Culture Vulture/Photo Diary: CAROLINE, OR CHANGE, Jasper Johns, Jennifer Packer, THE POWER OF THE DOG, and more

November 22, 2021

November 14 – Michael Longhurst’s revival of Caroline, or Change has had its delayed opening at Studio 54 under the auspices of Roundabout Theatre Company. Originally mounted in London, the show did nothing to erase my memories of the virtually impeccable original production that George C. Wolfe staged first at the Public Theater and then on Broadway. But Sharon D Clarke is indeed remarkable in the title role of Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s beautiful, strong musical play.

November 15 – I’ve been on a Paul Bowles roll recently, happily making my way through a massive volume of his letters (In Touch, edited by Jeffrey Miller). Bowles occupied one of the more fascinating corners of 20th century art as a novelist, composer, musical anthropologist, and photographer. He married Jane Bowles — both of them deeply idiosyncratic fiction masters, both of them queer — and for a time they lived in the famous house in Brooklyn also occupied by the likes of W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, Carson McCullers, and Gypsy Rose Lee. He had to be one of the most pretentious/precocious teenage artists who ever lived — his first day in Paris he hung out with Jean Cocteau AND Gertrude Stein (who took him under her wing for a while and called him “Freddy”). The letters include a long missive he wrote to Ned Rorem while having a not-very-enjoyable trip of mescaline.

Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary Let It Come Down (available on DVD from Netflix) fed me plenty of tidbits. The filmmaker managed to get footage of a NYC hotel room meeting between Bowles (above), William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg, the last time those literary lions all met. Burroughs pronounces The Sheltering Sky “an almost perfect novel” (I agree) while also referring to Without Stopping, Bowles’ memoir, as Without Telling, because he’s so maddeningly discreet about anything having to do with sex, romance, or actual people (in contrast to Gore Vidal’s memoirs, which Burroughs appreciates for dishy gossip on every page). Bowles has nothing good to say about Bertolucci’s film version of The Sheltering Sky. I was also intrigued to see footage of Cherifa, Jane Bowles’s mysterious partner, as an old woman (below) repeating without denying rumors that she was a witch who exerted strange powers over JB.

November 18 – I don’t have anything nice to say about Lynn Nottage’s new play Clyde’s, directed by Kate Whoriskey for the Second Stage at the Helen Hayes Theatre, so I’m not going to say anything at all.

November 19 – I dutifully showed up at the Whitney Museum to check out Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror (the other half of this retrospective is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art), which only confirmed the inability of Johns’ work to move me at all. His imagery (flags, numbers, maps, etc.) has always landed on me as extremely banal and ugly. The one piece that stood out for me in this show is Field Painting, probably because it looks a lot like the kind of multimedia “combine” that was the specialty of Robert Rauschenberg, his former partner and an artist whose lively, restless, generous creativity has always excited me.

The real reward of this expedition was encountering the splashy exhibition by a painter new to me: Jennifer Packer: The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing. Her large multilayered canvases merge representation and abstraction in unusual and beautiful ways.

I’d also never heard of My Barbarian, the Los Angeles-based art collective, whose installation on the first floor is small but dense and fun and alive with film and animation.

November 20 – Today was National Trans Day of Remembrance. As I’ve done numerous times in the past, I gathered with Gays Against Guns – the activist organization formed after the Pulse massacre in Orland in 2016 – and manifested as one of the Human Beings, silent veiled figures dressed in white representing victims of gun violence. I held placards commemorating Tiara Banks and Dominique Lucious, two of the 34 trans Americans killed by guns this year alone (more have been murdered through other means).

We stood in front of the Washington Square Arch as passersby read and absorbed the stories of these lives lost to senseless violence, and then we processed across the park to Judson Memorial Church, where there was a ceremony and service honoring trans lives.

Among the other Human Beings were two artist friends who’d never met. I got to introduce Paul Wirhun (aka Rosie Delicious aka Egmananda), a radical faerie artist who specializes in psanky (eggshell painting), to Antonius Wiriadjaja (aka Oki), whose Instagram #foodmasku (“I make my meals into masks and then I eat them”) went from pandemic pastime to online sensation. Oki, whom I met playing with Gamelan Kusuma Laras, is also a victim of gun violence (innocent bystander to a drive-by shooting in Brooklyn) and tireless advocate for better gun control laws.

I also got to meet Camille Atkinson (below right), who’s from New Orleans and knows how to rock a memorial outfit.

I wasn’t chomping at the bit to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s film version of Jonathan Larson’s musical tick…tick…BOOM, mostly because I’m not a fan of Andrew Garfield (still haven’t forgiven him for his shallow performance in Angels in America on Broadway – minority opinion, I know, since he walked away with the Tony Award). Nor was I a big fan of Rent, of which TTB is kind of a rough draft. But it was Saturday night on Netflix, so we tuned in. The first 10-15 minutes were tough going, with all the selling-it-to-the-rafters Broadway-style singing we’ve been overdosing on lately. What kept us going were the cameos – I kept exclaiming with delight spotting New York theater treasures among the supporting cast and background players (see the complete list online here), and Andy had fun spotting familiar geographical landmarks and vicariously inhabiting cramped Village apartments recognizable from when he himself was a lad in the early ‘90s finding his way through NYC.

November 21 – MUBI is yet another curated streaming platform for arcane art cinema from all around the world. I’ve encountered some gems and a lot of quirky curiosities there, and just when I think “Is this really worth $10.99 a month?” they’ve sweetened the deal by offering subscribers a free ticket to a brand-new art film playing in theaters. I might not have gotten to Jane Campion’s new film The Power of The Dog so quickly if it hadn’t been playing two blocks from my house at the Paris Theater, FOR FREE. But wow, so glad I did! I’ve loved a lot of Campion’s work, and this one is right up there. I’m never drawn to any movie that falls in the category of “Western” – even one set in Montana but shot in the hills of New Zealand – but this one is exceptional. I had flashes of thinking about There Will Be Blood and Days of Heaven and Brokeback Mountain and even A Streetcar Named Desire but then the film (based on a novel by Thomas Savage) goes several places I would never have guessed. I say no more except to recommend it to anyone who has the patience for a slow-moving but intensely emotional drama. Among the strong performances is one you won’t quickly forget by this kid named Kodi Smit-McPhee.

Opinions are not ideas. I wish I had more ideas than I do. But I do have positive opinions about three other shows playing right now, shows that would surely never be produced on Broadway if it weren’t for the ruptures we’ve seen in the last couple of years. I highly recommend the two downtown hits playing in rep at the Lyceum Theatre, Tina Satter and Half Straddle’s Is This a Room and Les Waters’ production of Lucas Hnath’s Dana H. (with quietly astonishing lead performances by Emily Davis and Deirdre O’Connell, respectively). Ditto Alice Childress’s Trouble in Mind, a trenchant and still pertinent play about racial politics in New York theater finally having its Broadway premiere at the American Airlines Theatre, elegantly staged by Charles Randolph-Wright for the Roundabout, with especially fine performance by LaChanze, Chuck Cooper, and Michael Zegen.


From the Deep Archives: performance diary 1979

November 6, 2021

1/31/79

saw carla bley tonight. she’s bizarre. she conducts like a witch casting a spell, with crooked fingers. very funny, too. nice stuff, melodic – both raucous & lyrical, swinging & abstract. weird. her husband michael mantler is a hunk. steve swallow*, d. sharpe** & don preston*** also played. she had 4 little boys announce the players’ names at the beginning of the show – she consulted with one 3 times before he stated into the mike, “the sousaphone player is seldom present.”

*one of the all-time great jazz bass players

**formerly the drummer for Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers and alter played on Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman”

***formerly keyboard player with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention


Quote of the day: LAUGHTER

November 2, 2021

LAUGHTER

I like to make people laugh. It’s like giving someone a flower.

–Harry Kondoleon



Culture Vulture/Photo Diary:

October 25, 2021

Cautiously and carefully, theater is back, and the culture world of New York City has come back to life. There’s a lot to see, and a lot I want to see, but rather than plunging in I’m trying to pace myself.

Wednesday 10/13

KLUDGE  /klo͞oj/
Noun
1. An ill-assorted collection of parts assembled to fulfill a particular purpose.
Verb
1. Use ill-assorted parts to make (something).

“Kludge” was the title for five nights of performances at Joe’s Pub curated and hosted by Laurie Anderson, this year’s Vanguard artist-in-residence. The Vanguard is an award and yearlong residency that celebrates the career of a singular artist who has contributed to American life and pop culture and is a part of the Joe’s Pub family of artists. This artist also sustains and leads their own artistic community while creating a body of work that stands apart from their peers. I didn’t get to see Arto Lindsay or writer Lafcadio Cass, but tonight’s guests were poet Anne Carson and cellist Ruben Kodheli and his trio. Laurie started off playing a record about hypnosis on a strange stand-up phonograph that she said she’d just bought (at the MOMA gift shop, did she say?), but the sound levels were murky and we didn’t hear what she wanted us to hear.

Anne Carson read from her book The Autobiography of Red, a novel in verse about Geryon, a figure who shows up in the myth of Herakles – in this version they become lovers. Then Laurie improvised with Ruben’s group, then Anne read some of her “Small Tales,” 13-second (or more) discourses on random subjects. One involved contemplating Hegel’s grammatical indignation on Christmas Day while snow-standing. Then another improv, and then the show was over, a crisp one hour show.

Thursday 10/14 – I went with Jay Michaelson to see Wally Shawn’s The Fever performed by Lili Taylor. I wrote a separate blog post about that. Jay and I had a good conversation about the content of the piece over dinner next-door at Da Toscano.

Saturday 10/16

I saw the Metropolitan Opera matinee of Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up In My Bones, based on Charles Blow’s memoir about growing up in Louisiana and being molested by a favorite uncle when he was 7. I found most of the vocal score unbeautiful and the libretto by Kasi Lemmons somewhat stilted. I admired the lush lyricism of Blanchard’s orchestral music (conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin), and I was excited to witness the first opera by a black composer ever produced by the Met.

In the evening, Andy and I took in the Wooster Group’s production of Brecht’s The Mother at the Performing Garage, mounted as a kind of exercise in trying on Brechtian theory, which is not that much of a stretch for the Woosters: exposing the machinery, the actors playing themselves rather disappearing into the role, etc. I liked that they focused on doing a play about communism from the point of view of the workers, striking to protest a cut in their pay, and how the title character goes from meek conformism to committed activism. Similar to the group’s mounting of Pinter’s The Room, it felt like a study, a little dry, less passionate than some of Elizabeth LeCompte’s more elaborate theatrical collages. The list of source material in the program intrigued me, and I came away curious to check out a few items on the list: Slavoj Zižek’s Let Us Be Realists and Demand The Impossible: Communism, Fassbinder’s Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, and Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

I’d made a reservation for dinner afterwards at Pastazul around the corner on Grand Street (that used to be Lucky Strike) but the dining room was dominated by shrieking partygoers, and so we went to Felix on West Broadway, which was also insanely loud – even sitting in the dining shed, we could barely hear ourselves over the music and the hubbub from inside the restaurant, and the loud tables in the shed, and the son of one of the waiters who was restlessly clomping around the outhouse. But we ordered our merguez and our red wine and everything was fine. New Yorkers are ready to go out and party hard!

Thursday 10/21

In one of the most interesting experiments in recent Broadway history, the Vineyard Theatre has two shows previously produced at their home base in Union Square playing in rep at the Lyceum, a small Broadway house often commandeered by not-for-profit theater companies venturing to draw a larger audience. I’m seeing the remount of Lucas Hnath’s Dana H. next week. Tonight was Is This A Room, which was conceived and directed by Tina Satter, whose company Half Straddle performed the piece at the Kitchen before it moved to the Vineyard for an extended run. The hour-long performance stages verbatim the official transcript of the FBI’s interview with Reality Winner at her home in Augusta, Georgia, on June 3, 2017. Winner, you may recall, was the 25-year-old Air Force intelligence specialist who spent four years in jail for leaking proof of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Satter has fun making theatrical hay from the FBI agents’ fumbly manner and the transcript’s redacted jumpiness and mundane absurdism. Pete Simpson from Elevator Repair Service and Will Cobbs play the interrogators, and downtown legend Becca Blackwell gets to stomp around the edges as Unknown Male providing security for the detail.

For all the ridiculousness of the encounter, the piece maintains a dread-dredged tautness largely thanks to Emily Davis’s deservedly award-winning performance as the central figure, an eerie weightless figure in cutoff jeans who apparently speaks Farsi, Dari, and Pashto, owns a pink AR-15, and surrenders her iPhone even though she needs it to play music for the yoga classes she teaches. We literally see nothing else in the course of the show, yet it resonates with so much of the craziness of the last five years of American public life, the jittery dance between citizen participation and the forces in the federal government who have no accountability for their dark deeds.

Friday 10/22

Back at Joe’s Pub for an early glimpse of Taylor Mac’s work-in-progress, Sugar in the Tank: New Songs About Queer People, envisioned as a 54-song tribute to queer heroes, both legendary and unknown. Among the dozen or so songs we got to hear, Larry Kramer and Stormé DeLarverie were referenced by name. But the sound system was cranked so loud it was hard to hear many of the lyrics, which frustrated me.

Sporting a full-blown carrot-colored coronabeard and dressed by Machine Dazzle in an outfit that Mr. David Zinn described as “Hibiscus meets Phyllis Diller,” Mac fronted the band that pumped its way through Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music, including musical director Matt Ray on keyboards and dazzling guitarist Viva DeConcini.

Each of the three backup singers got a solo – Steffi Christi’an (below) blew me away with hers.

We had a delicious meal afterwards at Corkbuzz on E. 13th Street and got to check out Chris Carnabuci’s public art installation in Union Square, SeeInJustice – giant heads of George Floyd, John Lewis, and Breonna Taylor, which looked especially amazing at night under a full moon.

Saturday 10/23

We joined Andy’s college bestie Bob for his second screening of Denis Villaneuve’s Dune on 42nd Street. I’ve never read Frank Herbert’s book, though I did see David Lynch’s unloved movie version when it came out in 1984. These futuristic epics in which a handful of super-powered individuals take on and triumph over vast hordes of confusing, interchangeable bad guys have never been my cup of tea, but I was happy to go along for the pop moment, the popcorn, and the dinner afterwards at Wagamama.

Happy as I am to be seeing live performances and going to actual movies theaters again, I am surprised to acknowledge that my favorite cultural vulturing in the last couple of weeks has been watching Ted Lasso. It’s a show that I’ve heard nothing but rave reviews about from smart friends, and for some reason I held it at arm’s length. The capsule description – fish-out-of-water American gets hired to coach second-rate British soccer team – hits none of my pleasure points, and I feared it would be way too heart-warming. Damned if I wasn’t hooked from the get-go the same way everyone else is, by the constantly surprising overturning of preconceptions about virtually every single character, the smart writing with the weirdest non sequiturs, the casual but pointed anti-racism, and the eruption of laughs and genuine emotion when you’re not expecting them. Three cheers for joy!


Performance Diary: Wally Shawn fever

October 22, 2021

Most people who aware of Wally Shawn know him as a funny face in movies like The Princess Bride or a funny voice in animated films like Toy Story. A subset of the population associates him with My Dinner with Andre, Louis Malle’s 1981 film of Shawn and director Andre Gregory sitting in a restaurant talking about life and death and art; apparently, a whole new generation has caught onto this film thanks to references on The Simpsons and TikTok parodies, and it’s been cited as progenitor to the world of low-budget mumblecore movies. Shawn’s most substantial contribution as an artist, however, is his body of work as a playwright. He hasn’t written that many plays, and they’re not performed that often. When they do, it’s a cause for celebration and attention.

Currently onstage at the Minetta Lane Theatre is the one-person play The Fever, co-produced by Audible (which plans to release it as an audiobook) and the New Group, whose artistic director Scott Elliott is one of Shawn’s primary champions in the theater world and who staged this production, which stars Lili Taylor. Tiny, whip-smart, and super-appealing, Taylor previously appeared in Shawn’s play Aunt Dan and Lemon, also directed by Elliott for the New Group. The Fever is a tricky, intellectually thorny, emotionally challenging piece (the complete text is available online here), and Taylor (below, photographed by Daniel Rader) dives deeply and bravely into this exercise in thinking out loud.

Originally performed in 1990 by Shawn himself, The Fever is a 1 hour and 40 minute monologue by a character known as The Traveller. Sitting on the floor of the bathroom in a hotel room in the middle of the night, “in a poor country where my language isn’t spoken,” she experiences a dark night of the soul, brooding about her life and especially her relationship to money, her economic class, poor people, world politics, and the death penalty. Typical for Wally Shawn’s plays, the character is slippery – at times she evokes identification and sympathy, other times you draw away from her. You’re constantly having to gauge your distance from her. She fanatically examines what she’s observing in great detail, whether it’s her internal experience of being at a cocktail party or ruminating over the meaning of the expression “commodity fetishism” as it turns up in Karl Marx’s Capital.

At the core of the piece is a moral wrestling match that many of us experience walking down the street in New York every day. You see a homeless person begging on the street – you think, “I’ll give him some money” – a voice inside you says, “Why not give him ALL your money?” – you retort, “I can’t give him ALL my money…” In The Fever Shawn carries that internal dialogue on to the nth degree. It could devolve into liberal hand-wringing but it never does, because Shawn’s prose is so carefully wrought and Taylor’s performance stays absolutely present. Shawn’s work always makes audiences uncomfortable, and this play is no exception – some people will find it very hard to take. But I respect it tremendously.

Writing the play coincided with a political awakening for Shawn. He first started performing it in people’s living rooms before taking it to theaters all over New York City and then in England. Taylor is not the first woman to undertake the role, Clare Higgins played it onstage in London in 2009, and Vanessa Redgrave made a film of The Fever in 2004 (directed by her son, Carlo Gabriel Nero) that softened the edges of the play. (Shawn approached the amazing Kathy Baker to do the play onstage in New York and/or Los Angeles, but she said no.) I appreciated the beguiling levity Taylor brings to the performance; Shawn wrote a charming opening scene for her to greet the audience and set the stage.

I still cling fondly to the memory of the last time The Fever was produced in New York, when Scott Elliott directed Shawn in a beautifully nuanced staging that explicitly conjured a connection to the existential starkness of Samuel Beckett’s monologues that I’d never previously perceived in Shawn’s work. (During the pandemic, Elliott created a Zoom version of Waiting for Godot, in which Shawn gave an astonishing performance as Lucky to Tariq Trotter’s Pozzo, with Ethan Hawke and John Leguizamo as Didi and Gogo.) In the intimacy of the Minetta Lane, Taylor occasionally spoke so softly that passages got lost, including the powerful last couple of lines. All the more reason to anticipate the audio version when it’s released by Audible. Shawn himself recorded the play in 1999 for a 2-CD package released in 2006 that is now out of print, but apparently some used copies are available online through Amazon.

Speaking of audio versions, a huge mid-pandemic gift to theatergoers in general — and Wally Shawn fans in particular — arrived this year in the form of six-part podcast versions of his plays The Designated Mourner and Grasses of a Thousand Colors. These productions reunite Shawn with director Andre Gregory and the original New York casts of the plays. In collaboration with sound designer and composer Bruce Odland, they’ve created exquisite “theater of the ear” to match the best Broadway original cast recordings (especially those of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals).

David Hare first staged The Designated Mourner in London with three actors sitting at a bare table and filmed that production, which featured Mike Nichols in the title role. In New York, the play ran for a few months at a 30-seat theater in a disused gentlemen’s club in the Wall Street area, exquisitely directed by Andre Gregory and performed by Shawn, Deborah Eisenberg (extraordinary writer and Shawn’s longtime companion), and Larry Pine. That production was revived in 2013 at the Public Theater (a co-production with Theater for a New Audience), and that’s the production captured for the podcast edition.

Some people, including myself, consider The Designated Mourner to be one of the most profound pieces of writing created for any medium in the last 20 years. It is a bleak, dread-inducing meditation on the decline of Western civilization delivered through monologues by three inhabitants of a politically repressive country where intellectual freedom has effectively been persecuted out of existence. To indulge in Wally Shawn-like hyperbole, I would go so far as to say that the world would be a better, though not necessarily happier place, if all students, teachers, politicians, fornicators, and Netflix subscribers put down their magazines, turned off their cel phones and TV sets, and read, re-read, studied and discussed The Designated Mourner for the next year. Written 25 years ago when it seemed like a dystopian fantasy, the play depicts all-too-recognizably the inexorable drift toward anti-intellectual authoritarianism that we’re viewing today not just in Russia and China but in Brazil, Turkey, Hungary, and that roguest of rogue nations, the United States of America.

Grasses of a Thousand Colors is a different animal altogether. First produced at the Royal Court Theatre in London (where My Dinner with Andre also got its start), Grasses made its American debut at the Public Theater as part of the same deal with Theater for a New Audience. It’s a big, long, crazy, intense three-act fantasia about a famous scientist named Ben who’s overwhelmingly fixated on his penis – the sort of thing that never happens in real life — and his relationships with three different women (his wife, his mistress, and his girlfriend, named for three shades of red: Cerise, Robin, and Rose) and a mysterious shape-shifting cat named Blanche who may be the shamanic double of Cerise and/or possibly God. It’s set in some apocalyptic near-future when some initially successful experiments with increasing the world’s food supply have gone dreadfully wrong. And the stories that Ben and his playmates tell – addressing the audience directly, as is usually the case in Shawn’s plays – teem with images of animals. Eating and fucking. Dick and Pussy. Humans and animals. Wally himself plays the main character, known as Ben or the memoirist, who says things like, “When I was a boy, parents never masturbated in front of their children. In fact, children never masturbated in front of their parents! And God knows children would never make out with their parents or fuck them, ever, because that would have been seen as utterly shocking…So, you see, for me, the way things are now still seems astonishing – I mean, the fact that people talk about their penises and vaginas in public, at dinner parties, in magazines, and newspapers. I can’t get over it. Ha ha ha!”

In London, Miranda Richardson played both Cerise (live and aglow with flecks of glitter oiled into her skin) and Blanche (exclusively on film, often with a red ribbon tied around her neck); in New York, those roles were played by Julie Hagerty. A surprising presence was Jennifer Tilly as Robin, who brings a fascinating and unpredictable mixture of vulgarity and enigma to the role. And Emily McDonnell, a young actress from the Richard Maxwell downtown theater world, played Rose. (Pictured above) This strange strange play, which is a bizarre combination of fairy tale, fever dream, and The Story of O, is quite unlike any other play I’ve seen before, except that it bears a distinct family resemblance to other wild, linguistically pungent, sexually transgressive, disturbing and disorienting Wally Shawn plays (Our Late Night, Marie and Bruce, The Music Teacher, The Designated Mourner). The audio version is a wild ride, alternately hilarious and grotesque, poetic and appalling, outrageous and riveting.

Critics and commentators have often noted that Shawn’s plays tend to gravitate toward long monologues, sometimes elaborate storytelling, sometimes deeply internal reveries, imparting a literary, novelistic flavor. That’s what makes the audio versions really work – there’s very little action that you’re missing. I’ve saved the best news for last: these podcasts are available for free from Apple Podcasts. Check them out and let me know what you think.


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