Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Like the Weather

You know the climate is fucked when you fly into New York during a rainstorm unlike any you've seen in the Pacific Northwest for quite some time and when you return to Vancouver to find the city blanketed in snow and temperatures well below freezing. We received another 30 centimeters on Sunday night, and more is expected:

Pretty, yes, and no doubt good for Olympics-related optics, but frankly the novelty has long passed. Were it not for my manic neighbour and her visiting, prairie-raised father--who attack snow shoveling like it's a competitive sport--my back would have given out long ago. Of course, rain is now in the long term forecast, which will turn the entire city into one huge puddle.

New York was a great success, starting with the ostensible reason for the visit: research at the New York Public Library's Performing Arts Division at Lincoln Center. I was specifically interested in combing through the extensive video and DVD collection of the Jerome Robbins Dance Archives in connection with an ongoing project on solo performance and sexual citizenship in the United States. I can't tell you how impressed I was with the system they have in place there. Once you negotiate your way through all the construction hoarding around Lincoln Center, find the entrance to the Library, make your way to the third floor, obtain your Access Card, and hand in your viewing requests (up to three at a time) to the librarian at the desk, you are then directed to a nearby television monitor and computer. No waiting for the physical object itself; rather, an unseen technician cues your requests remotely, and when they're ready, a message appears on the computer screen directing you to press play. The video then appears on the adjacent TV screen; you can fast forward, rewind, pause, etc, all via the computer and its mouse, and if for some reason something goes wrong, or the wrong video appears, you can send an instant message to the technician, who will fix the problem almost instantaneously (as was the case with me when the performance of Ron Brown's "Forgiveness" [1988] I was watching was interrupted by a master class on Shakespearean acting). Even this momentary ghost in the machine (no, it wasn't Hamlet) was instructive, and the whole day I spent there left me intellectually re-energized about a project I was considering abandoning.

Then there was the theatre. I list the performances in the order of their viewing:

1. Arias with a Twist (Friday, December 12): Downtown drag diva Joey and master puppeteer Basil in a collaboration that's truly inspired and wonderfully inappropriate (much physical and verbal innuendo around Joey's horse-haired wireless microphone). The show is loosely structured around an alien-in-the-wilderness theme, with an opening number that sees Joey, in Crawfordesque bangs and lipstick, and wearing a fetish corset, probed by space aliens, before being sent back to an especially fecund version of the "garden of earthly delights" (interestingly, a much-praised restaging of Martha Clarke's dance theatre piece of the same name, based on the Hieronymus Bosch painting, was taking place at the nearby Minetta Lane Theatre), and eventually making his way--via mise-en-scène and choreographic references to Godzilla and Busby Berkeley--to New York's gay village and the stage of the Here Arts Center. That stage is notably intimate, and the 6-foot plus Joey looms large in front of the audience; I loved that his in-between show patter was so transparently salacious, and that he performed it with such self-delighting whimsy (there were several moments when he cracked himself up). And then there's the singing voice, from the uncanny channeling of Billie Holiday to the digitally modulated rock opera opening and the power ballads that just wouldn't quit. Twist, who both designed and directed the show, is a genius, conjuring fantastical dreamscapes out of fabric, cardboard, and string, and choreographing a memorable number for Joey and two life-size alien go-go dancers. The production was also notable for its canny use of video projections and a transparent scrim, a feature of a number of other fall NY stagings, according to Joanna, who accompanied Richard and I to the show.

Digression: Joanna completed her MA under my direction several years ago, and is currently writing her Ph.D. thesis on the work of Paula Vogel at CUNY's Graduate Center. Joanna is my lifeline to the New York theatre scene (she sees a show a week, on average), and whenever we travel to the city we try to hook up, either for dinner or a show, or--as in this case--both (great meal beforehand at Smith's on Macdougal Street). Just prior to our visit, Joanna had traveled to New Haven to see the premiere of Vogel's latest play/musical pageant, A Civil War Christmas, at the Long Wharf Theatre, under the direction of Tina Landau. (Vogel recently moved to Yale from Brown--where she had a long and fruitful association with the Trinity Rep Theatre--in order to chair the Playwriting Program at the Yale School of Drama.) By Joanna's account, the play was a great success, and according to Vogel it will ideally be remounted at venues across the country every December for years to come, supplanting Dickens in audiences' imaginations about the ghosts of American Christmases past. (Digression upon digression: Basil Twist also did the traditional bunraku puppetry for Vogel's previous play, A Long Christmas Ride Home [2003]--one senses a bit of an obsession here on the playwright's part.)

2. Road Show (Saturday, December 13): Joanna strongly recommended Sondheim's latest musical--variously known as Wise Guys, Gold!, and Bounce during its long and bumpy creative gestation--and with John Doyle directing (Richard and I had seen and greatly admired both of his recent stripped-down, actors-doubling-as-musicians, productions of Sweeney Todd and Company on Broadway), and the always excellent and eminently watchable Michael Cerveris starring as the less prodigal of the two Mizner brothers, Willy, we needed no further encouragement. I gather from critics who have seen earlier versions of the show that this latest incarnation is darker and less vaudevillian. Given the current economic climate, the collapse of the American housing market, and the almost daily newspaper accounts of financial fraud on Wall Street (the Madoff story broke while we were in NYC), it is certainly hard not to read the play--which begins with the brothers seeking their fortune in the gold mines of Alaska and ends with them losing it through shady real estate speculation in Florida--as a cautionary tale about unbridled greed. This is reinforced in Doyle's staging by the currency-clad ensemble's matching costumes, and by the repeated Brechtian gestus of throwing wads of fake cash into the audience (for an insightful analysis of other Brechtian elements of the play highlighted by Doyle, see Jill Dolan's review on her Feminist Spectator blog). Still, I found the play to be filled with wonderful moments of (black) humour, as well as lots of genuine affection between the two brothers (another Sondheim/Doyle stalwart, Alexander Gemignani, plays the architect, Addison Mizner, to whom we owe many the pleasure palaces in present-day Palm Beach, and whose ambition to turn Boca Raton into the Venice of Florida was thwarted--or abetted?--by brother Willy's innate huksterism--note to self: find reliable biography of these two characters). Even more revelatory to this audience member, however, is that Road Show features the first open same-sex couple in the Sondheim oeuvre, with Addison's relationship with the impressionable young Hollis Bessemer (a charming, and charmingly named, Claybourne Elder) occupying a central part of the narrative. The love song that Addison and Hollis sing to each other, "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened," is as moving as "Somewhere," from West Side Story, and deserves to become equally classic.

Added bonus: Marian Seldes was sitting in the row in front of us! Richard and I had seen her years ago at the Promenade Theater in Albee's Three Tall Women, and most recently in a small but memorable role in the Richard Jenkins film The Visitor. A thrill to be so close to such an acting legend.

3. August: Osage County (Sunday, December 14): Tracey Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winner was the only Broadway entertainment we indulged in on this trip (not for lack of trying--Richard was keen to see Bartlett Sher's acclaimed remounting of South Pacific, but I couldn't get advance tickets, and didn't want to line up for returns). Though not without its problems, and desperately in need of an edit (we could have done without the incest theme between Ivy and Little Charles, in my opinion), it was nice to see--especially given my comments in recent blog posts--a classic large-cast, three-act play on Broadway, one that for the most part successfully updates (and regenders) O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night for the Prozac/Vicodin age, and that marries sharp writing to split-second physical timing. Estelle Parsons, taking over from Tony-winner Deanna Dunagan was riveting in the central role of the matriarch from hell, Violet Weston. That she has the stamina at her age (she must be over 80, though she certainly doesn't look it) to perform such an emotionally and physically taxing role 8 times a week is simply amazing.

Sidebar comment: we attended a weekend matinee performance, and the theatre (the relatively intimate Music Box on West 45th) was only three-quarters full. While in New York, we read of several prominent Broadway plays (including popular musicals like Gypsy and Hairspray, with Harvey Fierstein newly returned to the cast as Edna Turnblad) announcing plans to close early. Clearly the economic downturn is already having an effect on box office returns.

4. Blasted (Tuesday, December 16): Our final outing was to see the New York premiere of Sarah Kane's debut play at the Soho Rep. This was the hot ticket of the fall theatre season, and it was interesting to see people lined up around the block for possible returns to a play that features explicit and prolonged depictions of rape, extreme physical violence, and multiple forms of cannibalism. Much has been made of how long it has taken the play to get to New York (it premiered in 1995 at the Royal Court), but when one thinks of the baggage that comes with it--its notorious excoriation by outraged London critics, Kane's subsequent suicide in 1999 after cranking out four more eviscerating works of drama, and its critical reevaluation as a moral allegory of contemporary Western responses to reports of atrocities during the Bosnian War--one can perhaps understand why a director or company might start to second guess the reasons it merits staging. Then, too, there are the demands Blasted places upon its actors, with every physical brutality and indignity performed by them or visited upon them demanding a concomitant expenditure of emotional energy and longing. For all Ian's (a devastating and fearless Reed Birney) inherent misogyny and brutish insistence that Cate (Marin Ireland) suck him off, there is a part of him--the part that is actually terrified of the mortality he so casually scoffs at--that desperately needs to believe a deeper, even romantic, connection exists between them. The hotel room, the champagne, in this regard, are at once tawdry and powerfully mournful emblems of his (misplaced?) desire. Likewise, the long and incredibly realistic rape of Ian by the Soldier (Louis Cancelmi) is all the more painful to watch because of what the Soldier's tears betray about his own recognition of the thrall of bodily connection to which what he has witnessed in war has paradoxically reduced him, and about his need to share that corporeal vulnerability with Ian, even at the extreme price of assault. (Again, see Jill Dolan's brilliant assessment of the production over at her Feminist Spectator blog for more on this.)

To say that Kane blasts the lid off bourgeois dramatic realism (quite literally in the case of the explosion at the end of Scene 2 that tears the hotel room apart--kudos to Louisa Thompson for pulling off this incredible feat of design magic) is an understatement. We're deep in Artaud territory here (by way of Sophocles, Beckett, Pinter, Sartre, and others--Kane's first play clearly betrays its dramatic genealogy), and there is no escape from the assault on our senses and psyches. The single-access, tiered row seating at the Soho Rep doesn't make things any easier in this regard. One woman in the row in front of us was clearly desperate to leave, to the point of contemplating, I could tell, whether or not she could squeeze under the balustrade on her right. She couldn't, any more than Ian, in crawling underneath the hotel room's floorboards and in beside the dead baby's body from which he has just eaten, could will himself to die. 

Both had to wait to be cleansed by rain.

No comments: