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Performance diary: Sam Shepard’s A PARTICLE OF DREAD

November 28, 2014

11.26.14 I’m impressed that the Signature Theatre’s production of Sam Shepard’s A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations) is as powerfully acted and beautifully staged as it is, because the script doesn’t make much sense as a play. It’s more of a collage of poetic fragments, and in that way it bears a distinct family resemblance to many early Shepard plays, though the pieces add up to much less of a dramatic narrative than most of its predecessors. These days, when Shepard is not working for a living playing supporting roles in medium-quality Hollywood movies, he plunks himself down at his desk as scholar-in-residence at the Santa Fe Institute and does what a writer does: churns out pages. He’s said he’s working on a novel, slowly, and in recent years he’s been using his residency to explore fascinations with classic texts, specifically King Lear and Oedipus Rex, with their themes of exile, outcasts, identity, self-knowledge (or lack thereof), fathers and children, and blood curses. shepard 2008Shepard is an old man now – he turned 71 on November 5 – with three grown kids (one from his marriage to O-Lan Jones, two he fathered with Jessica Lange) and a fourth he parented (the daughter Lange had with Mikhail Baryshnikov). He’s single again, and when he’s not involved with his film or theater projects, he’s living alone in the desert, not far from where his own father spent the last years of his life before falling down drunk and getting run over by a car. Along with the questions his writing has always wrestled with – “Who am I?” and “How did I get here?” – now there’s the added poignancy of “How did I turn into my father?”

All this manifests in A Particle of Dread as riffing, short takes on images of prophecy, crossroads, blindness, wordplay, some of them with the wispiness of Shepard’s collaborations with Joseph Chaikin, all of them scrambled in time and space. Some scenes ostensibly take place in ancient Thebes, before and after Oedipus is born, including scenes of married life with Laius and Jocasta that Sophocles never wrote about (that we know of). Other scenes take place in the contemporary American Southwest, where a Las Vegas mobster has been murdered on a deserted stretch of highway, attracting the professional attention of a highway patrolman and a forensic investigator as well as the idle curiosity of Otto, a man in a wheelchair, and his wife Jocelyn. Plus, there’s a big streak of Irishness that comes partly from Shepard’s own ancestry and his admiration for Samuel Beckett, and partly from the play’s being written to be performed by Field Day, the theater company in Derry, Northern Island, co-founded by Stephen Rea and Seamus Deane.

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Rea, a terrific Irish actor (The Crying Game, V for Vendetta, The Butcher Boy), has a long association with Shepard, dating back to the original production of Geography of a Horse Dreamer in 1974. A Particle of Dread is the third play Shepard has written specifically for Rea to perform in recent years (Kicking a Dead Horse played at the Public Theater in 2007, Ages of the Moon at the Atlantic Theater Company in 2009). It grows directly out of Field Day’s mission. The theater’s bio in the Signature program sheds more light on the play than anything else that’s been written about it: “By presenting an alternative analysis of Irish cultural history that highlights the shortcomings of the official narrative, Field Day has sought to make a cultural intervention into the failed political discourse of Northern Ireland, which, from 1969 to the mid-1990s, had descended into a seemingly unbreakable pattern of rebellion and repression…Whether read in ancient Greek or in the contemporary American and Irish vernaculars of Shepard’s new version, the Oedipus story addresses the idea of collective guilt arising from unresolved historical trauma – it’s an idea that particularly resonated with the original Derry audience in 2013, though the message is timeless and universal.”

I can see how certain aspects of the play might resonate heavily with the Irish actors who performed in the original production of A Particle of Dread, including Frank Conway’s set, a white-tiled abbatoir splashed with blood, a stark image of Ireland’s modern history. Americans have plenty of blood on our hands and our own “collective guilt arising from unresolved historical trauma,” as unfolding events in Ferguson, Missouri, attest. But the ancient Greek, Northern Irish, and American elements mesh a little uneasily, as Shepard signals by bouncing back and forth from somberness to slangy sarcasm (“Piss on Sophocles’ head! The truth will set you free – that’s a crock of shit!”). Nevertheless, the actors give powerful performances. I don’t know how they do it, but surely Nancy Meckler’s steady direction helped guide them. The script requires them to abandon any such thing as coherent characterization in favor of performance-art-like commitment to strong images and transitory moments. It was only by giving up expecting coherent characterizations that I was able to perceive what the play was and to embrace its modest pleasures. particle_of_dread_hutchinson_still
Some moments that interested me: Rea as Oedipus in bloody overalls with goggles full of liquid dripping from his eyes down his cheeks (tears, pus); Rea as king speaking to the Theban populace through a hand-held microphone; Rea as Otto in the wheelchair, an image that echoes Shepard’s play States of Shock; Lloyd Hutchinson playing a somewhat confusing array of commentators – a bones-tossing oracle, blind Tiresias (with shades of Endgame’s Hamm, see above), a guy known as Maniac of the Outskirts – all with blazing eyes and the relish of a great barroom storyteller; handsome Aidan Redmond as a haughty and haunted Laius; Brid Brennan’s Jocasta, making her entrance bizarrely trapped in a revolving cage; and the several passages where Judith Roddy, the lovely young actress ostensibly playing Antigone (see below), sang beautiful tiny scraps of song (composed by cellist Neil Martin who performs live in a sort of balcony/window alongside dobro played Todd Livingston). There’s not a lot about A Particle of Dread that you could point to as an unqualified good show – but every moment of it screams Sam Shepard.

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Performance diary: ST. MATTHEW’S PASSION at Park Avenue Armory

October 5, 2014

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10.4.14 – The two performances (October 7 and 8) that Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival scheduled of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic with staging by Peter Sellars at the Park Avenue Armory, apparently sold out almost instantly. (Or almost – there are a few seats left.) I hadn’t really thought about going, but when I got an email saying that they’d added a couple of open rehearsals, I decided to buy a ticket. I can almost never pass up an opportunity to see anything Peter Sellars does. I’ve been following him since he was a freshman at Harvard, and of course there he was at the Armory. We shared a nice hug, and I told him I’ve been trying to count how many productions of his I’ve seen in 35 years. Could it be almost 100? Definitely over 50, in Boston, New York, Washington, Chicago, La Jolla, and Amsterdam.

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This staging of St. Matthew’s Passion originated at the Salzburg Festival in 2010 and played in Berlin the same year. Peter said they’ve been trying to bring it to NYC ever since. And the Armory provided a perfect opportunity to create an unusual intimacy between the audience and the orchestra. I was lucky to get a seat (in section 107) that was the equivalent of sitting onstage, behind the musicians (two sections of orchestra) and next to one of the two sections of chorus. The brilliant conductor Simon Rattle was spitting distance away. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard the Berlin Philharmonic live, but this performance could not have been more exquisite. They had rehearsed part 1 in the morning, and in the afternoon we saw part 2.

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This piece is almost always performed as an oratorio, but Sellars staged it as a ritual and had not only the featured singers moving around the stage reenacting the trial, crucifixion, and death of Jesus Christ but also brought musicians with key solos forward. So at times John the Baptist (here called Evangelist and sung by Mark Padmore with what one review aptly called “heartbreaking eloquence”) would be addressing the cellist, or the mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena (playing Mary Magdalene) would be standing in a circle with two violinists. Asking chorus members to emote in unison could sometimes verge on corny but mostly Sellars’ staging had the intended effect of making an already sublime piece of music extra-dynamic. When it was over there was a silent pause of deep satisfaction for at least a minute before the applause began, morphing into a (justified, for once) standing ovation.

Big props to Park Avenue Armory for adventurous programming and the extra care involved in creating a beautiful, thorough, free program with the text and translation and essay material about the event.

Performance diary: Bridget Everett’s ROCK BOTTOM at Joe’s Pub

October 3, 2014

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My favorite thing about seeing Bridget Everett’s show Rock Bottom at Joe’s Pub was tracking the various elements that Charles Isherwood was unable to cite in his rave review in the New York Times. Such as the title of her second number, “Does This Dick Make My Ass Look Big?” A reference to “finger-banging” whizzed by, along with something about a “bloody little rectum.” She mentioned that she has two sisters: “one’s dead, one’s a cunt, both are single.” And Isherwood never said anything about Everett’s lengthy story about an erotic overnight with a movie star, the morning after which she woke up aware that “my mouth smelled like Liza Minnelli after she went down on Kathleen Turner.”

Everett is a big hefty gal with a deceptively middle-American innocent face, blonde hair, blue eyes, operatic training, good chops, a dirty mind, a filthy mouth, and equal amounts of comfort with inhabiting her fleshy body and rubbing it (sometimes literally) in the audience’s face. She does very little to cover up her enormous jugs. Her persona combines Bette Midler’s Sophie Tucker impersonation with Amy Schumer’s sweet/shocking demeanor, with a scantily clad bow in the direction of Justin Bond. (In an interview with Artforum, Everett mentions Kiki and Herb as a major influence.)

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She’ll say and do anything. She stashed two bottles of Chardonnay onstage and swigged from them continuously throughout the show, spitting the corks into the audience and occasionally spraying the front row with a mouthful of vino. She suggested that her drinking helps her combat her social anxiety: “If I have 8 to 10 alcoholic units, I come out of my shell.” But she was clearly taught by experts. A reminiscence of home life began with Mom “listening to Manilow and getting shit-faced. Just before she blacked out, she’d say, ‘Get in the car, we’re going for a ride,’” usually to spy on Everett’s father and his new girlfriend.

Her material is nothing if not edgy. (The songs were written mostly by Everett with Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, of Hairspray fame, with additional contributions from Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz of the Beastie Boys, who plays in Everett’s band, and Matt Ray. They’re not credited individually, but I assume that any song with the word “dick” in the title came from Shaiman and Wittman.) A story about terminating numerous pregnancies led to a song from the point of view of a month-old fetus; halfway through, Everett was joined onstage by a skinny boy naked except for a diaper and a stocking-cap singing “Let Me Live.”

The audience was an unlikely mixture of gays and straights, young and old. A hetero couple up front apparently talked so incessantly for the first half of the show that Everett stopped and told them to leave – a first, she said, and clearly unnerving even to her. Sitting next to me (in the back, safely out of range of Everett’s aggressive audience interaction) were four gals in their twenties who laughed loudly when Everett said, “Some of you may recognize me from the Hamptons…”

I always cringe when female cabaret performers come on sexually to obviously gay audience members. I guess I’ve never forgotten sitting ringside at a cabaret performance when Nell Carter shoved my face into her capacious bosom, which felt only humiliating to me. So I watched with some disapproval as Everett bore down on a shy theater queen I know from my gym, who gave every evidence of wanting to disappear under the table. She approached another guy in the audience commenting about his letterman jacket (it actually said Ptown on the back, which doesn’t have any varsity sports teams as far as I know) and tried to get him to lick a line of whipped cream off of her inner thigh. He was rescued by a 22-year-old girl named Phoebe who was sitting nearby with her parents and cheerfully simulated eating pussy.

Everett’s finale involves dancing with an audience member and then bringing him up onstage, laying him down, and sitting on his face. At this performance, she started out dancing with Phoebe, but before long she swapped her out for an enthusiastic Englishman named Paul. Apparently, she couldn’t in good conscience sit on a 22-year-old girl’s face onstage with her parents watching. “Maybe if she was 25…”

 

Performance diary: Laurie Anderson and Kronos Quartet at BAM

September 28, 2014

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BAM’s month-long tribute to Nonesuch Records continued with Landfall, another legendary collaboration, this time between Laurie Anderson and the Kronos Quartet. It was a bit of a high-wire act – more speaking than you would get from a Kronos concert, more instrumental music than you would get at a Laurie Anderson concert, a theme (having to do with decay, erosion, corruption, extinction, glitches in verbal communication, technology, environmental integrity, cosmic meaning…) but not exactly a narrative, a visual element (generated by a program called Erst) of language streaming up and down and across the back wall, often too fast or cryptically to read or comprehend. The score fell into numerous discrete pieces, none of them songs exactly, not quite movements — in a program note, Laurie refers to them as “stories with tempos.” The first and last spoken pieces refer to Hurricane Sandy, but otherwise the stories stray to lists (extinct species, galaxies) and dreams (or rather, “Don’t you hate it when people tell you their dreams?”). There is no mention of the reality that during the time the work was created, Laurie’s husband Lou Reed was sick and dying, but there is a melancholy undertow to the surging, keening strings. The last words spoken, describing a basement full of water in which are floating all the things you’ve spent your life saving, are “beautiful, magical, catastrophic.” The piece kept me guessing every minute as to where it was going and how all the pieces fit together. The New York Times review was reprehensibly stingy – the music was challenging, varied, beautiful, adventurous, and well-played.

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Performance diary: Philip Glass and Steve Reich at BAM

September 22, 2014

September 11: The BAM Next Wave Festival opened with a month-long tribute to Nonesuch Records, which is one of the great record labels in existence. And the first event of the festival was an unprecedented program of music by Philip Glass and Steve Reich, two contemporary composers often mentioned in the same breath as proponents of music that uses lots and lots of repetition — sometimes called minimalist, an adjective that neither composer embraces, and rightfully so. Their music is often quite dense and full and rich, using additive principles from non-Western musics (Indian, Indonesian).

The three-concert series at BAM was designed to be a historic occasion with both composers onstage playing together for the first time ever. I’ve interviewed both these guys and have been hearing their work and seeing their concerts for three decades, and I don’t remember hearing that they had some kind of feud going on, but much was made of that in the run-up to these three concerts. I chalked it up to promotional hype, but maybe there’s more truth to it than I know.

I found the opportunity for stark comparison between Reich and Glass so fascinating. For all his originality and power, Glass has a pretty small bag of tricks. Meanwhile, certainly for live performance purposes, Reich had more variety and theatricality —

flying mallets are somewhat more fun to watch than people on keyboards and saxophones noodling away at fast arpeggios. Reich performed his own brief piece “Clapping Music” with Russell Hartenberger to start the show, and after intermission he sat in with the Philip Glass Ensemble for “Music in Similar Motion.” But the pairing was pretty clearly a shotgun wedding, perfunctory and rather joyless. Nevertheless, I was glad to see the concert and to revisit beloved music by composers I admire. I especially dug Reich’s “Sextet.”

glass and reich                   Glass and Reich performing together with David Cossin, Nico Muhly, and Timo Andres (not the show I saw)
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