Several weeks’ worth of cultural events backed up….
3.23.13 I love the new role that Park Avenue Armory has taken on as a venue for large-scale avant-garde performance art. On the heels of Ann Hamilton’s fun installation The anatomy of a thread, artistic director Alex Poots has planned an extraordinary diverse calendar of events between now and the end of the year. Oktophonie is typical of the programming. This Karlheinz Stockhausen piece is a bombastic, bracingly modern (i.e., unmelodic, unbeautiful) electronic composition that exists on tape, never played live. The score is as much sound design as notes for musicians to play.
Concerts usually involve audiences sitting in a dark auditorium watching a projection of a full moon. For this event, the Armory invited Thailand-born visual artist Rirkrit Tiravanija to design a special environment, and he wittily put the moon on the floor in the form of a round platform.
The show was a little bit of a light show, a little bit of sensuround sound demonstration, a little bit like being on a simulated spaceship at a planetarium show. Also, since we were sitting on the floor looking toward the center of the circle where a blissed-out-looking woman sat operating two consoles (Stockhausen’s longtime colleague Kathink Pasveer, below), there was an odd feeling of being at an ashram or a cult meeting.
Although ultimately not much about the concert stuck with me, it was a beautifully produced event — the Armory gives out a deluxe program booklet (including the score, which is as much sound design as notes for musicians) and maintains an active online presence, both of which provide great educational materials for kids, students, and adults alike.
3.27.13 The Gospel According to the Other Mary, John Adams’ oratorio depicting the death of Christ from Mary Magdalene’s point of view, is a companion piece to El Nino, his composition about the birth of Christ as witnessed by women. Both feature texts, compiled by director and longtime Adams collaborator Peter Sellars, taken partly from the Bible, partly from an array of interesting poets (Louise Erdrich, Rosario Castellanos). Mary Magdalene seems to be a butch lesbian political activist whose girlfriend is a former drug addict she met in jail; when Mary M washes Jesus’s feet, it’s the girlfriend who dries them with her long hair. Jesus is played alternately by three countertenor Narrators (theirs is the most haunting music and presence in the semi-staged show) and the guy who also plays Lazarus. Not Adams’ most beautiful score ever but I’m glad to have witnessed the performance at Avery Fisher Hall by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Respectful reception. Composer and director took bows. The conductor was the wunderkind Gustavo Dudamel, who did a fine job.
4.6.13 Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Passion got a beautiful intimate staging at Classic Stage Company by John Doyle. The intense intermissionless musical is the closest thing to a through-composed opera Sondheim’s ever done – no pause for applause anywhere, which I liked very much. I saw the opening night performance of the original 1994 Broadway production, with its fantastic performances by Donna Murphy as the melancholic un-beauty Fosca, Jere Shea (whatever happened to him?) as Giorgio, the handsome soldier she becomes fixated on, and Marin Mazzie as Clara, the beautiful young married woman he has been attached to. (That show is available on DVD – an excellent live broadcast for Great Performances, much of which you can find on YouTube.)
This smaller production was musically and theatrically very sound, although having both pair of lovers cavort on a hard cold marble floor sacrificed some sensuality (I’ll never forget the lushness of topless Mazzie in the show’s opening number, “Happiness.”) Judy Kuhn made a compelling Fosca, and Ryan Silverman was a fine Giorgio. Melissa Errico, the production’s Clara, was out – her understudy, Amy Justman, sang beautifully but her acting didn’t register much. Many people (including Andy, who came with me) have a hard time buying the plot, believing that Giorgio would ultimately choose to love the woman who’s been stalking him, but I’ve always been able to go along with it. Although Fosca’s obsession seems crazy, she doesn’t demand more of Giorgio than he offers, and it makes sense to me when the purity of her love breaks through to his heart, especially in contrast to the limited conditions of his affair with Clara, who is steadfastly married and not really available.
4.13.13 Bunty Berman Presents… – we took a gamble checking out an early preview of the musical at the New Group, a Bollywood spoof by Ayub Khan Din and Paul Bogaev, directed by Scott Elliott. We loved the New Group’s musical of Dan Savage’s The Kid, and I thought Elliott did a terrific job with Khan Din’s play East Is East years ago. But this was a pathetically lame show in every way, and we left at intermission. Since then, the lead actor, who was clearly floundering, has been replaced by the author, which can only be an improvement.
4.20.13 Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary gives us the mother’s account of a martyr’s death, which is somewhat at odds with the narrative constructed by historians, advocates, and media types. There are, shall we say, discrepancies. (I guess we could say this phenomenon is timeless – cf. the press conference given by the mother of the Boston Marathon bombers.)
The best part of Deborah Warner’s theatrical adaptation of Toibin’s monologue is the pre-show interactive art installation. The audience is invited onstage to inspect props and artifacts from the life of Mary, played by Fiona Shaw, who sits inside a Plexiglas cubicle surrounded by votive candles, while a few feet away a live vulture is chained to a tree stump.
A window in the floor reveals a crypt underneath the stage, as you see in many Italian churches housing relics of saints. The audience is invited, nay encouraged to snap photos with their smartphones, locating the theater piece in our world of nonstop citizen documentation of everything. I enjoyed touring the exhibition, taking pictures, and then standing in the aisle making Mary jokes with Ben Cameron.
At showtime, audience members take their seats, some of the props get whisked away (the cubicle, the vulture), and Shaw goes into her act. She is a fine actress, I have respect for her, but this performance is so busy and fussy that it becomes bothersome and … I was doing to say distracting from the storytelling, but I have to assume that it’s a choice on the part of Shaw and her director (and longtime collaborator and former love partner) to tell the story this way, as if Mary is traumatized and manic, can’t sit still, has to move and create some active moment on Every Single Line. She’s always moving furniture around, picking up a ladder, putting it down, bringing out a raw fish and cleaning it then throwing it away, getting naked and disappearing into an onstage pool for a minute, for no ostensible reason except to be showy (“I’ll show you, Mark Rylance!”). We walked away pretty nonplussed. Some reviewers loved it; Ben Brantley’s review in the Times echoed my feelings pretty much, though I have to say I didn’t disagree with Michael Feingold’s unremittingly negative commentary in the Village Voice.
4.6.13 I didn’t get around to seeing the blockbuster Jean-Michel Basquiat show at Gagosian Gallery until the very last day. It was great.
I so admire the freedom Basquiat took for himself and how he used absolutely everything in his environment, in his mind, in his heart, in his eyes, in his ears to make work.
I’m delighted that Uniqlo has suddenly embraced Basquiat and Keith Haring as stars of the season, selling some very cool T-shirts based on their work and turning some kids onto these fertile creators who died way too young.
Spirit Matters by Matt Pallamary is a riveting memoir. Pallamary grew up among criminals and bad boys in Dorchester, a rough white working-class suburb of Boston, and spent his adolescence and early adulthood crashing through all kinds of self-destructive behavior before finding a life for himself as a writer. The prose is clean, clear, spare, honest, and astonishingly free of bullshit. He writes with extraordinary articulateness about subjects that are difficult to address cogently. His digest of Terrence McKenna’s teachings on indigenous North and South American plant medicine is something I’ve been craving for years, and his description of his first ayahuasca retreat in Peru is just fantastic — moved me to tears, cracked me up, and at times had me squirming in my seat with intense identification.
Enlightened – favorable opinions from people I trust led to sample the first five episodes of this HBO series created by Mike White and Laura Dern but I didn’t care for it. Dern’s character is just too fucked-up to be believable – we watch it and can only feel superior to her, which I think is unfair and separates bad/lazy TV from good stuff (in which category I place Louis C.K. and Lena Dunham).
Renoir — Gilles Bourdos’ new film portrays the French painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir at the end of his life welcoming into his harem a beautiful young model who eventually falls in love with the painter’s son, a soldier who returns wounded from the front lines of World War I (and later goes on to become the great French filmmaker Jean Renoir). Gorgeous gorgeous gorgeous. So sensual and beautiful and colorful, and without any of the stale cliches from such biopics (in which artists are repeatedly told how great they are). Superb performances by Michel Bouquet as the old man (who’s so arthritic that his paintbrushes have to be tied to his hands every day), Vincent Rottiers as Renoir fils, and Christa Theret as the mesmerizing Andree.
Preparing to watch the new documentary about Andre Gregory – Before and After Dinner, made by Gregory’s wife Cindy Kleine – I went back and watched My Dinner with Andre with Andy, who’d never seen it before. I hadn’t seen it since it was made 30 (?!?) years ago, and there was a lot of stuff I hadn’t remembered. I loved the movie all over again. I find Andre Gregory to be a compelling figure, even with all his craziness and grandiosity, the shots of New York City in the early 1980s (especially the filthy subway cars) are fantastic, and the conversation that he and Wally Shawn have over dinner is an extraordinarily deep, fast-paced, far-ranging one. Of course the characters are constructions. I’ve gotten to know Wally over the years – I spent several months just after My Dinner with Andre interviewing him for a profile in Esquire magazine, and I’ve followed his work as a playwright closely with much admiration. In every way, he is an enigmatic figure himself, seemingly open and extremely available and yet quite mysterious.
It’s great to view the bonus disc of additional material that comes with the Criterion Collection DVD package. There are lengthy separate interviews with Wally and Andre conducted by filmmaker Noah Baumbach that contain lots of little revelations. The restaurant in which the film takes place, ostensibly somewhere in Soho, turns out to be in Richmond, West Virginia. Andre and Wally each tell their own version of how they met, via Renata Adler. Andre: “Men tend to hide. In the movie, Wally is hiding behind silence, and I’m hiding behind words.” Wally: “I’ve always been a fearful person. I was afraid of practically everything. [In My Dinner with Andre] I wanted to destroy that guy in myself who is totally motivated by fear.” Wally also talks about how stubborn and intransigent he was with director Louis Malle when they were trying to whittle the script down to two hours from three hours. “I was very difficult, quite pedantic,” Wally says. “He never said to me, Look, you’re luck that a guy like me is even talking to you. Don’t you get it?”
The new documentary about Andre is a mixed bag. I love that Cindy Kleine wanted to make a film highlighting the amazing and influential theater work her husband has done, so he’s not just seen as a kooky character actor. To my taste, though, she inserts herself into the movie too much. She barely mentions Gregory’s first wife and the mother of his two grown children. And judging from the film, she and Wally Shawn can’t stand one another. Nevertheless, she captures some beautiful passages of Andre and Wally’s theater company rehearsing their living-room production of Ibsen’s The Master Builder, and there are any number of fascinating stories that emerge about Andre’s family life and his career in film and theater.
Later this year, the Public Theater and Theatre for a New Audience will present “The Wallace Shawn-Andre Gregory Project,” full-scale productions of two of Wally’s plays directed by Andre: The Designated Mourner and Grasses of a Thousand Colours.