“It strikes me that instead of being ‘cautious’ not to ‘impose’ American values on a foreign culture, the museums of America should acknowledge that they have a unique responsibility to speak out on behalf of Ai Weiwei. They are, after all, trustees of the cultural heritage of mankind, which makes them by definition guardians of the universal values of civilization. Yet most of them are carefully looking the other way while China thumbs its nose at those same values by unlawfully imprisoning an artist. That’s not caution, it’s cowardice….”
Archives for May 27, 2011
In today’s Wall Street Journal I file the first of two reports on my recent visit to Chicago. This week I review the Court Theatre’s Porgy and Bess and TimeLine Theatre’s The Front Page, both of which are sensationally good. Here’s an excerpt.
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Nowadays most people think of “Porgy and Bess” as an opera, but it began life on Broadway, and there’s a strong case to be made for performing the American “Carmen” (which is what “Porgy” is) not as a big-house opera but as a straight-from-the-shoulder music drama (which is what “Carmen” is). That’s what Charles Newell has done in his soul-stirring revival, a radical rethinking of George Gershwin’s rambling masterpiece that transforms it into a concise two-act chamber opera for 15 singers and six instrumentalists. Though it’s nothing like the “Porgy” that Gershwin and his collaborators envisioned, Mr. Newell’s new version is so emotionally true to the spirit of the piece that any lingering reservations you may have about its modest scale will quickly be swept away.
No sooner do you walk into the 250-seat Court Theatre than you see what Mr. Newell and his production team are up to. The set, designed by John Culbert, is a wooden platform whose bleached planks evoke a one-room country church. The cast is dressed in white (the only splash of color is the blood-red negligée that Porgy buys for Bess) and the atmosphere is that of a revival meeting. One might almost be present at the evangelical equivalent of a 13th-century liturgical drama, a latter-day “Play of Porgy” in which the timeless tale of a crippled Catfish Row beggar (Todd M. Krygar) who falls for a cocaine-snorting tramp with a heart of gold (Alexis J. Rogers, who is devastatingly sexy) is enacted before the altar.
This is not, in other words, a stripped-down Broadway-style “Porgy” but a genre-transcending theatrical experience staged in such a way as to shift the emphasis from Gershwin’s score to DuBose Heyward’s often-underrated libretto….
Just as “Porgy and Bess” is now best known as an opera, so is “The Front Page” now best known as a movie. In the original 1928 stage version, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur introduced Broadway audiences to the scoop-hungry crime reporters who covered Chicago in the age of Al Capone. But when Howard Hawks made “His Girl Friday” in 1940, he turned Hildy Johnson, the tough-guy reporter of “The Front Page,” into a woman, in the process changing a hard-nosed farce about journalism in America into a screwball comedy about the perils of workplace romance. The results were so funny that no one complained, but the play got lost in the shuffle, and revivals are now as scarce as evening papers.
All praise, then, to Chicago’s TimeLine Theatre for resurrecting “The Front Page” and giving it a staging so full of brassy brio that you’ll wonder why you ever settled for less. Performed in the round in the company’s 99-seat theater, it puts you so close to the action that you can actually smell the ketchup on the hamburgers eaten by the characters in the first act. The acting fizzes with outrageous, nose-thumbing vitality–PJ Powers and Terry Hamilton couldn’t be better as Hildy Johnson and Walter Burns, Hildy’s unscrupulous boss–and the ultra-realistic set, designed by Collette Pollard, is so suitably grubby that you’ll want to grab a broom and start sweeping….
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Read the whole thing here.
My “Sightings” column in today’s Wall Street Journal is about Ai Weiwei. Here’s an excerpt.
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China locked up best-known artist nearly two months ago. Ai Weiwei, who is both a widely admired conceptual artist and a fearless human-rights activist, has been on the bad side of the Chinese government for years. Officials claim that he was imprisoned for tax evasion, but given China’s notorious intolerance of dissent, it’s an ultra-safe bet that his real “offense” was that he dared to criticize the tyrannical bureaucrats who run his native land, not just once but repeatedly….
And what is the art world doing about it? Not much.
To be sure, numerous protests have taken place since Mr. Ai and members of his staff were imprisoned on Apr. 3, one of which was mounted by the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. “We are aghast that this has happened and intend to protest as best we can,” MCASD director Hugh Davies told artblogger Tyler Green. But no other major museum in America has taken a similar step (though several museum directors have individually signed an online petition circulated by the Guggenheim Museum that calls for his release). What’s more, the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts are preparing to open exhibitions of Chinese art organized in cooperation with the Chinese government. To date Mr. Ai’s plight has not led either institution to alter its plans….
In situations like these, of course, it’s worth recalling the precept that every budding doctor learns in medical school: “First, do no harm.” It might well be that the Milwaukee Art Museum would plunge Mr. Ai into hotter water by protesting his imprisonment–but it’s hard to see how that could make his situation any worse. On the other hand, such a protest might also persuade China’s leaders that they can’t expect to keep on doing business as usual with the U.S. unless they release Mr. Ai forthwith.
It strikes me that instead of being “cautious” not to “impose” American values on a foreign culture, the museums of America should acknowledge that they have a unique responsibility to speak out on behalf of Ai Weiwei. They are, after all, trustees of the cultural heritage of mankind, which makes them by definition guardians of the universal values of civilization. Yet most of them are carefully looking the other way while China thumbs its nose at those same values by unlawfully imprisoning an artist….
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Read the whole thing here.
“No education is worth having that does not teach the lesson of concentration on a task, however unattractive. These lessons, if not learnt early, will be learnt, if at all, with pain and grief in later life.”
Cyril Connolly, Enemies of Promise