Posts Tagged ‘wallace shawn’

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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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….

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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.

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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.

Quote of the day: IBSEN

July 31, 2014

IBSEN

Q: Say Henrik Ibsen comes back from the dead for one evening to have dinner with you. What does that conversation look like? Are there particular questions you’d have for him?

Wallace Shawn: Obviously I’d be flattered that Ibsen would take the trouble to do that, but I think I’d very quickly conclude that he had somehow misunderstood who I was, and as the hour for the dinner approached, I would undoubtedly become more and more anxious. Ibsen was comfortable at home with his wife. He was comfortable in the company of very young women in their teens or early twenties. He could occasionally be comfortable in the company of young men who admired him and who knew how to accompany him without bothering him with conversation on the long walks through the countryside that he enjoyed. And he was sometimes comfortable, if there was plenty to drink, with larger groups of men whom he’d known for a very long time, though such evenings often ended in unpleasant quarrels.

What he would not have looked forward to was a long dinner with one other man his own age, a man he didn’t know who also was a writer. Ibsen certainly did not enjoy discussing his plays, and when others offered their opinions and insights about them, he was usually annoyed and would often irritably rebut the views that were being presented to him. He absolutely hated shallow discussions of trivial topics, and he was not someone who read a great deal, so any attempts on my part at amusing remarks about the celebrities either of his period or mine were sure to displease him, and any hope of soliciting his views on the writings of Philip Roth or Selma Lagerlof was also doomed. The truth is, there was almost nothing I could offer him that would be something he needed or particularly wanted.

The only subject that might conceivably have brought

the two of us together was actually the art of acting. Ibsen was a connoisseur of acting. He loved good actors, and so do I, and I do think we might have had a very relaxed and enjoyable and quite un-self-conscious conversation if we’d been able to discuss different actors whose performances we’d both admired, to describe to each other performances that one of us had seen and the other hadn’t, to exult in the greatness of these great men and women. For as long as we stuck to that topic, it could have been very interesting and a lot of fun.

— TCG’s Individual Member Wire newsletter

  wally shawn IMWire

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Performance Diary: Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer at Town Hall and GRASSES OF A THOUSAND COLOURS

November 27, 2013

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11.23.13 –
Andy is a huge fan of writer Neil Gaiman and singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer, so he bought tickets for their double-bill at Town Hall as soon as they went on sale. The two met when Palmer, formerly half of the Dresden Dolls, asked him to write material for her solo album Who Killed Amanda Palmer? Before long, they were a pair and are now married. In this charming, chatty, intimate concert, we heard a little about their courtship. Early on, in a conversation about the dearth of contemporary torch songs, Gaiman announced that he’d written one called “I Google You.” He sang it for her, twice, and a few days later she sent him a link to a YouTube video of her singing it in concert in San Francisco. For the Town Hall gig, they opened the evening singing a duet on “Making Whoopee,” paving the way for considerably more singing from Gaiman than I expected (and less reading of his work than I would have liked). He’s a Brit and characteristically modest; she’s an American, more brash and with, let’s say, a bigger personality. Weirdly, she often reminds me of my friend, the San Francisco-based performance artist Keith Hennessy (weirder still, I think it’s the powerful legs). Saturday night also happened to coincide with the premiere of the 50th anniversary broadcast of Doctor Who, the long-running British TV show for which Gaiman has contributed a few episodes, so there was a fair amount of fanboy-geekery running between the stage and the audience. The inevitable special guests included Aussie burlesque chanteuse Meow Meow backed by Lance Horne (on loan from La Soiree downtown) and Arthur Darvill, who plays a minor character on Doctor Who and ran over after finishing his show as the lead in Once.

11.25.13 – I can’t pretend I understand what Wally Shawn’s play Grasses of a Thousand Colours is about. When I flew to London to see the world premiere at the Royal Court, I managed a pretty succinct summary of the play in my Performance Diary:

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It’s a big, long, crazy, intense three-act fantasia about a famous scientist overwhelmingly fixated on his penis 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. Andre Gregory’s staging unfolds on a simple stationary set – a long white sofa and two standing lamps – and it interpolates strange little bursts of film that surrealistically mangle the sense of time and place. 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!”…

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In an endnote to the published text, Shawn mentions that certain elements from the play derive from a 17th century story by Madame D’Aulnoy called “The White Cat.” I don’t know that story, but I will look it up as I continue thinking about this strange strange play, which is a bizarre combination of fairy tale, fever dream, and The Story of O. It’s 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).

Besides Wally in the central role, the London cast included Miranda Richardson as Cerise, Jennifer Tilly as Robin, and Emily Cass McDonnell as Rose. Seeing it again at the Public Theater, with Julie Hagerty in the Miranda Richardson role, I found that I had no particular advantage the second time around, nor did I find it especially enjoyable to sit through again. (I was somewhat affected by sitting next to Andy, who is a game theatergoer in general but found the play an ordeal.) I admired Andre Gregory’s production less than I did the first time around – for one thing, Jennifer Tilly’s performance has coarsened over time to a one-note bray.  I had mixed feelings about Julie Hagerty, who was definitely wispier than Miranda Richardson. I enjoyed most the freaky dream-like film sequences in which she appeared as “Blanche,” although my strongest takeaway is her deliver of the line, “Last night, as I was urinating on him…”

Clearly there are layers and layers of mischief going on throughout the production, signaled by tiny gestures of sound and movement – every time Ben (the main character) takes a sip of the green potion on his lecturer’s podium, his energy immediately shifts, never predictably. As I explained to Andy and my friends Melissa and Maribel, as we walked to dinner at Noho Star afterwards, my best guess about  the play is that it represents a particular literary phenomenon – Shawn, an excellent brainy and theatrically savvy playwright, has given himself the challenge to follow his imagination, his psyche, his dreams in creating a work that relentlessly and categorically defies the viewer’s attempt to interpret it as any kind of coherent narrative reducible to meaning. Like the craziest, scariest fables and fairy tales ever written, it is a story that exists in relation only to itself.

Oh, one major difference in the production at the Public Theater was that instead of a second intermission, after two and a half hours, we got a five-minute pause, during which an insane array of snacks was handed out in the foyer adjacent to the Shiva Theater – a paper cup containing 5 almonds, a hard-boiled egg, a Lindt chocolate ball, and a silver cup containing a swallow of cranberry juice – served by a chubby whiskered lad wearing a cat mask.

Performance diary: return to THE DESIGNATED MOURNER

July 28, 2013

7.27.13 — I went back to see The Designated Mourner, and I can testify that after five viewings (the David Hare film twice and three live performances) I’m still absorbing new passages and nuances from Wallace Shawn’s extraordinary play about the demise of a politically independent intelligentsia from the perspective of a fellow traveler not especially unhappy about its disappearance. Somehow I’d never paid attention to the fleeting reference by Jack, the title character (played by Shawn himself in the Andre Gregory production at the Public Theater), to the moment when “my thing started – you know, mental problems or whatever you’d call them.” Suddenly, the character’s wayward cognitive associations and gaps in simple human empathy became clearer and more comprehensible to me. Over drinks afterwards, Dave and Tim and I tried to imagine how George W. Bush would describe life in America during his pathetic presidency – what events he would highlight and which he would omit that anyone else would consider important. And we talked a lot about the performances, especially that of Deborah Eisenberg, who plays Jack’s wife Judy. I think most people who see the play will know that she and Wally Shawn are a couple offstage (they’ve been together 40-some years), but not everybody knows that Eisenberg is an exceptionally gifted fiction writer herself. Recipient of many big awards (including a MacArthur Foundation fellowship), she has published several collections of short stories, many of them actually quite long, many of them first published in the New Yorker. (You can read a long interview with her in the Paris Review’s legendary “The Art of Fiction” series here.) She’s not a trained or especially experienced actor, but her performance in The Designated Mourner is compelling for its combination of sculptural stillness and emotional fullness. We sat in the first row directly in front of the wooden chair she occupies for most of the show’s three-hour running time, which gave us a perfect vantage point to study her amazing face.

Deborah Eisenberg

When Andy and I saw the show a few weeks ago, we arrived just after curtain time (7:00! Not 7:30!)  and weren’t seated until 12 minutes into the show, when Wally departs from the script to give a brief recap to the latecomers. This time, there were about 10 spectators who arrived late, and as they were ushered in Wally gave them an entirely different spiel than I’d heard before, and apparently it was new to the other actors because Eisenberg and Larry Pine were discreetly cracking up while he was improvising about the scenes the latecomers had missed. After the show, Wally observed his tradition of standing by the exit available for conversation, and he told me this performance was the best in the run so far. “Only one sleeper,” he noted. (Since the three actors speak most of the time directly to the audience rather than each other, they have plenty of time to study the crowd.) A good chunk of the audience, maybe 20 out of 99, left at intermission, but that didn’t bother him at all: “It was better after they left.”

 

Culture Vulture: Steve Kazee, THE NANCE, THE DESIGNATED MOURNER, Edmund White on Rimbaud, and more

July 10, 2013

CULTURE VULTURE

MUSIC

7/4/13 – Since I’m not a big fan of flag-waving, fireworks, and/or hot dogs, I was happy to spend part of my Fourth of July evening at the Stone, the tiny storefront music venue founded by John Zorn deep in the heart of the East Village at the corner of 2nd Street and Avenue C. The place is very basic and stripped-down – it sells no refreshments and no merchandise, just music, with a very cheap door charge ($15 tonight). Different musicians curate a whole series of performances each week. This week’s honcho was Eyvind Kang (below center), who has played violin and viola with the likes of Laurie Anderson and Bill Frisell. He lives in Vashon, WA, with his wife Jessika Kenney, a spectacularly talented singer who often appears as a guest for concerts of Javanese gamelan given by the group I play with, Gamelan Kusuma Laras.

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For this occasion, the two of them were joined by tar and setar player Hidayat Honari for a program called “Rokh-e Khåk (رخ خاک),” an hour of classical Persian music – new, old, and improvised tunes with texts taken from the poetry of Hafiz, the 14th century Persian mystic. I know Hafiz’s work mostly from the sly, ecstatic English versions by Robert Bly. It was utterly transporting to hear this trio perform this music and to experience Jessika’s amazing, soulful voice communing with ancient Arabic. Apparently, the three of them all study with the same Persian master. It was a sweltering night, so Eyvind thoughtfully created an intermission after half an hour to turn the air conditioning and fan on for a while before resuming.

54 Below Press Preview - Barbara Cook, Steve Kazee & Jonathan Tunick With Rebecca Faulkenberry

7.8.13 — Handsome and talented Steve Kazee’s warm, expressive voice made him a star on Broadway and won him the Tony Award for Once, so I was excited to see his cabaret act at 54 Below. He appeared onstage with his four-piece rock band, the Shiny Liars, two guys (on bass and drums) and two gals (Elizabeth Davis, his fellow Once cast member who’s married to the bass player, and singer-songwriter Lora-Faye Whelan) and performed a set of all original material, which was okay but not especially memorable. He made it a point to tell the audience right away he wouldn’t be singing any songs from Once, and later he mentioned that any women he encountered on OK Cupid who mentioned seeing him in the show would instantly be blocked – which I thought was weirdly hostile. There is something strangely uneasy about his personality – he seemed surprisingly insecure, couldn’t believe how quiet and attentive the audience was, kept apologizing for using swear words, fretted about not having enough material to fill an hour-long show, and floated several negative comments he imagined audience members might be thinking, which came off as defensive, paranoid, not very attractive. Except for a tune about his mother (who died shortly after Once opened on Broadway), much of his material consisted of romantic break-up numbers or “Fuck you” songs, and a picture of him started to form as a bitter, arrogant dick. I’d prefer to believe that he was just very very nervous, and when I went online to check out his website I noted that he had to leave Once prematurely because of an injury to his vocal cords, which would make any rising star pretty unhappy, I should think. 

DVD

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Greenberg  — I’m fascinated by Noah Baumbach without feeling obliged to see every single one of his films. I caught up with Greenberg via Netflix mostly out of curiosity because it apparently brought about the end of his marriage to Jennifer Jason Leigh (whom I admire tremendously) and the beginning of his relationship with Greta Gerwig, about whom I have not formed a definitive opinion. She’s strange-looking, sort of pretty and sort of lumpy, a little like Lena Dunham, although more than anything else she reminds me of Aimee Mann. Gerwig is a brave soul, willing to throw herself into roles that require awkward and unpleasant self-exposure. Actually, that might be a perfect description of the Noah Baumbach School of Cinema: awkward and unpleasant self-exposure. Greenberg certainly demands plenty of that from Ben Stiller, who plays the eponym, a disagreeable chap who’s younger and better-looking yet even more neurotic than any Woody Allen character ever. The running joke of the movie is that he incessantly writes complaint letters. Interesting, quirky film. I liked it, didn’t love it.

Yvonne Furneaux, Eleonora Rossi Drago, Valentina Cortese, and Anna Maria Pancani (from left to right) in a scene from Michelangelo Antonioni's LE AMICHE (1955)

Yvonne Furneaux, Eleonora Rossi Drago, Valentina Cortese, and Anna Maria Pancani (from left to right) in a scene from Michelangelo Antonioni’s LE AMICHE (1955)

Le Amiche – Whatever qualities you might associate with Antonioni (long, slow, taciturn, full of dry and not especially sensual shots of women’s naked backs) do not characterize this early (1955) black-and-white film (whose title in English is “The Girlfriends”). It’s screwball-comedy fast with people talking nonstop with the kind of peculiar, fleetly observed comic behavior more familiar from early Fellini and the visual luxuriousness of Max Ophuls, dominated with remarkably strong female characters, many of them modern businesswomen whose romantic interactions with hunky but emotionally immature men don’t follow predictable narrative contours. Some of the acting stays soap-opera shallow but mostly I found the movie riveting and bracing.

THEATER

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7.5.13The Nance, Douglas Carter Beane’s newest play produced by Lincoln Center Theater at the Lyceum Theater on Broadway, honorably intends to convey two lessons about gay history to younger generations: 1) there was a time not so very long ago (the play is set in 1937) when the socially repressive policies we hear about in places like Uganda and Iraq pertained in New York City – gay guys could get arrested just for cruising other men in public; and 2) at the very same time, behavior that was deemed socially unacceptable and legally sanctioned played for laughs on burlesque stages, where the strippers, novelty acts, singers, and vaudevillean comics sometimes incorporated “queer doings,” skits and sketches featuring campy clownish depictions of effeminate men (fairies, pansies, or nances, in the parlance of the day). I’m familiar with the cinematic equivalents of these caricatures, played by the likes of Franklin Pangborn and Edward Everett Horton, but I don’t know much about this stage history. Beane apparently extrapolated the germ of his play from some pages in the classic history book Gay New York by George Chauncey; as a tip of the hat, he named the title character (played by Nathan Lane) Chauncey Miller. The play that contains these history lessons unfortunately comes across as a clumsy mixture of musical comedy, romance, and social commentary, with a lot of contemporary political attitudinizing retroactively laden onto a period piece. The politically conservative Chauncey proudly proclaims himself a Republican – but the term had a very different political meaning in the ‘30s and didn’t invite the same sort of badge-wearing it does today. And the romance between Chauncey and Ned, a young guy from the sticks he picks up at the Automat (played by Jonny Orsini), never feels authentic – Beane shoves them around to dramatize the conflict between monogamy-minded nesters (Ned) and intimacy-averse promiscuous guys (Chauncey).

7.6.13Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner takes place in a world that looks similar to ours and yet scary and alien at the same time. The government and the military have started to merge, and intellectual life is coming under siege, at first with occasional and remote acts of repression that become more frequent, more brutal, and closer to home. Shawn himself plays Jack, the title character, the hapless narrator of this tale from his perspective – both intimate and envious — just outside a literary social circle that revolves around Howard (Larry Pine), a prominent poet and the father of Jack’s wife Judy (Deborah Eisenberg). It’s one of the most impressive plays I’ve ever encountered – dense, deep, dark, disturbing, and yet in Andre Gregory’s production at the Public Theater it’s also amazingly entertaining, funny, and theatrical. The same cast and crew did this show at a disused gentleman’s club in the financial district in 2000 for an audience of 30 every night. The production at the Public looks and feels quite different and yet equally intimate and impressive. It’s so easy to think of Wally Shawn as an enjoyable character actor in lots and lots of movies – with this production, it’s impossible not to be bowled over by the mastery of his performance, all the more spectacular because it’s not especially showy or dramatic. Yet his energy and focus and how he manages to surf the play’s mind-boggling swerves from domestic chitchat to philosophical exploration to reporting of horrendous events to smug self-blindness is utterly remarkable. Pine and Eisenberg do equally impressive, haunted performances under difficult circumstances — they are onstage, often silent, always implicated.

designated mourner playbill
I think anyone who cares about theater of substance will want to see this play. I’ve already bought tickets to see the show again. If you don’t live in New York so can’t see the play live, you might be interested to know that there is a radio version of the play available online here: http://www.wnyc.org/articles/arts/2006/jul/18/the-designated-mourner/. And there is a film version of the London premiere production, which is directed by the playwright David Hare and stars none other than Mike Nichols.

At the Public Theater, I was fascinated to observe how Wally makes himself available after the show. He’s just given a relentless and intense three-hour performance, and yet as the audience files out of the theater, there he stands, smiling and open to meeting and greeting anyone who cares to approach. I’ve known him for 30 years and was happy to chat and praise his performance, and he graciously introduced me to Andre Gregory, whom I’d never met and whose work I also cherish. But I also enjoyed observing the different ways that audience members interact with him – from the earnest young theater scholar who’s clearly composed an entire essay about the playwright’s work that he intently wants to share on the spot to the individual who stands 10 feet away and snaps a flash photo without asking. Andy was tickled to meet Wally and also a little weirded out that we’ve now seen three shows at the Public Theater that ended without curtain calls for the actors.

ART

I tried once again to check out Random International’s popular environmental piece Rain Room at MOMA, but even at 9:00, half an hour before the museum opened for Member Early Hours, there were already 50 people in line, which meant standing in the queue for at least an hour, and frankly I just don’t have the stamina to wait that long. That’s how I missed Christian Marclay’s The Clock and the Alexander McQueen show at the Met, and I never even got in line to lock eyes with Marina Abramovic. I’m delighted for the success of these cutting-edge art spectacles, but this waiting in line things seems geared to…whom? People who grew up standing in line for rides at Disney World? Apparently the James Turrell show at the Guggenheim is also massively popular and you pretty much have to build in at least half an hour of waiting time.

BOOKS

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Edmund White’s Rimbaud – I love the whole concept of Brief Lives, the series of short biographies of important people crafted by distinguished contemporary writers that editor/author James Atlas has shuttled around to various major publishers. They are really extended biographical essays rather than definitive histories with footnotes and index – which makes them compulsively readable. I very much enjoyed Wayne Koestenbaum’s Andy Warhol and Edmund White’s Marcel Proust, which came out under Penguin’s imprint, and I just happily gobbled up White’s Rimbaud – The Double Life of a Rebel, another perfect pairing of biographer and subject. Certainly, Rimbaud’s short life lends itself to a succinct biography – he only wrote poetry for four years as a teenager, published in two slim volumes. White began his publishing career writing encyclopedia entries for Time-Life Books, a job that you could say developed and/or exploited his gift for synthesizing vast swatches of information into elegant, witty, erudite prose. Here he digests everything written by and about Rimbaud (doing all the French translations himself) in fewer than 200 small pages. Whether evaluating Rimbaud’s best poems, detailing his love affair with Paul Verlaine, or tracking his dizzyingly peripatetic post-poet life, White’s commentary is informed without being boringly academic or scholarly, and it frequently betrays his own personal touches and obsessions. He notes with amusement that, after his affair with Verlaine made him persona non grata among the culturati of Paris, Rimbaud befriended a diminutive poet named German Nouveau who in letters referred to Rimbaud not by name but simply as “Thing” (“Chose”), as in “Miss Thing.” And a discussion of Verlaine’s medical examination to determine whether he has had anal intercourse veers into this digression:

“If the reader imagines that such examinations belong to the era of pseudoscience in the nineteenth century, he or she should be reminded that in the English town of Cleveland, from January to June 1987, more than five hundred children were forcibly removed (sometimes during midnight raids) from their parents’ homes by social workers because two doctors had determined that they’d all been buggered by their fathers. The doctors were using the highly questionable ‘anal dilation test,’ a sort of inserted balloon. If the children couldn’t grip the balloon with enough force, the doctors determined that they’d been anally violated. Soon there were no more foster families or hospital rooms in the entire region for the ‘victims.’ Ultimately the tide of opinion shifted against the doctors and most of the cases were thrown out of court. The whole unsavory episode was seen as a modern instance of a Salem witch trial. Verlaine’s examination by ‘experts’ had no more validity and revealed the same sort of disgusting prurience. As a result of it, curiously enough, we know more about the condition of his penis and anus than we do about the intimate anatomy of any other major poet of the past.”

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