Archive for March, 2012

Theater review: ONCE

March 21, 2012

Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti (with Anne L. Nathan) in ONCE

My review of the new Broadway musical Once has been posted on CultureVulture.net. Check it out here and let me know what you think. I loved the show and highly recommend it.

Quote of the day: MORAL NARRATIVE

March 18, 2012

MORAL NARRATIVE

The Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith once summarized the moral narrative told by the American left like this: “Once upon a time, the vast majority” of people suffered in societies that were “unjust, unhealthy, repressive and oppressive.” These societies were “reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation and irrational traditionalism — all of which made life very unfair, unpleasant and short. But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare societies.” Despite our progress, “there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation and repression.” This struggle, as Smith put it, “is the one mission truly worth dedicating one’s life to achieving.”

This is a heroic liberation narrative. For the American left, African-Americans, women and other victimized groups are the sacred objects at the center of the story. As liberals circle around these groups, they bond together and gain a sense of righteous common purpose.

Contrast that narrative with one that Ronald Reagan developed in the 1970s and ’80s for conservatism. The clinical psychologist Drew Westen summarized the Reagan narrative like this: “Once upon a time, America was a shining beacon. Then liberals came along and erected an enormous federal bureaucracy that handcuffed the invisible hand of the free market. They subverted our traditional American values and opposed God and faith at every step of the way.” For example, “instead of requiring that people work for a living, they siphoned money from hard-working Americans and gave it to Cadillac-driving drug addicts and welfare queens.” Instead of the “traditional American values of family, fidelity and personal responsibility, they preached promiscuity, premarital sex and the gay lifestyle” and instead of “projecting strength to those who would do evil around the world, they cut military budgets, disrespected our soldiers in uniform and burned our flag.” In response, “Americans decided to take their country back from those who sought to undermine it.”

This, too, is a heroic narrative, but it’s a heroism of defense. In this narrative it’s God and country that are sacred — hence the importance in conservative iconography of the Bible, the flag, the military and the founding fathers. But the subtext in this narrative is about moral order. For social conservatives, religion and the traditional family are so important in part because they foster self-control, create moral order and fend off chaos. (Think of Rick Santorum’s comment that birth control is bad because it’s “a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”) Liberals are the devil in this narrative because they want to destroy or subvert all sources of moral order.

Actually, there’s a second subtext in the Reagan narrative in which liberty is the sacred object. Circling around liberty would seem, on its face, to be more consistent with liberalism and its many liberation movements than with social conservatism. But here’s where narrative analysis really helps. Part of Reagan’s political genius was that he told a single story about America that rallied libertarians and social conservatives, who are otherwise strange bedfellows. He did this by presenting liberal activist government as the single devil that is eternally bent on destroying two different sets of sacred values — economic liberty and moral order. Only if all nonliberals unite into a coalition of tribes can this devil be defeated.

— Jonathan Heidt, “Forget the Money, Follow the Sacredness,” New York Times

Performance diary: Javanese Wayang Kulit at Asia Society

March 18, 2012
Gamelan Kusuma Laras, the Javanese percussion orchestra that I’m part of, presented a wayang kulit (shadow-puppet play) at Asia Society last Friday night featuring famous dhalang Ki Purbo Asmoro and members of his company Mayangkara (from Solo, Java). Originally I was supposed to perform in the show with the gerongen (chorus), but I had to miss a bunch of rehearsals so at a certain point I realized I wasn’t going to be able to learn the music well enough, so I decided to sit it out. Much as I love playing and have enjoyed being in concerts in the last couple of years, I’m really glad that circumstances were such that I got to sit out front and enjoy the show this time.


For me, it was an opportunity to revisit the experience of falling in love with gamelan the first time I saw a wayang (performed by the Royal Court Gamelan of Yogyakarta at the 1990 Los Angeles Festival). Certainly, for a Westerner, you start out paying close attention to every single thing, trying to “make sense” of the gestures, each puppet, each sound, each word on the screen, each song that is sung… Watching wayang as if it’s a play in the theater and trying to tune out everything else pretty quickly becomes exhausting, confusing, and frustrating. Somehow, slowly, imperceptibly, you give that up, and the whole thing takes over, and you realize that you’ve entered another world, a kind of trance state, where no single element is primary, but hundreds of little tiny elements are adding up to a whole experience. Extraordinary! Then everything becomes completely engrossing and enjoyable, including the movements of people in the audience coming and going, people taking pictures, musicians laughing and joking among themselves (and yes, even making “mistakes”!).


Typically for wayang, Dewa Ruci (Bima’s Spiritual Enlightenment) is based on an episode from the Mahabharata and follows one of the five Pandawa brothers on his quest for perfection in life. He undergoes two big adventures, one in the forest and one in the sea. In between these parts of the tale, there was a comic interlude, which is the part of the show which the dhalang improvises at every performance, tailoring his remarks to current events and the particular audience he’s playing to. In this case, President Obama made a surprise appearance among the various wayang characters (wise men and ogres and mothers and brothers, etc.), and Ki Purbo invited (or should I say commanded?) Kitsie Emerson, who had been sitting at her laptop skillfully providing translations for the English-speaking audience, to play kendhang (the drum that leads the gamelan). Here’s a small, sort of random excerpt from that passage of the performance:

The singer, Yayuk Sri Rahayu, was fantastic. Andy and I watched most of the show from the auditorium, where you could see all the musicians and the dhalang and his puppets as he manipulated them, while off to the side was a video screen showing what the shadows looked like. As is traditional for wayang, the audience was invited to go up onstage and sit behind the screen and watch the show from there, so we sampled that perspective as well. It was hard to read the translations (projected onto a screen over the stage) from there, but the detail of the puppets (carved into thin buffalo hide) was the reward for sitting here.



Good show, gamelanistas!

In this week’s New Yorker

March 15, 2012

Two strong reporting pieces anchor this week’s New Yorker: James B. Stewart’s pitilessly detailed explanation (“Tax Me If You Can”) of how super-wealthy New Yorkers try to get out of paying NYC residential taxes and Francisco Goldman’s absorbing story, “Children of the Dirty War,” about the ardent and unflagging efforts of the mothers and grandmothers of Argentina’s “disappeared” population murdered by the military junta between 1976 to 1983. Goldman’s story focuses on how babies born to mothers who were then “disappeared” were given to childless couples in the military and political elite, and how the advent of DNA testing has allowed the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo to reunite those children with what remains of their birth families. In particular, Goldman zeroes in on two (now-grown) children adopted by the head of Argentina’s Clarin media empire, who have become their own surreal tabloid story.

I also enjoyed David Owen’s essay on scars, which matches my own pervy appreciation of scars, my own and others, because of the extremely individual personal history they tell, written on the body. Rivka Galchen’s short story “Appreciation” also hilariously captures the contemporary New York (American?) fixation on money, income, and tax bracket.

Plus, you know, a terrific cartoon by Joe Dator:

Theater review: HAND TO GOD

March 14, 2012

My review of Robert Askins’s Hand to God — back for a brief return engagement at Ensemble Studio Theatre — has just been posted on CultureVulture.net. I went on the strength of high-powered word-of-mouth about Steven Boyer’s performance as a shy Texan boy whose sock puppet becomes possessed by the devil (see below). Boyer is indeed something to see. As for the play….well, check out my review here and let me know what you think.

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