Posts Tagged ‘BAM’

Performance diary: Laurie Anderson and Kronos Quartet at BAM

September 28, 2014

Brooklyn Academy of Music
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.

landfall bam2

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)

Performance diary: THE BLUE DRAGON and MR. BURNS

September 24, 2013

9.20.13 – The Blue Dragon at the BAM Next Wave Festival is a spinoff from The Dragons’ Trilogy, the two-part six-hour epic that I saw at the Los Angeles Festival in 1990, my first exposure to the work of Quebecois director Robert Lepage. Set in Quebec, Toronto, and Vancouver, the trilogy told a sprawling story about the influence of Chinese immigrants on Canadian culture in the 20th century. The Blue Dragon concerns two Canadian characters from the trilogy 25 years later in Shanghai, art dealer Pierre and vacationing ad executive Marie, where they interact with a young Chinese artist named Xiao Ling, Pierre’s protégée and lover. Pierre and Marie married for a lark as kids and never bothered to divorce; now Marie wants a child and has come to adopt – or, more accurately, buy one on the black market.

The Blue Dragon
contains all the things I admire about Lepage’s work – the visual splendor, where the sets and images are constantly transforming from one thing to another; the narrative ambition to connect vastly disparate worlds; the low-key humanity at the heart of the performances. I’d never seen Lepage perform onstage until now, only on film, and he has a compelling intimacy and beautiful speaking voice. The works he creates with his company (first Theatre Repere, now Ex Machina) always contain little nuggets of research on topics that seem offhand but wind up pertinent to the plot (Chinese calligraphy is a big one here). The play is co-written with Marie Michaud, who plays Marie, and Xiao Ling is played by Tai Wei Foo, a Singaporean dancer who does two gorgeous dances that show off the mesmerizing and original lighting design by Louis-Xavier Gagnon-Lebrun. My only quarrel with the play is dramaturgical – the set-up of the story is compelling and rich, but at a certain point the authors realized that they’ve set up an easy plot resolution (Xiao Ling becomes pregnant, Marie wants a child, so…) and then contort the story to avoid landing at what seems like a perfectly obvious and reasonable conclusion, and the contortions don’t make sense. I love that the script is published as a graphic novel (below), which I bought at the BAM bookstall.


9.21.13 – Saturday afternoon I had the pleasure of interviewing Lepage live in front of an audience as part of BAM’s Iconic Artist Talk series at the Hillman Studio in the new Fisher Building. He talked a little bit about his early training with Alain Knapp and the influence of artists like Lawrence and Anna Halprin, Ariane Mnouchkine, and Pina Bausch on his aesthetic taste in composing theater. A period of time he spent working in Japan directing opera made a life-changing impression on him. And he talked a little about the tetralogy he is at work on now called Playing Cards, which concerns the impact of the Arab world on global culture.

9-21 lepage et moi
9.22.13 – Something told me I had to see Anne Washburn’s play Mr. Burns – a post-electric play at Playwrights Horizons, directed by Steve Cosson (of The Civilians) with music by Michael Friedman. It’s a smart, unusual variant on the much-used theme of “what if X-and-such cultural artifact was the only thing left after the apocalypse and creatures from other planets relied on it to make sense of life on Earth?” After nuclear plant explosions have wiped out the electrical grid, survivors form community around recalling episodes of The Simpsons (which are themselves repositories of a dense assortment of cultural references). The first two acts are intriguing and surprising; the third goes on about three times longer than is needed to make its point. The cast is one of those high-powered ensembles of Off-Broadway heavyweights: Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Susannah Flood, Gibson Frazier, Matthew Maher, Nedra McClyde, Jennifer Morris, Colleen Werthmann, and Sam Breslin Wright (the characters are named after them). This is one of those brave Playwrights Horizons productions that divides its core audience – some people who get the cultural references love it, some people hate it, not much in between. As usual, the theater has made available a bunch of cool background material for people who want to know more about the show — online you can listen to separate podcasts with the author and composer, and at the theater after the show you can pick up a copy of a long illuminating interview with Washburn by artistic director Tim Sanford.


February 26, 2013


February 23 – When BAM announced that it would be presenting The Laramie Project Cycle – the Tectonic Theater Project’s original 1998 docudrama about the brutal murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard and an epilogue that takes place ten years later – my first thought was: why now, why so soon, didn’t everybody already see this show and/or the HBO movie? Then I realized that just because I saw it four times doesn’t mean everyone else has – maybe it has new relevance because of the focus on bullying in recent years. But I mostly thought, well, I’ve seen it plenty, don’t have to see it again. Somehow when I read Charles Isherwood’s rave review in the NY Times, though, I felt called to revisit the material, if only to come full circle with it myself.

And indeed, the show was very good, very moving – I was in tears almost continuously throughout The Laramie Project, sometimes making sounds involuntarily, even though I was trying not to sob uncontrollably.  I guess there’s such a sense of identification – in that time and place, it could have been me who ended up tied to a fence and beaten to death. But I admire the craft of the piece so much, not just the writing and the staging but also the way the performers perform their own experience of going to Wyoming and interviewing people. And I found that I felt surprisingly emotionally invested in the original cast: Stephen Belber, Amanda Gronich, Mercedes Herrero, Andy Paris, Greg Pierotti, and Barbara Pitts. Seeing them again brought back my own elaborate history with the show.

laramie AT cover

I flew out to Denver in February 2000 for the world premiere of the show at the Denver Center Theatre Company. I interviewed the Tectonic ensemble for an article for The Advocate and made especially warm connections with director Moises Kaufman, writer Leigh Fondakowski, and actor Greg Pierotti. I took my youngest sister to the opening night performance, where we sat next to Zackie Salmon, a Laramie resident portrayed in the show, and met Matt Galloway, the gabby bartender who was one of the last people to see Matthew Shepard alive. When the show moved to New York a few months later and opened at the Union Square Theatre Off-Broadway, I wrote “Town in a Mirror,” a cover story about it for American Theatre. And then two years later, when amateur rights became available and hundreds of high schools across the country started staging The Laramie Project, I wrote an article about that for the NY Times’ Arts & Leisure section. I attended a high school production in New Jersey with a posse that included Kaufman and Romaine Patterson, a close friend of Matthew Shepard who is also a character in the play.

Here are a couple of key passages from that Times article:

The Laramie Project has entered the mainstream of American culture the way few plays do. Through a combination of its topic, its timing, and the artistry with which it was created, it has become more than a docu-drama fleshing out a news story. Tapping the essential function of theater since it began in ancient Greece, it has become a catalyst for the community to discuss among themselves something of urgent importance — in this case, hate crimes, homophobia, and the treatment of difference in American society…

The Laramie Project is ultimately a meeting between two communities — a community of speakers (the residents of Laramie) and a community of listeners (the Tectonic Theater members who interviewed them). As a theater event, it models a way of speaking tough truths and listening respectfully that human beings crave but that we hardly ever see anywhere in public, especially in the news media, where sound-bites pass for insight and competing monologues masquerade as debate. The play doesn’t deliver any message that can be summed up in a bumper sticker, but the essence of it is captured in the tag line Mr. Kaufman chose for the HBO film: “Each one carries a piece of the story.”

During intermission at BAM, I ran into Moises and got to have a little chat with him. And after Part I, I talked briefly with Michael Winther, whom I know slightly through mutual friends. Not an original member of the Tectonic Theater Project, he told me he stepped into the show at the very last minute, the night before rehearsals began. He plays Moises and Dennis Shepard and a whole lot of other people and does a very good job with many different accents. (There’s one other actor who wasn’t in the original cast, Libby King, who plays Romaine Patterson and others.)

The second part of the cycle, The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, was not nearly as emotionally affecting. When it was over, the audience didn’t automatically leap to its collective feet. Walking away afterwards, I started out thinking that it felt a little thin, an extended footnote, a history lesson, a journalistic follow-up more than a free-standing theater piece. And certainly compared to the original work, not nearly so original. And yet…I learned a lot from it that I didn’t know. There is a way that, by now, if you know anything about Matthew Shepard’s killing, you probably feel like you know everything about it, largely based on information conveyed in The Laramie Project. But when the company went back to Wyoming ten years later, they discovered that the narrative had shifted. Younger people only vaguely knew who Shepard was. Even older people who’d been around at the time of the original incident had come to believe that the murder that made their town internationally notorious was not a hate crime based on the killers’ homophobia but a drug-related robbery gone wrong. How did this narrative get implanted? Largely through the agency of a sleazy story broadcast on the TV newsmagazine 20/20, which claimed to have new information based on interviews with the killers in prison. Moises Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theater Project were deeply disturbed that the facts of the case could be so easily distorted and supplanted in the minds of the public, even the local population. So Ten Years Later is partly a meditation on irresponsible journalism and partly about how denial sets in to erase and correct facts that don’t match a community’s (or an individual’s) self-perception.

It seems clear from the theater piece that the artists, and many of the gay Laramie residents they interviewed, were attached to a political agenda promoting hate crime legislation – that is, laws that dictate harsher penalties for crimes driven by bigotry. I have mixed feelings about pushing for hate crime legislation – I think all horrible crimes such as murder should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. As someone in the play says, “If you kill somebody, you probably hate ’em.” The play did cause me to understand one part of the reasoning, which has to do with forceful public education – it’s not the only way to teach that racism, misogyny, homophobia, and other prejudices are unacceptable, but it may be a powerful one.

The other question that drives Ten Years Later is: has anything changed? There is a certain amount of hand-wringing that homophobia still exists, but there are also some surprising revelations of positive change. A lesbian university professor who figured in The Laramie Project got elected to the state House of Representatives, and when a vote came up on whether to amend the state constitution to prohibit gay marriage, the measure failed, thanks to persuasive testimony from two conservative white male Republicans. And of course President Obama did sign into law hate crimes legislation named after Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. (the black man lynched by three white supremacists in Texas).

laramie 2
Theatrically, the high points of Ten Years Later are the scenes depicting jailhouse visits with the two men convicted of murdering Matthew Shepard, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney. The lengths the company went to in order to obtain these interviews, their efforts to view these guys with open eyes and open hearts, and the performances in these scenes by Greg Pierotti, Andy Paris, and Stephen Belber are all tremendously admirable. The scene between McKinney (played by Pierotti) and Pierotti (played by Paris) will stick with me for a long time. After Pierotti has spoken with McKinney’s spiritual counselor Father Roger, who has lectured the actor at length about having compassion for the murderer’s process of remorse, we’re prepared for a scene of redemption and forgiveness. Instead, we learn that in prison in Virginia McKinney has been reading lots of books about Germany and has acquired a giant swastika tattoo on his arm and one across his back saying NAZI. He expresses irritation at Judy Shepard because “she can’t shut up about it.” Pierotti/Paris quietly reminds him, “You did brutally murder her son.” Then McKinney says to the actor, “So you gettin’ any pussy down here?” Ashen, the actor says, “Aaron, I’m gay.” The convict says, “Yeah, I thought so when I first saw you, but I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.” That’s the amazing thing about documentaries, isn’t it? You couldn’t make this stuff up.

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