Culture Vulture: THE ORCHARD, GOD’S FOOL, Jean-Michael Basquiat: King Pleasure, and MEMORIA

June 21, 2022

6.15.22 – I saw two lovely unusual theater productions this week: The Orchard at Baryshnikov Arts Center and God’s Fool at La Mama.

Produced under the auspices of the annual Russian-flavored Cherry Orchard Festival in association with a few other producers, The Orchard is an extremely ambitious, experimental adaptation of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard conceived and directed by Igor Golyak with a whole raft of crucial collaborators. How often do you see these credits on the title page of a playbill: Emerging Technologies, Robotics Design, Interactivity Design, Virtual Sound Design? The show was devised to be experienced in two ways, live onstage at BAC and online, accessible from anywhere worldwide but timed so that you’re exploring online at the same time as a live performance. I haven’t done the online experience (yet), but I attended the live performance that New York Times critic Laura Collins-Hughes watched online (after seeing the matinee live), and I had a very different experience than she did.

I can’t imagine anyone seeing this show who wasn’t familiar with Chekhov’s play; otherwise, they’d be completely lost. Nothing is straightforward. The stage space is behind a scrim, onto which are projected snippets of the playscript (translation by Carol Rocamora), snowfall, and random images that presumably play a larger role in the virtual production. The stage floor is covered with cherry blossoms which are, like all the furniture and most of the objects onstage, colored blue. All four acts of Chekhov’s play are condensed into an intermissionless two hours, and the gist of the drama remains intact: aristocratic Lyubov Ranevskaya’s estate has fallen into disrepair, and her land with its distinctive cherry orchard is being auctioned off to pay the mortgage. The cast is terrific, with excellent performances by Jessica Hecht as Ranevskaya, Mark Nelson as her brother Gaev, and especially Nael Nacer, a Boston-based actor making his New York debut as Lopakhin, the wealthy merchant who buys the property that his father and grandfather worked on as serfs. Nacer is a kind of sexy nerd – bald, handsome, mustachioed — not the blustery boor we usually see as Lopakhin. Wordless bits of business convey his unrequited crush on Ranevskaya, who is determined that he should marry her adopted daughter Varya, who struggles to keep the estate running; his awkward, ultimate non-proposal to Varya is quietly devastating. Baryshnikov plays Firs, the estate’s dotty old hard-of-hearing manservant, and perhaps you could say the most impressive thing about his performance is that it is so unimpressive – he manages to suppress the charisma and magnetism he has evinced onstage for decades in order to play a character who rattles around in the background barely noticed. (Online, apparently, he plays Chekhov and has more to do.)

photo by Maria Baranova

The weirdest and most original thing about the production is the gigantic mechanical device at the center of the stage, which is never named or described or explained in the program. It’s a ten-foot-tall object with a long arm that wheels around, spins, holds a tray of tea cups, serves sometimes as a light source, as a tree, as a camera that picks up the images projected onto the scrim (and I’m guessing all over the online version). I guess you could call it a robot; there’s also a robot dog that skitters around the stage adorably. I’m told by the publicist that the robot is named Ronin and is considered non-binary by Kuka, the company who created it. If I were going to speculate, I would say this robot represents technology, a phenomenon that is so inextricably bound up with our lives that we barely notice it, it’s part of the family, for better (the smartphones we can’t bear to be out of our reach) and for worse (the surveillance cameras that track our every move).

photo by Pavel Antonov

Halfway through the show, the character Chekhov refers to as “Stranger” who intrudes upon the estate appears in the form of a loud, drunken Russian soldier with a walkie-talkie, who rounds up the household, paws the women, and terrorizes all of them before stumbling away into the dark. I took this jarring episode to be the director’s small way of referring to the situation in Ukraine – an example of finding a way to connect the heart of a classic play to the state of the world right now.

6.16.22 –  God’s Fool is a company-created piece about St. Francis of Assisi. Like almost all of Martha Clarke’s work, it is a kind of exquisite performance collage using dance, music, text, masks, and visual elements without ever solidifying into something that could be called a play, or a musical, or a dance piece (although I notice that the Times sent a dance critic to cover it). I love that about Clarke’s work, and this piece is beautiful. Fanny Howe’s elliptical text captures many aspects of Francis’s personality, his spiritual ties as much to nature and animals as to anything having to do with the church of Rome. The superb cast of 8 (led by Patrick Andrews, who’s fantastic as Francis, and John Kelly as The Devil) creates sublimely gorgeous music, most of it a cappella, selected and arranged by Arthur Solari.

The simple evocative set and the animal masks were designed by the legendary Robert Israel, a longtime Clarke collaborator.

6.18.22 — Out-of-town guests provided the perfect occasion to book tickets for Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure, the immersive art show put together by Basquiat’s sisters, Jeanine and Lisane. The exhibition, which includes over 200 artworks, many of which have never been shown before, takes place throughout a sprawling 15,000-foot space designed by the remarkable Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye, who created (among other things) the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

It’s a touchingly personal and informative survey of an insanely prolific, fertile, original artist whose star continues to rise 34 years after his death at the age of 27. I have not yet gotten my fill of his work. It speaks so deeply to me of an artistic intelligence alive in the world, taking in everything, spilling over with thoughts and connections and reflections.

Cabeza (1982; acrylic and oil stick on blanket mounted on tied wood supports)
Jawbone of an Ass

Adjaye’s installation collects paintings and objects in many thematic galleries, and it also includes three special environments: a replication of the Basquiat family home, very much the tidy middle-class refuge of an immigrant family, with a shelf of the World Book Encyclopedia; a recreation of Basquiat’s studio on Great Jones Street (above), scattered with books and records and a gigantic pile of VHS movies on tape along with works both finished and unfinished; and then a replica of the Mike Todd Room where VIPs at the Palladium, a hip Manhattan nightclub, could lounge beneath a couple of gigantic spectacular Basquiat murals.

I found myself surprisingly emotional walking through the show, starting with the map of Basquiat’s New York, which completely overlaps with my first years in New York, 1980-88: Area! The Mudd Club! Tower Records! Tony Shafrazi Gallery! Pearl Paint! Club 57! Yup, all there…and all gone.

Later that day, I took in an entirely different kind of immersive art experience. Memoria, the latest film by the amazing, eccentric Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, stars Tilda Swinton as a Scottish botanist living in Colombia who starts hearing at odd intervals a loud bang and sets out to understand what’s going on. The movie is an experiment conducted in several different dimensions – it’s the director’s first full-length film not shot in Thailand, with a leading actor who’s not Thai, with dialogue primarily in Spanish, and it centers so specifically on sound that the film is only playing a day or two at a time in theaters whose sound systems have been reconfigured to accommodate the film. (I saw it at Lincoln Center.) Like all of Weerasethakul’s work, the film operates as a dreamscape. Odd images come and go without explication. The scenes unfurl in long takes, sometimes with very little action.

In their audience talkback after the New York Film Festival screening, the director (who encourages everyone to call him Joe) and Swinton talked about waiting 17 years for this collaboration to come about. The person she plays is named Jessica, said Weerasethakul, after a character in the movie I Walked With A Zombie. Swinton herself said, “Jessica isn’t a character but a predicament.”

Early in the film she consults a young sound engineer named Hernán who sits with her in the studio meticulously trying to recreate the sound in her head. (Weerasethakul has for some time suffered from a malaise known as “exploding head syndrome.”) Later in the film she encounters another Hernán, who both is and isn’t the same person – same name, different actor, and this guy lives out in the woods, has never seen movies or TV, and stores all his memories in stones. Jessica consults a doctor she hopes will prescribe Xanax to make the noise go away; the doctor tells her that Xanax takes away your empathy and instead hands her a pamphlet about Jesus. Jessica’s sister is an anthropologist studying 6000-year-old bones uncovered by a construction crew that may be exerting some kind of malicious spell over her; there is talk of uncontacted indigenous people in the Amazon jungle, and there is a crazy moment that suggests supernatural involvement.

Memoria is very poetic, enigmatic, rapturously beautiful, weird, scary, puzzling. Not for everyone, but very much for me.


R.I.P.: Gil Kessler

June 19, 2022

The sad news arrived this week that community treasure Gil Kessler, who for more than 25 years conducted an annual class for gay men interested in educating themselves about the skillful use of BDSM play, has left us. After a lengthy struggle with Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia, he died at home in bed in the company of his devoted husband, Damani Moyd.

A retired college math professor, Kessler was very meticulous in his teaching and practice, which he developed largely under the auspices of the now-disbanded Gay Men’s S/M Association (GMSMA). Underneath his unassuming exterior, he was extremely knowledgeable not only about the mechanics of kinky play but also about the interpersonal dynamics that go into creating powerful BDSM scenes. The written handouts that he provided for his classes is exceptional. I’ve never seen more thorough, accessible instructions for BDSM practice.

I once asked Kessler to tell me how he became the repository of such an extraordinary body of knowledge about BDSM play. Did he have important mentors? Undergo transformative initiations? Read lots of books? “I didn’t find most books to be helpful,” he said, “with the major exception of Race Bannon’s Learning the Ropes, which is brief and to the point. There aren’t particular people I consider mentors, but I attended virtually all the workshops and programs that GMSMA offered, so I learned bits and pieces from many people (including Peter Boots, Bob Pesce, and Andrew Harwin). I also attended Inferno and Delta [annual gatherings of gay male BDSM aficionados] for many years, watched closely, and experimented carefully. The first GMSMA chairman, Ray Matienzo, was a general influence on me when I joined the board in 1984. He had the qualities that go into making a wonderful S/M practitioner: extensive knowledge, confidence, sense of humor, consideration of his bottom, etc.

“It’s hard to judge what was in my own personality and what I picked up from other people,” Kessler said. “I certainly learned to be patient and listen to my bottoms (I was never really a bottom myself), and to try to make them happy as my major goal. How much of that came from me or from other people? I don’t know. I seemed to simply learn as I went along and as I began teaching others what I knew.”

For me, Kessler exemplified what a community elder looks like – someone who has accumulated a wealth of knowledge and experience and found a way to transmit this information to younger men with generosity and grace. May his name and his history be a blessing.


Quote of the day: CAMPUS CULTURE

May 15, 2022

CAMPUS CULTURE

Has hyperpoliticization changed what students expect to be getting out of university? Which is to say, their willingness to entertain uncomfortable ideas? The immense hurdle is the idea that your future income prospects and investment in those prospects are what you’re in college to pursue. The second problem here is that instead of approaching higher education as a place where you expect to be transformed in what you think the world is, what it takes to understand it, that ideal of a higher education — which is essential to developing citizens — has been almost completely displaced by the idea of bits of human capital self-investing to enhance that capital. Sopolitical views, social views, are for many students bracketed if not altogether irrelevant to what they expect a university education to be. What’s the implication of this? That those views are treated as something that you just have culturally, religiously, according to family — but not something that you develop, enrich, maybe change. To put it in brief, neoliberalism essentially aims to roll out education as vocational training, and the extreme right essentially aims to turn education into church. What you have in the middle are a bunch of kids earnestly concerned with social justice, climate crisis, police violence, screaming into that context that their views matter, and that their view should hold sway and if not dictate curriculums at least dictate the culture of campus.

How much should students’ views dictate the culture of a campus? I don’t think they should dictate curriculum. I certainly think that in the open public space of campus, what students believe and student disagreements and student political and social aspirations for the world will govern that. If I can add this: We need to appreciate that young left activist outrage about a burning planet and grotesque inequality and murderous racial violence and gendered abuses of power is accompanied by disgust with the systems and the rules of engagement that have brought us here. Young left activists are pulling the emergency brake because it feels as if there’s no time for debate and compromise and incrementalism; because many see conventional norms and practices as having brought us to the brink and kept us stupid and inert. I don’t think they’re entirely wrong. #MeToo, with its flagrant disregard for due process, did in two years what previous generations of feminists could not pull off, which was to make sexual harassment totally unacceptable in school and workplaces. Black Lives Matter in a summer pushed America’s violent racial history and present into the center of political conversation and transformed the consciousness of a generation. My point here is that if we just focus on this generation’s political style — and we have to remember youth style always aggravates the elders — we ignore their rage at the world they’ve inherited, and their desperation for a more livable and just one, and their critique of our complacency. That is part of what is going on in the streets and on our campuses. But that remains different from educating that rage and helping young people learn not just the deep histories but even the contemporary practices that will make them more powerful thinkers and actors in this world. If they’re right about our complacency, what we still have to offer is knowledge and instruction and some space in a classroom to think.

–Wendy Brown, interviewed by David Marchese in the New York Times Magazine


photo by Mamadi Doumbouya

R.I.P. Neil “Sandy” Havens

May 5, 2022

There are a handful of people who change your life profoundly. I don’t know where my life would have taken me if I hadn’t met Sandy Havens when I was a freshman at Rice University in 1972. Sandy ran the Rice Players, an ambitious and highly respected theater company in Houston, especially remarkable because Rice has no theater department and all the theater activity is extracurricular.

Sandy was such a good director, steeped in the classics yet conversant in the latest developments in avant-garde theater, that the major newspapers in Houston routinely reviewed his student productions. Shortly after I arrived on campus as an 18-year-old Air Force brat majoring in classics (Greek and Latin), I auditioned for the Rice Players’ production of Charles Marowitz’s radical Shakespeare adaptation A Macbeth and got to play Duncan under Sandy’s adventurous direction.

That’s when I caught the theater bug. Sandy saw something in me and cast me in 7 of the 8 shows the Rice Players did in my first two years at Rice, which ran the gamut from Shaw’s Heartbreak House to A Man for All Seasons, from the musical Zorba! to Jeff Wanshel’s nutty absurdist comedy The Disintegration of James Cherry. By that point, I was so smitten with theater that, with Sandy’s blessing and coaching, I auditioned for several professional theater training programs and transferred to Boston University.

Ultimately I wasn’t a very good actor but I parlayed the passion for theater that Sandy instilled in me into a career as a theater critic, journalist, and scholar.

In addition, Sandy was extremely kind and supportive of me in the process of coming out at a time and place when that was not easy.

I got to hang out a little with Sandy in Boston when he lived there while his wife Helen finished divinity school; she would go on to become one of the first women ordained as an Episcopal priest. We communicated at intervals over the years, but I think the last time I saw Sandy was when I had a very warm visit with him and Helen in Houston in 1990. I’m just one of hundreds of people who benefited from Sandy’s brilliance as teacher, mentor, artist, and friend and who are mourning his death yesterday at the age of 88.


Quote of the day: HALFWAY

March 23, 2022

HALFWAY

We get this hopelessly naïve version of centrism, of the idea that if we’re nicer to the other side there will be no other side, just one big happy family. This inanity is also applied to the questions of belief and fact and principle, with some muddled cocktail of moral relativism and therapists’ “everyone’s feelings are valid” applied to everything. But the truth is not some compromise halfway between the truth and the lie, the fact and the delusion, the scientists and the propagandists. And the ethical is not halfway between white supremacists and human rights activists, rapists and feminists, synagogue massacrists and Jews, xenophobes and immigrants, delusional transphobes and trans people. Who the hell wants unity with Nazis until and unless they stop being Nazis?

— Rebecca Solnit


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