Culture Vulture: Caryl Churchill, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Wallace Shawn, the Wooster Group, James Baldwin, and Leonard Cohen

March 1, 2017

I love artists who give themselves permission to throw out the rule book for their given form, who take for themselves the freedom to do whatever they want.

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Caryl Churchill is one of those. No two of her plays have much in common except in their rich, dense language and their wayward inventiveness. Escaped Alone, which began life at the Royal Court Theater in London and just finished a brief run at the BAM Harvey, runs 50 minutes long and takes place in a neo-realist backyard, where four women who are neighbors chatter about nothing and everything, and some kind of liminal space (two vertical planes defined by red LED rectangles), from which one of the women describes the aftermath of a global catastrophe. Into this framework Churchill pours torrents of thoughts, fantasies, worries, political commentary, and poetic musing. (My favorite: reminiscing about looking at clouds from an airplane window, one character wonders what Julius Caesar would have thought about this sight.) James Macdonald, Churchill’s director-of-choice these days, does a stellar job, as do his four strong performers (above: Linda Bassett, Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham, and June Watson).

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If anything, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is even more outrageous than Caryl Churchill in the glee he takes dismantling theatrical conventions. I wouldn’t say Everybody (currently onstage at Signature Theatre) is a great play, but it’s fascinating, entertaining, erudite, and original, and it’s nothing like any of his previous plays (the ones I’ve seen were An Octoroon, Gloria, and War). Adapted from the 15th century morality play Everyman, the show doesn’t do anything in a normal or predictable way, starting with the announcement at the top of the show to turn off cel phones, etc. Four actors play set characters; five others participate in a golf-ball lottery that tells them what roles they will play at the performance you see, one of them being the title role. So five actors have to pretty much memorize the entire play and be able to roll with their assignments on a moment’s notice. A prompter stands by, and Lakisha Michelle May – my Everybody – did have to call “line” 5 or 6 times but she did so without breaking stride. The abundant cleverness never paid off in earth-shattering insight, but there’s a dance sequence that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. Lila Neugebauer staged the hell out of the show, with a good game cast that also included Jocelyn Bioh, Brooke Bloom, Michael Braun, the adorable Marylouise Burke (as, hello, Death), Louis Cancelmi, 9-year-old Lilyana Tiare Cornell, revered veteran David Patrick Kelly, and – as Love – the lovely Chris Perfetti.

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Then there’s Wally Shawn, who always goes his own way. His plays are not so different from each other but they’re very different from other people’s plays, with their long monologues, unreliable narrators, language and actions that emerge from the shadowy depths of the human unconscious. Evening at the Talk House (currently at the New Group, in its home at the Pershing Square Signature Center) bears a distinct family resemblance to The Designated Mourner, representing a genre we might call Theater of Anxiety. After decades of close collaboration with Andre Gregory, Shawn has found another exceptional collaborator in Scott Elliott, who does an incredible job creating moment-by-moment theatrical life out of what could be a quite stagnant, talky script. Like the best plays reflecting the world we live in, it’s nobody’s idea of a fun night at the theater, but truthful art is important to me, even when it’s dark and upsetting. I was impressed to watch the entire cast work quite outside where they’re comfortably known, from Matthew Broderick in the central role of Robert (with echoes of his performance in the film of Marie and Bruce) to John Epperson (Lypsinka in mufti) to Claudia Shear to Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker to Shawn himself and his longtime compatriot Larry Pine. Annapurna Sriram was the only cast member new to me, strong and indelible in a cast of legends.

Not to mention the Wooster Group and its fearless director, Elizabeth LeCompte, masters of creating a theatrical universe with its own eccentric, exciting rulebook. I saw The Town Hall Affair when they first showed it last year, but as I’ve learned through long exposure to this exceptional company it always pays to go back and see the work again, as I did this week, because it’s so layered you can’t possibly take in everything at once. The first time you’re just absorbing the central narrative, which always has something bouncing off of something else – in this case, the Wooster Group recreating a 1972 Theatre of Ideas symposium organized so that Norman Mailer could “discuss” women’s liberation with Germaine Greer, Jill Johnston, and Diana Trilling, which they bounce off of Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker’s documentary film Town Bloody Hall, with scenes from Mailer’s own weird little home movie Maidstone lurking in the background and excerpts from Johnson’s Lesbian Nation framing the whole thing.

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The Wooster troupers are in fine form, with Scott Shepherd and Ari Fliakos splitting the role of Mailer, Maura Tierney returning as guest artist to play Greer, and Greg Mehrten manifesting magnificently as Trilling. But Kate Valk dominates the stage playing Johnston as a goofy intellectual free spirit in a silky long red wig. Every detail of the production has gotten deeper, richer, more precise, funnier and yet more pointed and profound in the year they’ve been honing the piece. Return visits allow you to tune into the intricate layers of sonic and visual material that LeCompte packs into the composition – the jazz piano (is it Cecil Taylor?) that underscores Valk/Johnson’s opening monologue, Shepherd double-tracking the women’s speeches in barely audible whispering into a mic. Second time around I connected Valk’s spectacular inhabiting of Johnston’s delivery of her stream-of-consciousness remarks with her incredible facility with Gertrude Stein’s text in the Wooster Group’s 1997 House/Lights. And Mailer’s insanely smug, self-amused, nonsensical spewing looks very different considering who’s in the White House now. Speaking of which, when Johnston mentions “White House briefing,” Valk charges forward with her podium, in a hilarious split-second reference to Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live. Oh, the layers, the layers, how I do love them….

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I also saw a couple of excellent documentaries about equally titanic sui generis artists. I Am Not Your Negro is both an incredibly stylish film and a powerful portrait of James Baldwin, whose incisive and deeply personal writing and far-seeing commentary has increased in value exponentially since his death in 1987. Director Raoul Peck not only selects astonishing swaths of riveting footage of Baldwin speaking – casually, publicly, oratorically, fiercely, studiedly, always eloquent, even in silence – but also surrounds it with incredibly fresh, witty, devastating samples of pop culture and newsreel coverage of Baldwin’s time and our own.

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Almost equally riveting are the sentences that pour out of Leonard Cohen’s mouth in Tony Palmer’s long-lost, recently restored documentary Bird on a Wire, for which the director followed the singer-songwriter around Europe during a month-long tour of Europe in 1972. This is no slick, smooth greatest hits compilation. The tour constantly teeters on the verge of disaster, with horrible sound problems, cranky audiences, and increasingly frayed nerves among all the musicians, culminating at a final concert in Jerusalem that ends abruptly halfway through the set with Cohen and crew backstage in tears. Yet the music Palmer captures is often ethereally beautiful, with often rough and improvised variations on recorded versions of the songs. And time after time, we see Cohen speaking to the audience during shows or being asked the most inane questions by idiotic interviewed, and he comes out with all manner of direct, soulful, deep, unpredictable statements. You can watch it on Vimeo here, and I hope you will.


Quote of the day: ELDER CARE

February 27, 2017

ELDER CARE

At age 69, Ofelia Bersabe (pictured below) is among nearly a million Americans who work as home health aides, a field that is expected to grow 38 percent by 2024, faster than most other occupations, thanks in large part to the aging baby-boom population. Already a senior herself, Bersabe works 65 hours a week caring for two elderly clients with dementia. She spends five 12- and 14-hour night shifts in her clients’ homes, providing companionship, reminders to take medicine and light housekeeping for one client, and everything from bathing and dressing to diaper changing for the other…The gratitude Bersabe’s clients show her — one kisses her when she arrives — is incredibly fulfilling, she said, but the work is hard. Dementia patients can be very unpredictable. “I have a very tame cat, and when they start to have sun-downing” — the late-afternoon confusion that can be a symptom of dementia — “I have a wild tiger,” she said. “But it’s not the person herself, it’s the sickness.” Once, when a client began to get agitated and yell at Bersabe, she sneaked around to the front door and rang the doorbell. The client welcomed Bersabe as an old friend that she hadn’t seen in a long time.

–Elise Craig, “The Home Health Aide,” New York Times

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Quote of the day: CHANGE

February 25, 2017

CHANGE

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.

–James Baldwin

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Photo diary: January 2017 (vacation in Vieques)

February 20, 2017

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After a break of four years, we returned to the restful paradise of Vieques for a week’s vacation, thanks to our hosts Andy and Michael. There were cocktails at Hector’s by the Sea (with Louis and Brent), a sunset sailboat ride (with Brad), shopping at the farmer’s market (to lay eyes on the island tubers we were eating at restaurants, like yautia), coffee at a new cafe in town named after its handsome owner Inigo…but mostly a whole lot of lying by the pool reading.

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Photo diary: January 2017 (Women’s March in DC)

February 13, 2017

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As soon as I heard about it, I knew I had to go to Washington for the Women’s March the day after the inauguration. It turned out to be a monumental historic gathering, and I love having the pictures to document the sweetness, the humor, the defiance, and the collective power of the event. I was supposed to “march” with Gays Against Guns, participating as one of the Human Beings, representing women who were victims of gun violence (thus the all-white outfit, including graduation gown). But the GAG contingent took the bus down from NYC early that morning, I was already in DC, and by the time we got to the site the crowds were so huge there was no way to get to the designated meeting spot. So I stuck with my friends Joe and Clint. A neighbor of theirs in the Petworth neighborhood gifted us with freshly knitted pussyhats, so we rocked those all day.

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As a sheer expression of solidarity, The Women’s March was exhilarating. The rally, though, was almost impossible to enjoy, given the unprecedented size of the event. Like much else about the march, the logistics were planned as if no one else would be there. The lineup of speakers was amazing. Maybe 1000 people actually got to see/hear them. The rest of us spent hours stuck on the metro trying to get there, then an hour shuffling through the streets trying to find a place to stand, then a couple of hours standing in place craning our necks to glimpse a Jumbotron, hearing only scraps of speeches wafting from scattered loudspeakers.

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I caught a glimpse of Scarlett Johanssen and Alicia Keys, heard Angelique Kidjo sing a song, no one else I recognized. Mostly we entertained each other with our signs and chants. “We won’t go away! Welcome to your first day!” “He’s orange! He’s gross! He lost the popular vote!” “Build a fence around Mike Pence!”

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As the speeches dragged on and on and on, the 300K toward the back started chanting “March! March!” Easier said than done in such a huge crowd. I had no idea Madonna was around. I was bummed not to hear Gloria Steinem or Angela Davis.

BUT…it was a day of high spirits, no violence, and great love. Given the crowds, I was amazed at how many friends I did bump into. Joe, who’s lived in DC for 32 years and knows everybody, was jealous, until we finally ran into someone he knew — the DC chief of police, Peter Newsham, who told us he was thrilled to receive a hug from Cher. Joe and Clint and I parked on a bench between the Washington Monument and the White House to cool our jets and became a popular photo op (Old Fags in Pussyhats).

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I was really glad I went. It was exciting to be part of history. And…the next day I felt quite depressed, because the grotesque joke of this regime goes on.

 


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