesting with regards to OPOS because the opinions were so divided on the subject of Suh's domestic drama about a Korean man's return to the U.S. to celebrate his 60th birthday party (or "Hwangap" in Korean parlance) with his estranged ex-wife and grown-up children.

Two critics, whom I ran into at another play last weekend and a downtown restaurant respectively, had told me they loved it. A third critic critic, whom I bumped into at an art exhibition yesterday, said she hated it. The review I read by critic number four was lukewarm. It was fascinating to hear such diverse viewpoints. I came to the conclusion that anything which sparked this amount of controversy was bound to be worthwhile. I also came to the conclusion that I couldn't come to any conclusion about the play until I had seen it for myself.

Though I didn't detest Suh's drama as much as my art exhibition colleague did, I didn't like it nearly as much as the two critics who gave it the thumbs up. I probably felt even a little less engaged by the production than the review I'd read of the show in SF Weekly. The characters repeated their positions incessantly, the play had no subtext to speak of, the humor was canned, the performances seemed as one-dimensional as the writing and I didn't personally buy any of the reconciliation scenes. The play is only 80 minutes long, but I was bored after about 20.

OPOS is an insidious thing. It seeps into and informs our view of art almost unconsciously. But it isn't all-powerful. With a bit of practice, I believe it's possible to hear different viewpoints on a work of art and then go and experience it for yourself without letting OPOS spoil the experience.
April 23, 2009 11:52 AM | | Comments (0)
The natural centerpiece of a new exhibition entitled Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater, 1919-1949, which opens at San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum tomorrow, is the room devoted to a series of murals that the famous artist created in 1920 for the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre (GOSET).

I've seen some of these canvases before, but never have I been able to experience so many of them grouped together in a single space. The effect is startling. Colors dance from one painting to the next; characters -- some of them based on real-life directors, artists and actors from the Yiddish theatre world including Chagall himself, are beautiful and grotesque at once; geometric shapes tussle with more rough-shod forms, and madcap farmyard animals take on heightened symbolic value when compared across multiple works.

Chagall's involvement with GOSET only lasted a few years in the early 1920s. But as the exhibition shows, his impact on the company and on Yiddish theatre as a whole was significant. In addition to decorating an entire theatre with the aforementioned murals, the artist designed sets and costumes and even went as far as to paint the actors' bodies -- creating animated works of art. The great Yiddish actor and director Solomon Mikhoels is reported as saying that Chagall influenced his acting style.

What makes the exhibition extraordinary though, isn't just the collection of Chagall's theatre murals: The show's collection of paintings, costume and set designs, posters, photographs, film clips and theater ephemera takes the museum-goer on a fascinating journey into a piece of history that is as much about theatre, as it is about an artistic meeting of the minds and global politics. Organized by the The Jewish Museum, New York, Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater, 1919-1949is, according to its organizers, the first exhibition devoted to the artwork created for Russian Jewish theatre productions of the 1920s and 1930s. Many of the artifacts on display have never been viewed by the public before.

Chagall's work is perhaps the main draw. But I was at least as moved by the parts of the exhibit that deal with the work of other brilliant contemporary designers such as Robert Falk and Natan Altman. Falk and Altman pop up throughout the show, even more persistently than Chagall, because their connection with GOSET lasted for longer.

No name pervades this exhibition more than the actor and director Solomon Mikhoels, however. I had only dimly heard of this Russian Jewish celebrity until today. A section devoted to the actor's performance in an acclaimed 1935 Yiddish version of King Lear is, alongside the Chagall murals, the highlight of the show. A model of Aleksander Tyshler's arresting set design for the production, with its Medieval puppet theatre-inspired claustrophobic raised inner stage supported by carved stone buttresses suggestive of an early Renaissance church, ingeniously offsets the production's interpretation of Lear as a sly critique of the increasing oppressiveness of Stalinist Russia. Video footage of Mikhoels in the title role putting on his wig and makeup and performing several scenes from the production provide viewers with an insight into the actor's formidable craft.

The exhibit then goes on to tell us about Mikhoel's involvement as a leader of the Jewish anti-fascist Committee, his eventual assassination at the hands of Stalin and the ultimate dissolution of GOSET in 1949.

Running until September 7, this overview of a short-lived but important aspect of Jewish cultural history is not to be missed. Neither to be missed are a couple of adjunct events which include two loopy-sounding "sing-a-long" screenings of Fiddler on the Roof on June 14 and 18, and the arrival of the Habima Theatre Company from Israel with its production of The Dybbuk from July 8 - 12.
April 22, 2009 2:19 PM | | Comments (0)
images.jpegThere aren't many theatre artists / companies whose work I simply have to see or curse myself if I'm out of town and am therefore forced to miss. The late great theatre company Theatre de la Jeune Lune is -- or rather was -- one of these. The British stage director Neil Bartlett is another. The solo theatre artist / standup comedian Will Franken is a third.

Many people probably share my views on Jeune Lune and Bartlett -- Perhaps not household names, they are well known within the performing arts field. Franken, however, is in a different league. He's the sort of performer that ought to be playing sold-out arenas. But despite gigs with or auditions for such well-known entities as the Upright Citizens Brigade, NBC's Last Comic Standing and the British World Stands Up comedy show in recent years -- not to mention favorable reviews in the New York Times and many Bay Area publications (Franken used to be based on the west coast) -- word about the performer's brilliance still remains largely under wraps. I'm trying to figure out why.

Having cursed myself for missing the New York-based performer's last San Francisco show, I was pleased to finally make it out to The Purple Onion Comedy Club last weekend to catch Franken's latest west coast stint. He was on better form than I think I've ever seen him.

When I think of Franken hunched in his statutory threadbare blazer and tatty jeans under the lights interviewing his own reflection, competing in a poetry slam first as John Milton reading from the opening of Paradise Lost and then as some self-obsessed teenage rapper making lame rhymes (the latter beats the former by a long margin), or telling a funny little story about how his shoes make him feel young, my day immediately brightens. He was marvelous. His comedy flowed effortlessly from one absurdist bit to another. Nothing seemed labored. For the first time, the performer seemed perfectly in control of his out-of-control world. He actually appeared relaxed. 

Franken's act almost always defies description, though I've tried on numerous occasions over past few years to articulate the experience of witnessing his work. Perhaps the best way to consider Franken's act is to think of it as a journey into the sticky, mothballed recesses of the human mind. He's like Virginia Woolf channeling Lenny Bruce and the Pythons with just a touch of Bill O'Reilly thrown in to rock the boat. It's no wonder that a Bay Area newspaper dubbed Franken "Best Alternative to Psychadelic Drugs" a few years ago for its annual "Best of the Bay" issue. A theatre critic colleague of mine, Robert Avila of the San Francisco Bay Guardian came up with a beautiful way of describing the performer:

"Imagine a surreal-estate agent guiding you through some Escher-like architectural marvel, where each room is its own deeply funny, satirical dream, every passageway a verbal wormhole, and in the corner a shaggy high priest of nothing's-sacredness is fiddling with a bunch of knobs on what looks like an espresso maker."

I've witnessed performances by Franken in which there were too many wormholes with not enough earth to hold the terrain together, where he's disappeared down a hole and left the rest of us scratching our heads on the surface. But this time, there was just enough sense to keep the madness in check. By the time I left the venue, my face ached from laughing so hard.

Franken is the sort of comedian who defies categorization, which is what makes him so great. Unfortunately, this refusal to fit into a tidy commercial box might be what has prevented him so far from selling out the Hollywood Bowl. I wish he would move back to the Bay Area.
April 21, 2009 8:04 AM | | Comments (2)
The two-and-a-half-ton bronze spider that has greeted tourists and locals as they stroll along San Francisco's picturesque waterfront for the past 17 months is about to scuttle away.

The sculpture, Crouching Spider, by the iconic French artist Louise Bourgeois, has been on loan to the city since November 2007 and has enjoyed pride of place at the Embarcadero's Entry Plaza at Pier 14.

The sculpture was originally cast in 2003 from the artist's famous Spider series and was made specifically for display in San Francisco. Initially lent for eight months by the artist, courtesy of Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco and Cheim & Read, New York, the sculpture's stay was extended due to popular support. On Friday, April 24, Crouching Spider will be disassembled into ten pieces and transported to a private collection in Houston, Texas. The removal process will begin at 9 am on Friday, April 24. The arachnid's separated eight legs and torso will then be and loaded into a truck bound for Houston, Texas. The entire process is expected to take around six hours.

Crouching Spider has been a lurid addition to San Francisco's waterfront. In as much as it's huge, comically menacing and has no business, as an insect of the land, being displayed by the sea, the sculpture has jubilantly captured the eccentric, oddball spirit of this city. I will miss it.

I have to commend San Francisco for bringing such eye-catching work to the Embarcadero. Waterfront art is often rather kitsch and dull, with cities favoring twee sculptures of fishermen and sea shells over anything that might make a passerby out for a Sunday stroll pause for thought. San Francisco's waterfront, however, has been and continues to be home to several startling works of art. These include the massive Burning Man installation Passage by Dan Das Mann and Karen Cusolito depicting two huge human figures made out of strips of rusty metal, the statue of Gandhi at the Ferry Building and Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen's Cupid's Arrow.
April 20, 2009 8:35 AM | | Comments (0)
images.jpegEveryone's talking about the YouTube Symphony project, which reached its culmination two evenings ago in a concert at Carnegie Hall led by Michael Tilson Thomas.

Reviews have been mixed. For example, the New York Times was mostly positive and the Washington Post, mostly negative. The blogosphere has been buzzing with comments about the event. Greg Sandow's detailed post at ArtsJournal yesterday voiced his disappointment with the razzle-dazzle of the event (the celebrities, the video projections, the TV coverage, the not-quite-as-wonderful-as-he'd-hoped musicianship etc). YouTube is packed with video clips concerning the event both by the musicians and other commentators. Here's a link to the "Internet Symphony Global Mash-Up" on the YouTube site. And here's a link to the first hour of the concert -- also available on YouTube.

I would have loved to have been present at Carnegie Hall. Though I was slightly skeptical about the endeavor on a blog post I wrote about it a few months ago, I was basically extremely excited about the way in which technology was being deployed to bring people from different parts of the world together to make music -- and classical, rather than pop, music at that.

I absolutely respect Sandow and Anne Midgette of the Washington Post's reservations about the musicianship of the concert. It's impossible to give a nuanced performance when you've got two days to rehearse a ton of music with a group of players of varying backgrounds and abilities. I also understand the issues that some critics voiced concerning the populist approach to programming, whereby the orchestra played crowd-pleasing, flashy excerpts from many pieces rather than entire works.

But I personally feel like the final concert wasn't really the point of the project at all. While it created focus and a needed ultimate goal, it seems to me to me more symbolic in value than anything else. So what if the group didn't sound like the New York Philharmonic or the Netherlands Royal Concertgebouw? The fact is that Google and its collaborators managed to leverage the power of online collaboration to create a truly international orchestra of commendable talent considering the "speed dating" circumstances under which the group was pulled together. For this, the project deserves high praise.

OK, so maybe there were too many lasers and cheerleadery self-congratulatory video commentaries at the event itself. These may well have detracted from the music for some people and inflated the experience beyond what it should have been inflated from a musical perspective. But on the whole, the organizers and musicians deserve to give themselves a great big pat on the back for pulling off an era-defining stunt and putting classical music into the limelight where it belongs.
April 17, 2009 8:13 AM | | Comments (0)
images-1.jpegMemorials are unusual structures. In a post-modern world of fractured meanings, these structures still attempt (and largely succeed) to present a clear, unified and highly-subjective view on world events. Some memorials, though, defy straightforward interpretation.

One example is the massive holocaust memorial in Berlin -- "Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe" -- which has been the cause of much controversy over the past decade for failing to acknowledge the non-Jewish victims of the Nazis and, as part of Germany's "Holocaust industry", exploiting the country's sense of shame and disgrace.

But as I walked through the memorial -- which consists of more than 2,700 stone pillars built onto an undulating 4.7 acre plot close to the Brandenburg Gate and was designed by architect Peter Eisenman -- it occured to me that this memorial is much more open to interpretation than most other stone-built momento moris.

For one thing, it's very experiential and interactive. You don't just look at it. You get inside it. In parts of the memorial, I felt very removed from the sky, like I was in a cave. I felt like I was descending into a labyrinthian dungeon. In other parts, I could perch on a stone pillar, see for miles and feel the warm air around me. At times, I felt very solitary and alone. At others, I felt like I was in a crowd. The pillars seemed like people. Every turn I made, I came across fellow memorial wanderers. I even saw a young couple necking in a shady enclave.

Nowhere inside the memorial or around it, does it say what it commemorates. Which leads me to think that while the structure has been built to commemorate a particular event, it means so much more. It can stand for a place of mourning and a hideaway for a surreptitious tryst.

What does it mean to me? It means death and life both at once. It means getting lost and finding oneself again. Despite the title of the memorial, its Jewishness feel abstract to me, probably because I grew up many decades after the close of the war in a family that, though Jewish, is essentially secular. The intention behind the creation of a memorial is an important consideration. It's difficult to experience the structure without a thought for the murdered Jews that it seeks to honor. But ultimately, its meaning is as much of a maze as the narrow corridors that greet the explorer as she approaches the structure.

April 16, 2009 7:14 AM | | Comments (0)
The German choreographer Sasha Waltz's evening-length dance piece, Travelogue 1 - Twenty to Eight depicts the daily lives of five roommates. With its comic view of the relationships between a group of young urbanites and pressing sense of immediacy, the piece brings the American television series Friends to mind.

Created in 1993, the work not only preempted Friends by a year, but it's a great deal more captivating than the iconic TV show in my opinion.

I caught the piece at Berlin's trendy, new riverside arts space, RadialSystem V last week in anticipation of its arrival in San Francisco in May as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival. Waltz recently remounted the work with new dancers. The SFIAF appearance represents the American premiere of this new iteration of the work and festival-goers are in for a treat.

Set against the backdrop of a city apartment complete with refrigerator, murphy bed and kitchen table and chairs, the piece observes at extremely close range the social interactions between a group of mixed personalities. The dancers in the piece are all very different -- a point made explicit by the mixed ethnic makeup of the cast and the opening passage, in which we hear a variety of Asian and European languages spoken. Yet despite the differences of their backgrounds, the characters all manage somehow to coexist.

The situation is full of drama. Dancers fly hyperactively in and out of doorways, slamming them as they go over and over again. There's a loony, almost silent movie-era feel to some of the comic shtick. A section towards the end of the piece between a dancer and the murphy bed feels like something out of a Harold Lloyd film with its technically complex and hilarious contortions and horizontal jumps.

Waltz also knows how to be sensual and serious. A long, passionate duet in which a male and female dancer fuse almost every part of their bodies together has to be one of the most erotic sequences I've ever experienced in a modern dance piece. The duet makes the pratfalls between Jennifer Aniston and David Schwimmer look completely sexless.

I recently watched a couple of old episodes of Friends, a series which I quite enjoyed when I was growing up. The plots and jokes seem really naff and dated to me now. Contrastingly, Waltz's Travelogue has traveled 16 years since its inception and it still feels fresh.
April 15, 2009 7:04 AM | | Comments (0)
One reason why art forms such as visual art and dance travel more easily than theatre, books and film is to do with the language barrier. Art that isn't tied to a particular vernacular isn't as apt to sacrifice its power and meaning in the same way as it might if it relies heavily on words for communication. This is one of the reasons why there are so many more globe-trotting exhibitions of paintings and sculpture than there are untranslated, traveling productions of plays.

What I've discovered over my years of theatre-going -- perhaps the last word-oriented artform served up without the benefit of dubbing, sub-titles or sur-titles as is the case with movies and opera -- is that even if you can't understand most or any of what's being said on stage, you can still get a lot out of a theatre production.

The feeling of foreignness can often be a thematic feature of a show, such as in the case of Tim Supple's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. This production rendered Shakespeare almost unintelligible to some theatre-goers owing to its use of many Indian languages in place of the Bard's already-foreign-sounding Renaissance English. To others (myself included) the language barrier created a new, voluptuously poetic world. The production was able to tour the world because the language barrier was part of the fabric of the piece. Paradoxically, unintelligibility was absolutely integral to our understanding of the play.

But what about the experience of seeing a play in a foreign tongue which was never created with such a conceit in mind? This can also be a formidable experience, albeit a daunting one.

Certainly, seeing productions of plays written in a language you don't understand takes a bit of practice. When I lived in Moscow and St. Petersburg for a few months ten years ago, I went to see productions in Russian almost every night. My command of the language was extremely basic. I could ask for directions, hail a cab, count to 100, order food and a few other things. But I was ill-equipped to understand the words being spoken on stage most of the time. Still, after a while, I kind of got used to -- and even started to revel in -- my linguistic shortcomings. I dealt with the issue by boning up on what it was that I was about to see in advance so at least I had a basic idea of the plot and characters. I opened myself up to experiencing plays in a new way. I tried to relax.

This feeling of letting go came back to me acutely last week when I caught Thomas Ostermeier's production of Hedda Gabler at Berlin's Schaubuhne. Having seen the play produced on several occasions in the past, I at least had a handle on the basics. What was interesting about this production for someone who's German isn't exactly fluent (though it's better than my Russian) is how unforeign it feels.

Ostermeier's Hedda is very much a modern adaptation of Ibsen's play. Even with my limited understanding of the nuances of German, I still heard references to computer technology in the text. I found myself completely drawn into Ostermeier's contemporary world of glossy oppressiveness. And because I couldn't always focus on the language, I found myself -- as is usual when I attend plays in languages I don't know -- putting my focus more strongly on other elements of the staging, such as the actors' physicality, the blocking and the visual design.

The set, in particular, is extraordinary. It's like a character in the play. Depicting the living room and outdoor deck of the home of the Tesmans, it's a study in airy and transparent spaciousness. It looks like an "ideal living" photo spread in an architectural or design magazine like Metropolis or Dwell. I usually hate sets that revolve constantly between scenes, but the giant, precariously angled mirror reflecting the world below on stage and the glass wall separating the outdoor space from the indoor space work together with the icy lights to create a world of infinite reflection as the set circles around. Even though the characters can't see each other through walls, we are able to see almost everything owing to the revolutions of the set and the mirror. We get to see the story from every angle. We are voyeurs.

And yet, partly owing to Ostermeier's decision to stage the entire play without an intermission, the entire thing feels so claustrophobic and relentless that by the end we feel cornered and like we can't penetrate the world on stage at all. We want to point a finger at the play's conclusion -- blame Hedda or Tesman or Brack for the mess. But we find ourselves completely lost for words. It's rather like modern life really. Powerful stuff. Not bad for a night out at the theatre when your German amounts to little more than sentences about kaffee und kuchen.

Now here's an interesting question: If I had perfect command of the German language, would I get more out of the experience of seeing the play? Or would the experience simply be different?
April 14, 2009 7:03 AM | | Comments (2)
A couple of weeks ago, just before I left for Europe, I wrote a blog entry about the British actor Michael Sheen. I was concerned about Sheen being type-cast as Tony Blair. Turns out I was missing the point entirely.

For one thing, Sheen has actually played the ex-British PM not just twice, but three times. He originally essayed the role in a TV documentary in 2003 entitled The Deal. For another, the issue isn't really to do with Sheen impersonating Blair; it's much broader -- to do with the actor's dedication to embodying real-life historical figures in his work on stage and screen.

Sheen's resume features an staggeringly high number of biographical roles. These include everything from David Frost, Kenneth Williams and Brian Clough (I saw Sheen play the famous British football manager in the captivating, newly released UK film, The Damned United, when I was in London last week) to Henry V, Mozart and the Emperor Nero.

Now I'm slightly concerned that this versatile actor won't get to play fictional characters as often as he should in the future, having made a name for himself as a "biographer."

What does it mean to take on a real-life figure as an actor? How does one prepare for these kinds of roles? What are the various challenges of playing someone who's still alive versus someone from the distant past? And -- perhaps most interesting of all -- how much of the imagination can an actor bring to such a character or does he have to act more like an impersonator/caricaturist?

Of course, Sheen isn't an impersonator -- not in the traditional comic impersonator sense of the word. In an article for The Times, Frost is correct to view Sheen's turn in his shoes as being more 'impressionistic' than outright impersonation: "You can't have an impression for two hours of drama -- that wouldn't work," Frost said in the piece. "It's not David Frost, but David Frost-inspired."

There's also a nice story I recently heard while in London in connection to Sheen's portrayal of Frost. Apparently, when the interviewer called the actor up on the phone one day out of the blue, the actor asked for the caller to identify himself. "You of all people should recognize my voice," Frost is reported to have said.

POSTSCRIPT: Matthew B, a reader of my blog at, kindly located the video clip in which Sheen tells this story to Jonathan Ross. Thanks Matthew.
April 13, 2009 8:57 AM | | Comments (0)

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