Posts Tagged ‘arthur laurents’

Performance diary: Marina Abramovic and ANYONE CAN WHISTLE

April 12, 2010

April 8 – Marina Abramovic’s retrospective at MOMA, “The Artist Is Present,” includes many of her intense body-based performances recreated by a squadron of young recruits. There’s the one where two naked performers stand in a doorway so that those wishing to pass from one room to another have to brush against them. (Originally this was the only entrance to a gallery show, and the performers were a naked man and a naked woman. Watching the documentary film adjacent to the current installation, you can witness how most people enter without looking at either performer and most of them choose to face the woman rather than the man. The gender aspect was nullified the day I visited MOMA, when both performers were women. Plus, it’s not the only way into the room so anyone can avoid touching naked people.) There’s “Hair Piece,” in which a man and a woman sit back to back, their long hair tied together. My favorite body piece had a naked man lying on his back with a skeleton lying on top of him; in the same room is a series of films projected onto the wall, one of a dozen naked men humping a grassy field, another of women pulling up their skirts and exposing their crotches to the falling rain. I admire Abramovic’s commitment to the body as art, though the work is very very cerebral, not very erotic or even emotionally compelling. She likes durational pieces, and nothing she’s done before has been quite as demanding as her current residency at MOMA, where she sits in the big rotunda on the second floor at a table (below, in red dress) while visitors come and sit opposite her silently for as long as they want. I perceive it as a form of darshan (that’s when spiritual teachers give audience to their devotees one at a time, usually very briefly), an encounter with the artist or guru as a mirror of oneself. Spectators do seem to be taking it that seriously. When I walked by, two different young somber-looking women sat opposite Abramovic, the two of them staring at one another. The guard told me that some people have been sitting with her for hours at a time and if you don’t get in line by 10:30 am you’re not likely to get your chance that day. In addition to the spiritual presence aspect, there’s something very Warholian about this performance as well – it takes place surrounded by fancy lighting, in the atmosphere of media circus.

I was more taken with the performative aspects of the William Kentridge show, “Five Themes.” His animated films are very beautiful and worth taking the time to sit through. I especially admired “Ubu Tells the Truth,” a fascinating take on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee hearings, in which perpetrators of horrendous crimes during the apartheid era were granted amnesty for telling their stories – a theoretically healing process for the country, but paradoxically also a public airing of outrageous brutalities (Ubu-esque is a terrific way of framing them – a reference to Alfred Jarry’s fictional tyrant-clown). There’s also an elaborate hour-long show featuring an adaptation of The Magic Flute on a scale model of an opera stage – something I want to go back and spend more time with another day.

April 11 – Anyone Can Whistle is the kind of show that the Encores! series at City Center was created to present: a flawed musical that flopped in its day, hasn’t been seen much, isn’t really worth a full-scale revival, but has a score that’s worth hearing under circumstances that aren’t too demanding. Most of the time when I go to Encores!, I assume I’m going to see a pretty dumb show with a lame book, but if there are a couple of fine musical numbers and a handful of delightful performances I count myself lucky. Anyone Can Whistle definitely had one of the better casts in my experience: Donna Murphy as Cora Hoover Hooper, the brassy, maniacal mayor of a small-town that needs some kind of miracle — no matter how phony — to survive economically (Angela Lansbury played her originally); Edward Hibbert as Comptroller Schub, her partner in crime; Sutton Foster as Fay Apple, the head nurse at the local psychiatric hospital, sensitively referred to as The Cookie Jar; and Raul Esparza as J. Bowden Hapgood, who arrives in town as a patient and gets mistaken for the doctor-savior whose job is to decide definitively who’s crazy and who’s not.

The premise for Arthur Laurents’ 1964 play (with songs, of course, by Stephen Sondheim) comes straight from the heart of the countercultural ‘60s, when the very notions of sanity and craziness, right and wrong were up for questioning. The play is a kind of fractured fairy tale out of a Nichols-and-May nightclub routine, with the kind of sweetly neurotic mental patients and caricatured crooked authority figures that populated Jean Anouilh’s The Madwoman of Chaillot and the long-running cult film King of Hearts. Simplistic and vaudevillean, and yet Laurents was getting at the arbitrariness of classifying mental illness (after all, he and Sondheim were both gay guys in psychoanalysis at a time when homosexuality was officially designated a mental illness). And the hilarious, crazy way that the townspeople unquestioningly go along with Hapgood’s dividing them up into two factions – the A team and the 1 team, both of whom consider themselves superior – speaks to the fierce us-against-them state of American politics today.

[Further thoughts: Anyone Can Whistle was written right in the midst of the tumultuous civil rights movement, when crazed white racists were bombing black churches and Southern white cops were setting attack dogs on non-violent freedom marchers. And the McCarthy era was fresh in the memory of politically alert New York Jewish artists like Arthur Laurents. Those events are part of the backdrop for songs like “Simple,” which cheerfully trots out a series of syllogism: the opposite of dark is bright, the opposite of bright is dumb, therefore dark = dumb; the opposite of left is right, the opposite of right is wrong, therefore left = wrong. That’s a lot of political content for a musical comedy circa 1964, plus it’s delivered in an edgy, Brechtian way — not by modelling Right Thinking for the audience but by espousing offensive sentiments as if they were acceptable, forcing the audience to actively object rather than sink into the warm bath of agreement. David Gursky, Rob Berman’s assistant musical director for the show, told Andy and me afterwards that Angela Lansbury told the company that at the curtain call for the original production, the actors could totally feel the hatred coming from the audience.]

There’s a lot going on, emotionally and psychologically, amidst the play’s crazy cartoon atmosphere. Certainly, the mayor is a dazzling and entertaining monster, and Donna Murphy had a ball playing some wacky mixture of Jackie Kennedy, Tammy Faye Bakker, Kay Thompson, Ethel Merman, and Barbara Streisand. The always-appealing Sutton Foster got to play both the buttoned-down Nurse Apple and her liberated faux-French alter-ego in red dress and wig. “I love a woman who comes with an accent” was my favorite smutty line, spoken by Raul Esparza, suitably genial and manic as Hapgood. Once considered an obscure Sondheim score, Anyone Can Whistle brims with songs we now call classics: in addition to the title song and “There Won’t Be Trumpets” (which Foster sang with her usual dazzling lucidity), there’s “Everybody Says Don’t” (Esparza) and the ballad I can’t get out of my head, “With So Little to Be Sure Of.”

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