lies like truth: October 2008 Archives

Forget about haunted houses this Halloween. This year is marked by the arrival of a much more awesome structure: the walking house.

A few days ago, I read about this amazing-looking construction designed by architects and engineers from Copenhagen and Cambridge, Massachusetts. Beyond the fact that a prototype of the residence, with its cobweb-like black frame, looks slightly like the lair of an evildoer, the newly-designed concept really has nothing to do with Halloween. But it's such a wonderful concept that I just had to blog about it.

Built on six hydraulic legs that can walk, the house is perfect for evading floods. The 10ft high home is solar and wind powered and can stroll at walking pace across all terrains. It has a living room, kitchen, toilet, bed, wood stove and mainframe computer which controls the legs. The pod took its maiden perambulation around rural Cambridgeshire at the Wysing Arts Centre in Bourn in the UK last week. Here's a piece about the house from the UK's Daily Telegraph. I wonder if the concept could one day be applied to concert halls, cinemas, galleries and theatres? That would be a real coup.

In other news, I'm traveling to Europe on Monday and will be gone for a few weeks. I'll be writing again upon return. Until then, dear readers, I'll wish you a happy Halloween and a misty and mellowly fruitful fall.
October 31, 2008 10:12 AM | | Comments (0)
Theatre critics sometimes pop up as characters in plays, and like dentist characters in movies, the portrayals are rarely if ever positive. Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound and Ira Levin's Critic's Choice are cases in point.

The other day, I had the unusual experience of seeing myself (or, rather a weird version of myself) portrayed on stage by an actor in a local theatre production. Even though Sleepwalkers Theatre's production of a new play March to November lambasted me, my writing and (predictably) the theatre critics profession in general, I rather relished the experience.

As a blog post I penned back in September testifies, I was completely baffled and very intrigued to hear that the San Francisco company had decided to create a play based on a column I had written about political theatre back in January for SF Weekly.

In the column, I urged theatre companies to create plays about politics that didn't just preach to the choir and massage liberal theatre goer egos, but rather shook up lazy lefty thinking. Sleepwalkers' co-founder Torre Ingersoll-Thorp responded in an unusual way to my article. Instead of just sending me an email like most of my readers do, he wrote a play about a young playwright caught between wanting to set the world on fire by creating politically incendiary work and grappling with the realities of her complicated personal life.

The play features a theatre critic by the name of Clarence who works for a San Francisco alternative weekly called the SF Standard. In a further thinly-disguised move, the Standard is embroiled in a lawsuit with its chief competitor over anti-competitive ad sales practices -- a bit of trivia which echoes the current real-life situation between SF Weekly and The San Francisco Bay Guardian in real life. The main plot springs from the playwright's feelings of annoyance at and admiration for a column written by Clarence about political theatre -- which, according to Ingersoll-Thorp, mirrors his own mixed reaction upon reading my my article back in January. Furthermore, the play quotes freely from my text.

I immensely enjoyed and appreciated seeing the ways in which Ingersoll-Thorp grapples with the issues that arose from my article, even though sitting through the play was a bizarre experience. Even though the drama has its flaws (the themes need refining and drawing out and there's a little too much navel-gazing going on) it makes some interesting points about the vexed role of art as a revolutionary tool and, most significantly, the relationship between the political and the personal.

I was also amused by the character of Clarence the critic, who is quite a sweet chap at heart even if he dresses in drag (a voluminous and ill-fitting wedding dress) in the final scene of the play, has a rather unprofessional relationship with the principle playwright character, and has to deal with disgruntled artists whose work he's been less than complimentary about in the past saying things about him like "you hijack artists' futures every week with your column," and "critics should be lined up and shot in Union Square."

I'm truly flattered by Sleepwalkers Theatre's riff on my essay. Ingersoll-Thorp has taken the ideas and run with them. With a bit of refinement, he might actually have an unusual play about politics on his hands. My review of the production is out in this week's issue of SF Weekly.
October 30, 2008 10:11 AM | | Comments (0)
There's something so refreshing about turning up to catch an Oakland Opera production. Instead of putting on a cocktail dress and walking into a grand, old wedding cake of a building in the heart of San Francisco as is the case with any visit to the Bay Area's flagship opera presenter, San Francisco Opera, one stands in line with a load of mostly casually dressed people down a barren, windswept back alley before being ushered into the large, empty warehouse of a room that serves as Oakland Opera's current performance venue.

Sadly, the pieces I have experienced by the company over the last year, though interesting (e.g. the company's recent production of the unfinished Duke Ellington opera, Queenie Pie) in general haven't lived up to the thrill I'd like to feel for experiencing opera beyond the stuffy conventions of the mainstream civic opera house.

The company's current double-bill of one-acts by Igor Stravinsky -- Histoire du Soldat (which isn't really an opera at all in the sense that there is no singing) and Renard demonstrate the highs and lows of producing opera on a shoestring. The company's heavy-handed version of Histoire equated the no-frills opera experience with amateurism. But the capering, circus- and burlesque-infused Renard brilliantly showed off the potential of performing operatic works in an unconventional way.

The main problem with Oakland Opera's Histoire is the company's decision to "update" Stravinsky's careening Faustian tale about a soldier who sells his soul to the devil. Reset during the current Iraq War, the production features one of the most banal and daft librettos I've ever heard. Rebecca Lenkewicz's doggerel-infused text reminds one of a second-rate Dr. Seuss book with couplets like "Thank you for your care / I'll tell her to let down her long, long hair."

Thankfully, the second half of Oakland Opera's program, Renard, makes up for the deadening, maddening experience of the first half. This time, the company wisely sticks to Stravinsky and Robert Craft's original libretto which tells the story of a group of fighting barnyard animals. The sung performances are robust and characterful. The circus and burlesque performers imbue the work with a lively, debauched energy. I especially loved watching a bunch of burlesque dancers clad in yellow stockings and white feathers, bustles and corsets impersonate a bunch of battery hens. I don't think I've ever seen a strip scene set in a farmyard before. Funny and interesting, if not exactly kinky.
October 29, 2008 9:10 AM | | Comments (0)
I couldn't help myself. I tried really hard to stay awake. It wasn't like I hadn't slept the night before or had eaten a heavy meal prior going to the theatre. Yet I could barely keep my eyes open during Laurie Anderson's latest appearance in Berkeley.

The veteran experimental performance artist performed her latest show in front of a packed house at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall. And though many people cheered and have the performer a standing ovation, all my addled brain and heart could do was lament how often artists with big reputations can get so much funding and earn such unabashed adoration for essentially resting on their laurels -- or, in this case, lauriels.

Anderson has been a great artist. I was thoroughly engrossed by her Songs for Amelia Earhardt, which I caught in New York a few years ago. And "O Superman" continues to make a potent statement about the onslaught of technology and humanity's accompanying sense of fear and loneliness more than 25 years on.

But Homeland, Anderson's latest work condemning life in America since the 9/11 World Trade Center attack, is static, repetitive and incredibly predictable.

The most maddening thing about the production is Anderson's almost Seinfeldian approach to riffing on the minutiae of our daily lives in this country. Her trundling, ominous-bassed, extremely long songs cover such themes as the embarrassment one feels standing in the security line at the airport with all one's belongings on display and oversized Victoria's Secret models ruling the world from billboards. This material has been picked over like carrion thousands of times by performers over the past 7 years. If there's anything new to say about such things (which I doubt) Anderson certainly doesn't add anything to the debate.

The dullness of the show's content is further compounded by Anderson's habit of beginning each sentence with "and", the repetitiveness of her pseudo-ironic lilt and the flat nature of the staging. Anderson is joined on stage by a trio of musicians -- a keyboard player, a bass guitar and a cellist. The only aspect of the mise-en-scene which changes over the course of one-and-three-quarter hours are the lights, which seem to vacillate through every color in the spectrum. If only my response to the piece could have been as varied as the lighting design.

The show felt like a complete throwback in terms of style and lacked any kind of new perspective on world events. It must be challenging living up to decades of high repute as an artist. The money comes in and the houses are full. But masses of funding and standing ovations don't necessarily breed innovation.
October 28, 2008 9:19 AM | | Comments (0)
Since posting some thoughts about the 2008 Free Night of Theatre  on October 16, I have received some valuable responses. Thank you all for writing in.

Brad Erickson, executive director of Theatre Bay Area, which oversees Free Night in this part of the country, got back to me at the end of last week with direct feedback to points I raised in my blog post as well as a report containing some interesting information about this year's event. Thank you, Brad. Here are some of Brad's thoughts in response to issues I raised in my blog post:

Chloe: I'm puzzled by one thing: the Free Night doesn't seem to be a one-night stand anymore; theatre-goers can now get free tickets to see shows over several weeks. In the Bay Area, for instance, free tickets can be used to see events from October 3 to November 7.

Brad: Even the very first year, here in the Bay Area, Free Night was more than one night. While the idea of one night where theatres everywhere threw their doors open for free was wonderfully catchy, in reality schedules didn't sync up. Some shows were still in rehearsal, others were closing, for others it was opening night, and so not appropriate for Free Night. We wanted to accommodate as many shows as we could, so in that first year, we expanded the dates to include a good month of performance options. This was advantageous to theatre-goers as well, since not every person is going to be available on any given night. Starting that first year, and continuing on, we have had theatres offer tickets on more than one night. This upped the total number of tickets available for us to give away, and made it less risky for the theatre companies to give away sizeable numbers of tickets (ACT holds the record of 800+ tickets given away - that was to three different shows over a number of nights - including two mainstage productions and one at Zeum). In the past two years, we have actively encouraged companies to consider multiple evenings for the free tickets, for the good reasons I mentioned a moment ago.

Chloe: While the generosity is admirable, I'm wondering if it might dilute the punch of the campaign? There's little point in declaring October 16 2008 a Free Night of Theatre if every night between October 3 and November 7 is equally free.

Brad: Yes, which is why October 16 does not appear on any of our marketing material here in the Bay Area. In other cities (like New York), October 16 was used a focal point, or launch day, with performances beginning on that evening and proceeding over a few weeks. So, in NYC, and other regions, October 16 did have real significance.

Chloe: From a marketing perspective, I wonder if extending the dates in this way is a good idea? If people know they only have one night to see shows for free, they might jump into action more readily than if they're able to say, "well, I can go anytime over the next few weeks, so I'll just wait and see how my schedule pans out before organizing a trip to the theatre."

Brad: Any interesting point. One innovation we tried this year (and that was utilized in Chicago as well) was rolling release dates for new tickets (ours we offered every Wednesday in October, excluding the final Wednesday). We did find that tickets were not snatched up with the same frenzy as before. So people, knowing more tickets would be released the following week, were doing some online shopping. We are hoping this means there will be more real interest in the shows selected, and that will cut down on no-show rates (no-show rates for smaller, less-known companies and shows could be a problem. With well-known companies and shows far less so).

Chloe: And how does offering free tickets on multiple evenings affect the economic situation of the theatre companies involved? It's not like any of these organizations are rolling in money.

Brad: Theatres in the Bay Area have been extraordinarily enthusiastic about this program, year after year, because they understand it to be (for them) a very cost-effective way of attracting first-time patrons to their theatres. How much do companies spend on advertising? And what is the ROI? Here is a program that has proven to work in bringing in brand-new people to theatres - the most difficult to reach of audience members. Theatres in the Bay Area participate in the campaign at an exceptional rate. Of the 600+ theatres participating nationally this year, over 100 are from this region (out of 120 cities nationwide). Of the campaign's total ticket count of 55,000, over 7,000 are from our theatres. Our theatres participate to such a degree because they believe in the effectiveness of the campaign.
National numbers from TCG:
--32 Managing Partners
--Over 120 cities participating in 27 states
--656 theatres presenting over 1,700 performances
--Approx. 56,000+ tickets are now being offered.

Chloe: I'm also curious to find out whether handing out free tickets over the past few years is really helping to build new audiences or whether people are just taking advantage of the free offer and coming to see plays just once rather than repeating the experience at other times during the year.

Brad: Shugoll Associates, (a Maryland-based market research company) has measured the success of Free Night since its inception. To quote researcher Marc Shugoll, "I have never seen a more effective audience development initiative." The skinny is: Free Night audiences are remarkably diverse. They do not look like the stereotypical theatre-goer (that is, middle-age to older, white, and affluent). They are younger, they are ethnically diverse, and they come from a broad range of income brackets. They look not all that different from the Bay Area itself. And they come back as paying customers. Within six-nine months of Free Night, half of the Free Night folks attend another performance, and pay. They go to the theatre more often than before, and they attribute their uptick in interest to Free Night.
2007 Statistics:
--398 participating theatre companies presented more than 600 performances offering more than 30,000 tickets.
--According to the online survey of 2007 Free Night patrons required when they made their ticket reservation, the program continues to attract a significant number of people who fall into non-traditional theatre participant categories, including infrequent theatre attendees, young people, less educated, non-white and those with lower household incomes.
--Specifically, 77% attended a theatre they had never been to before, 42% are under age 35, 26% have less than a college degree, 27% are non-white, and 33% have combined household incomes under $50,000.
October 27, 2008 9:37 AM | | Comments (0)
I sometimes forget just how crucial a role context plays in experiencing a work of art.

I was reminded of this fact just the other day when I went to the cinema to see a special benefit screening of Jessica Yu's documentary Protagonist, screened at the Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland as a fundraiser for Walden House, a substance abuse treatment non-profit based in California. A friend of mine, Joe Loya, serves as the organization's media relations coordinator. Joe is also an author and journalist. Furthermore, he happens to be one of four male interview subjects whose story is told in Yu's documentary.

Protagonist covers the journeys of four grown men from innocence through revelation and extreme behavior and eventually to catharsis. Joe grew up in an abusive Mexican-American family. His mother died when he was young and his father took out his anger on Joe and his brother. Joe grew up to become a hardcore and rather sadistic bank robber before winding up in prison and eventually, upon release, becoming a writer. Mark Pierpont, a fervent evangelical missionary, fought for years to repress his homosexual impulses. He did everything he could to lead the battle to "cure" lesbians and homosexuals before realizing that he could no longer hide his true nature. He went on to become a gay nightclub performer. Hans-Joachim Klein, a German and the only non-American interviewee in the film, rebelled against his Nazi-sympathizing father and became one of Europe's most wanted left-wing revolutionaries of the 1970s. Then there's Mark Salzman, Yu's real-life partner, whose arc follows his obsessive martial arts training and years spent under the influence of a monomaniacal martial arts guru. Eventually Salzman, who is a noted memoirist, turned away from the guru and launched on a literary path.

When viewed as part of a substance abuse benefit, the film looks like a story of simple redemption, of bad guys turned good. I found myself feeling that Salzman, as the only person who hadn't lived an extreme life in the sense of stabbing his father in the throat with a kitchen knife, handling firearms or changing his sexuality, was the odd man out.

But reading reviews of the film written by people who saw it under different circumstances demonstrates a much wider spectrum of possible interpretations.

Writing in the Village Voice under the headline "Women are from Mars; Men from Greece," for instance, Lisa Katzman writes about Yu's exploration of male behavior and its relationship to archetypes from Ancient Greek drama (the entire film is framed by stick puppet enactments of works by Euripides such as The Bacchae.)

Andrew O'Hehir's review for Salon, by contrast, concentrates more on the film's structure.

The film seemed uneven to me, yet thoroughly intriguing. I think I'd like to see it again. Next time, perhaps, with the members of a male self-help group, a bunch of feminists or a group of Greek or literary scholars.
October 24, 2008 10:13 AM | | Comments (0)
The newly-renovated National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul has the following inscription on it: "A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive." This statement should be the mantra accompanying visitors as they look around Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul, a globe-trotting exhibition of some of the war-ravaged country's most precious artifacts, which opens at San Francisco's Asian Art Museum tomorrow.

More than a dazzling collection of beautiful objects from the crossroads of the Silk Road trading route dating as far back as the Bronze age, the exhibition represents the endurance of an ancient and extremely rich culture against all the odds.

To stare at the soberly-lit glass cases filled with such objects as a glowing pair of gold shoe soles found in the tomb of a nomadic princess or the smooth clay head of a temple sculpture from the Greek-influenced royal city of Ai Khanum, is to begin to grasp the deep heritage of a country that seems, owing to its near-constant presence in current new headlines, to have no past -- just a destructive present.

It's amazing that these objects, alongside some 226 others selected for public display -- have made it as far as San Francisco (the only west coast city presenting the show) at all. Their journey from various excavation sites in Afghanistan to the present time tells an amazing story of survival and endurance.

National Geographic archaeologist Fredrik Hiebert, the guest curator of the exhibition and an expert on ancient trading routes like the Silk Road, was on hand at the Asian Art Museum's press preview yesterday to provide some background.

Hiebert's story begins in 1987 when he went to Turkmenistan, part of the former Soviet Union, to work with the Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi on a desert dig. Sarianidi told Hiebert, then a grad student, about the greatest find of his career to date -- the discovery of the Bactian Gold in neighboring Afghanistan ten years previously. Sarianidi had excavated six intact tombs filled with 22,000 pieces of gold jewelry and offerings, the first evidence of ancient nomadic life in Northern Afghanistan (known as Bactria).

Sarianidi would later write about his discovery in a 1990 issue of National Geographic Magazine. The final line of his article was particularly foreboding: "Look well at these pictures of the Bactrian masterpieces that follow. Who knows when they will be seen again."

Immediately following Sarianidi's discovery, Afghanistan fell into political chaos. The archaeologist hurriedly put the treasures into boxes before the onslaught of Civil War and hid them away.

The rise of the Taliban in the 1980s and the ensuing destruction of much of the country's infrastructure and cultural sites (including the National Museum in Kabul which was bombed in 1993) caused most people, including Hiebert, to believe that the Bactrian cache, together with countless other Afghan artifacts, had been lost forever.

But in 2003, President Hamid Karzai announced that the Gold and other Afghan cultural relics had been found in unmarked boxes in the Presidential bank vault in Kabul. They had been secreted away by a group of daring conservationists, known as "key holders", who vowed to preserve the treasures throughout their country's decades of upheaval.

When he heard about the discovery, Hiebert approached National Geographic about allowing him to go to Kabul to follow-up on Sarianidi's story. The Afghan government granted permission for the boxes in the bank vault to be opened if The National Geographic facilitated a scientific inventory of all the items. Both sides agreed to the arrangement and Hiebert flew to Kabul.

Working closely with 18 staffers from the National Museum, Hiebert and his colleagues inventoried 33,000 objects. "We had to get a presidential decree from Karzai to allow us to open up the boxes," recalls Hiebert. "And when we finally pried them open, there it was -- the Bactrian Gold. In this country which had experienced more than two decades of chaos, this stoic bunch of Afghans had saved the nation's culture."

Following the inventory process, the Afghan government agreed to put some of the items on display. The exhibition which traveled first to France and other European cities and then to the US (launching in Washington DC before coming to San Francisco) showcases objects from four different sites. These include the Bronze Age civilization known as The Oxus, the Alexandrian city of Ai Khanum, the 1st Century BCE trading settlement of Begum, and Tillya Tepe, the resting place of the Bactrian Gold.

Though modest in size (the entire show is more or less housed in 2 large rooms) the exhibition presents a radical view on Afghan culture to people like myself whose knowledge of the country extends barely further than news stories about suicide bombers, lost lives and destroyed cities. In these times of increasingly narrow thinking, Afghanistan broadens perspectives.

The exhibition is on display at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum from October 24, 2008 through January 25, 2009.
October 23, 2008 10:22 AM | | Comments (0)

Friday nights are the night to visit the de Young Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.

When the museum hosts its weekly "Friday Nights at the de Young" event, museum-goers can enjoy live bands, a full bar and, best of all, galleries that stay open till 8.45.

The Friday Night crowd don't seem all that interested in art though. When I visited last Friday, most people congregated for the party, leaving the exhibition halls blissfully uncluttered. It was a real treat to wander around the African and Early American galleries with so much space and quiet. Even the sound of the Latin band playing in the cafe could barely be heard.

What I loved the most about experiencing the de Young collection in the evening was stepping into The Family Room (a modest space on the ground floor of the museum which is mainly used for gatherings such as board meetings) and reveling in the Swiss-born Italian-American painter Gottardo Piazzoni's luminescent early modernist California murals -- The Sea and The Land.

Architects Herzog and de Meuron created a special room for the paintings when the de Young was rebuilt earlier this decade. Ten of the 14 original paintings are on display in the room. The remaining four are on loan to n the state Treasurer's building in Sacramento. The murals had previously been housed at what is now the Asian Art Museum in downtown San Francisco. (For an article about the controversy surrounding their upheaval and restoration, click here.)

Piazzoni created the paintings in 1931-1932. The lean frescos with their big open skies and yellow earth perfectly capture the spaciousness and softness of the California landscape. Tiny figures appear like ghosts staring out at the view. They seem as transfixed by the vista as I was by looking at the paintings. And the most remarkable thing about them is that they seem to imbue what would otherwise be quite a somber, relatively small room in the museum with light.

I stood in that room on my own for about 20 minutes. Later on I came back to spend another 10 minutes or so with the paintings. I think I'll be spending more Friday nights gazing at Piazzoni's Californian vistas with the sound of a band playing in the distance.
October 22, 2008 7:49 AM | | Comments (1)
Conor McPherson's tricksy play Shining City takes a musty formula and gives it a twist -- or, to be more precise, a shoulder-dislocating wrench. But he does it so subtly that you don't notice the brutality.

The play is set in in modern day Dublin, but looks like it could have been written 70 years ago. It's an old fashioned psychological drama steeped in realism and coupled with a traditional bedtime ghost story. Both the ghost and psychological elements appear on the surface to follow the standard rules of their genres. But the play is so oddly structured -- it's rooted in a few very long, monologue-based scenes interspersed with what appear to be tangential "side show" scenes -- that it ends up defying the status quo. I, for one, had not read or seen the play before I attended Amy Glazer's pithy production at SF Playhouse, and enjoyed all of its eccentricities immensely, even feeling my stomach lurch in the final sickly moments of McPherson's tall tale. 

The play is interesting because you think it's about one thing -- a middle-aged salesman's psychological breakdown following the death of his wife. But it ends up equally being about the inner lives of several other characters -- an ex-priest turned therapist, his girlfriend, and a young male prostitute.

What makes Glazer's production powerful is the way in which she works with the terrific cast to bring out the drama's profound meditation on human loneliness and isolation. Shining City is peopled with characters who cannot or are afraid to go home. They wander the streets, inhabit apartments where they're not wanted and pace up and down rented bedsits and apartments, not sure what to do next. Like the ghost that haunts the margins of the narrative, they are all in limbo.

McPherson has a slightly different sensibility to his renowned Irish playwright counterpart, Martin McDonagh. McDonagh's plays provide a series of nasty shocks; McPherson's make the fingertips tingle in a way that isn't entirely pleasurable but can't be stopped. And whereas many of McDonagh's plays (with the exception, perhaps, of Pillowman) feel like they couldn't be set anywhere other than Ireland, McDonagh's feel rootless, like the dramatist himself isn't quite sure where to lay his dramaturgical hat.
October 21, 2008 10:32 AM | | Comments (0)
Sophie Treadwell's Machinal is as much a play for our age as it was a play for the age in which it was written - late 1920s America.

This country certainly seems to be heading towards a similar economic crisis, and like Treadwell's seething worker-bee protagonist, Helen Jones, many of us are now experiencing the less-than-positive impact of so-called technological "progress" in our day-to-day lives.

Treadwell's brutal-satirical view of a life lived according to the rules of "the machine" and the destructive effects of that life on a young woman, assault the theatre-goer with a primordial snarl in Mark Jackson's stomach-clenching, gob-smacking, eye-opening production at San Francisco State University.

As with his previous SF State production of Don Juan last year, the director manages to take what many would consider to be an intimidating play -- it's written in an expressionistic style, is based on the the real life case of convicted and executed murderess Ruth Snyder and runs two hours with no intermission -- and turns it into something scary, intimate and irresistible.

The entire production bores into the brain like a jackhammer. Jackson subtly presages Jones' eventual fate at the electric chair for killing the husband she never loved through the use of some 300 sound effects perfectly calculated to jangle our nerves, from a shutting hotel door that sounds like prison bars slamming to a drill outside a hospital that more closely suggests machine gun fire. In the opening scene set in Jones' workplace, the green hue of the office clerks' 1920s garb boldly expresses the envy that the Jones' co-workers feel for her as the latest object of the boss' affections. And when the sparsely-designed production's one main scenic element -- a plain grey wall -- descends down on the convicted Jones as she goes to her death by electrocution in the final scene, we feel like the entire sky is falling on our heads. It's a Chicken Little moment, but it's not in the least bit funny.

The production is far from heavy-handed though. In fact, apart from the very last moments of the play described above, it's extremely witty. Commenting with a 21st century sensibility on the overblown physicality of expressionist theatre and the hammy mannerisms of early screen talkies, the actors push text and gesture as far as they will go, turning such mundane activities as washing the dishes or answering the phone into grotesque stereotypes of a bygone age. Victoria Rose's telephone operator is almost Betty Boop-like with her nasal, cutey-pie vocal inflections and hammily-feminine gestures. Kenny Toll's bent-over, arachnid prosecutor could be an evil character out of a Dickens novel. And Robb Siminoski plays the feckless businessman George H. Jones like wind-up W C Fields, hitting each of his bland catchphrases with wheezy self-importance and a blank, Cheshire Cat grin.

Led by the luminous Megan Hopp as Jones, Jackson's cast of physically bold, textually astute undergraduate performers belie their relative inexperience. Once again, I came away from the theatre with my head spinning, wondering why "professional" companies rarely produce work as intelligent, emotionally disturbing and fresh as this.
October 20, 2008 9:47 AM | | Comments (1)
As a Brit, the concept of the "pub crawl" has always been dear to my heart. What better way to spend a day than wandering about a city, stopping in at bars, sampling interesting drinks and having wonderful and increasingly drunken conversations with strangers?

Actually, I can think of one slightly better way to spend a day: And that's when you take the pub crawl formula and inject into it a bit of live theatre.

That's exactly what a bunch of innovative theatre companies in the South of Market (SOMA) district of San Francisco Under are doing tomorrow. Under the banner of the "SOMA Cultural Coalition" -- a consortium created by SOMA arts organizations to pool resources and "put SOMA on the map" as Climate Theater artistic director Jessica Heidt puts it -- the theatre companies are banding together to offer what sounds like a terrific afternoon of art and booze.

Involving just three of SOMA's 11-or-so arts venues for this inaugural "SOMA Theatre Crawl" (the organizers hope to expand the concept to include more local companies in the future) the event kicks off with excerpts from the political fairy tale Animal Kingdom at Boxcar Theatre (1pm). Crawlers will then walk a few blocks to The Garage to sample new work by Denia Dance and Enrico Labayen, theatre by Performers Under Stress and Gregory Bartning's photography (2pm), and finally stagger towards The Climate Theater for a reception involving improv, comedy and yet more libations (3pm).

By the time the evening shows roll around at 8pm, people will be in fine spirits, especially since the entire crawl is free of charge. If you're putting on a play somewhere around town that evening, don't be surprised if some hecklers show up.

For more information about the Crawl click here or call 415 776 1747.
October 17, 2008 1:30 AM | | Comments (0)
Today is a special day for the U.S. non-profit theatre world: It's the 4th annual Free Night of Theatre. Organized by the Theatre Communications Group, the Free Night aims to attract new audiences to the theatre by offering no-cost tickets to a wide range of performing arts events in many different cities across the country.

San Francisco (alongside Austin and Philadelphia) piloted the event in 2005. Since then, at least if the propaganda is to be believed, the Free Night has grown exponentially. On the first Free Night, held on Thursday, October 20, 2005, more than 150 theatre companies ushered close to 8,000 theatre-goers through their doors to see more than 120 performances.

In 2006, Free Night expanded to include an additional 13 communities such as Atlanta, Boston, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Seattle and Washington, DC. On October 19, the 2006 campaign offered 35,627 free tickets to 522 performances presented by 387 participating theatre companies from coast to coast.

Last year, the program was expanded to previously unrepresented parts of the Midwest and southeastern states. TCG presented Free Night 2007 in more than 70 cities. The event gave away more than 30,000 tickets to 600 performances that were presented by 398 theatres nationwide.

This is all very commendable, but I'm puzzled by one thing: the Free Night doesn't seem to be a one-night stand anymore; theatre-goers can now get free tickets to see shows over several weeks. In the Bay Area, for instance, free tickets can be used to see events from October 3 to November 7.

While the generosity is admirable, I'm wondering if it might dilute the punch of the campaign? There's little point in declaring October 16 2008 a Free Night of Theatre if every night between October 3 and November 7 is equally free. From a marketing perspective, I wonder if extending the dates in this way is a good idea? If people know they only have one night to see shows for free, they might jump into action more readily than if they're able to say, "well, I can go anytime over the next few weeks, so I'll just wait and see how my schedule pans out before organizing a trip to the theatre."

And how does offering free tickets on multiple evenings affect the economic situation of the theatre companies involved? It's not like any of these organizations are rolling in money.

I'm also curious to find out whether handing out free tickets over the past few years is really helping to build new audiences or whether people are just taking advantage of the free offer and coming to see plays just once rather than repeating the experience at other times during the year. I've contacted Theatre Bay Area's executive director, Brad Erickson, to find out if his organization has any information about the audience-building acumen of the Free Night program. When I hear back from Brad, I'll post his thoughts here so stay tuned.

In the meantime, if you're in the U.S. and happen to get out to see any shows as part of Free Night either tonight or at any other point during the "run", feel free to drop me a line to let me know what you saw and whether the free ticket program will keep you coming back for more.

This news in from Brad at TBA in regards to the rationale behind expanding Free Night beyond a single date:

"The whole month aspect is one of our local innovations as implemented this fourth year of Free Night in the Bay Area. Nationally, Oct 16 (the third Thursday) remains the focal point for the campaign. We found that focusing on one night didn't help us communicate the real scope of the initiative, with performances laid out over several weeks. But one of the fascinating aspects of Free Night nationwide is how individual communities are free to tailor-make the campaign to work best in their own regions. So there are now dozens of different ways to implement the initiative. All of which we will be studying and reporting on at the TCG conference in Baltimore next June."

Brad is deferring to a colleague of his, Clayton Lord, to get back to me about audience-building facts. I'll post again when I hear from Clay...
October 16, 2008 11:44 AM | | Comments (1)
Don't you love getting turned on to beautiful things in unlikely places?

The other day I was wondering around a store in the tiny touristy Northern Californian town of Point Reyes Station looking for a birthday gift for a friend when my ears pricked up at the sound of the music on the store's stereo system. I was so transfixed that I lingered in the store for about half an hour. The shop keeper must have thought I was casing the joint.

The songs were instantly recognizable to me: Most of them were lovely, old Brecht/Weill standards that I had heard many times on stage before, including "The Bilbao Song" and "Surabaya Johnny" from Happy End and "Moon over Alabama" from The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany.

But the voice that was singing the songs, accompanied by maudlin strings and piano, was not.

It was a male voice -- sweet, reedy and orgasmically pure. Having heard only fabulously oversexed, raspy female vocalists like Ute Lemper essay the Brecht/Weill cannon in the past, I was completely entranced by the contrast between the Brecht's snarling-destitute lyrics/Weill's blue-collar harmonies and the singer's boyish, unsullied tenor.

My friend, who was equally mesmerized, went up to the lady who was standing behind the cash register to ask about the source.

Turns out the singer was Theo Bleckmann. Embarrassingly, I'd never heard of Bleckmann, though the German-born singer-songwriter is big on the lounge music circuit in New York and has played many famous stages around the world including Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall, the Sydney Opera House, L.A.'s Disney Hall, The Whitney Museum and the new Library in Alexandria, Egypt. He's even been interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air.

As soon as I returned home, I bought the album which I'd heard in the store, Berlin: Songs of Love and War. That eerie-dulcet timbre is currently the soundtrack of my life. I can't get Bleckmann's Berlin out of my head.
October 15, 2008 9:53 AM | | Comments (0)
The British playwright Mark Ravenhill just wrote about his experience of directing one of his own plays in Armenia. The process is apparently going well despite the language barrier: Ravenhill speaks neither Russian nor Armenian and the actors don't speak English.

But when it comes to staging plays for English-speaking audiences in English, language can prove to be an issue. I've found this to be true on many occasions over the years as I watch American companies produce plays by British dramatists. (I'm sure the reverse is true too; I just haven't experienced an American play produced by a British company in many years.)

I've been thinking about the linguistic barrier since the other day when I experienced a terrific San Francisco production of The History Boys, a play about a group of high school students applying to get into Oxford and Cambridge in the 1980s by the great Yorkshire playwright Alan Bennett.

There are many elements in this play that don't translate easy for US audiences. If the audience hasn't got enough on its plate coping with the play's many references to T S Eliot, Auden, Larkin, Wittgenstein and obscure Reformation era monastic lore, there are also many impenetrable Anglicisms to parse. Examples include references to "sixth form" (the final two years of high school); the "Carry On" films (a series of popular, bawdy comedies made in England in the post-War years starring many of the same actors); Black Magic (a well-known brand of chocolate assortment made by Nestle that used to be considered fancy); and -- best of all -- "a bit of a pillock" (an insult roughly meaning "idiot.")

I don't think it's necessary to be able to understand all of these expressions, but I wonder whether one's enjoyment of the play is diminished by not getting such references?

Obviously, thousands of people -- both British and American -- cheerfully sit through productions of Shakespeare each year with no idea of the meaning of all of the Bard's words. I also think that if a playwright's writing is eloquent enough, a director's direction clear enough, and an actor's acting bold enough, the meanings of "foreign-sounding" words should come across to a degree anyway. It should at least be possible to follow the gist of any unfamiliar expressions.

So the inclusion of a glossary of terms in the program notes, though helpful in a way, may point to a slight shortcoming in the production.
October 14, 2008 10:26 AM | | Comments (2)
If this country weren't going to through what it's going through right now, watching Barry Levinson's 1990 film Avalon would probably just make me feel a bit misty-eyed and queasy. Based on the director's memories of growing up around his immigrant grandparents who came to the US from Eastern Europe at the start of the First World War, the film is good, old fashioned sentimentality. It's a bit like Woody Allen's Radio Days but without the sense of humor.

But at this point in US history, as we watch the tenets of the so-called American Dream, with its cut-price goods, TV dinners and rags-to-riches can-do mentality, turn into a hideous joke, Levinson's film looks darkly ironic.

Spanning three generations of one family, the film tells the story of an immigrant, Sam, who arrives in Baltimore in 1914 to join his three brothers in the wallpapering business. His son, Jules, grows up to become a successful salesman -- he and his cousin are pioneers of the discount electronics trade. By the time Jules' own son, Michael, becomes a man, the family's fortunes have somewhat changed, as have their priorities. Jules loses his fortune when an electrical fire burns down his new (uninsured) warehouse store. He leaves the "roller-coaster" world of business empire building behind him and goes into media sales. We don't learn much about Michael as a grown up, except that he is married and has a small boy. But it seems clear that his parents' fortunes have left a deep impression on him.

Quite apart from leaving a bitter taste in our mouths for its portrayal of lines of shopping-frenzied Americans lining up for hours to buy their shiny, cut-rate televisions in the 1950s, the film is interesting for the way it charts the changing concept of community and family over three generations. The family in the story are extremely close-knit at the start. They all chip in to help each other come to the new world from the old one even though they don't have much money at their disposal. They all live in adjacent houses in downtown Baltimore and are completely involved in each others' lives.

But by the time Jules comes of age, attitudes have changed. With comfort comes a greater desire for privacy -- and heightened selfishness. The family moves to the suburbs and gradually breaks up into smaller units; brothers who were once close allies, fall out over such trifles as the premature carving of a Thanksgiving turkey; when Sam's wife wants to bring her long-lost, Holocaust-surviving brother to the US, the family refuses to chip in funds to help. "We can't be paying for every Tom, Dick and Harry," says one family member, disgruntled. Once the site of noisy discussion around a huge table, family dinners become silent affairs, consumed on trays in front of the TV. And Sam, in his old age, wonders if his family exists anymore.

Levinson's movie is full of nostalgia for a lost time. But it's also a sharp critique of the path that this country has taken over the past 60 years or so. I'm not suggesting that this country should try to return to the dreamlike concept embodied by the notion of the word "Avalon." But the film certainly provides a crucial perspective on recent social and economic history in the run up to November 4.
October 13, 2008 8:35 AM | | Comments (0)
A strange item in Ohio's Springfield News Sun, via Yahoo News, caught my attention today.

The story concerns the punishment facing a 24-year-old man, Andrew Vactor, for playing rap music too loudly on his car stereo in July.

Champaign County Municipal Court Judge Susan Fornof-Lippencott absurdly offered to reduce Vactor's $150 fine to $35 if the miscreant agreed to spend 20 hours listening to classical music. The thinking behind this idea was to give Vactor a proverbial dose of his own medicine by forcing him to listen to something he might not like, just as other people had no choice but to listen to his loud rap music.

According to the news story, Vactor managed to listen to only about 15 minutes worth of music by the likes of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven before giving up and agreeing to pay the full $150 fine, citing his need to get to basketball practice. "I didn't have the time to deal with that," the article quotes Vactor as saying. "I just decided to pay the fine."

I don't know who's more worthy of ridicule here: Vactor, for assaulting peoples' eardrums with his unnecessarily loud music, or Fornof-Lippencott for co-opting Mozart & Co as devices of torture. The thought of it makes me feel a little queasy. No music, not even angry rap, should be used to punish people. The idea reminds me of that hilarious scene in Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy where the pan-galactic stowaways Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect are strapped to chairs and forced to listen to the captain of the Vogon spaceship reading his poetry aloud. Dent and Prefect almost die from being exposed to such thumbscrew gems as "Ode to a Lump of Green Putty I Found Under My Armpit One Midsummer Morning."

The judge in the Vactor case apparently makes a habit of meting out similar punishments. According to the article, she has on occasion taped TV shows for defendants to watch on topics such as financial responsibility. As she sees it, they get the chance to have their fine reduced "and at the same time broaden their horizons."

But Fornof-Lippencott is deluding herself if she thinks that forcing someone to listen to classical music is going to turn them onto the art form. If anything, it'll have entirely the opposite effect.
October 10, 2008 11:00 AM | | Comments (1)
An experience I had at San Francisco's New Conservatory Theatre Center last night reminded me of seeing people file into the his and hers changing rooms at my local swimming pool.

The theatre, which specializes in putting on shows aimed at gay audiences, has two productions running in tandem at the moment: Alan Bennett's play about a group of precocious British schoolboys revving up to take the Oxbridge entrance exams, History Boys, and That's What She Said -- a musical comedy revue starring two Los Angeles-based performers, Amy Turner and Kathryn Lounsbery.

What was striking was walking into the theatre lobby and seeing the playgoers literally sort themselves into two camps along gender lines before my eyes. Pretty much all the female audience members went through a door to the left to see Turner and Lounsbery's "girl-on-girl comedy duet", while most of the people heading through the right hand door to see Bennett's homoerotic-tinged drama were men.

It's good to see a company catering to a wide range of its core audience's predilections simultaneously. But I wonder how many of NCTC's subscriber base would go and see both shows?
October 9, 2008 11:40 AM | | Comments (0)
It seems to me that you don't need to be a believer in order to sing religious music masterfully. Plenty of great singers bring tears to the eyes of listeners while singing songs written within various world spiritual systems without necessarily subscribing to those beliefs. They do this by finding their own way to connect to the music and lyrics, which is, in a way, a form of acting. And no performance of any kind worth its salt is without some element of acting.

It was interesting, therefore, to interview a bunch of people from the gospel music community and hear their thoughts about the relationship between religious belief and the music they practice. Very few people I talked to think that it's possible to sing gospel music convincingly without being a worshipper of Jesus Christ. Here are some examples of answers I received to the questions: "Is it possible to separate the music from the religious aspects of gospel or must the two always go hand in hand? Is it possible to be a great gospel singer if you're not a Christian?"

Marvin Sapp, chart-topping gospel recording artist:

"I don't know of any gospel artists who aren't christians. Gospel music is about conviction. it isn't easy to have a conviction about someone if you don't have a relationship with them. I don't know of any great secular artists that are gospel artists. Al green is a better secular artist than he is a gospel artist in my opinion."

Donald Lawrence, gospel music songwriter and record producer:

"Someone who doesn't go to church can respond to lyrics that share good news. On the other hand, the music tends to talk about Jesus and God, so you may not want to be a gospel artist if you don't believe to avoid compromising yourself. Gospel music comes from heart so you have to have it in your heart to connect with it. It's the same for all art forms from country music to opera: you have to make the connection and train hard to be successful."

Rebecca Sherill, director of McCoy Memorial Baptist Church choir in Los Angeles:

"You have to feel and believe what your'e singing in order to make other people believe and feel what you're singing. The essence of gospel is beliving what you're singing. The two go hand in hand."

Janet Sutton, director of ACME Missionary Baptist Church Choir in Chicago:

"Anyone can sing gospel music. The record stores are full of recordings of "Amazing Grace" created by people who aren't believers. You can sing whatever you want to sing. But the message is more effective if you know what you are singing about. You can be a gospel artist if you aren't a christian. But if you haven't gone the whole way by declaring Christ as your lord you can't fully engage with it."
October 8, 2008 8:10 AM | | Comments (4)
I am always saddened when powerful words like "love," "terror" or "tragedy" lose their strength and even eventually their meaning owing to overuse, bowdlerization and/or general carelessness.

I've been feeling this disappointment particularly strongly of late with respect to what was until recently one of my favorite words: "maverick."

Maverick was once a wonderful word. It sticks on the tongue and in the heart. It reminds me of wild, empty plains; of life lived on the edge. The way in which the McCain-Palin junket has seized the word and made it synonymous with stolid Republican values inspires nothing in me but boredom and disgust.

So it was a great relief to turn on the radio yesterday and catch the middle of the latest edition of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's great news commentary show, As It Happens. During the show, the host interviewed an 82-year-old woman by the name of Terrellita Maverick. Ms. Maverick lives in San Antonio, Texas. She comes from a long line of Mavericks. She's what you might call a "genuine Maverick."

When asked for her thoughts about McCain-Palin's attempt to turn her family name into part of the brand image of Republican campaign, Ms. M was naturally indignant. She said that the Republicans had no business using the word "maverick", regardless of whether it's with a capital or small "m." She then went on to relay her family's history in the real-estate and cattle business. The original meaning of the word "maverick" apparently dates back to the mid-1800s, when one Samuel A. Maverick (1803-70), a Texas cattle owner and one of the interviewee's ancestors, was negligent in branding his calves and became known for his individualist behavior.

The seven-minute interview was wonderful, despite the fact that Ms. Maverick, perhaps suffering from slight deafness, called Palin "precocious" and "a good speaker." (Alas I don't think the pensioner was being ironic.) I really needed to let off some election season steam. Hooray for Canada.
October 7, 2008 8:13 AM | | Comments (0)
Like many things in life, people often judge an arts experience by the entrance that a performer makes on stage. Whether it's the members of the male a cappella vocal ensemble Chanticleer all traipsing on stage in perfect tuxedo-sporting synchronicity with black folders neatly tucked under their right arms, or Katherine Hunter loping on with a scowl as the malignant, hunchbacked Bolingbroke in a production of Shakespeare's Richard III I witnessed in 2003 at London's Globe, performers tell us much about what to expect within the first few seconds of their act.

So it was interesting, on Friday night, to experience the country singer Iris Dement's entrance at in San Francisco. Shuffling on stage with her head bowed, her guitar hung haphazardly around her neck like a baby chimp, spilling liquid from a cup in one hand and carrying a plastic bottle of water in the other, Dement looked like she was carrying huge bags of groceries to her front door rather than getting ready to play before a packed house at one of the west coast's premiere jazz clubs.

Dement sighed, put down her load, and plonked herself down at the piano. "So much for a smooth start," said the singer-songwriter in her husky, southern drawl.

Dement's entrance might have left some audience members non-plussed, and her appearance -- stocky, bespectacled and dressed like a school marm in an old-fashioned, knee-length, patterned sun-dress, chunky-heeled sandals, woolly cardigan and string of beads -- didn't exactly exude country music heroine cool. But as soon as Dement started paying, I certainly forgot about her entrance. Or, rather, the quirkiness of those opening moments coupled with her slightly frumpy appearance, only served to endear her to me.
I was struck by the contrast between the sweet, pleading penetration of her singing voice, the husky, I-just-got-out-of-bed-stoned timbre of her speaking voice and the Tom Waitsy rocking of her piano style. As far as I recall, all of the songs in Dement's spiraling, close-to-two-hour unbroken set were strophic. And every time the chorus came around in her melodies on such themes as enduring love, spiritual wonder and soaking in nature, the songs seemed to get more and more under my skin.

Dement's songs have a candidness to them that's at once inspiring and refreshing. She tells it like it is without being cynical. One of my favorite songs from the concert was "Let The Mystery Be". The open, sparse chords sounded as truthful and free-ranging as the philosophy of the lyrics, which explore our attempts to understand "the great unknown." With its jaunty stride bass and cracked melody, "Mama's Opry", a memoir about Dement's relationship with her mother, is as much an exasperated appraisal of -- as it is a tribute to -- the tough, 91-year-old woman.

Dement's performance also presented an interesting combination of extreme self-absorption and brazen worldliness. At one point, she commented about how much she loved playing the piano at Yoshi's ("This piano sounds so good to me; if I'm not careful, I'll forget you're there.") At another, she played a few bars of a song then changed her mind, saying that she suddenly didn't feel like performing that number anymore. On the other hand, her commentary included pained thoughts about the state of the nation ("I'm not too happy with the way things are going in this country right now") and her decision to join a new church, inspired by a Kansas City pastor she heard on the radio who stated "christianity and capitalism don't go together."

A friend who attended the concert with me was unhappy that Dement spent so much time behind the piano. He prefers her guitar-playing, of which she did very little during the set. But I didn't mind the keyboard-centric bent of the evening. I found myself completely absorbed in the singer's sound. My first impression of seeing Dement perform live will probably stay with me forever. But the thing that will stay with me the longest, I think, is the memory of her wonderfully humorous, bitter-sweet ballad about an aging couple entitled "This Love's Gonna Last." I will never forget the lyrics of the refrain for their pungent imagery. I'll leave you with these words:

Some days together we're like baseballs breaking glass
Still, I think this love's going to last.
October 6, 2008 10:59 AM | | Comments (2)
Chris Jeffries' stimulating, funny and clever musical Vera Wilde juxtaposes two seemingly very different characters from the same era. The quirky, homespun-melodied work, produced by the Berkeley-based company Shotgun Players and featuring a five-piece folk band comprising of upright bass, guitar, banjo, fiddle and drumkit, extrapolates on the lives of Oscar Wilde and Vera Zasulich.

Za who? I hear you ask. The the story of the great Anglo-Irish playwright is well known throughout the world. But Zasulich, despite being dubbed the "mother of terrorism" for taking Russian feudal law into her own hands in the late 1800s, working closely with Lenin during their exile in Switzerland, and playing a fundamental role in bringing about the Russian Revolution, barely registers as a footnote to most people today.

Zasulich and Wilde probably never met, though Wilde was enough inspired by news reports of the Russian radical's stand against the Czarist authorities (she shot a sadistic prison commander for flogging a defenseless, physically-depleted student 50 times for the crime of not removing his hat) to write his first (extremely unsuccessful) play Vera, or The Nihilists (1880) about Zasulich.

Employing a mercurial time structure which moves forwards in time through Zasulich's story and backwards through Wilde's, Jeffries shows us, by the end of the play, just how the reputations of the two figures stand today. Our final impression of Zasulich is of a crippled, old woman, barred from an important Community meeting and already practically forgotten by the people who had heralded her as a hero in her youth. Wilde, meanwhile, is in his prime by the end of the production. As portrayed by the flamboyant Sean Owens (a talented Bay Area actor and playwright who seems to view Wilde as a sort of alter ago) the character exudes confidence at the end of the play. A vision in green velvet, Owens' Wilde stands proudly at the start of his career. He embodies the idea of promise.

The start of the play paints the opposite picture of the two protagonists: Zasulich is at the height of her powers: As brought to life by a willowy, determined Alexandra Creighton, the character is fearless, radical and committed to shaking up the system. An overnight sensation, Zasulich becomes a figurehead of dissent. Wilde, on the other hand, is at his lowest ebb when we first meet him. Broken by his years in Reading Gaol for "gross indecency" and unable to return to England, he dies a pauper in Paris. His shimmering resume as a dramatist is even tarnished by the fact that his most successful plays are performed without his name on the billboard.

At one point in the middle of the play, the two characters' lives physically intersect. Jeffries imagines them meeting in London. Wilde is in rehearsal for -- ironically -- his play A Woman of No Importance, when Zasulich seeks him out ostensibly to interview him for the revolutionary newspaper which she edits in Switzerland. She hopes to inspire the man who wrote a play about her to jump on the revolutionary bandwagon, but instead leaves disappointed without even telling the playwright her name.

Though the opening scenes could use more punch, and the singing could overall be better in tune and more clearly enunciated, director Maya Gurantz delivers a clean, well-balanced staging of the work and coaxes energetic, performances from all five members of the ensemble.

Set against Lisa Clark's claustrophobic backdrop of grey, narrow, precariously inward-leaning Victorian facades, Gurantz, Jeffries and their collaborators evoke a history of heroic outcasts from Galileo to Joan of Arc to pose a provocative question about the nature of revolution: Does change happen at the heart of public life or on the fringes?
October 3, 2008 10:00 AM | | Comments (0)
There's a passage from Amy Tan's novel The Bonesetter's Daughter which won't leave me alone.

It's the section describing a book of Chinese brush paintings called "The Four Manifestations Of Beauty." According to an interview with the novelist in Fate! Luck! Chance! , Ken Smith's new book about the making of the opera version of The Bonesetter's Daughter, Tan filched this idea from her friend Bill Wu, an Asian art expert. Wu had developed his ideas about aesthetics through studying the calligraphy of the famous Chinese artist C. C. Wang. I'd like to quote the passage as I think it's one of the most resonant descriptions of beauty I've ever come across:

'With any form of beauty, there are four levels of ability. This is true of painting, calligraphy, literature, music, dance. The first level is Competent. 'We were looking at a page that showed two identical renderings of a bamboo grove, a typical painting, well done, realistic, interesting in the detail of double lines, conveying a sense of strength and longevity. 'Competence', [Kai Jing] went on, 'is the ability to draw the same thing over and over in the same strokes, with the same force, the same rhythm, the same trueness. This kind of beauty, however, is ordinary.

'The second level' Kai Jing continued, 'is Magnificent. 'We looked together at another painting, of several stalks of bamboo. 'This one goes beyond skill' he said. 'Its beauty is unique. And yet it is simpler, with less emphasis on the stalk and more on the leaves. It conveys both strength and solitude. The lesser painter would be able to capture one quality but not the other'.

He turned the page. This painting was of a single stalk of bamboo. 'The third level is Divine,' he said. 'The leaves are now shadows blown by an invisible wind, and the stalk is there mostly by suggestion of what is missing. And yet the shadows are more alive than the original leaves that obscured the light. A person seeing this would be wordless to describe how this is done. Try as he might, the same painter could never again capture the feeling of this painting, only a shadow of a shadow.'

'How could beauty be more than divine?' [LuLing] murmured, knowing that [she] would soon learn the answer. 'The fourth level,' Kai Jing said, 'is greater than this, and it is in each mortal nature to find it. We can sense it only if we do not try to sense it. It occurs without motivation or desire or knowledge of what may result. It is pure. It is what innocent children have. It is what old masters regain once they have lost their minds and become children again.'

He turned the page. On the next was an oval. 'This painting is called Inside the Middle of a Bamboo Stalk. The oval is what you see if you are looking up or looking down. It is the simplicity of being within, no reason or explanation for being there. It is the natural wonder that anything exists in relation to another, an inky oval to a white paper. A person to a bamboo stalk, the viewer to a painting.'

Kai Jing was quiet for a long time. 'This fourth level is called Effortless,' he said at last.
October 1, 2008 9:22 AM | | Comments (4)

Me Elsewhere


About this Archive

This page is a archive of recent entries written by lies like truth in October 2008.

lies like truth: September 2008 is the previous archive.

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About Last Night
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Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
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Life's a Pitch
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
Mind the Gap
No genre is the new genre
Performance Monkey
David Jays on theatre and dance
Plain English
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Real Clear Arts
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
Rockwell Matters
John Rockwell on the arts
Straight Up |
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude

Foot in Mouth
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
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classical music
Creative Destruction
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
The Future of Classical Music?
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
On the Record
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Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Slipped Disc
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds

Jerome Weeks on Books
Quick Study
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Drama Queen
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
lies like truth
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world

Aesthetic Grounds
Public Art, Public Space
Another Bouncing Ball
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
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