lies like truth: July 2009 Archives

It must be an interesting experience for the dancers in the Joe Goode Company to go from performing in the narrow, dark confines of the Ann Hamilton Tower in Sonoma (where I last experienced a site specific work, fall within, by the company earlier this summer) to the airy, open spaces of The Historic Mint building in San Francisco. Everything in fall within was tightly wound and internalized. There wasn't much room for the dancers to move, so kinetic economy was the mainstay of the piece.

Economy plays a major role in this new work. Not only does the work take place in the beautiful, faded edifice that was once the city's mint. But the work's themes are very much tied into ideas of money -- what it's like to have too much or too little; what's really essential in life, versus what's a luxury; what the current economic climate is doing to our minds and hearts versus what similar circumstances did to our forebears in the Great Depression.

One of the great strengths of Traveling Light is the contrast between the use of space and light. Audiences move from space to space throughout the hour-long work. Each room we visit is large and airy. One space in which the dancers perform is a courtyard open to the heavens. On one occasion, a company member performs a song and standing way up high in a balcony. We have to crane our necks to see her. But the no-hold-barred freedom of the venue's layout is sharply balanced against designer Jack Carpenter's use of light. An enormous follow-spot practically crushes a dancer as she moves under it in one scene, making her look like an insect under a microscope. Long shafts of yellow light carve out and confine space within the otherwise vast-seeming courtyard. Dancers twist and stand in the shadows and corners of a space as much as they spread out into the light.

The power of Goode's piece lies in this contrast. The push and pull of economics, the lightness of feeling unfettered by possessions versus the necessity of having a roof over one's head, the constant balancing act of life -- the choreographer deftly weaves all of these ideas into his latest work.

Traveling Light plays at the Mint until August 9. And on another note, the Historic Mint is currently being renovated for eventual use by the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society. Follow this link to find out more about The Mint Project.
July 31, 2009 9:38 AM | | Comments (0)
Alec Duffy has taken a lot of flack for his unconventional approach to sharing a piece of music. Duffy (pictured), a Brooklyn-based theatre director, won the 2007 Sufjan Stevens Christmas song-swap contest -- a song-writing competition wherein Stevens pledged to send a copy of an unreleased single to the composer who sent in the best original song. Around 600 people entered the competition. Duffy's song, "It's Christmas Every Day," won.

Instead of uploading Stevens' song, "The Lonely Man of Winter," on the Web, Duffy, together with his friend and fellow composer Dave Malloy, decided to organize special private listening sessions for small groups of people interested in hearing Stevens' song. This decision created an enormous backlash in fan circles, who felt that Duffy and Malloy should have taken a more democratic approach to sharing the song by making it available instantly on the Internet so anyone could hear it whenever they liked. The media got involved: several articles on the subject have appeared in the last few months in such publications as The Village Voice, New York Magazine and the Wall Street Journal. And the blogosphere has been bouncing with commentary.

Dave happens to be a friend of mine. So last night, I had the privilege of being part of the latest "Lonely Man of Winter" presentation and listening session -- the second such session to take place in the Bay Area. It was one of the quirkiest cultural evenings I've experienced in a long time and I fully support Duffy and Malloy's intimate theatrical approach to sharing the song. Although it's not as easy to hear "The Lonely Man" this way as it is to download it off the Internet, the setup makes he experience far more special. And it's not as if the curators of the event are being exclusive about who gets to hear the tune. Anyone can get in touch with them and organize a listening session. Obviously not everyone can fly to New York to do this. But the fact that sessions are now taking place elsewhere suggests that there may be more possibilities to hear the song outside New York as time goes on.

I'm not a huge Sufjan Stevens fan. I went along out of curiosity more than than anything else. Dave and I met for dinner at a Burmese restaurant in the Richmond district (the excellent Burma Superstar) and the walked up the hill to the well-endowed Pacific Heights home of a complete stranger.

Elizabeth, a Sufjan fan of several years, had read about Alec's song in the Wall Street Journal and had asked him to get in touch if ever a listening session were planned for the Bay Area. She said she would be happy to host. Another local groupie, Daniel, had sent a similar inquiry. With Dave in town to act as host and MC, and both Elizabeth and Daniel instructed to invite one friend apiece, the group (which totaled 7 owing to the unexpected presence of Elizabeth's spouse) was ready to go.

As soon as we arrived, Dave and I set about making chocolate chip cookies (a tradition of these listening sessions, I'm told.) Daniel made oolong tea in a tiny teapot. Sufjan Stevens music played on the speakers as we busied ourselves. In the course of conversation, we found out that no less then three of us play the oboe. I hear Stevens likes to score oboe parts in his songs, but the number was still exceptionally high by any standard.

Then, when everything was ready, Dave set up his laptop and we connected via skype to Alec in New York. He was sitting in his bath robe, ready for bed, but seemed happy to make our acquaintance. He told the story of the competition and the controversy. He read aloud the letter which Stevens had sent him when he won the competition. We asked some questions. Eventually, Alec signed off and the music part of the evening began.

First, Dave played a recording of the contest-winning song that Alec wrote. It was a lovely, simple thing, with Alec's voice sailing plaintively over the top of spacious block chords. I was charmed. Then more laptops were brought out. We all put headphones on, and on Dave's command, pressed play to hear the Stevens' song. I liked it quite a lot. Sad Christmas songs are more my kind of thing than happy ones. This one was pretty melancholy. Sleigh bells entered at one point to give the thing a slightly festive feel. In general, it left an odd mixture of warmth and chill inside me. We listened twice.

I looked around the room as I listened, hoping to catch my fellow audience members' eyes. But no one looked up. Everyone kept their gaze focused on the floor or middle distance. It was really hard to read the expressions on their faces. Daniel looked the most blissed out. But other than that, people gave nothing away.

A few minutes after the song finished playing for the second time, we all packed up our stuff, said our goodbyes and ambled out into the foggy night.
July 30, 2009 9:16 AM | | Comments (0)
I hadn't heard of the Italian Renaissance composer Adriano Banchieri (1567 -- 1634) until the directors of the early music ensemble with which I perform decided to mount one of the Italian Renaissance composer's pioneering madrigal comedies, Festino nella sera del giovedì grasso ("Entertainment for the eve of Carnival Thursday") this summer. A madrigal comedy is a collection of madrigals strung together to present a comical story.

And the Festino is pretty nuts. In one of the movements, we all make different animal noises. I'm not talking about the flittering, rhythmic birdsong of a Janequin chanson that makes the listener think of owls and sparrows and cuckoos, but could just as easily not be about birds at all. I'm talking full-on dogs barking and cats meowing right in the middle of a piece of music.

Local music scholar Jospeh Sargent wrote a sweet little preview article about our concerts for San Francisco Classical Voice. Click here to read it. And click here to buy tickets to come and see/hear San Francisco Renaissance Voices perform Banchieri's carnivalesque Festino on August 8 (at San Francisco's 7th Avenue Performances in the Inner Sunset) and August 9 (at Alameda Presbyterian Church).
July 29, 2009 8:55 AM | | Comments (1)
The Santa Fe Opera Festival does things so right. In one respect though, my few days of opera-going at the Festival last week were marred by the sudden and unexpected intrusion of extreme wrongness in the shape of misguided scenery.

In Chas Rader-Shieber's production of Don Giovanni starring Lucas Meachem, blood red paint boldly turned what would otherwise have been idyllic, old-fashioned provincial village scenery into something artfully demonic. But the effect was ruined in the final scene when scenic designer David Zinn decided to introduce enormous cupboards which protruded from the stage like strange Martian growths. The cupboards opened up to reveal an eerie white light like something out of a science fiction film. When Don Giovanni made his final exit by jumping into one of the cupboards I couldn't help but laugh. Not sure this was the desired effect.

Chantal Thomas' powerful set design for Laurent Pelly's production of La Traviata starring Natalie Dessay followed a similar pattern. I was completely sucked in by the set overall -- a series of granite coffin-like boxes layered on top of each other which reminded me strongly of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. Death ingeniously hung over the production throughout the party scenes thanks to Thomas' scenic theme. But in Act 2 Scene 1 set in Violetta's country house, Thomas introduced one of the ugliest bits of scenery I've ever seen -- a lumpish, fake grassy green knoll. Not only was the snot-like appendage an eyesore, but it also made no sense in terms of the plot. Violetta and Alfredo are supposed to be living beyond their means at this point in the story. But the pastoral schtick spoke of "the simple life", especially as played out by Dessay and Saimir Pirgu as Alfredo, dressed as they were in unadorned, frumpy country garb.

Then there was the Hildegard Bechtler's set design for Jonathan Kent's production of Paul Moravec and Terry Teachout's new opera, The Letter, which left much to be desired all the way through. Bechtler recreated the 1930s colonial look through lots of bland, off-white interiors, which trundled endlessly on and off-stage hampering the pace of the action. Flapping muslin curtains to one side of the proscenium created a fine sense of balmy nights in the jungle as well as a supernatural feel to the piece, which enhanced Teachout and Moravec's ghostly reading of Somerset Maugham's more prosaic original short story and stage play. But the effect was over-used. It also unhelpfully obscured the big opening moment where Patricia Racette as Leslie Crosbie shoots and kills her lover.

Maybe the services of a production dramaturg would be helpful to root out these scenic misfires...
July 28, 2009 11:48 AM | | Comments (0)
A delightfully warm discussion at the dinner table before one of the operas at the Santa Fe Opera Festival a couple of nights ago about the French soprano Natalie Dessay prompts this blog post. A couple of eminent music writers (whom I admire a great deal and very much enjoyed meeting in the flesh at the Festival) consider Dessay to have a less than stellar voice and her acting to be gimmicky and repetitive.

To my new friends -- and to anyone else who thinks Dessay is anything less than one of the best performers to have graced the opera stage in a long, long time -- I say this:

People tend to forget that opera is theatre. What Dessay brings to each part she plays is "total performance". Her voice is fine and flexible -- she can sing an aria whether she's standing in the middle of the stage or lying flat on her back, and make it sound like it's pouring out of her soul. When she performs recitative, she gives the impression that she's having a visceral conversation with herself or her scene parter. It all feels so completely organic.

Beyond her vocal powers, she is also one of the most dynamic and agile operatic actresses around. Unlike Anna Netrebko, whose Violetta in La Traviata I caught at San Francisco Opera recently, Dessay actually behaved like a woman on the verge of death. Netrebko's death scene came across as a strange surprise; Dessay's was organic. Even when bouncing about the stage in a sea anemone-like, fuchsia-colored frock in the first act, the performer's rapacious energy seemed finely undercut with the manic energy of someone who knows they may not have long to live.

Admittedly, I'm not that interested in hearing recordings of Dessay's voice. It's the whole package that fascinates me: I am engrossed with her stage presence and all the elements that fuse to together to make the opera star the consummate artist that she is. I have traveled a long way to experience Dessay on stage in the past and don't plan to give up doing so anytime soon.
July 27, 2009 9:09 AM | | Comments (4)
Surprises at San Francisco Symphony's Distant Worlds: Music From Final Fantasy concert of music from the famous video game written by the Japanese composer Nobuo Uematsu:

1. The audience was full of game geeks, most of them under 35 and many of them Asian.

2. The composer processed through the hall flanked by two aides at the start of the concert before taking his seat with a bow to rapturous applause from his fans.

3. Thousands of people -- maybe hundreds of thousands worldwide -- are obsessed with Uematsu's score for Final Fantasy. As soon as the orchestra struck up the first couple of notes, a whoop of delighted recognition rippled through the audience.

4. Fans don't care about house rules regarding photography. I saw lots of cameras snapping throughout the event despite the loud warning against taking pictures or video.

P.S. Extended Absence Greeting: I will be at the Santa Fe Opera Festival for the rest of the week. Be back in the blogosphere starting next Monday.
July 21, 2009 8:55 PM | | Comments (3)
Stanford Summer Theater (SST) is addressing issues of tragic memory with a triptych of Ancient Greek takes on the Electra story. Guest blogger Aisha Wells, Student Producer of SST, shares her thoughts about some of themes in this year's Festival...

Maurice "Rush" Rehm, Stanford Drama and Classics professor and Artistic Director of Stanford Summer Theater (SST), has recently purchased a new cell phone--a small, convenient flip-phone complete with a built-in camera and that polished luster that characterizes most new technology. "$29.99," Rehm exclaims in disbelief at his own ownership of such a strangely modern device.

Ask any student, friend or colleague of Rehm--or even Rehm himself--and you will hear confirmation that he is not a person concerned with keeping abreast of the latest cutting edge technology. While the rest of Silicon Valley moves forward at a blindingly quick pace, at Stanford University, Rehm is directing Stanford Summer Theater's 11th season, the Electra Festival, which offers a comprehensive investigation into the timeless theater stories of the ancient Greek world.

But Rehm cannot be accused of living in the past. As an author of four books on Greek tragedy, Rehm is internationally considered an expert on the Classical drama, and yet it is not merely his personal interest in the ancient world that motivated his decision to select Electra as the theme for this year's SST festival.

On the contrary, selecting Electra was done primarily with the intent to provide modern audiences with an intimate experience of the value of confronting tragedy-- a tragedy ancient in origin, but as pertinent and current as Rehm's brand new $29.99 camera phone.

Directed by Rehm, SST's major production of Sophocles' Electra, beautifully poetic in this translation by Anne Carson, is an uncompromising look at an archetypal story of revenge. The part of Electra, played by Stanford Alumnus, Valentina Conde, is a theatrical tour de force. Her fiery rage, unsettling obsession with avenging her father's murder, and inability to move beyond her memory of past injustices, combine to ignite a series of increasingly tragic events."In Electra" says Rehm, "Those who forget are rewarded, while those with fixations on past wrongs are ultimately consumed by their own obsessions." Rehm proposes that this is not all too different from today's attitude toward dealing with the past: "We are asked to forget before we remember. Progress is favored over memory-- particularly when it comes to tragic historical memory." Tragedy in the real world is so overwhelmingly prevalent that often the only feasible mechanism we have for coping with it is to forget it--to move onward and upward.

But forgetting tragedy, and the modern preoccupation with the glittery appeals of perennial progress, has proved problematic. "Like the old caveat goes, those who forget history are doomed to repeat." Indeed, today's tragedies often demonstrate a seemingly endless repetition of historical mistakes.

Electra, Rehm suggests, is an explosive experience that invites its audience to confront the catch-22 imposed by tragic memory: While on the one hand we should not abandon our tragic memories, on the other hand, will determination to remember injustice ever allow us to forgive it? Or will tragic memory, as in the case of Electra, inevitably cause perpetual frustration, persecution, and cyclical acts of revenge?

"Here, Electra gets complicated; it's not clear that simple memory and action based on that memory leads us out of the woods at all," says Rehm.

And while many playwrights, dramatists, and scholars share this viewpoint, part of what adds to Electra's timelessness is the countless ways in which perspective can introduce additional nuance and complexity to the myth. Aeschylus' Libation Bearers, Euripides' Electra, and the films selected for SST's weekly screenings are all telling the same story, yet their divergent approaches avoid simple unnecessary rehashing--instead bringing to light subtle shifts in the characters' motives and feelings. Perhaps the more perspectives that shape Electra's retelling, the closer one can get toward reconciliation with tragic memory.

While many people may share a good joke at Rehm's unwillingness to embrace technology's constant new developments, there is something to be said for what we may glean from slowing down and taking a good look into the past.

Stanford Summer Theater's Electra Festival runs July 13 through August 15, 2009. For more information, click here.
July 20, 2009 8:08 AM | | Comments (1)
The Ghost Town Gallery isn't in a particularly lovely part of Oakland. The streets are rife with swirling trash, windows are boarded up and there are prostitution and drug warnings posted on almost every corner.

It is, however, the perfect neighborhood in which to stage a theatrical adaptation of The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov's great 1930s satirical novel in which the Devil runs rampage around a destitute and corrupt city.

Four Larks Theatre Company, a scrappy and exceedingly talented young troupe with one cloven hoof in the Bay Area and other in Melbourne Australia, is making black magic in the Gallery his week with its take on Bulgakov's chef d'oeuvre. The walk-through production is an immersive experience in three acts which combines eerily beautiful live music and spirited writing and acting with a visual art-inflected mise-en-scene that looks like something out of a 1980s New Romantic pop group video.

I have witnessed a number of adaptations of The Master and Margarita before. It's easy to see why theatre companies are so attracted to the work. With its black comedy and opportunities for dazzling theatrics (a guy gets his head chopped off in a freak accident involving a tram; characters fly; the Devil puts on the Party of the Century) the novel begs to be staged. But very few of these theatrical adaptations work because the adaptors try to cram too much of the novel into the play. Another related problem is figuring out what to do with Bulgakov's heavy, incense-laden secondary plot, which deals with the contents of The Master's Biblical book about Pontius Pilate. This plot just isn't as sexy as the story about the Devilish Woland and his band of renegade satyrs causing havoc in Moscow.

The artfulness of Four Larks production lies partly in the fact that the company doesn't attempt to put Bulgakov's entire novel on stage. The adaptation focuses mostly on the love story between the two titular characters and on the attitude and pluck of Woland and his entourage. The emphasis on character brings the story to life. From Nathan Greene's sprightly feline Behemoth to Max Baumgarten's serious, matinee idol-like Master, each actor imbues his character with a strong sense of purpose without upsetting the carefully balanced sense of ensemble.

Another reason for the success of the production is the clever conceit of doubling the characters of Pontius Pilate and Jesus with The Master and Margarita. This is not only economical from a casting perspective but also brings a whole new layer of meaning to the relationship between the central couple and helps to tie the two plots more closely together.

Directed and scripted by Jesse Rasmussen and devised by Rasmussen, Mat Sweeney, Sebastian Peters-Lazaro and Alessandro Rumie, Four Larks' production certainly has its sticking points. The ball scene, which should be the flamboyant centerpiece of the entire work, loses power, focus and all sense of story line owing to the fact that it's made to double up as a sort of intermission. The actors hand out eye masks to the audience members, shoo us into a room and suggest that we buy a drink and have some fun. The cast members themselves wander around in heavily powdered faces and flea market Gothic drag ad libbing in character. Susannah Freedman, as Margarita, sits above the party room on a swing in a cabaret girl dress, swigging red wine out of a giant goblet. At one point, Ern Gift's larger-than-life Woland stands astride the bar and makes a bit of a speech. As Woland's saucy and underdressed maid, Hella, Caitlin Valentine half-heartedly attempts to engage audience members in a waltz. Lindsey Cooper, as Frieda, sings a sad little song through which the other characters declare their boredom and ask her to shut up. It's all very intriguing and offbeat, but the conceit neither ultimately works as scene nor intermission.

However, this Master and Margarita is, generally speaking, such a box of fairy tale wonders that it's impossible not to leave the theatre smiling. West Oakland feels like less of a ghost town upon exiting Ghost Town Gallery.

Four Larks Theatre Company's production of The Master and Margarita plays at Ghost Town Gallery, 2519 San Pablo Avenue, Oakland. Tickets cost $10-$15. Call 510 967 0426 or email to reserve tickets.
July 17, 2009 8:36 AM | | Comments (0)
When I first heard about the The San Francisco Symphony's online Social Networking project, I wasn't all that excited. I thought that it wouldn't attract that many people as classical music concert goers tend to be of an older generation and I imagined it would turn out to be a bit like a sparsely attended Facebook.

The Symphony is proving me wrong though. The Social Network turns out to be a fascinating place to meet people with all kinds of weird and wonderful musical interests. And I'm pretty impressed with the ways in which the organization is leveraging the Web to create buzz around and interest in on-stage musical events.

Take the Smule Group, for instance. I joined this group -- which brings together musicians who use Smule apps to turn their iPhones and iPod Touches into musical instruments -- within the Network a couple of weeks ago. I don't yet own an iPhone or iPod, but I was totally intrigued by the way in which the Symphony is bringing all the musical gearheads who like to do more than listen to other people's music on their PDAs. If I end up getting one of Apple's coveted gadgets, I'm pretty sure I'll be learning to play the ocarina or leaf trombone before too long.

There were about 20 members on the Smule Group when I joined. Now there are 150. One of the main reasons why people are excited about the Smule Group on the Social Network is because of the current tie-in with this weekend's Final Fantasy concert at Davies Symphony Hall. Led by conductor Arnie Roth, San Francisco Symphony will play the music from the popular Final Fantasy video game series by the Japanese video game composer Nobuo Uematsu. The concert will feature videos and art stills shown on massive screens highlighting the games. The event will very likely attract a different audience from the usual Symphony crowd which I'm curious to be part of.

The Smule Group is not only running a competition to win tickets to the concert and an iPod Touch loaded with Smule musical apps, but Smule's Marketing Manager, Turner Kirk, is also running a free Ocarina Master Class after the concert at the front of the Davies Symphony Hall stage for interested concert ticket holders. Kirk will provide tips on playing the iPod touch or iPhone. Attendees will practice an excerpt from the music from Final Fantasy and the whole event will culminate with an instant ocarina orchestra reprise of part of the concert.

The Smule Group activities and the concert look like they might provide a perfect mixture of live concert, demonstration, interactive educational experience and technology. If the event goes well, the San Francisco Symphony's Social Networking activities will doubtless provide a model for other orchestras' communication and community-building endeavors.
July 16, 2009 7:33 AM | | Comments (1)
I am trying to wrap my head around the news that as of next season, theatre journalists will no longer be part of the Tony Award voting process. As a story in yesterday's New York Times explained:

"In a significant change to voting procedures for the Tony Awards, the Tony Management Committee announced Tuesday evening that about 100 theater critics and journalists -- about one-eighth of all Tony voters -- will no longer be eligible to vote in the competition for Broadway's most prestigious honor...An official close to the committee, who was not authorized to discuss the committee's private deliberations and therefore spoke on condition of anonymity, said the change was made because the committee concluded that it was a conflict of interest for journalists to vote on Tony contenders when they have a platform to champion a show in news and entertainment media."

Why does the Tony Committee believe that journalists present a conflict of interests problem? Surely the other people who make up the Tony decision-making body -- a group consisting of "theatre producers, owners, publicists, actors, writers, designers and members of various Broadway theater unions and committees" as the NY Times story lists them -- pose a greater threat from a conflict of interests perspective?

Journalists are, as far as I can tell, the most impartial members of the group and are less likely to be swayed by cronyism. They are, in all likelihood, in a much better position to see a wider range of performance events than producers and other theatre insiders. This move makes no sense to me. Removing journalists from the decision-making pool for the Tonys will make the awards even less credible than they currently are.
July 15, 2009 8:10 AM | | Comments (0)
At the gym the other day, the instructor of a fitness class put a pop song on the stereo to which we were about to do some kind of painful chest routine with the dumbells.

"This track is weird. I think it's European," said the instructor as she brandished her weights.

"How do you know?" Someone asked. "Well, I'm only guessing," said the instructor. "Because it's got five beats to the bar."
July 14, 2009 7:24 AM | | Comments (0)
In advance of a class I'm teaching over the next couple of weeks about engaging with and responding to live performance through writing for California Shakespeare Theater's Summer School program, I'm trying out Twitter as a conduit for channeling thoughts about a performance.

It's not easy.

For what it's worth, here's my take, in 140 characters including spaces or less, of the production which my students are going to be writing full reviews about this week (and posting them on the CalShakes' blog):

"Stephen Turner and Diana LaMar's lovebirds don't tweet but bark in CalShakes' sizzling take on Noel Coward's Private Lives"

It takes up at least half of a Tweet to tell people the name of the production, the company behind it and the URL. Thank goodness I'm not trying to Tweet about a play with an extended title like Mrs Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge!

One might question whether there's any point in using Twitter as a reviewing mechanism at all. I think there are some definite pluses to alerting people to shows with this technology though. The main function, I think, is to grab a reader's attention enough to make them want to go on to read a full-length piece about a show. A few quick words, plus the URL which people can follow to get an in-depth take is the way to go. Wendy Rosenfield, in her terrific Drama Queen blog , came to a similar conclusion a couple of weeks ago.
July 13, 2009 9:17 AM | | Comments (1)
A message on Facebook from Bay Area playwright Trevor Allen alerted me to some sad news last night: Local actor Luis Saguar passed away on July 8 at the age of 52 of a terminal illness.

Saguar was a founding member of the inventive, San Francisco-based theatre company Campo Santo, the resident theatre company at Intersection for the Arts. Over more than 15 years with the collective, he helped to bring to life new plays by the likes of Denis Johnson, Jessica Hagedorn and Octavio Solis. Saguar was instrumental in connecting diverse audiences with live performance by telling stories that reflected on and impacted individuals and communities. I always enjoyed watching him perform. He brought a pungent animal energy to drama and was also a lively and touching comedian.

Intersection is mounting a campaign to raise money to lend support to Saguar's family during this harrowing time. If you would like to donate, please click here.
July 10, 2009 7:37 AM | | Comments (6)
While some state funding of the arts is, to my mind, an important way to keep a country's culture alive and kicking, one negative thing about state-sponsored theatre companies is that traditionally, they've been able to keep running productions of plays for way too long past their sell-by dates. Mothballed sets, going-through-the-motions actors and stale direction become hallmarks of shows that continue playing on the national dime. The fact is that people tend to become lazy when their bills are all being paid, or when the entity that's paying them decides that this or that production is representative of the best of the nation's culture and should therefore be presented in its original state, regardless of how stale and old-fashioned the work may have become.

In light of this, it's quite refreshing to experience Israel's National Theatre Company, Habima, performing its latest production of the great Jewish play by S. Ansky, The Dybbuk. The company (pictured above, left) opened its San Francisco run last night at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. To my mind, director Shmuel Shohat's production represents a perfect marriage between paying homage to tradition and keeping things bold and contemporary.

The Dybbuk was first performed in Moscow in 1920 by the Yiddish-speaking Vilna Troupe. Habima's Hebrew production, launched in 1922, immediately became a huge hit. The company kept the original staging in its repertoire for decades. (See above, right, for a 1922 production still of the actress Hannah Rovina as Leah, the daughter of a rich merchant, Sender, who becomes possessed by the spirit of her forbidden lover, the brilliant but tortured rabbinical scholar Chanan). Habima's latest staging evokes the 1920s original through its use of stark, Expressionistic makeup and Cubo-Futurist scenery, the centerpiece of which is a deeply-raked wooden table which later transforms into a graveyard. The actors turn up on stage as they would have 90 years ago, striding on with suitcases and proceeding to dress themselves and ready the performance area for the play.

In its use of puppets, this Dybbuk feels very new, however. Apparently the large-eyed, white-ethereal mannequins representing Leah and Khanan were inspired by Tim Burton's movie Corpse Bride. Intriguingly, Burton was in turn reportedly inspired by early productions of The Dybbuk. Other puppets used in the play for the comic characters including the rabbis and Leah's dim, milquetoast of a fiance, are made of foam with outsize, squishy, cartoon faces and tiny insect-limbs. These puppets are more reminiscent of Sesame Street or Muppet Show marionettes. In fact, the two curmudgeonly rabbis in the play remind me strongly of the Muppet Show's resident windbags, Statler and Waldorf.

The interactions between the puppet and human actors are powerful. Sometimes performers Ayelet Shadmon (Leah), Yaron Sancho Goshen (Sender) and Nimrod Eisenberg (Chanan) manipulate the puppets from behind the scenery, and cannot be seen. Elsewhere, they stand on stage with the puppets, but "keep out of the way" of the puppet actors. Meanwhile, in some of the production's most ghostly and arresting scenes, the human actors interact with the puppets, almost as if they are the human consciousness behind the characters. Every now and again, for example, the puppet Leah looks to the human actress holding her for what seems like a second opinion or verification of her actions. It's as if Shadmon is on stage coaxing on her puppet alter ego to trust in her feelings. There are even occasions when the human actors perform without puppets. Sender never appears in puppet form. Goshen plays him in a bravura style. Paradoxically, the only non-puppet character in the play is the most grotesque.

The effect of all of this is to disorient and delight the audience. A little girl sitting in front of me giggled in all the right places (and some of the ones where the adults were very quiet.) I felt like I was engaging in a piece of theatre history as well as being sucked wholeheartedly into the present moment. It was magic.
July 9, 2009 8:10 AM | | Comments (0)
Karen McKevitt started an interesting debate recently on Theatre Bay Area's Chatterbox blog about whether trade publications should publish "negative" articles about artists and and their work. Here's the gist of Karen's commentary:

"The July/August issue of American Theatre hit my mailbox today, and I found an intriguing juxtaposition in its Letters section. I skimmed the page and saw Tony Taccone's name as one of the letter-writers, and I knew right away he was going to take exception to the feature [San Jose Mercury News critic] Karen D'Souza wrote about [Amy Freed's play produced at Berkeley Rep] You, Nero, where she basically rehashed negative criticism of the South Coast Rep performance in a feature that in theory was supposed to be about the second production at Berkeley Rep."

At the invitation of TBA marketing manager Clay Lord, I offered a few initial thoughts on the topic on the comments section of Chatterbox.

The first was this: "I think it's possible to write for American Theatre without being a cheerleader. I often do it. At the end of the day though, a feature story for any publication -- whether it's an "industry" publication or a general interest newspaper or magazine -- is not a review. I think focusing too strongly on the words of other critics (or more directly offering one's own opinion) in what's supposed to be a balanced piece about the evolution of a play is not necessarily the fairest or most journalistically interesting way to go."

I returned to the comments section of Karen McKevitt's blogpost later and wrote this: "I'd like to add something to what I wrote earlier. In Karen D'Souza's's defense: her piece was for the Critics Notebook section of the magazine, which isn't necessarily supposed to be a section for straight reporting. Although the articles written for this section are often feature-like in style, the magazine wants critical insight into the work/artists in question, so I think there is a bit of leeway for editorializing. That being said, there's still something odd going on in the case of the You Nero article: Karen didn't so much give her critical opinion of the SoCal production as give many other critics' (negative) opinions of the work. Which is maybe the root of the issue here. Criticism is disguised as reporting in the article, which may come across as being disingenuous."

This morning, I've been mulling more deeply over the complex issues at stake and here's a new thought: Just as actors and directors get cross with critics for making ill-informed assumptions about the production process based on the final product, so TBA and various other members of the theatre community may be guilty of the same thing: Only Karen D'Souza and the editors at American Theatre Magazine know the nature of the assignment. So to label it as a "feature" is to make assumptions about the kind of piece that Karen was commissioned to write that may not be correct. When Karen McKevitt writes "[D'Souza] basically rehashed negative criticism of the South Coast Rep performance in a feature that in theory was supposed to be about the second production at Berkeley Rep," she's making all kinds of assumptions about the nature of the assignment. Her take may be wrong. I've never personally written a Critics Notebook piece for the magazine, but I'm guessing that the critics who are commissioned to do these pieces are asked to assert their opinions in some way.

This leads to more questions such as a) should American Theatre publish opinion pieces at all? and b) if yes, should the writers be more up-front with their feelings (both negative and positive) rather than disguising them as "impartial" reporting by purloining the (negative) words of other critics?

In answer to part a), I say YES. American Theatre Magazine and other media like it should publish opinion pieces. It is possible to both support an industry and be its gadfly, though that line might be tricky to walk sometimes. Sycophantic writing about the arts in any context is boring and pointless. One of the things I most relish about writing for American Theatre Magazine is that I'm able to paint honest pictures of my interview subjects. I don't feel like I have to be a cheerleader. So, at least to a degree, the editors are open to broad-minded reporting.

In answer to part b), I say YES too. If the magazine is going to publish a Critics Notebook -- which, right or wrong, implies the solicitation of an opinion in its title -- the editors should encourage the writers to be honest and take ownership of their criticism rather than try to pass it off as straight reporting. Again, I am not party to the process that went on between Karen D'Souza and the editors at the magazine. So it's difficult to tell why the article was spun this way. But if the writer had personal doubts about the success of the Berkeley production of Freed's play, she should have voiced them (or been allowed to voice them) herself rather than couched her disapproval through a bunch of other peoples' quotes.

At the end of the day, this debate will hopefully cause the magazine to think more carefully about the role it plays within the industry and help theatre makers to reassess their relationship with the magazine. These outcomes can only be good in the long run. Down with cheerleading! Up with in-depth, sparkling, engaged prose!
July 8, 2009 8:30 AM | | Comments (1)
Visiting the Asian Art Museum's Lords of the Samurai exhibition the other day in San Francisco turned out to be marked by an unlikely interest in the finer things of life such as high fashion.

Running till September 20, the exhibition focuses on daimyo -- the provincial lords of the warrior class in feudal Japan. The exhibition features more than 160 works from the Hosokawa family collection (the Hosokawa clan was a powerful family of military nobles with a 600-year-old lineage) from the Eisei-Bunko Museum in Tokyo, and from Kumamoto Castle and the Kumamoto Municipal Museum in Kyushu. Objects on view include suits of armor, armaments (including swords and guns), formal attire, calligraphy, paintings, tea wares, lacquerware, masks, and musical instruments.

The most eye-catching items on display are undoubtedly the beautifully preserved and detailed examples of warrior armor. There are also lots of incredibly lethal-looking weapons and important-looking scrolls.

What was more surprising, were the parts of the exhibition dealing with samurai culture. It's hard to imagine these fierce warriors in their imposing helmets stopping on the warpath to eat picnics out of a set of gorgeous lacquered bento boxes or engaging in perfume-concocting and smelling parties with the aid of delicate little scent jars. But apparently these warriors had exceedingly refined tastes.

This impression extended even to the atmosphere of our visit. When the friend I was with, Alain, walked in to the coat check to leave his bag, the staffer on duty commented on his T-shirt (which had a buddha logo on it.) Then, when we entered one of the galleries, a museum docent told Alain that his hairdo reminded him of how the more modern samurai would wear their hair -- Al had some of his long, curly locks trussed up in a ponytail. The early samurai, the docent told us, would have shave their foreheads alongside wearing ponytails.

The Asian Art Museum's website includes a fascinating page all about little known samurai facts. John Galliano and Vivienne Westwood could clearly learn a thing or two from the Hosokawa clan.
July 7, 2009 7:29 AM | | Comments (0)
On July 4, as I was standing in a friend's back garden in San Francisco stuffing my face with hotdogs and burgers and watching trails of sparkly lights fizzle their way across the sky, I heard about an unusual experiment in fake firework art.

A group of creative Welsh sheep farmers who call themselves the "Baaa-Studs", practice a form of "extreme sheepherding". Earlier this year, the shepherds took to the hills armed with several flocks of unsuspecting sheep, a truck-load of LEDs and a camera and proceeded to create a gobsmacking light display using all the resources at their command.

A short and hilarious video on YouTube demonstrates how the farmers attached LEDs to the sheeps' backs. After nightfall, they sent their dogs in to herd the sheep into amazing formations and videotaped their efforts. Against the black hills, the sheep's movements create the effect of a fireworks display. There are rockets and Catherine Wheels. The sheep even come together at the end to spell "FIN".

This knocks the usual July 4 fare out of the baaa-park.
July 6, 2009 8:25 AM | | Comments (1)
Edward Albee's At Home At the Zoo consists of two one-act plays. The first, "Homelife", was written in 2004 when Albee was 76 years old. The second, "Zoo Story", was composed when the author was just 30. Though the two plays complement each other in some ways, I'm not sure they should be produced together. More to the point, I'm not sure if "Homelife" should be produced at all.

San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater does as fine a job with staging both plays as is conceivable. (In fact, the two Albee plays I've experienced at ACT have been among the best work that I've seen the company produce in recent years. 2005's The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia? was terrific.) Director Rebecca Bayla Taichman creates boldly contrasting moods between the two halves of the show. While almost everything about "Homelife" is careful, measured and internalized -- like Robert Brill's blandly stylish off-white living room set -- "Zoo Story", staged against a toxic green backdrop, bristles with animal energy, heart-on-sleeve passion and danger.

But while "Zoo Story" had me completely engrossed, "Home Life" almost made me go to sleep. I don't think that the problem lies with Taichman's production or the quality of Rene Augesen and Anthony Fusco's acting. The play feels completely staid and stale and I'm not sure if there's enough in it of interest to resonate in any particularly revealing way with the action in "Zoo Story."

Albee wrote "Homelife" to "do justice" to the character of Peter. The only character who appears in both plays, Peter is a dead-from-the-neck-down, middle-aged man who sits on a park bench minding his own business until his life is suddenly thrown off-kilter by a talkative and strange young man by the name of Jerry (compellingly played in ACT's production by a shifty yet lovable Manoel Felciano). Jerry does most of the talking in "Zoo Story" and Peter remains a shadowy, passive character. Albee attempts to readdress the balance between the two characters by helping us to understand Peter's behavior in "Zoo Story" through showing us the character at home with his wife Ann in "Homelife, which takes place in real-time about an hour before he heads to the park for his fateful meeting with Jerry.

While meeting Peter before he meets Jerry helps us to understand and empathize with the character to a degree, "Homelife", to my mind, has two enormous flaws. For one thing, unlike the apocalyptic "Zoo Story", "Homelife" could never work as a standalone play. It's just too plodding and cliche-ridden. For another, one of the wonderful things about "Zoo Story" is its strangeness. I like the mystery that enshrouds both Peter and Jerry. Why do we need to have Peter's life explained away?

At Home at the Zoo plays at ACT until July 5.
July 3, 2009 8:17 AM | | Comments (0)
Until a few days ago, I was one of those people who turned their nose up at the social networking site, Facebook. With three blogs and a website to maintain myself, I was very much against the idea of being tied to my computer even more by upping my "online presence". And why would anyone in their right mind want periodic updates on my life along the lines of "Chloe is staring at a blank page on her laptop. Only 2,000 words to write before teatime" or "Chloe had soup for lunch"?

I broke down last week however, when I heard that a large number of participants of the Chanticleer Summer School -- an amazing (and frankly life changing) choral workshop run by the San Francisco a cappella men's chorus Chanticleer which I attended last week at Sonoma State University -- had their own Facebook page. Suddenly I saw a good reason to succumb to the lure of the beast. Upon the prodding of two of Chanticleer's singers (Eric Alatorre and Brian Hinman, I will hold you both accountable forever!) I signed up for an account on Friday afternoon and prepared to be unimpressed.

The site is of course a big time-waster. But in terms of being able to stay connected with singers from all over the country, I think Facebook might become invaluable.

For one thing, I've been enjoying reliving the workshop experience by checking out photos people took during the week and hearing about their various singing endeavors upon return from Sonoma. Here's an example by fellow workshopper and music teacher Paulo Faustini who lives on the East Coast: "Vocalized the sopranos to a high F at 8:30 AM and then worked with the small group singing Hassler's Dixit Maria, and is now taking a break before a masterclass at 1 PM, and then more lessons later in the afternoon and an evening rehearsal. Wine may be needed at the end of the day!"

For another, Facebook might actually end up being a great business communications tool for me as I develop my vocal music radio show, VoiceBox, and various other journalistic and musical endeavors. For instance, the day after I returned from the workshop, I wrote a blog post about Chanticleer music director Joe Jennings' farewell concert. I was able to paste the link to the post on my Facebook page, which made it much more accessible to the people who were either at the concert and/or care most about it, but don't necessarily follow my blog on ArtsJournal. Readers, in turn, were easily able to comment on the blog post. A few wrote to say they'd signed up for the RSS feed to receive my blog regularly through ArtsJournal.

And when VoiceBox starts up again in the fall, I'll be able to alert a hopefully captive audience of singing buffs about the series and engage them as listeners.

The simple moral of the story: Sometimes it's good to get suckered into something. I've been slow on the uptake. But Facebook (or F$*!book as I've affectionately come to call the site) really does seem to hold promise as a cultural resource.
July 2, 2009 7:21 AM | | Comments (0)
Marty Ronish, the co-creator of the excellent classical music radio blog, Scanning the Dial, asked me to contribute some thoughts about what it's like to be a rookie radio host. I recently launched my first radio series, VoiceBox, through NPR-affiliate KALW 91.7 FM San Francisco.

Reading over my responses to the questions Marty asked makes me feel like a Muppet. Did I really equate hosting a classical music radio show with good sex? The mind boggles.

In any case, click on this link to read my thoughts.

And on a completely unrelated subject, check out San Francisco Chronicle Theatre Critic Robert Hurwitt's very informative piece about the history of the San Francisco Mime Troupe which turns 50 this year.
July 1, 2009 7:17 AM | | Comments (0)

Me Elsewhere


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This page is a archive of recent entries written by lies like truth in July 2009.

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