Culture Vulture/Photo Diary:

October 25, 2021

Cautiously and carefully, theater is back, and the culture world of New York City has come back to life. There’s a lot to see, and a lot I want to see, but rather than plunging in I’m trying to pace myself.

Wednesday 10/13

KLUDGE  /klo͞oj/
Noun
1. An ill-assorted collection of parts assembled to fulfill a particular purpose.
Verb
1. Use ill-assorted parts to make (something).

“Kludge” was the title for five nights of performances at Joe’s Pub curated and hosted by Laurie Anderson, this year’s Vanguard artist-in-residence. The Vanguard is an award and yearlong residency that celebrates the career of a singular artist who has contributed to American life and pop culture and is a part of the Joe’s Pub family of artists. This artist also sustains and leads their own artistic community while creating a body of work that stands apart from their peers. I didn’t get to see Arto Lindsay or writer Lafcadio Cass, but tonight’s guests were poet Anne Carson and cellist Ruben Kodheli and his trio. Laurie started off playing a record about hypnosis on a strange stand-up phonograph that she said she’d just bought (at the MOMA gift shop, did she say?), but the sound levels were murky and we didn’t hear what she wanted us to hear.

Anne Carson read from her book The Autobiography of Red, a novel in verse about Geryon, a figure who shows up in the myth of Herakles – in this version they become lovers. Then Laurie improvised with Ruben’s group, then Anne read some of her “Small Tales,” 13-second (or more) discourses on random subjects. One involved contemplating Hegel’s grammatical indignation on Christmas Day while snow-standing. Then another improv, and then the show was over, a crisp one hour show.

Thursday 10/14 – I went with Jay Michaelson to see Wally Shawn’s The Fever performed by Lili Taylor. I wrote a separate blog post about that. Jay and I had a good conversation about the content of the piece over dinner next-door at Da Toscano.

Saturday 10/16

I saw the Metropolitan Opera matinee of Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up In My Bones, based on Charles Blow’s memoir about growing up in Louisiana and being molested by a favorite uncle when he was 7. I found most of the vocal score unbeautiful and the libretto by Kasi Lemmons somewhat stilted. I admired the lush lyricism of Blanchard’s orchestral music (conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin), and I was excited to witness the first opera by a black composer ever produced by the Met.

In the evening, Andy and I took in the Wooster Group’s production of Brecht’s The Mother at the Performing Garage, mounted as a kind of exercise in trying on Brechtian theory, which is not that much of a stretch for the Woosters: exposing the machinery, the actors playing themselves rather disappearing into the role, etc. I liked that they focused on doing a play about communism from the point of view of the workers, striking to protest a cut in their pay, and how the title character goes from meek conformism to committed activism. Similar to the group’s mounting of Pinter’s The Room, it felt like a study, a little dry, less passionate than some of Elizabeth LeCompte’s more elaborate theatrical collages. The list of source material in the program intrigued me, and I came away curious to check out a few items on the list: Slavoj Zižek’s Let Us Be Realists and Demand The Impossible: Communism, Fassbinder’s Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, and Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

I’d made a reservation for dinner afterwards at Pastazul around the corner on Grand Street (that used to be Lucky Strike) but the dining room was dominated by shrieking partygoers, and so we went to Felix on West Broadway, which was also insanely loud – even sitting in the dining shed, we could barely hear ourselves over the music and the hubbub from inside the restaurant, and the loud tables in the shed, and the son of one of the waiters who was restlessly clomping around the outhouse. But we ordered our merguez and our red wine and everything was fine. New Yorkers are ready to go out and party hard!

Thursday 10/21

In one of the most interesting experiments in recent Broadway history, the Vineyard Theatre has two shows previously produced at their home base in Union Square playing in rep at the Lyceum, a small Broadway house often commandeered by not-for-profit theater companies venturing to draw a larger audience. I’m seeing the remount of Lucas Hnath’s Dana H. next week. Tonight was Is This A Room, which was conceived and directed by Tina Satter, whose company Half Straddle performed the piece at the Kitchen before it moved to the Vineyard for an extended run. The hour-long performance stages verbatim the official transcript of the FBI’s interview with Reality Winner at her home in Augusta, Georgia, on June 3, 2017. Winner, you may recall, was the 25-year-old Air Force intelligence specialist who spent four years in jail for leaking proof of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Satter has fun making theatrical hay from the FBI agents’ fumbly manner and the transcript’s redacted jumpiness and mundane absurdism. Pete Simpson from Elevator Repair Service and Will Cobbs play the interrogators, and downtown legend Becca Blackwell gets to stomp around the edges as Unknown Male providing security for the detail.

For all the ridiculousness of the encounter, the piece maintains a dread-dredged tautness largely thanks to Emily Davis’s deservedly award-winning performance as the central figure, an eerie weightless figure in cutoff jeans who apparently speaks Farsi, Dari, and Pashto, owns a pink AR-15, and surrenders her iPhone even though she needs it to play music for the yoga classes she teaches. We literally see nothing else in the course of the show, yet it resonates with so much of the craziness of the last five years of American public life, the jittery dance between citizen participation and the forces in the federal government who have no accountability for their dark deeds.

Friday 10/22

Back at Joe’s Pub for an early glimpse of Taylor Mac’s work-in-progress, Sugar in the Tank: New Songs About Queer People, envisioned as a 54-song tribute to queer heroes, both legendary and unknown. Among the dozen or so songs we got to hear, Larry Kramer and Stormé DeLarverie were referenced by name. But the sound system was cranked so loud it was hard to hear many of the lyrics, which frustrated me.

Sporting a full-blown carrot-colored coronabeard and dressed by Machine Dazzle in an outfit that Mr. David Zinn described as “Hibiscus meets Phyllis Diller,” Mac fronted the band that pumped its way through Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music, including musical director Matt Ray on keyboards and dazzling guitarist Viva DeConcini.

Each of the three backup singers got a solo – Steffi Christi’an (below) blew me away with hers.

We had a delicious meal afterwards at Corkbuzz on E. 13th Street and got to check out Chris Carnabuci’s public art installation in Union Square, SeeInJustice – giant heads of George Floyd, John Lewis, and Breonna Taylor, which looked especially amazing at night under a full moon.

Saturday 10/23

We joined Andy’s college bestie Bob for his second screening of Denis Villaneuve’s Dune on 42nd Street. I’ve never read Frank Herbert’s book, though I did see David Lynch’s unloved movie version when it came out in 1984. These futuristic epics in which a handful of super-powered individuals take on and triumph over vast hordes of confusing, interchangeable bad guys have never been my cup of tea, but I was happy to go along for the pop moment, the popcorn, and the dinner afterwards at Wagamama.

Happy as I am to be seeing live performances and going to actual movies theaters again, I am surprised to acknowledge that my favorite cultural vulturing in the last couple of weeks has been watching Ted Lasso. It’s a show that I’ve heard nothing but rave reviews about from smart friends, and for some reason I held it at arm’s length. The capsule description – fish-out-of-water American gets hired to coach second-rate British soccer team – hits none of my pleasure points, and I feared it would be way too heart-warming. Damned if I wasn’t hooked from the get-go the same way everyone else is, by the constantly surprising overturning of preconceptions about virtually every single character, the smart writing with the weirdest non sequiturs, the casual but pointed anti-racism, and the eruption of laughs and genuine emotion when you’re not expecting them. Three cheers for joy!

%d bloggers like this: