Culture Vulture: Nicky Paraiso, Amanda Palmer, WHITE NOISE, Basquiat, and more

April 29, 2019

April has been a cultural smorgasbord!

April 6 – Lucas Hnath’s Hillary and Clinton (at the Golden Theatre) feels weirdly similar to his previous play, A Doll’s House Part 2: an extremely unlikely Broadway show starring the great Laurie Metcalf as a powerful woman in a showdown with the husband she has very mixed feelings about, with two ancillary characters to add dramatic tension and comic relief. Set on the eve of the New Hampshire primary in 2008, loosely based on real-life happenings, the play pivots on an invented encounter with Barack Obama, who shows up to offer Hillary the vice presidential slot if she’ll drop out of the race, but really exists as an extended meditation on the power of the imagination to invent multiple parallel universes. On Broadway it serves the purpose of giving New Yorkers devastated by the results of the 2016 election some liminal space to gain strength and hope from the idea of possibility and change. I enjoyed the framing device, in which we watch Laurie Metcalf come out as herself and with no more than the power of suggestion transform into Hillary Clinton; I admired the performances and the simple staging by Joe Mantello. But, like Doll’s House Part 2, it struck me as an exercise and left no lasting impression.

April 7 – In 1986 I wrote a piece for the Village Voice that began: “What becomes a legend last? Surely it’s the Off-Off-Broadway star, the performer who devotes the best part of a career to toiling for no money in the back alleys of lower Manhattan. The machinery exists to turn film and television performers into international celebrities quicker than you can say Live at Five, but some of the most original and creative actors in America continue to work year after year in basements and lofts, in semi-obscurity and near-poverty, resisting embitterment while clinging to whatever environment will allow them to become more and more themselves. Though you won’t find them in Broadway’s Theater Hall of Fame, actors such as Ruth Maleczech, Kate Manheim, Ron Vawter, Jeff Weiss, and Crystal Field are nonetheless national treasures, and any ranking of them must include the Ridiculous Theatrical Company’s leading lady Black-Eyed Susan.”

photo by Albie Mitchell for the New York Times

Nicky Paraiso belongs in that pantheon as well. Even among the colorful creatures of the downtown theater world, there is no one else like Nicky – multitalented, vivacious, ubiquitous, universally beloved by and unstintingly generous to his fellow artists. Since I moved to NYC at the tail end of 1979, Nicky has always been a fixture on the scene. He was a key collaborator for decades with Meredith Monk, Yoshiko Chuma, and especially Jeff Weiss – none of whom provide the financial security that collaborators named Shonda Rhimes or Ryan Murphy would. In middle age Nicky was barely scraping by waiting tables at McBell’s when Ellen Stewart, with her super-power for genius-spotting, zeroed in on his networking skills and made him resident curator, booking music, theater, performance art, spoken word, and miscellaneous events for The Club at La Mama and eventually becoming coordinator of the annual La Mama Moves! dance festival. All this and much more childhood and family history got folded into now my hand is ready for my heart: intimate histories at the La Mama Annex. Because Nicky is Nicky, he got John Jesurun to direct and design the show, and he corralled four respected downtown choreographers (Irene Hultman, Jon Kinzel, Vicky Shick, and Paz Tanjuaquio) to improvise onstage alongside his autobiographical monologue, in addition to a fun video appearance by two other high-powered Filipino-American downtown legends, Jessica Hagedorn and Ching Valdes-Aran. The show amounted to a kind of life review (not unlike John Kelly’s Time No Line, which played in the same space last year), an impressionistic chronology from growing up in Queens to the present moment. Touching, funny, and honest, the show among other things showcased Nicky’s wizardry as a musician. Every so often he’d wander over the piano and bang out some brief brilliant burst of music (pop, classical, cabaret, show tune) before leaping up and moving on to something else. Weirdly, he never so much as mentioned the Laura Nyro song from which he borrowed the title of his show. But I enjoyed imagining Nicky encountering Nyro’s wildly passionate original musicianship as a queer kid and using that inspiration to launch his own artistic spirit.

April 10 – I’m a big fan of Taylor Mac, but his play Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus (another highly unlikely Broadway mounting) left me cold. The performances by Nathan Lane, Kristine Nielsen, and a vocally overtaxed Julie White amount to an exhausting mugfest. And George C. Wolfe’s busy busy busy staging reminded me of his production of Shuffle Along: all footnotes, no show.

April 19 – I was psyched to see Camille Vidal-Naquet’s Sauvage at Film Forum because it promised to be a sexy, gritty portrait of French gay male sex workers. In some ways it provides a fascinating glimpse of Eastern European gay-for-pay street hustlers gathering in packs for survival and scrambling to make it work under crummy circumstances. The depiction of older schlumpy customers (one in a wheelchair, one recently widowed) is honest and compassionate. But the story revolves around a wildly unbelievable main character who is a manifestation of a curiously French attachment to the notion of the noble savage, lurching from touching moments to scenes that are ugly and sensational.

April 20 – Amanda Palmer started out as a street performer in Boston and played with Brian Viglione as the punk cabaret duo Dresden Dolls for years before launching her solo career. She recorded and toured behind her 2012 album Theatre Is Evil thanks to an overwhelmingly successful Kickstarter campaign; a memoir and a TED talk detailed her road to success via her knack for The Art of Asking, and along the way she acquired a famous husband, the fantasy author Neil Gaiman. The social media savvy that made her a DIY cult figure Rockstar also generated a lot of nasty blowback that got so ferocious that Palmer had to take a break. Now, after four years, she’s back with a new album, There Will Be No Intermission, and an 18-month international solo tour, just her and her piano and her ukulele. Andy’s a diehard fan and got tickets for her show at the Beacon Theater as soon as they went on sale. The day of the concert, an email arrived announcing that the show would start promptly at 7:30 and be over at…11:30. We’d seen her in concert three times before, and I liked her fine, but I wasn’t sure I had the stamina for four hours of Amanda Palmer solo. We gave ourselves permission to bail when we’d had enough, but we stayed for the whole thing. Palmer referenced both Springsteen on Broadway and Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette (both Netflix specials), and they clearly influenced her decision to undertake the brave notion of a solo concert that combines music and storytelling (a LOT of talking) with a very specific political agenda. She’s had three abortions in her life, she’s been raped twice, and she’s had a miscarriage, and as she says in the show after those upsetting experiences she looked around for some art work (movies, books, plays, songs, albums) that reflected the range and depth of emotions she was feeling and didn’t find any. So in this moment when access to abortion is again politically under assault, she resolved to fill in the gap and Talk About It herself. It makes for a bold, challenging show that alternates between songs from her new album, selections from her back catalogue, and fun covers. For all the ways she teeters on the verge of insufferable self-indulgence – let’s just say she needs a lot of attention – she does have an extraordinary ability to read the room and disarm an audience. Early on she warned the Beacon crowd what was coming and established a rule: at any time, anyone in the audience could call out “Amanda, I’m feeling so sad!” and she would immediately respond with the jaunty opening of her song “Coin-Operated Boy.” And that did happen several times during the concert. And it made a 2000-seat theater feel like a pretty cozy living room.

April 21 – “I can’t sleep” is the first line of Suzan-Lori Parks’s White Noise (at the Public Theater), which addresses the mixed blessing of being #woke – it’s both empowering and exhausting. Leo (Daveed Diggs) is a black artist; his white girlfriend Dawn (Zoe Winters) is a lawyer. Their best friends (and former significant others) are Ralph (Thomas Sadoski), a white English professor, and Misha (Sheria Irving), a performer who hosts an edgy podcast called “Ask a Black.” The set-up feels rom-commy, but as usual Suzan-Lori Parks can’t help coloring outside the genre-lines – as staged by Oskar Eustis, the play unpredictably veers into pockets of farce, tragedy, melodrama, soliloquy, and performance-art weirdness. After Leo is roughed up on the street by cops, he conceives of a provocative art project for his own healing: he talks Ralph (who comes from a rich family) into buying him for 40 days of slavery. Being owned settles Leo down emotionally and energetically; he’s finally able to sleep. Meanwhile, Ralph surprises even himself by how much he gets into ownership, and the two women resume their on-again off-again love affair, which has its own kinky aspects. For all the elements that land as contrived and preposterous, the mood of the play matches the feeling of the American zeitgeist over the last two years, with the shredding of the social contract, white supremacist bullying fully emboldened, and (as Dawn asserts in her monologue – each character gets one) doing good is seen as suspect activity by clueless libtards.

What is Parks saying, that blacks should give up and that White Makes Right is manifest destiny? Even as my friend Jay and I stood in the lobby of the Public having a juicy conversation about the play and our quibbles with certain plot points (yeah, right, an unpublished author can write a story and get it published in the New Yorker in less than six weeks), I received the play in the Brechtian sense I believe it is intended. Brecht was no fan of dramatic naturalism and emotional plausibility. His fantasy was that critical thinking — that is, imagining how things could be different than they are now — acquired through theatergoing could spur critical thinking on political and social issues. Critical thinking means being alive and alert at the theater rather than dozing through a pleasant entertainment.

At a typical play, according to Brecht, most people say to themselves: “Yes, I have felt like that too — Just like me — It’s only natural — It’ll never change — The sufferings of this man appall me, because they are inescapable — That’s great art; it all seems the most obvious thing in the world — I weep when they weep, I laugh when they laugh.” He wanted spectators at his theater to say: “I’d never have thought it — That’s not the way — That’s extraordinary, hardly believable — It’s got to stop — The sufferings of this man appall me, because they are unnecessary — That’s great art: nothing obvious in it — I laugh when they weep, I weep when they laugh.”

April 26 – What can I say about the Jean-Michel Basquiat show at the newly renovated Brant Foundation Art Study Center in the East Village? Being in the presence of almost 70 Basquiat paintings over the four floors of the gallery made me absolutely crazy with joy. I don’t know how to explain it, because normally I live with a distinct aversion to chaos. But when I look at Basquiat’s work, especially the gigantic paintings busy with lists and icons and as many overlapping narratives as a medieval tapestry, I don’t see chaos but feel privileged to be viewing the inner workings of…not just a mind but a heart and a sensibility super-alive to child-like playfulness and sophisticated art-music-life references.

The Brant Foundation show is running for another couple of weeks, through May 15. Tickets are required, it is ostensibly sold out, but the waitlist shifts all the time; be patient with the confusing and arduous process and you might well end up in the door after all. The show includes some famous Basquiat works (Hollywood Africans, on loan from the Whitney, and the untitled skull painting that sold for a record-breaking $110.5 million) but also lots of stuff I’d never seen before, some stuff that hasn’t been exhibited in New York before. (The show was put together by Dieter Buchhart for the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris.) My friend Clint described me as looking like St. Teresa de Avila in a state of rapture. There is, of course, the gift shop on your way out the door that sells among other things a Basquiat yoga mat. I didn’t get one, but you know, I have a birthday coming up….

Speaking of my birthday, if anyone wanted to gift me with a pair of tickets to see Lizzo at Brooklyn Steel on Sunday May 12, I wouldn’t say no. Her single “Juice” has already established itself as candidate for The Song You’re Going To Be Hearing All Summer Long. Her video featuring stars from RuPaul’s Drag Race is hilarious:

April 27 – Curse of the Starving Class was the first in a sequence of five semi-autobigraphical family dramas that represent the single strongest period of Sam Shepard’s long, anything but homogenous playwriting career. Set in the semi-rural Southern California of Shepard’s adolescence, it portrays an almost cartoony family of Mom, Dad, Brother, and Sister just on the verge of combustion from a flammable combination of dreams, despair, hormones, addiction, financial distress, and genetic predisposition for self-destruction. Julian Crouch’s set for Terry Kinney’s revival at Signature Theatre captures the fragility of the environment spectacularly well, and the zeitgeist ensures that Shepard’s fable of family life as metaphor for American life and/or Western capitalism stays pertinent. Having studied and written about Shepard for 35 years (the first edition of my biography was completed in 1984, the revised edition in 1997), I view productions of his work from so many different angles. I had mixed feelings about this one, mostly because of quibbles with the casting. Gilles Geary gives a one-note dead-eyed performance as Wesley, the poetic-souled son, and both Maggie Siff as his mother and Lizzy DeClement as his sister were too perky and clean-cut for my taste. Meanwhile, David Warshofsky as the dissolute, mercurial dad was just about perfect. I somehow hadn’t realized how consistent this string of family plays returns to the concept of role reversal – it shows up most clearly in act two of True West but it starts with Curse, continues in Buried Child, and returns in A Lie of the Mind (and beyond, in The Late Henry Moss). The pleasures of a Sam Shepard play almost always include boldly visceral real-time theatricality: a nude body, a live animal, the smell of breakfast cooking.

April 28 – Thaddeus Phillips (above) is a travelling man, and his solo performance 17 Border Crossings at New York Theater Workshop does what it says on the tin. With the simplest of means, and in close collaboration with lighting designer David Todaro and sound designer Robert Kaplowitz, Phillips recollects a globe-sprawling array of encounters (most but not all his own) with customs and immigration officials, some of them uneventful if humorous, others hair-raising. It’s a sweet short (90-minute) exercise in theatrical storytelling that starts with a burst of Shakespeare, segues into a succinct history of passports, and carries on unpredictably from there. My plus-one was Laurie Anderson, who introduced me to Arto Lindsay (they’d just had a meeting with some cutting-edge sound designers). I in turn introduced Laurie to Jackie Rudin (see below), who had just seen Laurie at the Kitchen in Anohni’s performance She Who Saw Beautiful Things. After the show, Laurie and I had a delicious dinner at Piccolo Strada, the minuscule trattoria a few doors down from the theater.

 

%d bloggers like this: