Quote of the day: LAUGHTER

November 2, 2021

LAUGHTER

I like to make people laugh. It’s like giving someone a flower.

–Harry Kondoleon



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!


Performance Diary: Wally Shawn fever

October 22, 2021

Most people who aware of Wally Shawn know him as a funny face in movies like The Princess Bride or a funny voice in animated films like Toy Story. A subset of the population associates him with My Dinner with Andre, Louis Malle’s 1981 film of Shawn and director Andre Gregory sitting in a restaurant talking about life and death and art; apparently, a whole new generation has caught onto this film thanks to references on The Simpsons and TikTok parodies, and it’s been cited as progenitor to the world of low-budget mumblecore movies. Shawn’s most substantial contribution as an artist, however, is his body of work as a playwright. He hasn’t written that many plays, and they’re not performed that often. When they do, it’s a cause for celebration and attention.

Currently onstage at the Minetta Lane Theatre is the one-person play The Fever, co-produced by Audible (which plans to release it as an audiobook) and the New Group, whose artistic director Scott Elliott is one of Shawn’s primary champions in the theater world and who staged this production, which stars Lili Taylor. Tiny, whip-smart, and super-appealing, Taylor previously appeared in Shawn’s play Aunt Dan and Lemon, also directed by Elliott for the New Group. The Fever is a tricky, intellectually thorny, emotionally challenging piece (the complete text is available online here), and Taylor (below, photographed by Daniel Rader) dives deeply and bravely into this exercise in thinking out loud.

Originally performed in 1990 by Shawn himself, The Fever is a 1 hour and 40 minute monologue by a character known as The Traveller. Sitting on the floor of the bathroom in a hotel room in the middle of the night, “in a poor country where my language isn’t spoken,” she experiences a dark night of the soul, brooding about her life and especially her relationship to money, her economic class, poor people, world politics, and the death penalty. Typical for Wally Shawn’s plays, the character is slippery – at times she evokes identification and sympathy, other times you draw away from her. You’re constantly having to gauge your distance from her. She fanatically examines what she’s observing in great detail, whether it’s her internal experience of being at a cocktail party or ruminating over the meaning of the expression “commodity fetishism” as it turns up in Karl Marx’s Capital.

At the core of the piece is a moral wrestling match that many of us experience walking down the street in New York every day. You see a homeless person begging on the street – you think, “I’ll give him some money” – a voice inside you says, “Why not give him ALL your money?” – you retort, “I can’t give him ALL my money…” In The Fever Shawn carries that internal dialogue on to the nth degree. It could devolve into liberal hand-wringing but it never does, because Shawn’s prose is so carefully wrought and Taylor’s performance stays absolutely present. Shawn’s work always makes audiences uncomfortable, and this play is no exception – some people will find it very hard to take. But I respect it tremendously.

Writing the play coincided with a political awakening for Shawn. He first started performing it in people’s living rooms before taking it to theaters all over New York City and then in England. Taylor is not the first woman to undertake the role, Clare Higgins played it onstage in London in 2009, and Vanessa Redgrave made a film of The Fever in 2004 (directed by her son, Carlo Gabriel Nero) that softened the edges of the play. (Shawn approached the amazing Kathy Baker to do the play onstage in New York and/or Los Angeles, but she said no.) I appreciated the beguiling levity Taylor brings to the performance; Shawn wrote a charming opening scene for her to greet the audience and set the stage.

I still cling fondly to the memory of the last time The Fever was produced in New York, when Scott Elliott directed Shawn in a beautifully nuanced staging that explicitly conjured a connection to the existential starkness of Samuel Beckett’s monologues that I’d never previously perceived in Shawn’s work. (During the pandemic, Elliott created a Zoom version of Waiting for Godot, in which Shawn gave an astonishing performance as Lucky to Tariq Trotter’s Pozzo, with Ethan Hawke and John Leguizamo as Didi and Gogo.) In the intimacy of the Minetta Lane, Taylor occasionally spoke so softly that passages got lost, including the powerful last couple of lines. All the more reason to anticipate the audio version when it’s released by Audible. Shawn himself recorded the play in 1999 for a 2-CD package released in 2006 that is now out of print, but apparently some used copies are available online through Amazon.

Speaking of audio versions, a huge mid-pandemic gift to theatergoers in general — and Wally Shawn fans in particular — arrived this year in the form of six-part podcast versions of his plays The Designated Mourner and Grasses of a Thousand Colors. These productions reunite Shawn with director Andre Gregory and the original New York casts of the plays. In collaboration with sound designer and composer Bruce Odland, they’ve created exquisite “theater of the ear” to match the best Broadway original cast recordings (especially those of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals).

David Hare first staged The Designated Mourner in London with three actors sitting at a bare table and filmed that production, which featured Mike Nichols in the title role. In New York, the play ran for a few months at a 30-seat theater in a disused gentlemen’s club in the Wall Street area, exquisitely directed by Andre Gregory and performed by Shawn, Deborah Eisenberg (extraordinary writer and Shawn’s longtime companion), and Larry Pine. That production was revived in 2013 at the Public Theater (a co-production with Theater for a New Audience), and that’s the production captured for the podcast edition.

Some people, including myself, consider The Designated Mourner to be one of the most profound pieces of writing created for any medium in the last 20 years. It is a bleak, dread-inducing meditation on the decline of Western civilization delivered through monologues by three inhabitants of a politically repressive country where intellectual freedom has effectively been persecuted out of existence. To indulge in Wally Shawn-like hyperbole, I would go so far as to say that the world would be a better, though not necessarily happier place, if all students, teachers, politicians, fornicators, and Netflix subscribers put down their magazines, turned off their cel phones and TV sets, and read, re-read, studied and discussed The Designated Mourner for the next year. Written 25 years ago when it seemed like a dystopian fantasy, the play depicts all-too-recognizably the inexorable drift toward anti-intellectual authoritarianism that we’re viewing today not just in Russia and China but in Brazil, Turkey, Hungary, and that roguest of rogue nations, the United States of America.

Grasses of a Thousand Colors is a different animal altogether. First produced at the Royal Court Theatre in London (where My Dinner with Andre also got its start), Grasses made its American debut at the Public Theater as part of the same deal with Theater for a New Audience. It’s a big, long, crazy, intense three-act fantasia about a famous scientist named Ben who’s overwhelmingly fixated on his penis – the sort of thing that never happens in real life — and his relationships with three different women (his wife, his mistress, and his girlfriend, named for three shades of red: Cerise, Robin, and Rose) and a mysterious shape-shifting cat named Blanche who may be the shamanic double of Cerise and/or possibly God. It’s set in some apocalyptic near-future when some initially successful experiments with increasing the world’s food supply have gone dreadfully wrong. And the stories that Ben and his playmates tell – addressing the audience directly, as is usually the case in Shawn’s plays – teem with images of animals. Eating and fucking. Dick and Pussy. Humans and animals. Wally himself plays the main character, known as Ben or the memoirist, who says things like, “When I was a boy, parents never masturbated in front of their children. In fact, children never masturbated in front of their parents! And God knows children would never make out with their parents or fuck them, ever, because that would have been seen as utterly shocking…So, you see, for me, the way things are now still seems astonishing – I mean, the fact that people talk about their penises and vaginas in public, at dinner parties, in magazines, and newspapers. I can’t get over it. Ha ha ha!”

In London, Miranda Richardson played both Cerise (live and aglow with flecks of glitter oiled into her skin) and Blanche (exclusively on film, often with a red ribbon tied around her neck); in New York, those roles were played by Julie Hagerty. A surprising presence was Jennifer Tilly as Robin, who brings a fascinating and unpredictable mixture of vulgarity and enigma to the role. And Emily McDonnell, a young actress from the Richard Maxwell downtown theater world, played Rose. (Pictured above) This strange strange play, which is a bizarre combination of fairy tale, fever dream, and The Story of O, is quite unlike any other play I’ve seen before, except that it bears a distinct family resemblance to other wild, linguistically pungent, sexually transgressive, disturbing and disorienting Wally Shawn plays (Our Late Night, Marie and Bruce, The Music Teacher, The Designated Mourner). The audio version is a wild ride, alternately hilarious and grotesque, poetic and appalling, outrageous and riveting.

Critics and commentators have often noted that Shawn’s plays tend to gravitate toward long monologues, sometimes elaborate storytelling, sometimes deeply internal reveries, imparting a literary, novelistic flavor. That’s what makes the audio versions really work – there’s very little action that you’re missing. I’ve saved the best news for last: these podcasts are available for free from Apple Podcasts. Check them out and let me know what you think.


Quote of the day: REVOLUTION

October 17, 2021

REVOLUTION

We are not going to play the disciplinary state against the neoliberal market. Those two have already come to an agreement: in the new Europe, the market is the only government motivation, the State becomes a punitive arm whose sole function will be to recreate the fiction of national identity through security-inspired terror. We do not want to define ourselves either as cognitive workers or as pharmaco-pornographic consumers. We are not Facebook, or Shell, or Google, or Nestle, or Pfizer-Wyeth. We do not want to produce French goods any more than we want to produce British goods. We do not want to produce. We are the living decentralized network. We refuse a citizenship defined by our labor force or our reproductive force. We want a total citizenship defined by the sharing of technologies, fluids, seeds, water, knowledge…They say the new clean war will be carried out by drones. We want to make love with drones. Our insurrection is peace, total feeling. They say crisis. We say revolution.

–Paul B. Preciado

photo by Marie Rouge

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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