Posts Tagged ‘bear/skin’

Culture Vulture: the year in review

December 30, 2015

Top Theater of 2015:


  1. A View from the Bridge – Ivo van Hove’s intense Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s, staged within Jan Verseweyveld’s evocative stark set and lighting, an excellent cast headed by Mark Strong, Michael Gould, and Nicola Walker
  2. Between Riverside and Crazy – I’m thankful that Second Stage brought back the Atlantic Theater Company’s production of Stephen Adly Giurgis’s deep, dark well-deserved Pulitzer recipient, full of amazing performances (Stephen McKinley Henderson and Liza Colon-Zayas – pictured below — with Ron Cephas Jones and Victor Almanzar) directed by Austin Pendleton.


  1. An Octoroon – the kind of big, messy, important, risk-taking production that keeps me engaged with theater. Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins had key collaborators in director Sarah Benson, eight brave actors, smart producers (Theatre for a New Audience extended the life of the show that began at Soho Rep), and a design team at the top of their game (especially Mimi Lien, who certainly deserves the MacArthur Foundation fellowship she won this year).
  2. John (Signature Theatre) – Annie Baker’s long astonishing play staged by Sam Gold on Mimi Lien’s hyperrealistic set with four terrific performances: Georgia Engel, Lois Smith, Christopher Abbott, and Hong Chau.

    GhostQuartet3(Ryan Jensen)

  3. Ghost Quartet – a sweet and haunting chamber piece from Dave Malloy (above, plaid shirt), composer of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, performed in the cozy setting of the bar at the McKittrick Hotel.
  4. And That’s How The Rent Gets Paid – Jeff Weiss (below) and Ricardo Martinez’s East Village epic revived at the Kitchen featuring a cast of veteran and emerging downtown stars under director Brooke O’Harra’s fine-tuned cat-herding.
    7-14 jeff weiss
  5. iOW@ (Playwrights Horizons) — playwright Jenny Schwartz gave herself an amazing amount of freedom with this piece, one of the most aggressively odd-shaped plays I’ve ever seen in how information is delivered, how characters are introduced, how the story advances, the use of music (gorgeous and scrupulously unpredictable score by Todd Almond), etc. Kudos to director Ken Rus Schmoll and a super-game cast.
  6. Composition…Master-Pieces…Identity (Target Margin Theater) – I don’t know how he does it but David Greenspan again inhabited Gertrude Stein’s prose with effortless genius.
  7. Gloria (Vineyard Theatre) – another fine example of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ gift for merging social commentary, shrewd humor, and extraordinary performance opportunities; Evan Cabnet directed the fantastic six-member cast, among whom Jennifer Kim and Ryan Spahn stood out for me.
  8. Hamilton (Public Theatre) – I had my reservations about the most acclaimed musical of the year (the hiphop score is monotonous, the staging is theatrically square, and author Lin-Manuel Miranda’s performance struck me as charmless) but there’s no denying that this retelling of early American history by black and Latino performers is smart, conceptually ambitious, and fiendishly well-written.
  9. Steve (New Group) – Mark Gerrard’s smart, hilarious gay comedy about sad stuff, impeccably directed by Cynthia Nixon with a fine cast and a seriously great performance by Matt McGrath.

Honorable Mentions:

Eclipsed (Public Theatre)– Danai Gurira’s original play about the experience of women during Liberia’s civil war with an exceptional all-female ensemble directed by Liesl Tommy

Ada/Ava (3Legged Dog) – unusual, inventive, emotionally absorbing shadow puppet play created by the Chicago-based Manual Cinema

Spring Awakening – DeafWest Theatre’s revelatory revival of Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s play with a cast full of impressive Broadway newcomers directed by Michael Arden, noteworthy set by Dane Laffrey.

Grounded (Public Theater) – Julie Taymor brought her theatrical magic to this small honest play starring Anne Hathaway (below) as a disillusioned and war-damaged drone pilot


Preludes (LCT3) – another exceptional eccentric musical event from the team of composer Dave Malloy and director Rachel Chavkin starring Gabriel Ebert (below, with flowers) on another dazzling Mimi Lien set.


Disgraced – Ayad Akhtar’s play superbly directed on Broadway by Kimberly Senior.

Living Here (Foundry Theatre) — Gideon Irving’s one-man musical performed in living rooms all over NYC (including mine)

Raul Esparza in Cymbeline in Central Park

1-8 keith abronsKeith Hennessy’s bear/SKIN in the Abrons Arts Center’s American Realness Festival

Bob Crowley’s sets and costumes and Robert Fairchild’s performance in An American in Paris

Daniel Oreskes, Cameron Scoggins, and Tom Phelan in Taylor Mac’s Hir at Playwrights Horizons with a set by David Zinn that screamed “toxic America”

Other Culture Vulture High Points:

South African photographer Zanele Muholi’s show Isibonelo/Evidence at the Brooklyn Museum

Anna Teresa de Keersmaker’s Partita in the White Light Festival

The new Whitney Museum

Habeas Corpus, Laurie Anderson’s collaboration with Guantanamo Bay detainee Mohammed el Gharani at the Park Avenue Armory

Love and Mercy, Bill Pohlad’s harrowing, arty, moving, thrilling biopic of Brian Wilson with an incredible performance by Paul Dano – my favorite film of the year

Culture Vulture: Chris Ofili’s NIGHT AND DAY and Keith Hennessy’s bear/SKIN

January 11, 2015

My expedition to the Lower East Side began at the New Museum to see “Night and Day,” the first retrospective in New York City of paintings by Chris Ofili, the artist of Nigerian descent who was born in London and currently resides in Trinidad. I was very keen to see the show because I’d heard so much about Ofili’s work, and Calvin Tompkins’ profile of him in the New Yorker recently also whetted my appetite. The show takes up three floors of the New Museum, and the work on the second floor captivated me the most — large, textured, sexy brightly colored witty canvases with other materials collaged in with the paint. They’re definitely worth seeing in person, close up.

1-8 ofili odalisque
Of course, Ofili gained some notoriety in New York in 2005 when a work of his called “The Holy Virgin Mary” appeared in a group show at the Brooklyn Museum and was attacked, sight unseen, by Mayor Rudy Giuliani as blasphemous, based on sensationalized descriptions of the piece in the tabloid press. One of Ofili’s key materials is elephant dung — he uses dried balls of it like furniture legs to rest many of his large canvases on, and one of the Virgin Mary’s breasts was represented by a similar clump of elephant dung. That whole controversy was an embarrassing episode for New York City and Giuliani, and “Night and Day” frames it beautifully by standing “The Holy Virgin Mary,” a somewhat provocative young man’s piece, far from Ofili’s finest work, next to a very strong piece called “No Woman No Cry.”

1-8 ofili no woman no cry
Taking its title from the Bob Marley song, the painting was inspired by yet another episode of a young black man killed by police in London many years ago. You can see here that the mother’s necklace and the footrests for the painting are all made of…well, I realize that in the course of Brooklyn Museum controversy the press learned to refer to the material as “dung,” a polite word that can be printed in family newspapers. But one of the pieces in “Night and Day” explains how early in his career Ofili made an  installation/performance on the street in London selling what he explicitly labeled “Elephant Shit.” At the New Museum we see a tiny little piece called “Shithead,” featuring elephant shit with baby’s teeth and some clumps of Ofili’s own hair turning it into a grinning scheisskopf. So all along, Ofili’s attitude about the stuff has been witty, not just folkloric. On the second floor there are several canvases depicting a black action hero he invented named Captain Shit. I very much enjoyed this ghostly/amusing one called The Naked Spirit of Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars:

1-8 ofili capt shit

1-8 ofili happy phallus

His female figures are fierce, voluptuous goddesses — my favorite is simply titled She:

1-8 ofili she
Strangely, the lighting for this exhibition is shockingly poor — the strong overhead lighting casts a lot of glare on the canvases. On the third floor is a room of recent very dark paintings that are almost impossible to see anyway, and the lighting makes the experience of communing with them worse. On the fourth floor are a series of paintings inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses, less interesting to me than this piece called Lime Bar, which includes an Ofili self-portrait (apparently in Trinidad he bartends part-time at a friend’s bar):

1-8 ofili lime bar

I was fascinated by Ofili’s rendition of the Anunciation, a huge sculpture with a black angel and a gold Madonna, fused at the mouth like Rodin’s famous sculpture The Kiss:

1-8 ofili annunciation
On the fifth floor is a small sidebar, “When Shadows Were Shortest,” about Ofili’s sets and costumes for an opera based on the myth of Diana and Acteon — I loved this costume for a shadowy hound-creature :

1-8 ofili opera costume
Afterwards, we went for a quick tasty bite at Pearl & Ash, the cozy wine bar right across the street on the Bowery.

1-8 pearl and ash
Then it was time to mosey down to the Abrons Arts Center to see the opening night of my friend Keith Hennessy’s Bear/Skin in the American Realness festival. Born in Canada and based primarily in San Francisco, Hennessy is a highly skilled dancer, performance artist, and nouveau cirque acrobat; he is also a veteran social activist, community organize, and now credentialed art historian, so his work tends to incorporate an unusual density of verbal commentary and visual imagery. In the American Realness catalogue, here’s the description: “Motivated by grand spectacle and ambitious prayer, Bear/Skin appropriates Nijinsky’s choreography for Le Sacre du Printemps (1915) to consider Modernism’s dependence on appropriations of the indigenous, folk, exotic and oriental to ask questions about ritual and art today.” But no such summary does justice to the collage that Hennessy performs or the relentless intellectual dance he does, introducing theoretical points of view and critiquing them at the same time. He starts with a poem about action movies as “medicine,” riffing on the screen depiction of violence against cops as both a cathartic response to real-life police brutality and a heroic mythology.  While seeming to be very casual about it, Hennessy sets up the conditions for a pagan performance ritual, donning a bear suit in such a way that conjures images both of ancient shaman and contemporary urban homeless person. There’s an extended verbal commentary about “the economy of suicide,” as it disproportionately impacts the young, the elderly, and the military. Setting up his laptop for occasional glancing reference, Hennessy duplicates a section of Nijinsky’s original choreography for Le Sacre du Printemps. Then he changes into an elaborate multilayered costume — a three-minute interval during which the audience is invited to commune with one another under the kind of mylar space blankets marathon runners and park-bench sleepers use to warm themselves — to do an entirely invented sort of shamanic ritual dance of transformation.

bearskin audience
1-8 bearskin props
1-8 keith abrons

Afterwards we had dinner in the warm basement of Galli on Rivington Street and talked about the show and its many sources and layers.

wallpaper in the bathroom at Galli

wallpaper in the bathroom at Galli


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