Posts Tagged ‘caryl churchill’

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.

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).

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.

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.

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….

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.


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.

Culture Vulture: Nina Simone, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Edmund White, and ROCKY, et al.

March 15, 2014

nina simone
Nina Simone Live at Montreux 1976 – by chance someone posted on Facebook a link to a YouTube clip from this concert, her rendition of Janis Ian’s “Stars,” with a long spoken introduction. It was so riveting I had to buy the DVD. The concert is simply astonishing. (You can watch the whole thing online here.) Her musicianship is breathtaking, yet at the same time it is patently obvious that she is out of her fucking mind. Only after she died did the biographies reveal that she suffered from bipolar disorder. This concert could be used in medical schools to teach psychiatrists what that looks like. She free-associates, begins diatribes, catches herself, disappears very deeply into her stony face and fathomless eyes. Very disturbing and painful to watch, and yet you walk away dazzled that someone so deeply wounded and ill could even be up walking around, let alone play music like this. She only does six numbers in the hour-long concert, none of them bearing any resemblance to anything she put out on records. There’s a twenty-minute version of “Little Girl Blue” and a vamp she picks up from her drummer and turns into its own song that she gets up and dances to. The bonus material includes six songs she performed at the jazz festival other years.

FILM: The Grand Budapest Hotel – Wes Anderson’s movies are the epitome of twee, but you will not hear any complaint from me about that. I have enjoyed most of his curious, fast, absurdist, huge-cast epic capers (especially The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox), and this one is no exception. One yummy brief performance after another (Harvey Keitel! Tilda Swinton! Edward Norton! Willem Dafoe! Bill Murray! Adrian Brody! Larry Pine! Casting by Doug Aibel, of course) but deeply appealing leading performances by Ralph Fiennes and his adorable Lobby Boy, Tony Revolori. It’s wildly whimsical yet inspired by the real-life absurdist tragedy of war-torn 20th century Europe, especially the work of Stefan Zweig.

inside a pearl

BOOKS: Edmund White’s Inside a Pearl: My Years in ParisWhite’s latest memoir is a daredevil act of personal narrative, loosely organized as a portrait of his friendship with Marie-Claude (MC) de Brunhoff, a critic and translator, but branching out to reminisce and gossip about every fascinating character he encountered in the 15 years he lived in the French capital. It is gossipy, loving, self-revealing, shrewd, and beautifully written. A few choice tidbits:

  • one of his boyfriends, John Purcell, carried White’s novel A Boy’s Own Story around for a month but never got beyond page 10. “He said he was dyslexic, the vogue word of that decade for lack of literary curiosity, just as attention deficit disorder is the term now.”
  • “I guess I define intelligence as the power to make new, surprising, wide-ranging associations and never to rely on automatic, untested generalities.”
  • On the ultimate wisdom and generosity of polyamory: “Who were the members of Bernard [Minaret]’s salon? One was Jacques Fieschi, a successful writer of film scenarios who was also an amateur boxer (he had the smashed-in nose to prove it). Jacques had been Bernard’s lover for many years, then fell for Claude Arnaud. Rather than losing Jacques in a fit of jealousy, Bernard decided to ‘take the couple’ and so he moved Claude in. In that way he was like Cocteau, who, learning that his longtime lover – the much younger movie star Jean Marais – had fallen for a lifeguard, Paul Morihen, set his rival up in business as the proprietor of a bookstore downstairs from his apartment in the Palais-Royal, thereby extending his family by one member rather than diminishing it to zero.”
  • “In those days, sex dates in the gay world were made on telephone party lines. We taught [a female friend] to call out, ‘Bouffeur de cul cherche cul’ (‘Ass eater is looking for an ass’) over a gay party line and she said it in the voice of a raw teenage boy from the suburbs.”
  • “Outside I was as gushy as my Texas mother and inside cold and calculating.”
  • “I had been influenced by Nabokov’s observation that if he wanted to see whether a novel was a crappy best-seller, he’d just flip through it and if he saw too much dialogue, he knew it wasn’t for him. He reasoned that since dialogue always sounds alike, the writer couldn’t establish his own special tone if he handed the book over to his characters and their banal yammering.”
  • On the short-lived pre-internet/smartphone technology Minitel: “The cruising facility was the ligne rose (pink line), where users typed out their preferences for all to see. It took some doing to learn the abbreviations. JhCh TBM pour plan hard, pour SSR, look Santiag meant ‘Young man (Jeune homme) looks for (cherche) a very handsome guy (trés beau mec) – or, alternately, very well-hung (trés bien monté) – who wants rough sex (plan hard) and safe sex (sexe sans risqué) who wears Western-style cowboy (“Santiago”) boots.’”
  • “I now had a fatal Old World sense of conversation – that it should be exciting and frivolous and provocative and preferably scandalous. I’d mentally prepare two or three hot topics before every evening. But my style was withering to Americans, who like to graze peacefully in conversation, and my ‘sparkling’ style inhibited general conversation – which would revive, I would notice, whenever I went into the kitchen for the next course.”
  • “Until I became old and fat I was still going to saunas, but soon I discovered the whole paradise of cruising gerontophile chubby chasers on the Web.”
  • On life’s purpose: “I was alive in order to – well, to teach, to trick, to write, to memorialize, to be a faithful scribe, to record the loss of my dead.”

masters of sex

Thomas Maier’s Masters of Sex – on vacation in Florida, I read this biography of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the pioneering sex therapists. I haven’t watched any of the TV series based on this biography; I read the book as a colleague for inspiration. A noteworthy passage, describing a moment that took place in 1954 at Washington University in St. Louis: “Masters visited the medical school library, looking for any book, medical article, or dissertation [related to the medical study of human sexuality]. ‘I realized that there was really nothing that had been written or researched that was going to be of any help in working out the physiology of human sexual response,’ he later observed.

“At Washington University, Masters found just one title about sexual functioning to shed some light. The textbook had been written by a former University of Illinois department chairman of obstetrics and gynecology who, as Masters learned, waited until retirement to publish it. Washington University kept this book on the reserve shelf. When Masters asked to see it, the librarian refused.

“ ‘I’m sorry, Dr. Masters, I cannot do that,’ she told him.

“Puzzled, Masters thought she had misunderstood him. ‘I do not want to take it out,’ he explained. ‘I just want to look at it.’

“The librarian wouldn’t budge. The textbook contained sketches – thin line drawings – of male and female genitalia, which the library superiors worried might be pornographic. As an associate professor, Masters wasn’t eligible to see it. Only full professors, heads of departments, and librarians could remove this book from the reserve shelf, he was told. …This small incident, Masters later reflected, ‘represented all too well medicine’s fearful approach to the subject of sex.’”

Some of Masters’ first important consultants on sexual functioning were sex workers. “During his first twenty months of research, he interviewed 118 female and 27 male prostitutes, from St. Louis and other cities. “Their streetwise frankness was far different than the stiff anxiety of his upper-middle-class patients who visited his office for a pelvic exam. These prostitutes, conscripted with the vice squad’s help, knew exactly what aroused a flaccid penis and stimulated a dry vagina, and how the two might come together with maximum efficiency. ‘They described many methods for elevating and controlling sexual tensions and demonstrated innumerable variations in stimulative technique.’”

When Masters and Johnson started viewing people having sex in their laboratory, their subjects wore paper bags and pillowcases over their heads for anonymity. When Masters’ mother heard about this, she volunteered to design and create silk masks for the volunteers to wear for their couplings.

They were interviewed by Playboy magazine, who asked “Traditionalists complain that investigations such as yours destroy the mystery of sex. Do you think that’s true?” Johnson replied, “We happen to think that the realistic, honest aspects of sexuality are a lot more exciting than the so-called mystery. The mystery to which the traditionalists usually refer has to do with superstition and myth. A knowledge of sex doesn’t impair but enhances it.”

Masters: “The greatest form of sex education is Pop walking past Mom in the kitchen and patting her on the fanny, and Mom obviously liking it. The kids take a look at this action and think, ‘Boy, that’s for me.’” A good description of my household growing up!

THEATER: Caryl Churchill’s Love and InformationI’m a longtime fan of Caryl Churchill’s brainy, super-theatrical plays. The latest, produced by New York Theater Workshop at the Minetta Lane, consists of 57 tiny vignettes, some of them one-line blackout sketches, that take place in a brightly lit white cubicle with different suggestive set pieces for each one. It’s an exercise in composing elliptical scenes on a general theme. Not my favorite of Churchill’s work but I am amazed and impressed that she scrupulously refused to repeat herself – each one of her 45 plays takes a different form, plays with a different genre, exercises a different muscle in her Olympian writer’s body. What I would really love is to have infra-red glasses and watch how the stagehands scramble around between scenes changing the furniture…

love and information

Rocky The Musicalthe consensus is pretty much: lousy score, exciting and ingenious staging of the climactic fight, appealing performance by Andy Karl in the title role. I go along with all of that. I also had a special affection for my friend David Zinn’s witty costumes – someone had to figure out to dress those muscle hunks in period workout attire! I donated an old ripped up motorcycle jacket to the wardrobe – DZ painted the collar red and put it on the guy who delivers the big box TV set in Act 2.


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