Archive for the 'Culture Vulture' Category

Culture Vulture/Photo diary: Taylor Mac in Philadelphia part 2

June 14, 2018

Saturday June 9 —

Andy and I returned to Philadelphia for the second half of Taylor Mac’s “24-Decade History of Popular Music.” It seemed like half the crowd had seen the first part, the other half were all new people (including our friends Nick and Jimmy). Taylor said something in judy’s introduction that judy hadn’t said before, that judy undertook this epic theater piece because there’s no way it could be perfect — an exercise in managing The Anxiety of Imperfection. That’s one of many inspiring aspects of the extravaganza.

Some highlights:

Each decade’s costume was a Machine Dazzle masterpiece, some more dazzling than others, like this simulation of the Wright Brothers’ airplane wings with Machine traipsing around in a Mount Rushmore headdress.

Guest artists included Philadelphia-based immigrant advocacy activist Yared Portillo, accompanied by Erick Pérez.

During the Depression era, the theater became a soup kitchen, as the Dandy Minions served soup to the audience. When the 1950s rolled around, Taylor’s white-picket-fence costume signalled the era of “white flight” to the suburbs. At this point in the show, Taylor had all the white people in the middle section of the orchestra “migrate” to the suburbs and invited all the people of color in the house to take seats in the center, so for the rest of the show they got to sit in the best seats in the house, soon followed by the queers.

Machine Dazzle’s costumes and Matt Ray’s musical arrangements have been widely and deservedly lauded, but I’m not sure enough praise has been heaped on set designer Mimi Lien and lighting designer John Torres, who succeeded in continually transforming the look of the show/concert using the simplest of means. Andy and I had seen the three-hour section covering the ’60s/’70s/’80s at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, a flexible open space. At the Merriam Theater in Philadelphia, the curtain came down as the ’60s rolled in, and it reopened with this grand entrance, to the tune of “Turn! Turn! Turn!”

In Taylor’s queer revisionist pop-song history, “Born to Run” became a Stonewall anthem, as Taylor ran around the audience in judy’s disco-ball headdress and light-up brassiere, orchestrating a simulation of Judy Garland’s funeral (with audience members recruited to play La Garland and her pallbearers, which you can see over our shoulders).

In Brooklyn, Taylor brought on a local youth marching band to signify Black America “Movin’ On Up” at the start of the ’70s. In Philadelphia it was a fantastic local youth dance troupe called Camden sophisticated Sisters/Distinguished Brothers. Notice the hefty gal in the hijab? She did a handstand that turned into a back flip!

And the Dandy Minions got to represent ’70s disco.

The ’80s morphed from a backroom bar into the grim specter of AIDS.

For the oughts, Taylor invited all the lesbians in the house to join him onstage for beer and snacks while judy sang an array of lesbian music (including a sweet rendition of Ferron’s “Girl on a Road,” a duet with Cynthia Hopkins) and brought on Toshi Reagon for a stellar solo.

By the end of the night (the last hour was Taylor solo, singing original songs), I was left with a few strong impressions. Fun and crazy and dazzling as the visuals and the jokes were, this was an incredibly impressive and accomplished musical event. Especially when Taylor slowed things down or stood still to sing ballads, they were overwhelmingly beautiful and emotional, along a fascinating unpredictable spectrum — the country ballad “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” Patti Smith’s “Birdland.” And I walked away blessed to have inhabited a day in the life of a Temporary Queer Utopia, which is as strong a political statement as an artist can make these days.

 

Culture Vulture/Photo Diary: Taylor Mac in Philadelphia

June 5, 2018

Andy and I took the bus down to Philly for Part I of Taylor Mac’s “24-Decade History of Popular Music.”

Taylor Mac is a tall bald performance artist with a phenomenal voice, an activist’s engagement with the politics of the day, and a drag queen’s ability to work the crowd. The show, which judy (Taylor Mac’s pronoun of choice) built in three-hour increments and premiered in all its glory at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn in 2015, is a queer history of the United States in song. This gig, produced by Pomegranate Arts for the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, is the first time Taylor Mac has performed the show in two all-day chunks. Mac refers to the show as a “radical faerie realness ritual sacrifice.” The loose concept is that every decade gets an hour, and the band starts with 24 members, one of whom peels off every hour until there’s only Taylor Mac onstage. Besides the musicians, there are random guest artists and a squadron of body-positive gender-queer helpers known as Dandy Minions (I spotted among them my friend Chris Bartlett, moonlighting from his high-powered job as executive director of Philly’s William Way Center). But the key collaborators are musical director Matt Ray, who arranged all 246 songs in the show, and Machine Dazzle, who created all the costumes including a different staggeringly creative outfit for each of Taylor Mac’s 24 hours.

We’d seen one three-hour segment (1956-1986) at St. Ann’s, which contained songs we knew. The early decades turned out to be a hodgepodge of familiar songs queered for Taylor Mac’s purposes and obscurities dug up to illustrate judy’s intersectional historical revision. The show opened with “Amazing Grace,” for which a woman in the audience was selected to come onstage and receive a blessing from the audience. It occasioned the first of many times Taylor Mac said, “This is going to go on a lot longer than you’re going to want it to.”

A conceptual show this long is bound to be padded and stretched thin in spots, and it was. There was the hour of drinking songs. There was the hour the audience spent blindfolded doing sensory perception exercises that required intimate interaction with your neighbors. Apples, beer, and ping pong balls were freely distributed. Large swaths of the show involved audience members dragged onstage to perform crucial tasks. Most of it was fun and engaging, but the real highlight of the first 12 hours came around the 9th hour when Taylor Mac rescued Gilbert and Sullivan from cultural appropriation jail by performing The Mikado on Mars, through vocoders, mostly to a reggae beat, with the crucial role of Yum-Yum played by a game young guy from the audience following instructions through a headset. It was one of the craziest and most fun things I’ve seen in the theater in years.

                                     that’s Matt Ray at the keyboard

                      that’s Machine Dazzle on the right in checkered stockings

The 12-hour show wrapped up an hour early, to no one’s complaint, since it was a pretty intense day. We’ll be back next Saturday for the second half of the show. We got to hang out later with our friends Nick and Jimmy.

We met Jimmy’s adorable ancient kitty Scarlett, and after brunch walked through the sidewalk art fair in Rittenhouse Square. I admired some stone sculptures by Paul E. Braun.

And I was impressed by the Basquiat-esque paintings on wood by Senegalese artist Michel Delgado.

Culture Vulture: ANGELS IN AMERICA

April 15, 2018

I’ll admit it — I’m one of those obnoxious guys who loves to brag “I saw it first.” I saw Hamilton at the Public Theater before it became a Broadway blockbuster. I saw Prince at the Bottom Line, a tiny nightclub, at the time of Dirty Mind. And yes, I saw Angels in America in its first incarnation at the Eureka Theatre Company in San Francisco in the summer of 1991, when the second play, Perestroika, was still an unfinished rough draft.

I reviewed David Esbjornson’s bare-bones production for the Village Voice (see here)I believe it was the first New York review, and I got a very sweet letter from Tony Kushner afterwards.

The following year I traveled to Los Angeles to see the official “world premiere” at the Mark Taper Forum, directed by Oskar Eustis and Tony Taccone, who had commissioned the play for Eureka. And in 1993 I saw the original Broadway production, staged by George C. Wolfe, and wrote a cover story for the Voice that centered on a long, fascinating interview with Kushner. When Mike Nichols’ made-for-TV movie came out in 2003, I watched it three times. And I saw and reviewed Michael Greif’s Off-Broadway revival of the play at Signature Theater in 2010. I was out of town when Ivo van Hove’s stripped-down production played the BAM Next Wave Festival in 2014 so I wasn’t even tempted to go. By the time Marianne Elliott’s production for the National Theater in London became a big hit and transferred to Broadway, I kinda felt like I’d had my fill of Angels in America and would be content to skip it, relishing my memories of past productions. But the reviews and word-of-mouth were so stellar that curiosity got the best of me, and I decided to buy a ticket at the last minute to see Part 2, Perestroika, because it’s been dramatically different in each previous production and I was curious to see what Elliott — who staged the thrilling Broadway production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time — has done with it.

I didn’t love it. Nothing about the production improved on previous versions I’ve seen. A major selling point for the Broadway transfer was the casting of two famous names in major roles — Andrew Garfield as the central character Prior Walter, a 30-year-old cater-waiter with AIDS, and Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn. Both disappointed me. Garfield gives a shockingly shallow, mannered externalized reading, the epitome of a straight guy acting queeny. He evinces none of the rage and despair that Stephen Spinella brought to his definitive performance in the role. I wasn’t aware until the curtain call that Garfield is English, which made me understand another layer of his distance from the character, even if he did get choked up giving the show’s pitch for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. I found some of the other British actors equally unsatisfying — Susan Brown’s drab turns as Hannah Pitt, the Mormon mother, and Ethel Rosenberg, for one, and Denise Gough, who was so fiery and intense in People, Places & Things at St. Ann’s Warehouse last fall but here barely conveyed the damaged soul of Harper.

I did admire handsome James McArdle’s performance as Louis, and perhaps the best thing about the production is the theatrical spectacle of having the Angel played by Amanda Lawrence as a stark, ravaged creature whose wings are manipulated by a team of “Angel Shadows” (reminiscent of the puppetry in War Horse, which Elliott also directed). Nathan Lane…bless his heart, I always like it when he plays mean, unsympathetic characters but he can’t help overplaying his plentiful laugh lines so the performance comes off as familiar shtick. I admired some things about Lee Pace’s performance as Joe, the tortured bisexual Mormon lawyer, a very tricky role that walks a narrow path between enigmatic and underwritten — Pace embodies the enigmatic part but I didn’t feel any real emotional connection between him and either his wife or Louis, with whom he has a coming-out affair. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett was okay as Belize but again was directed to go heavy on the physical flamboyance but never quite felt like the solid moral center of the piece, which is how others (Jeffrey Wright on Broadway and in the movie, Billy Porter in the Signature revival) have played the role. Nathan Lane’s understudy is Mark Nelson, a terrific character actor whom I would love to see play Roy Cohn; I would also be happy to see Beth Malone, who was the wonderful adult Alison in Fun Home, who is the understudy for Amanda Lawrence and plays Wednesday matinees.

Clearly, I am not the ideal audience for this production. I probably sound like one of those jaded opera queens who natter endlessly on comparing historical productions of “Cav and Pag.” People who’ve never seen Angels in America may well find this Broadway production revelatory. It is absolutely an astonishing piece of work. And despite all my qualms about the performances, I wept all the way home, unable to shake the memories the play dredged up of those years people like me spent visiting hospital rooms, tracking every emerging opportunistic infection and promising pharmaceutical treatment, and burying friends and loved ones.

Culture Vulture/Photo Diary: springtime in New York

April 8, 2018

The Spring Culture Season blossoms forth!

March 30God’s Own Country on DVD (I didn’t love it the way many others have — the central relationship seemed more schematic than plausible to me).


March 31Cabaret Luxe at Lot 45 in Bushwick, inspired by Weimar-era German club performance, with maitresse of ceremonies Dorothy Darker…

leather-lunged diva Dee Dee Vega backed by punk klezmer rock band Amor Obscur…

and burlesque performers Lewd Alfred Douglas…

Divina Gransparkle…

and Deity (pictured below with the entire cast).

April 1David Bowie Is at the Brooklyn Museum, fun immersive experience.

While we were there, we strolled through the ongoing exhibition “Life, Death, and Transformation in the Americas,” with its eerie kachina dolls and awesome thunderbird masks.

Afterwards Andy and Tansal and I had lunch at Kiwiana in Park Slope, which serves all New Zealand cuisine, including the irresistible dessert known as pavlova.

April 5Yerma at Park Avenue Armory, Lorca’s play adapted and directed by Simon Stone with a ferocious cast led by Billie Piper and Brendan Cowell (below, photo by Sara Krulwich for the New York Times) and a spectacular set designed by Lizzie Clachan.

April 6Wild Wild Country on Netflix, the riveting six-part documentary about how rural Oregon dealt with the sudden emergence of an Indian sex guru (Rajneesh, aka Osho) and his community of devotees in their midst.

April 7Isle of Dogs at Cinépolis in Chelsea — we loved it.

April 8 — Museum of Modern Art. Final day of the Club 57 show. Ann Magnuson put out the call for a closing day party, so the basement of MOMA thronged with senior citizens who once upon a time were the hippest and grooviest of East Village clubgoers, along with plenty of excited visitors too young to have seen the club back in the day.

This delightful cartoony Kenny Scharf painting (“Escaped in Time, I’m Pleased,” above) prepared me for the colorful figuration all over the Tarsila do Amaral retrospective, with its inquisitive-looking critters and its theme of anthropophagy.

And upstairs a rich, heady, comprehensive survey of rigorous conceptual artist Adrian Piper, with its witty dada performative moments (I loved the idea of the humming room, very Yoko Ono — and I love that a security guard stands by whose job it is to make sure you’re humming when you enter the room).

 

Culture Vulture: New Georges Theater

February 25, 2018

2.25.18

I’ve been making an effort to reserve my increasingly limited theatergoing time for plays and artists that are new to me, bypassing revivals and work by people whose work I know thoroughly. I’ve long admired the idea of New Georges, Susan Bernfield’s theater company devoted to producing work by women, even though I’ve seen little or none of their work, and I’d yet to check out shows at the spiffy new Flea Theater space in Tribeca. So the description of the current double bill of Sound House and This Is the Color Described by the Time called out to me big-time.

We started with the Sunday matinee of Sound House, Debbie Salvetz’s production of Stephanie Fleischmann’s play about British electronic composer and sound designer Daphne Oram. I’d never heard of Oram, and I loved the nerdy non-glam period style of the actress who plays her, Victoria Finney. But the piece as a whole chopped up Oram’s story into incoherent bits shuffled together with an invented and much less interesting narrative about a character named Constance Sneed (Susanna Stahlman) and her stormy relationship with an elderly downstairs neighbor. The three actors (James Himelsbach plays a colleague of Oram’s named Horace Ohm) spend a lot of time arranging and rearranging antique sound equipment around the stage to no great import. I left unsatisfied.

Happily, its companion piece later that evening was a different story. Conceived and directed by Lily Whitsitt and originally developed by a performance lab called Door 10, This Is the Color Described by the Time went much deeper into sound exploration, with the help of Elevator Repair Service’s longtime sound designer Ben Williams. The performance begins with audience members donning individual headsets, which allows us to dive sonically inside the mind of Gertrude Stein (Christina Rouner), holed up with Alice B. Toklas (Stephanie Roth Haberle) in their countryside home in Bilignin during the Second World War. Many layers of atmospheric sound drift through our ears as we watch Stein at her desk writing (the text includes chunks of her play “Mexico”), Toklas cooking, the two of them eating and nuzzling and being domestic, receiving letters from Stein’s friend and protégé Thornton Wilder (played by Williams) and their French protector, gay aesthete Bernard Faÿ (Ean Sheehy).

Capitalizing on recent scholarship (the program includes a substantial bibliography, including Janet Malcolm’s Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice and Barbara Will’s Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma), the piece expands beyond familiar portraits of Stein and Toklas to explore the moral complications and vulnerability of two Jewish American lesbians surviving Nazi occupation of France with the help of Faÿ, an official with the Vichy regime who espoused anti-Semitic views and was jailed after the war for his collaboration. Short on verbal narrative and long on theatrical imagery, this beautifully designed (sets by Amy Rubin, lighting by Reza Behjat) and performed show creates an atmosphere of tension and emotional complexity. Watch how a handful of tomatoes stand in for the fowl Toklas cooks for dinner and how a giant misshapen stuffed pillow comes to represent the cancer that killed Stein shortly after the war ended.

Between the two shows, we walked over to the Leslie-Lohmann Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art on Wooster Street and checked out the two shows on display there. “Haptic Tactics” is one of those dense, intellectually rigorous shows with much to admire – I like that almost nothing looked like a conventional painting, photo, or sculpture – but not so much by way of beauty.

Around the corner is a show by Leonard Fink consisting largely of nude self-portraits, many of them shot among the ruins of the West Side piers. I love a guy who’s willing to give his work titles like “Self-Portrait Giving a Blow-Job.”

With both shows, I marveled at the museum’s scrupulous attention to the eccentric materials and pervy preoccupations of LGBTQ artists.

We stopped in for refreshments at the coffee shop Baked on Church Street – I had tea and some little round balls that are the vegan equivalent of doughnut holes – but they closed at 5:00, which left us with a couple of hours to kill. We would have eaten an early supper at the Aussie bistro Two Hands but they also closed at 5, so we ended up happily biding our time at the New Orleans-themed restaurant 1803, where Andy had the pulled pork sandwich and I the Cajun niçoise, both delicious. We got a 15% discount because they have a deal with the Flea Theater, where I was also touched to see Liz Swados’s well-worn leather jacket displayed with suitably fetishistic devotion.

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