Archive for the 'Culture Vulture' Category

Culture Vulture: THE ORCHARD, GOD’S FOOL, Jean-Michael Basquiat: King Pleasure, and MEMORIA

June 21, 2022

6.15.22 – I saw two lovely unusual theater productions this week: The Orchard at Baryshnikov Arts Center and God’s Fool at La Mama.

Produced under the auspices of the annual Russian-flavored Cherry Orchard Festival in association with a few other producers, The Orchard is an extremely ambitious, experimental adaptation of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard conceived and directed by Igor Golyak with a whole raft of crucial collaborators. How often do you see these credits on the title page of a playbill: Emerging Technologies, Robotics Design, Interactivity Design, Virtual Sound Design? The show was devised to be experienced in two ways, live onstage at BAC and online, accessible from anywhere worldwide but timed so that you’re exploring online at the same time as a live performance. I haven’t done the online experience (yet), but I attended the live performance that New York Times critic Laura Collins-Hughes watched online (after seeing the matinee live), and I had a very different experience than she did.

I can’t imagine anyone seeing this show who wasn’t familiar with Chekhov’s play; otherwise, they’d be completely lost. Nothing is straightforward. The stage space is behind a scrim, onto which are projected snippets of the playscript (translation by Carol Rocamora), snowfall, and random images that presumably play a larger role in the virtual production. The stage floor is covered with cherry blossoms which are, like all the furniture and most of the objects onstage, colored blue. All four acts of Chekhov’s play are condensed into an intermissionless two hours, and the gist of the drama remains intact: aristocratic Lyubov Ranevskaya’s estate has fallen into disrepair, and her land with its distinctive cherry orchard is being auctioned off to pay the mortgage. The cast is terrific, with excellent performances by Jessica Hecht as Ranevskaya, Mark Nelson as her brother Gaev, and especially Nael Nacer, a Boston-based actor making his New York debut as Lopakhin, the wealthy merchant who buys the property that his father and grandfather worked on as serfs. Nacer is a kind of sexy nerd – bald, handsome, mustachioed — not the blustery boor we usually see as Lopakhin. Wordless bits of business convey his unrequited crush on Ranevskaya, who is determined that he should marry her adopted daughter Varya, who struggles to keep the estate running; his awkward, ultimate non-proposal to Varya is quietly devastating. Baryshnikov plays Firs, the estate’s dotty old hard-of-hearing manservant, and perhaps you could say the most impressive thing about his performance is that it is so unimpressive – he manages to suppress the charisma and magnetism he has evinced onstage for decades in order to play a character who rattles around in the background barely noticed. (Online, apparently, he plays Chekhov and has more to do.)

photo by Maria Baranova

The weirdest and most original thing about the production is the gigantic mechanical device at the center of the stage, which is never named or described or explained in the program. It’s a ten-foot-tall object with a long arm that wheels around, spins, holds a tray of tea cups, serves sometimes as a light source, as a tree, as a camera that picks up the images projected onto the scrim (and I’m guessing all over the online version). I guess you could call it a robot; there’s also a robot dog that skitters around the stage adorably. I’m told by the publicist that the robot is named Ronin and is considered non-binary by Kuka, the company who created it. If I were going to speculate, I would say this robot represents technology, a phenomenon that is so inextricably bound up with our lives that we barely notice it, it’s part of the family, for better (the smartphones we can’t bear to be out of our reach) and for worse (the surveillance cameras that track our every move).

photo by Pavel Antonov

Halfway through the show, the character Chekhov refers to as “Stranger” who intrudes upon the estate appears in the form of a loud, drunken Russian soldier with a walkie-talkie, who rounds up the household, paws the women, and terrorizes all of them before stumbling away into the dark. I took this jarring episode to be the director’s small way of referring to the situation in Ukraine – an example of finding a way to connect the heart of a classic play to the state of the world right now.

6.16.22 –  God’s Fool is a company-created piece about St. Francis of Assisi. Like almost all of Martha Clarke’s work, it is a kind of exquisite performance collage using dance, music, text, masks, and visual elements without ever solidifying into something that could be called a play, or a musical, or a dance piece (although I notice that the Times sent a dance critic to cover it). I love that about Clarke’s work, and this piece is beautiful. Fanny Howe’s elliptical text captures many aspects of Francis’s personality, his spiritual ties as much to nature and animals as to anything having to do with the church of Rome. The superb cast of 8 (led by Patrick Andrews, who’s fantastic as Francis, and John Kelly as The Devil) creates sublimely gorgeous music, most of it a cappella, selected and arranged by Arthur Solari.

The simple evocative set and the animal masks were designed by the legendary Robert Israel, a longtime Clarke collaborator.

6.18.22 — Out-of-town guests provided the perfect occasion to book tickets for Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure, the immersive art show put together by Basquiat’s sisters, Jeanine and Lisane. The exhibition, which includes over 200 artworks, many of which have never been shown before, takes place throughout a sprawling 15,000-foot space designed by the remarkable Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye, who created (among other things) the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

It’s a touchingly personal and informative survey of an insanely prolific, fertile, original artist whose star continues to rise 34 years after his death at the age of 27. I have not yet gotten my fill of his work. It speaks so deeply to me of an artistic intelligence alive in the world, taking in everything, spilling over with thoughts and connections and reflections.

Cabeza (1982; acrylic and oil stick on blanket mounted on tied wood supports)
Jawbone of an Ass

Adjaye’s installation collects paintings and objects in many thematic galleries, and it also includes three special environments: a replication of the Basquiat family home, very much the tidy middle-class refuge of an immigrant family, with a shelf of the World Book Encyclopedia; a recreation of Basquiat’s studio on Great Jones Street (above), scattered with books and records and a gigantic pile of VHS movies on tape along with works both finished and unfinished; and then a replica of the Mike Todd Room where VIPs at the Palladium, a hip Manhattan nightclub, could lounge beneath a couple of gigantic spectacular Basquiat murals.

I found myself surprisingly emotional walking through the show, starting with the map of Basquiat’s New York, which completely overlaps with my first years in New York, 1980-88: Area! The Mudd Club! Tower Records! Tony Shafrazi Gallery! Pearl Paint! Club 57! Yup, all there…and all gone.

Later that day, I took in an entirely different kind of immersive art experience. Memoria, the latest film by the amazing, eccentric Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, stars Tilda Swinton as a Scottish botanist living in Colombia who starts hearing at odd intervals a loud bang and sets out to understand what’s going on. The movie is an experiment conducted in several different dimensions – it’s the director’s first full-length film not shot in Thailand, with a leading actor who’s not Thai, with dialogue primarily in Spanish, and it centers so specifically on sound that the film is only playing a day or two at a time in theaters whose sound systems have been reconfigured to accommodate the film. (I saw it at Lincoln Center.) Like all of Weerasethakul’s work, the film operates as a dreamscape. Odd images come and go without explication. The scenes unfurl in long takes, sometimes with very little action.

In their audience talkback after the New York Film Festival screening, the director (who encourages everyone to call him Joe) and Swinton talked about waiting 17 years for this collaboration to come about. The person she plays is named Jessica, said Weerasethakul, after a character in the movie I Walked With A Zombie. Swinton herself said, “Jessica isn’t a character but a predicament.”

Early in the film she consults a young sound engineer named Hernán who sits with her in the studio meticulously trying to recreate the sound in her head. (Weerasethakul has for some time suffered from a malaise known as “exploding head syndrome.”) Later in the film she encounters another Hernán, who both is and isn’t the same person – same name, different actor, and this guy lives out in the woods, has never seen movies or TV, and stores all his memories in stones. Jessica consults a doctor she hopes will prescribe Xanax to make the noise go away; the doctor tells her that Xanax takes away your empathy and instead hands her a pamphlet about Jesus. Jessica’s sister is an anthropologist studying 6000-year-old bones uncovered by a construction crew that may be exerting some kind of malicious spell over her; there is talk of uncontacted indigenous people in the Amazon jungle, and there is a crazy moment that suggests supernatural involvement.

Memoria is very poetic, enigmatic, rapturously beautiful, weird, scary, puzzling. Not for everyone, but very much for me.

Culture Vulture: The Best of 2021

December 30, 2021

YEAR IN REVIEW

My cultural round-up has usually centered on theater. This year theater finally did come back and hooray for that but late in a year otherwise unusually dominated by TV and movies (I logged 158 on my watchlist). It’s hard to know how to make any kind of ranked list – Best Things Of The Year – but my #1 discovery was AROOJ AFTAB, the queer Pakistani-born Brooklyn-based singer whose gorgeous album Vulture Prince nabbed her a Best New Artist Grammy nomination and whose show at Pioneer Works was my first indoor concert since the Before Times.

LAURIE ANDERSON’s six Norton Lectures wandered deeply and widely over history, literature, science, politics, and personal reminiscence.

Television has never been my go-to but I felt deeply fed by watching all four seasons of the Australian series Please Like Me, and I have The New Yorker’s Alex Barasch to thank for making me curious and then a big fan of creator and star Josh Thomas (his second series, Everything’s Going To Be Okay not so much). I generally resist the big shows everyone loves and talks about (will I ever watch Succession? Doubtful) but I broke down and watched Ted Lasso, shocked by how good the writing and performances were; ditto The White Lotus and Hacks.

Documentaries I always have time for, and this year the music docs were stellar. Questlove’s Summer of Soul made going back to the movie theater rapturous. Also great: Todd Haynes’s The Velvet Underground and Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers. In a category of its own was Peter Jackson’s revisiting The Beatles: Get Back, eight hours of bliss for this Beatlemaniac. I’m a latecomer to Frederick Wiseman’s long slow masterpieces but this year his City Hall blew me away with its portrait of Boston city government and charismatic mayor Marty Walsh (now running Biden’s Department of Transportation). Hulu’s Pride series impressed me by going above and beyond familiar (white) faces and names in front of and behind the camera.

Also in another category was Can You Bring It, the documentary about BILL T. JONES, the dance company he created with his late partner Arnie Zane, and recreating the AIDS-era piece D-Man in the Water. Jones also created one of the finest live performances I saw this year, deep blue sea at the Park Avenue Armory, a fierce mashup of Moby Dick and Martin Luther King, Jr., with a cast of 100 dancers and state-of-the-art visual design.

I saw lots of feature films, online and on the big screen, my favorites being Nomadland (with stunning performance by Frances McDormand, above), Zola, The French Dispatch, and Judas and the Black Messiah. Art-house streaming services turned me on several great unheralded foreign films: Aquarius, directed by the Brazilian master Kleber Mendonça Filho, with an astonishing lead performance by Sonia Braga, and Arab Blues, a French-Tunisian comedy by first-time director Manele Labidi.

SARAH SCHULMAN (above) figured heavily in my cultural year, first with Let the Record Show, her exceptionally thorough and well-written history of ACT UP, and then the Criterion Channel allowed me to catch up with Stephen Winter’s 2015 Jason and Shirley, in which Schulman and Jack Waters give mind-boggling performances as documentarian Shirley Clarke and Jason Holiday, the subject of Portrait of Jason. Another book that excited me this year was Paul B. Preciado’s essay collection An Apartment on Uranus, which also served the function of making me track down the powerful, legendarily transgressive film Baise-Moi by Preciado’s former partner Virginie Despentes.

Between the pandemic shutdown and the post-George Floyd racial reckoning, whose work gets shown and how we get access felt quite transformed this year. The best live theater I saw were two highly experimental pieces – Lucas Hnath’s Dana H., performed by the ever-great Deirdre O’Connell (above) directed by Les Waters, and Tina Satter and Half Straddle’s Is This a Room, with an unforgettable frail-tough performance by Emily Davis as government whistle-blower Reality Winner (below in white shirt) — that wound up playing in rep! on Broadway! Another live triumph: Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s Cullud Wattah at the Public Theater, sharply staged by Candis B. Jones on Adam Rigg’s spectacular set with five strong performances. Streaming allowed me to catch Kristin Wong’s excellent solo show Sweatshop Overlord after its run at New York Theater Workshop.

Almost always in a category of his own, WALLACE SHAWN distinguished himself playing Lucky in Scott Elliott’s remarkably effective Zoom version of Waiting for Godot and had the good fortune to have Lili Taylor perform his monologue The Fever at the Minetta Lane. But one of the absolute best Things of the Year was the release of two exquisitely produced theater-of-the-ear six-part podcasts (available online for free) of Shawn’s dark drama The Designated Mourner and his surrealist comedy Grasses of a Thousand Colors, performed by the original New York casts (including Shawn himself) directed by Andre Gregory with phenomenal sound design by Bruce Odland.

Culture Vulture/Photo Diary: CAROLINE, OR CHANGE, Jasper Johns, Jennifer Packer, THE POWER OF THE DOG, and more

November 22, 2021

November 14 – Michael Longhurst’s revival of Caroline, or Change has had its delayed opening at Studio 54 under the auspices of Roundabout Theatre Company. Originally mounted in London, the show did nothing to erase my memories of the virtually impeccable original production that George C. Wolfe staged first at the Public Theater and then on Broadway. But Sharon D Clarke is indeed remarkable in the title role of Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s beautiful, strong musical play.

November 15 – I’ve been on a Paul Bowles roll recently, happily making my way through a massive volume of his letters (In Touch, edited by Jeffrey Miller). Bowles occupied one of the more fascinating corners of 20th century art as a novelist, composer, musical anthropologist, and photographer. He married Jane Bowles — both of them deeply idiosyncratic fiction masters, both of them queer — and for a time they lived in the famous house in Brooklyn also occupied by the likes of W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, Carson McCullers, and Gypsy Rose Lee. He had to be one of the most pretentious/precocious teenage artists who ever lived — his first day in Paris he hung out with Jean Cocteau AND Gertrude Stein (who took him under her wing for a while and called him “Freddy”). The letters include a long missive he wrote to Ned Rorem while having a not-very-enjoyable trip of mescaline.

Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary Let It Come Down (available on DVD from Netflix) fed me plenty of tidbits. The filmmaker managed to get footage of a NYC hotel room meeting between Bowles (above), William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg, the last time those literary lions all met. Burroughs pronounces The Sheltering Sky “an almost perfect novel” (I agree) while also referring to Without Stopping, Bowles’ memoir, as Without Telling, because he’s so maddeningly discreet about anything having to do with sex, romance, or actual people (in contrast to Gore Vidal’s memoirs, which Burroughs appreciates for dishy gossip on every page). Bowles has nothing good to say about Bertolucci’s film version of The Sheltering Sky. I was also intrigued to see footage of Cherifa, Jane Bowles’s mysterious partner, as an old woman (below) repeating without denying rumors that she was a witch who exerted strange powers over JB.

November 18 – I don’t have anything nice to say about Lynn Nottage’s new play Clyde’s, directed by Kate Whoriskey for the Second Stage at the Helen Hayes Theatre, so I’m not going to say anything at all.

November 19 – I dutifully showed up at the Whitney Museum to check out Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror (the other half of this retrospective is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art), which only confirmed the inability of Johns’ work to move me at all. His imagery (flags, numbers, maps, etc.) has always landed on me as extremely banal and ugly. The one piece that stood out for me in this show is Field Painting, probably because it looks a lot like the kind of multimedia “combine” that was the specialty of Robert Rauschenberg, his former partner and an artist whose lively, restless, generous creativity has always excited me.

The real reward of this expedition was encountering the splashy exhibition by a painter new to me: Jennifer Packer: The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing. Her large multilayered canvases merge representation and abstraction in unusual and beautiful ways.

I’d also never heard of My Barbarian, the Los Angeles-based art collective, whose installation on the first floor is small but dense and fun and alive with film and animation.

November 20 – Today was National Trans Day of Remembrance. As I’ve done numerous times in the past, I gathered with Gays Against Guns – the activist organization formed after the Pulse massacre in Orland in 2016 – and manifested as one of the Human Beings, silent veiled figures dressed in white representing victims of gun violence. I held placards commemorating Tiara Banks and Dominique Lucious, two of the 34 trans Americans killed by guns this year alone (more have been murdered through other means).

We stood in front of the Washington Square Arch as passersby read and absorbed the stories of these lives lost to senseless violence, and then we processed across the park to Judson Memorial Church, where there was a ceremony and service honoring trans lives.

Among the other Human Beings were two artist friends who’d never met. I got to introduce Paul Wirhun (aka Rosie Delicious aka Egmananda), a radical faerie artist who specializes in psanky (eggshell painting), to Antonius Wiriadjaja (aka Oki), whose Instagram #foodmasku (“I make my meals into masks and then I eat them”) went from pandemic pastime to online sensation. Oki, whom I met playing with Gamelan Kusuma Laras, is also a victim of gun violence (innocent bystander to a drive-by shooting in Brooklyn) and tireless advocate for better gun control laws.

I also got to meet Camille Atkinson (below right), who’s from New Orleans and knows how to rock a memorial outfit.

I wasn’t chomping at the bit to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s film version of Jonathan Larson’s musical tick…tick…BOOM, mostly because I’m not a fan of Andrew Garfield (still haven’t forgiven him for his shallow performance in Angels in America on Broadway – minority opinion, I know, since he walked away with the Tony Award). Nor was I a big fan of Rent, of which TTB is kind of a rough draft. But it was Saturday night on Netflix, so we tuned in. The first 10-15 minutes were tough going, with all the selling-it-to-the-rafters Broadway-style singing we’ve been overdosing on lately. What kept us going were the cameos – I kept exclaiming with delight spotting New York theater treasures among the supporting cast and background players (see the complete list online here), and Andy had fun spotting familiar geographical landmarks and vicariously inhabiting cramped Village apartments recognizable from when he himself was a lad in the early ‘90s finding his way through NYC.

November 21 – MUBI is yet another curated streaming platform for arcane art cinema from all around the world. I’ve encountered some gems and a lot of quirky curiosities there, and just when I think “Is this really worth $10.99 a month?” they’ve sweetened the deal by offering subscribers a free ticket to a brand-new art film playing in theaters. I might not have gotten to Jane Campion’s new film The Power of The Dog so quickly if it hadn’t been playing two blocks from my house at the Paris Theater, FOR FREE. But wow, so glad I did! I’ve loved a lot of Campion’s work, and this one is right up there. I’m never drawn to any movie that falls in the category of “Western” – even one set in Montana but shot in the hills of New Zealand – but this one is exceptional. I had flashes of thinking about There Will Be Blood and Days of Heaven and Brokeback Mountain and even A Streetcar Named Desire but then the film (based on a novel by Thomas Savage) goes several places I would never have guessed. I say no more except to recommend it to anyone who has the patience for a slow-moving but intensely emotional drama. Among the strong performances is one you won’t quickly forget by this kid named Kodi Smit-McPhee.

Opinions are not ideas. I wish I had more ideas than I do. But I do have positive opinions about three other shows playing right now, shows that would surely never be produced on Broadway if it weren’t for the ruptures we’ve seen in the last couple of years. I highly recommend the two downtown hits playing in rep at the Lyceum Theatre, Tina Satter and Half Straddle’s Is This a Room and Les Waters’ production of Lucas Hnath’s Dana H. (with quietly astonishing lead performances by Emily Davis and Deirdre O’Connell, respectively). Ditto Alice Childress’s Trouble in Mind, a trenchant and still pertinent play about racial politics in New York theater finally having its Broadway premiere at the American Airlines Theatre, elegantly staged by Charles Randolph-Wright for the Roundabout, with especially fine performance by LaChanze, Chuck Cooper, and Michael Zegen.

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!

Culture Vulture/Photo Diary: Laurie Anderson, DEEP BLUE SEA, House of Dior, and SANCTUARY CITY

October 12, 2021

October 6: Laurie Anderson’s fourth Norton Lecture

Some highlights:

She quoted her friend Justin Stanwix who refers to the internet as “assisted living for millennials.”

She mentioned that her middle name is Phillips, which led to Phillips 66 gas stations, named after Route 66. Also, who knew that the name of the phone company Sprint is an acronym for Southern Pacific Railroad Internal Networking Telephony?

She said that she always sets up and breaks down her equipment for a concert by herself and that sometimes she wears a wig and a “CREW” T-shirt as a disguise. (It’s true – I watched her nimbly and efficiently dismantle her elaborate sound system after a show in San Francisco, although she wasn’t in disguise on that occasion.)

She spent some time discussing the notion of “the avant-garde” in 20th century art, noting that Gertrude Stein – who might be a perfect example of an avant-garde artist whom people consider difficult or inscrutable – gave 74 lectures on an American tour in 1934-35, her book The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas made the best-seller lists, and her opera Four Saints in Three Acts was performed by an all-black cast for six weeks on Broadway in 1934. NOT marginal or obscure.

She brought up the nefarious Texas law empowering citizen-vigilantes to prevent women from receiving abortions and asked, “How is this different from the Taliban?”

She spoke poignantly about her mother, who was brilliant but cold, and wondered: “If I’d had a warm mother, would I have seen technology as more embracing?”

Her aspiration: “Try to have a big mind and an open heart.”

Norton Lectures #5 and 6 are scheduled for November 10 and December 8. You can register in advance to receive the Zoom link (free) here.

Laurie Anderson fans will also want to read Sam Anderson’s beautifully written profile of her in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine.

I was tickled to see the magazine reprint Allan Tannenbaum’s picture that ran with my 1980 cover story for the Soho News.

The NYT piece coincides with the opening of “The Weather,” her show of paintings and immersive installations at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. Click here for details.

Also this week Laurie plays MC for a series of shows at Joe’s Pub under the collective title Kludge (definition: “An ill-assorted collection of parts assembled to fulfill a particular purpose”), featuring poet Anne Carson, musician and composer Arto Lindsay, writer Lafcadio Cass, and cellist Rubin Kodheli, in different combinations. See here for details.

October 8: penultimate performance of Deep Blue Sea at the Park Avenue Armory

Bill T. Jones’ exquisite performance collage Deep Blue Sea weaves Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech into a monumental meditation on remembering and forgetting, the individual and the collective, freedom and justice, and asking young people to take the mic and share what they know.

For the first part Jones takes the vast stage of the Park Avenue Armory by himself, with occasional flights of sweet music from five vocalists at one end of the theater-in-the-round. For the second part he’s joined by the current members of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane company, 10 dancers with excellent chops and extremely distinct personalities. Amidst their rigorous choreography, Jones tracks them with a video camera, addressing them each by name, two different times.

Then for the last section, 100 other dancers appear and fill the stage with waves of actions and group image-making. The music throughout — original score with contributions from Nick Hallett, Hprizm aka High Priest, Rena Anakwe, and Holland Andrews — is beautiful, as is the extraordinary visual environment created by Elizabeth Diller – DS&R and Peter Nigrini with Lighting by Robert Wierzel.

For the last 15 minutes of the show, the “community participants” take turns declaring an “I know” statement. The extremely diverse cast includes at least three hearing-impaired performers (all the statements are translated by sign-language interpreters) and someone I casually clocked as “a Larry Goldhuber type” who turned out to be Larry Goldhuber himself, the plus-sized Jones/Zane veteran, whose statement was “I know everything.” Especially pertinent statements got greeted by snaps from their colleagues. Many dancers made statements that included derogatory assumptions about white audiences for the show — a fascinating role-reversal exercise for us white folks to be on the receiving end of unattractive generalizations. 

When the show was over, the cast stayed onstage and Jones urged the audience to mingle and talk. I got to chat with a queer black performer who represented fiercely and a white lad whose statement was “I know how to bottom.” Both of them said they come up with a new statement for every performance. The white boy said he likes to come up with something spicy. One night he said, “I know I’m waiting for Donald Trump to die.”

October 9

This morning at the farmer’s market at 57th Street and Tenth Avenue, a sight I’ve never seen before: a jazz combo set up on the corner. I couldn’t help thinking of the Joni Mitchell song: “They were playing real good, and for free.” The two horn players traded sweet and cool licks so intimately it brought tears to my eyes. The bandleader was the drummer, Will Terrill, who said he’s associated with the Jazz Foundation; his crew included Sharif Kales on flugelhorn, Chris Hemingway on alto saxophone, and Jason Clotter on bass.

Later that day, we trekked to the Brooklyn Museum, where we stopped in to see the Obama portraits by Kahinde Wiley and Amy Sherald.

The museum’s main attraction at the moment is a spectacular multimedia exhibition to rival the David Bowie retrospective in 2018. This one, Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, traces the groundbreaking history and legacy of the House of Dior.

I know virtually nothing about the artistry of couture and couldn’t care less about dresses, so for me this was immersive theater, fun for people-watching and eavesdropping as much as absorbing the art and fashion.

The show has the unmistakable touch of Matthew Yokobosky, the museum’s Senior Curator of Fashion and Material Culture (also responsible for the Bowie and other great shows in the past), who put a decidedly 2021 stamp on Dior by choosing to display all the designer gowns on black mannequins. That small choice has immeasurable impact.

On our way back out of the museum, we passed this alabaster relief with a 9th century BC queen swinging a clever little clutch.

Another show of contemporary work included this nutty three-channel video of the artist lip-synching to the Bee Gees’ “Nights on Broadway” in airplane lavatories.

And then there was Karon Davis’s Nicotine, a striking sculpture of an essential worker on break.

October 10

In my therapy practice I somehow acquired the understanding that “having brings up not having” – sometimes when we get something we’ve longed for, there is a paradoxical bittersweetness or sadness recalling all the times we wanted that thing and didn’t have it. As I took my seat at the Lucille Lortel Theater to see New York Theater Workshop’s production of Martyna Majok’s Sanctuary City, I was mystified by the wave of melancholy that swept over me until I realized: oh, this is “having brings up not having.” Returning to the theater after 18 months of pandemic lockdown has been an emotionally charged experience, joy and excitement tempered and dampened by remembering exactly why we’ve been away – the losses, the deaths, the turmoil, the fear, the vaccine anxiety. We’ll get more used to it over time, like people in war zones get used to metal detectors everywhere, but we’ll never get over it.

The first act of Majok’s play covers a year in the life of two high school seniors from immigrant families in Newark. The fractured narrative skips around in time with lots of blackouts and repetitions without losing clarity or coherence, thanks to the original staging by Rebecca Frecknall (remounted by Caitlin Sullivan), Isabella Byrd’s lighting, Mikaal Sulaiman’s sound, and the performances of Jasal Chase-Owens and Sharlene Cruz. The second act (intermissions and concession stands have been 86’d out of covid precautions) consists of one continuous scene that unfortunately descends into soap opera territory as the three characters (Julian Elijah Martinez joins at this point) play out an overly melodramatic love triangle. The playwright has some subtle insights about class, race, immigration status, and sexual orientation dynamics but the second act lurches through a series of contrived plot points and sudden reversals that turn nuanced characters into TV-drama stick figures.

Recommendation: go see Todd Haynes’ documentary The Velvet Underground, which opens this week. It’s a fast-paced Warhol-esque stream of images, split-screen video, talking heads, vintage footage, and satisfyingly loud sound focusing on the early 1960s artistic/cultural milieu from which emerged the unlikely team of classical violist-composer John Cale and Long Island poet-rocker Lou Reed…and the rest is history.

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