Archive for January, 2015

Quote of the day: JONI

January 20, 2015


Miles Davis taught me how to sing. More and more I’m beginning to show what he taught me – pure straight tones holding straight lines. The feeling when you sing and you open up your heart. If you just try to remember to keep your heart open, it produces a warmer tone than if you really think you’re hot shit, because the tone is going to get cold then. That’s the thing. You can be so flashy and incredible, there’s a certain beauty that comes out of that too, but not out of arrogance…warmth is not gonna come out of it, you know. I always kept Miles and his music, especially at a certain period, a lyrical period, in the area of music that I would play for myself but never thought of it as attainable. And now I’m playing with most of the players who made up that music.

–Joni Mitchell in 1978

miles by joni


January 18, 2015

1.11.15 Ghost Quartet is a beautiful little show written by writer-composer-lyricist Dave Malloy, the creator of the immersive musical gem Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. It began life last year at the Bushwick Starr in Brooklyn, where it earned rave reviews and made many “Best of 2014” lists. Now it’s installed for a very limited run at the McKittrick Hotel, home of Sleep No More, where it’s been playing Sunday and Monday nights in the space occupied other nights of the week by the restaurant, The Heath. The audience sits on chairs, at tables, and on cushions on the floor around a bunch of well-worn Persian rugs in a circle along with Malloy at his piano, Brent Arnold on cello, guitar, and other stringed instruments, and two singers, Brittain Ashford and Gelsey Bell (both Natasha veterans), who mostly occupy the space’s small stage. The setting is super-cozy, like a concert in someone’s living room.

GhostQuartet3(Ryan Jensen)
The show is both extremely modest and extremely ambitious. Modest in that it’s staged (by Annie Tippe) simply as a concert of 23 songs from a concept album, each one introduced as such: “Side One, Track One, ‘I Don’t Know.’” (The musical equivalent of Brechtian scene titles.) Ambitious in that the songs are really smart, somewhat dense, extremely tuneful, spinning out a deceptively folksy non-linear narrative that weaves together several strands of story derived from two dozen different sources listed in the program. The most immediately recognizable include Arabian Nights, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, and Grimm’s Fairy Tales, with a tip of the hat to Into the Woods. But Malloy also cites influences as varied as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Ken Wilbur’s A Brief History of Everything, The Twilight Zone, English murder ballads, Ziggy Stardust, Stephen King, and the Disney movie Frozen. Characters appear and reappear in different time periods, and I suppose not unlike Sleep No More, the show invites you to pick a character or theme and follow it all the way through – could be Rose, could be Pearl, could be sisters, astronomy, storytelling, photography….

Malloy belongs to the cohort of composers whose work straddles theater music and singer-songwriter pop (cf. Adam Guettel and Gabriel Kahane, to name a couple). The combo of plangent, country-folk female voices and bowed strings reminded me at times of the lovely pop band Hem. Thelonious Monk gets name-checked, and a few of his most familiar tunes get stirred into the pot. As a lyricist, he mixes things up and enjoys strategies, structures, and puzzles. “Any Kind of Dead Person” revolves around a series of party-game questions (“If you were a part of breakfast, what part of breakfast would you be?”); “The Photograph” also employs questions, more of an existential interrogation (“How did Rose lose her camera? How did her belief system break down with the appearance of the ghost?”). “Four Friends” pays tribute to several brand-name whiskeys. (Do you get that this guy relishes his drink?) Some songs traffic in frisky dialogue; others are melancholy monologues the likes of which you might hear on a Gillian Welch album. On “Tango Dancer,” Bell sings a simple sad refrain, solo the first time, then joined by the others: “I was empty then/And I’m empty now/But it’s not the same at all.”

For all its modesty, the show delivers a bunch of theatrical surprises – a long stretch of several songs takes place with the lights out, the audience is enlisted to play some simple instruments, bottles of good whiskey are passed around, and you’re never able to guess what’s going to happen next. The show speeds by, and I’m glad I bought the original cast recording, because so many of the songs reward repeated listens. (You can buy it online here. The website generously lets you listen to the whole album, download individual tracks, AND read the lyrics — very cool!) The initial handful of performances sold out, so they’ve added six more at the end of February and early March. I encourage you to treat yourself.

1.14.15 Founded in 2008, writer-director Tina Satter’s Half Straddle ranks among the newer downtown theater companies getting a lot of attention in the last couple of years. It won an Obie Award in 2013; Satter’s Chekhov remix Seagull (Thinking of you) is also listed among Dave Malloy’s sources for Ghost Quartet (not surprisingly, given the teeny-tiny overlapping worlds of New York theater, he’s also married to Eliza Bent, a founding member and performer with Half Straddle). So the recent run of Ancient Lives at the Kitchen gave me a chance to catch up with this crew. I love that it’s essentially an all-female company. This play concerns a sort of charismatic schoolteacher named Paula (played with, I think, an intentional lack of charisma by Lucy Taylor of Elevator Repair Service) who takes three of her female students to live out in the woods away from society. One them becomes her bride (Emily Davis); the other two fall into the roles of happy camper (Bent) and grumpy camper (Julia Sirna-Frest). They encounter a male witch (warlock? played by Jess Barbagallo) who disturbs their communal equilibrium. All of them collaborate on various forms of alternative performance ranging from radio broadcasts to cheerleading to acting out scenes from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

ancient lives
One thing I loved about the show was how the cult of Paula distinguishes itself by wearing sort of frumpy wigs and eyeglasses (this is never explained or referenced in the text). I dug Chris Giarmo’s live score (and the way Giarmo and Jess Barbagallo managed to write gender-neutral bios). But mostly this was so so so not my cup of tea. You don’t even have to study her bio to know that Satter studied playwriting with Mac Wellman – 90 minutes of one non sequitur after another, alternately arch and mundane, spoken and acted by game performers as if it all made perfect sense. I see the lineage (Gertrude Stein to Richard Foreman to Mac Wellman and his students) and I appreciate the experimental spirit but I lose interest when there turns out to be no substance, or the substance is encoded in thrice-refracted pop-cultural references that I just don’t get. All the most interesting post-Wooster Group downtown ensembles play constantly with vacillating along the edge of smart and dumb. It’s a tricky balance and I guess entirely a matter of personal taste. ERS and Les Freres Corbusier do it for me. Young Jean Lee and Richard Maxwell – I go in and out with them. Radiohole and Half Straddle…um, sorry, ehhh.

I did treat myself afterwards to a delicious meal of Basque tapas at Txikito on Ninth Avenue.

1.17.15 Fiasco Theater consists of a group of actors who met as students in Brown University/Trinity Rep’s MFA program and stayed together afterwards. They made their name doing scaled-down small-cast adaptations of Shakespeare (Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, and most notably Cymbeline). Now they’ve applied their house style to Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods in a production that started at Princeton’s McCarter Theater, traveled to the Old Globe in San Diego, and now has landed in New York at what the Playbill clumsily calls “Roundabout at Laura Pels Theatre/Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre.” (Veteran New York theatergoers will probably always just think of it as the American Place Theater.) This show is vastly different from the original Broadway production staged by James Lapine, and from the punky British production that showed up at the Delacorte in Central Park a couple of summers ago and from the new movie version. It is very much an ensemble piece, co-directed by two of Fiasco’s three co-artistic directors: Ben Steinfeld, who plays the Baker, and Noah Brody, who plays the Wolf, Cinderella’s Prince, and one of the wicked stepsisters. (With his pornstache and buff body, Brody radiated gay vibes to both Andy and me at first sight — see below with Emily Young as Little Red Riding Hood — but it turns out he’s married to the other co-artistic director, Jessie Austrian, who plays the Baker’s Wife. So much for gaydar, or should I say wishful thinking?)

into the woods noah broady emily young

The set is highly conceptual – instead of a fairy-tale forest, it takes place inside a piano (and if the design reminds you of I Am My Own Wife, good connection – they’re both the work of Derek McLane). The performance style borrows something from Shakespeare’s Globe (as we saw last year when Mark Rylance brought Twelfth Night and Richard III in rep) and something from Story Theater. Everybody’s onstage the whole time, everybody sings and acts and plays musical instruments and moves the furniture.

roundabout into the woods
The level of theatrical inventiveness is very high minute by minute. Having seen several other productions of Into the Woods already, I enjoyed the clever ways they found to play various moments and to solve the problems that arise when you have actors playing multiple roles (what happens when Brody’s Prince tries Cinderella’s slipper on Lucinda, the stepsister that he plays?). The downside is that musical values take a beating. The orchestra mostly consists of an upright piano at center stage, joined occasionally by lovely pockets of ingenious additional instruments (cello, guitar, autoharp – the same down-homey sound and costumes seen in Ghost Quartet, come to think of it). But this is definitely a cast of actors who sing, rather than singers who act. Some of the better singers are non-Fiasco members, especially Patrick Mulryan’s Jack and Jennifer Mudge’s Witch. (Andy pointed out that when Mudge transformed out of her ugly-witch garb, for a moment it suddenly looked like Nina Arianda had stormed in from Venus in Fur). Sondheim enthusiasts might be delighted to note the inclusion of “Our Little World,” the mother-daughter duet for Rapunzel and the Witch that was added for the first London production and frequently interpolated since then, and they will either be pleased or displeased at the removal of the Narrator character, one aspect of James Lapine’s original book that has always been a bit of postmodern prank, not easy to pull off. I mostly liked the show. I was less bothered by the less-than-perfect singing than Andy was. We went home and listened to the complete 2-CD movie soundtrack with Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations conducted by Paul Gemignani, which definitely satisfied the last bits of nagging hunger left over from Fiasco’s stage production.

Quote of the day: MEDIA TECHNOLOGY

January 18, 2015

Amid the bacchanal of disruption, let us pause to honor the disrupted. The streets of American cities are haunted by the ghosts of bookstores and record stores, which have been destroyed by the greatest thugs in the history of the culture industry. Writers hover between a decent poverty and an indecent one; they are expected to render the fruits of their labors for little and even for nothing, and all the miracles of electronic dissemination somehow do not suffice for compensation, either of the fiscal or the spiritual kind. Everybody talks frantically about media, a second-order subject if ever there was one, as content disappears into “content.” What does the understanding of media contribute to the understanding of life? Journalistic institutions slowly transform themselves into silent sweatshops in which words cannot wait for thoughts, and first responses are promoted into best responses, and patience is a professional liability. As the frequency of expression grows, the force of expression diminishes: Digital expectations of alacrity and terseness confer the highest prestige upon the twittering cacophony of one-liners and promotional announcements. It was always the case that all things must pass, but this is ridiculous.

— Leon Wieseltier, “Among the Disrupted,” New York Times Book Review

disruption illo joon mo kang

Culture Vulture: Chris Ofili’s NIGHT AND DAY and Keith Hennessy’s bear/SKIN

January 11, 2015

My expedition to the Lower East Side began at the New Museum to see “Night and Day,” the first retrospective in New York City of paintings by Chris Ofili, the artist of Nigerian descent who was born in London and currently resides in Trinidad. I was very keen to see the show because I’d heard so much about Ofili’s work, and Calvin Tompkins’ profile of him in the New Yorker recently also whetted my appetite. The show takes up three floors of the New Museum, and the work on the second floor captivated me the most — large, textured, sexy brightly colored witty canvases with other materials collaged in with the paint. They’re definitely worth seeing in person, close up.

1-8 ofili odalisque
Of course, Ofili gained some notoriety in New York in 2005 when a work of his called “The Holy Virgin Mary” appeared in a group show at the Brooklyn Museum and was attacked, sight unseen, by Mayor Rudy Giuliani as blasphemous, based on sensationalized descriptions of the piece in the tabloid press. One of Ofili’s key materials is elephant dung — he uses dried balls of it like furniture legs to rest many of his large canvases on, and one of the Virgin Mary’s breasts was represented by a similar clump of elephant dung. That whole controversy was an embarrassing episode for New York City and Giuliani, and “Night and Day” frames it beautifully by standing “The Holy Virgin Mary,” a somewhat provocative young man’s piece, far from Ofili’s finest work, next to a very strong piece called “No Woman No Cry.”

1-8 ofili no woman no cry
Taking its title from the Bob Marley song, the painting was inspired by yet another episode of a young black man killed by police in London many years ago. You can see here that the mother’s necklace and the footrests for the painting are all made of…well, I realize that in the course of Brooklyn Museum controversy the press learned to refer to the material as “dung,” a polite word that can be printed in family newspapers. But one of the pieces in “Night and Day” explains how early in his career Ofili made an  installation/performance on the street in London selling what he explicitly labeled “Elephant Shit.” At the New Museum we see a tiny little piece called “Shithead,” featuring elephant shit with baby’s teeth and some clumps of Ofili’s own hair turning it into a grinning scheisskopf. So all along, Ofili’s attitude about the stuff has been witty, not just folkloric. On the second floor there are several canvases depicting a black action hero he invented named Captain Shit. I very much enjoyed this ghostly/amusing one called The Naked Spirit of Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars:

1-8 ofili capt shit

1-8 ofili happy phallus

His female figures are fierce, voluptuous goddesses — my favorite is simply titled She:

1-8 ofili she
Strangely, the lighting for this exhibition is shockingly poor — the strong overhead lighting casts a lot of glare on the canvases. On the third floor is a room of recent very dark paintings that are almost impossible to see anyway, and the lighting makes the experience of communing with them worse. On the fourth floor are a series of paintings inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses, less interesting to me than this piece called Lime Bar, which includes an Ofili self-portrait (apparently in Trinidad he bartends part-time at a friend’s bar):

1-8 ofili lime bar

I was fascinated by Ofili’s rendition of the Anunciation, a huge sculpture with a black angel and a gold Madonna, fused at the mouth like Rodin’s famous sculpture The Kiss:

1-8 ofili annunciation
On the fifth floor is a small sidebar, “When Shadows Were Shortest,” about Ofili’s sets and costumes for an opera based on the myth of Diana and Acteon — I loved this costume for a shadowy hound-creature :

1-8 ofili opera costume
Afterwards, we went for a quick tasty bite at Pearl & Ash, the cozy wine bar right across the street on the Bowery.

1-8 pearl and ash
Then it was time to mosey down to the Abrons Arts Center to see the opening night of my friend Keith Hennessy’s Bear/Skin in the American Realness festival. Born in Canada and based primarily in San Francisco, Hennessy is a highly skilled dancer, performance artist, and nouveau cirque acrobat; he is also a veteran social activist, community organize, and now credentialed art historian, so his work tends to incorporate an unusual density of verbal commentary and visual imagery. In the American Realness catalogue, here’s the description: “Motivated by grand spectacle and ambitious prayer, Bear/Skin appropriates Nijinsky’s choreography for Le Sacre du Printemps (1915) to consider Modernism’s dependence on appropriations of the indigenous, folk, exotic and oriental to ask questions about ritual and art today.” But no such summary does justice to the collage that Hennessy performs or the relentless intellectual dance he does, introducing theoretical points of view and critiquing them at the same time. He starts with a poem about action movies as “medicine,” riffing on the screen depiction of violence against cops as both a cathartic response to real-life police brutality and a heroic mythology.  While seeming to be very casual about it, Hennessy sets up the conditions for a pagan performance ritual, donning a bear suit in such a way that conjures images both of ancient shaman and contemporary urban homeless person. There’s an extended verbal commentary about “the economy of suicide,” as it disproportionately impacts the young, the elderly, and the military. Setting up his laptop for occasional glancing reference, Hennessy duplicates a section of Nijinsky’s original choreography for Le Sacre du Printemps. Then he changes into an elaborate multilayered costume — a three-minute interval during which the audience is invited to commune with one another under the kind of mylar space blankets marathon runners and park-bench sleepers use to warm themselves — to do an entirely invented sort of shamanic ritual dance of transformation.

bearskin audience
1-8 bearskin props
1-8 keith abrons

Afterwards we had dinner in the warm basement of Galli on Rivington Street and talked about the show and its many sources and layers.

wallpaper in the bathroom at Galli

wallpaper in the bathroom at Galli


Photo diary: New Year’s in Sullivan County

January 3, 2015

(click photos to enlarge)

12-31 barryville house12-31 andy ben woods12-31 river ice12-31 icicles12-31 welcome hunters

brunch at The Heron in Narrowsburg felt very much like we were in Williamsburg

brunch at The Heron in Narrowsburg felt very much like we were in Williamsburg

then we slipped across the border to Shohola, PA -- another world

then we slipped across the border to Shohola, PA — another world

12-31 cops firemen swag12-31 rohman bartender

Andy finally finished the baby sweater

Andy finally finished the baby sweater

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