Sunday, November 23, 2014

Italo Calvino meets Baron von Münchhausen at ArtsEmerson

Rainy-day theatre on an epic scale - the talented men of PigPen Theatre.

I know it's a bit late to be raving about The Old Man and the Old Moon (from PigPen Theatre Company at ArtsEmerson) - as at this point you'd have to dash out the door to catch the last show. Still, it deserves one last bouquet from Boston - even if this company has gathered quite a garden of praise to its bosom for this clever valentine to the art of storytelling.

It's not hard to explain the show's appeal. If you were the kind of kid who, on a rainy day, would sometimes build a makeshift theatre in the attic out of bedsheets and flashlights and some dining room chairs, then you will immediately grasp the essence of the PigPen project.  And if you weren't that kind of kid - well, more's the pity; but at least you're in for a charming surprise.

For PigPen devises rainy-day theatre on an epic scale - they conjure an endless stream of visual poetry from sheets and shadows and old bottles and cans. Their (very) tall tale is a kind of fantastical bildungsroman, with one key difference - it winds up being about a bildungsroman that didn't actually happen when it should have; and oddly, this shaggy-dog story (which eventually includes a literal shaggy dog) seems to be self-consciously telling itself as it goes along, in something like the style of Italo Calvino.

Indeed, only its lead character, the titular "Old Man," seems to be in the dark about this meta-fiction's nestled objectives.  He has spent his long life dutifully filling the moon with liquid light (it's got a slow leak, you see), and forever putting off any thought of adventure - which hasn't sat well with his wife, the aptly-named "Old Woman."  When in a fit of yearning she suddenly sets off to see the world, he of course is forced to follow - leaving the moon to drip away untended (with drastic consequences), but also sending himself down a narrative rabbit-hole toward a set of adventures at least as old as Baron von Münchhausen - and probably as old as the Bible (although of course these are the sorts of stories that never, actually, grow old).

So the Old Man soon encounters pirates and is swallowed by sea-monsters, and discovers lost cities at the end of the world, all brilliantly conjured by the multi-faceted lads of PigPen, who turn out to be not only witty actors but also talented puppeteers - and balladeers; in fact they can sing, play their own instruments, and are tireless mimes and physical comedians - it's seems there is nothing they can't do. I admit that their beaming camaraderie at first feels a bit forced, in that familiar self-congratulatory millennial way; and their hero should certainly accrue more scars than he does over the course of his travails (it seems every terror he faces reliably evaporates).

Re-telling a story that is actually re-telling itself. Photos: Joan Marcus.

But slowly you realize that the fraternal spirit of PigPen is actually the real thing - genuine fraternal spirit; and I think the troupe's sheer inventiveness - along with their affectionate camaraderie - will re-awaken a sense of theatrical magic in even the most hardened of hearts. Certainly by the end of The Old Man and the Old Moon I'd felt as if I'd been transported back to some childhood campfire, my hopes innocently hanging on just how the last twist in the story would turn out. So I can only imagine how its low-tech but vivid miracles might spark the imagination of an actual seven-year-old.

It goes without saying that the entire troupe is integral to the show's success  - and yes, PigPen is also a band, with serious folk and mountain music chops (and perhaps that musical partnership explains the unique atmosphere of bemused cooperation that suffuses the whole production). But I do want to single out for special praise the contributions of Ryan Melia (the Old Man), Matt Nuernberger, Alex Falberg, and Ben Ferguson to the production's poignantly witty theatrical vibe. It's rare indeed that a show this thoroughly masculine is also this thoroughly sweet. So if you're afternoon is still free, you might want to hop on the T right now . . .

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Love and death in Brookline with Boston Lyric Opera

Isolt is forgiven by King Mark; Chelsea Basler and David McFerrin in The Love Potion. Photos: Eric Antoniou

Sometimes I wonder whether there isn't something in opera that hates the walls of the theatre, that wants them down.

For whenever Boston Lyric Opera leaves its theatrical home, it seems to bloom a bit more, and something extraordinary happens. Indeed, since the company began its "Annex" productions five or six years ago - and took opera out into "found spaces" in and around the Hub - they seem to have moved from triumph to triumph.

Their current Annex effort, Frank Martin's The Love Potion (although I much prefer its original title, Le vin herbé), only extends that grand run. BLO has set Martin's oratorio (it's not quite an opera, but close enough!) in the soaring sanctuary of Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline, and handed the reins of the production over to David Schweizer, who directed the brilliant Emperor of Atlantis a few seasons back.

And with the help of lighting designer Robert Wierzel, Schweizer may have actually outdone his own previous achievement. He not only suggests the hybrid nature of Martin's work in his staging, but also evokes the very essence of its vision in a haunting mix of braided movement and calm tableaux - and a gifted cast of singers (with the help of conductor David Angus, leading a strong ensemble of strings and piano) does the rest. You could argue with some details of this production - I, for one, don't see the need for an English translation (although Hugh Macdonald's rendition proved beguiling); but it seems to me that Schweizer's conception could not be faulted - indeed, it may be almost definitive.

Of course something about the resonant hush of the Temple Ohabei Shalom all by itself conjures the mystical atmosphere of the Tristan and Iseult myth, which forms the core of The Love Potion.  But if you imagine you're familiar with the plot from Wagner's titanic take on it - well, think again; for the Swiss-born Martin diverges from Tristan und Isolde in just about every detail.  Right on the surface the contrasts may be obvious - Wagner's orchestration is insistently lush, Martin's evocatively spare - but deeper, subtler differences convince the listener that Martin is after almost a reclamation of this classic text from Wagner's hands.

Is that unfair to Wagner? Many argue we should refrain from blaming that half-mad genius for the Nazis' later identification with his music. But we can blame him for his anti-Semitism, methinks - surely that much is fair! - which gives a deeply moving resonance to staging this oratorio in a synagogue (particularly one as gorgeous as Temple Ohabei Shalom).

It also highlights Schweizer's key insight into Le vin herbé  - at bottom, it's about grief. Indeed, it's worth noting Frank Martin was not only reacting to the rise of the Nazis when he composed the oratorio in the early 40's,  but was also mourning the death of his wife. And Temple Ohabei Shalom, I must mention, just lost one of its own members to the recent terror attack in Jerusalem.

Schweizer's priesthood at the well of grief.

So the opera's theme simply couldn't be more immediate, and Schweitzer has devised a brilliant way to sound its underlying note of loss: the scenic design encircles two shafts of light emanating from a kind of a radiant well of grief, a glowing omphalos.  At one level these stand for the doomed Tristan and Isolt, of course - but on another level, they represent our own twin towers, and the lingering shadow of 9/11.  Grief, Schweizer is saying, is a universal - it's at the very center of the world for everyone.

But intriguingly, Martin also returns to the original myth to disentangle its hero and heroine from Wagner's death obsession.  Here the titular love potion is never equated or confused with poison, and Tristan only brings his tragic fate down upon his head when he forsakes Isolt.  In fact the lovers briefly escape to an enchanted wood in this version, where they enjoy a chaste idyll - which moves the forbearing King Mark to forgive his wife for her betrayal (much as Arthur forgave Guinevere) and allow her return as his queen. It is only when the forlorn, frustrated Tristan accepts as his betrothed another Isolt,  "Isolt of the White Hands" (an ironic moniker, that one!) that fate turns against him.

Which brings me to another contrast between Le vin herbé  and Tristan und Isolde.  Wagner's opera famously depends on "the Tristan chord," four plaintive notes which straddle two keys no matter how you transpose them; they serve as a concrete musical metaphor for impossible love, and help Wagner sustain a mounting musical (and sexual) cadence for literally hours.

Martin, needless to say, takes a very different harmonic tack.  His musical mode moves between a haunting dissonance and an unexpectedly rich tonality - which generally sounds when the text speaks of God, or the spiritual.  The music for Tristan and Isolt is similar - it trends toward the tonal when the lovers are most chastely committed, and subtly devolves toward dissonance when they fail in their duty (or fail one another).  So there's no Liebestod here, no transcendent orgasm, no love/death - love is one thing, and death another.  It's a humble, but devastating, musical statement.

Tristan and Isolt share the fateful potion: Jon Jurgens, David Cushing, Michelle Trainor and Chelsea Basler.

So much for Martin and Wagner, you're no doubt saying by now - what about this particular production?  Well, for the most part it's remarkable.  There are a few balance issues, of course, that come from performing in the round (and beneath a vault) - but fewer than you'd expect, frankly, and the sacred atmosphere I'd argue more than makes up for them.  Both Tristan and Isolt are superb, although Tristan is the leading role by far, and tenor Jon Jurgens emerges from it a star; his persona is more that of a common man than a noble (which is as it should be), but the voice is supple, ardent and airborne, able to float to glowing heights and then simply hang there.  Alas, we just don't get to hear enough from Isolt, or the luminous Chelsea Basler, who is not only an exquisite beauty but possesses a soprano of surprisingly even richness across its range; that's perhaps the one downside to Martin's scheme, which emphasizes choral story-telling over drama.

But Schweizer's handling of the choral nature of the performance counts among its great successes; he presents his singers first as priests, in white robes, who move in braided formation until they assume individual "character" (at which point they drop their robes to reveal abstracted Celtic garb). And among that chorus, there are several vocal stand-outs, including our own reliable local bass David Cushing, and baritone David McFerrin, who offers an intriguing portrait of the pivotal King Mark (at top). Elsewhere Michaelle Trainor distinguished herself as a compellingly torn Brangain (the maid initially entrusted with the love potion), and Rachel Hauge etched her Isolt of the White Hands with vengeful economy.

Still, the central star of this production may be Robert Wierzel's lighting. The action is mostly lit from below, by a luminous floor that (like various glowing props) echoes the two white shafts rising from the center of the set. There's one unfortunate moment when the stage suddenly flashes like a dance floor, but Wierzel mostly bathes the singers in washes of soulful blue; it's like watching Le vin herbé at twilight - or through a cleansing rainstorm. Which I think is precisely what Frank Martin would have wished.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Israel Horovitz gives the Hub five hits - and one literal bomb - in "Six Hotels"

Matthew Zahnzinger and Johnnie McQuarley trade war stories in "Speaking of Tushy".

It comes about halfway through "Six Hotels," the Hub Theatre Company's kicky compendium of six Israel Horovitz one-acts (which closes this weekend at Club Cafe) - and it seems to come from nowhere.  So far the evening's entertainment has been heavy on clever but broad situations, studded with light, if obvious, wit (mostly built around the mechanics of bad dates, chance meetings with worse exes, etc., etc.) One script is even titled "Speaking of Tushy," if that gives you any idea of how low Horovitz is willing to go for a horse laugh.

But then comes "Beirut Rocks."

And at that point either the evening totally goes to hell - or suddenly it's the most thrilling political theatre of the year. Speaking personally, I'd rate it "thrilling" - but the audience I saw it with, I must admit, looked stunned before it was over. They didn't seem able to believe what they'd just seen: a Beirut hotel room shuddering from the thunder of explosions, a wannabe Arab terrorist stripped bare, an arrogant American Jew spouting hatred, a gaggle of entitled college kids struggling to stay afloat in a rising tide of threats - the crowd looked as shell-shocked as they might have if Horovitz had dropped a literal bomb on them.

Lauren Elias enjoys Johnnie McQuarley's "room service" in "The Hotel Play."

For the record, Horovitz (who of course is Jewish) makes no anti-Israel statement here; and his Palestinian terrorist (who, ironically enough, has been raised in America) gives at least as good as she gets when it comes to hatred. Still, simply dramatizing the kind of invective that spews from the spoiled Jewish college kid in this script counts as a major breakthrough for the local theatre, and what it's brave enough to say (at least when other Jews say it) about the grisly deadlock in Gaza and the West Bank. Whoa - so much for Anne Frank! I thought as the shock wave rolled over the audience - and I wondered, given the sudden rise in critical views of Jewish characters this season, whether something larger might be afoot in the theatrical landscape. Could our local theatre ever begin to treat the ongoing crisis in the Middle East honestly - or even seriously?

One can only hope! But it's also hard not to argue in the case of "Six Hotels" that the immediate lurch back to Comedy Central (with the very next sketch!) was enough to induce whiplash in any thoughtful viewer (and could understandably read as insulting to some).  Nor does anything else in the evening reach anything like the dramatic heights of "Beirut"- although the penultimate script, "The Hotel Play," has its ruefully telling moments. 

Still, guts count for something - maybe they count for a lot; and the Hub Theatre Company certainly has guts. And smarts - the quartet of rising actors at Hub (Lauren Elias, Johnnie McQuarley, Ashley Risteen,  and Matthew Zahnzinger) all display impressive comic chops (under the tight direction of Daniel Borque and John Geoffrion) - even when their youth or type (I know, "type"!) makes them perhaps not entirely convincing in a particular role; you end up admiring their moxie even if you don't quite buy them as jaded adulterers or half-hearted rentboys, for instance. It's Ashley Risteen, however, who breaks from the talented pack and I'd say qualifies as the "find" of the production; she's utterly believable as both a Palestinian killer and a Brooklyn gal trying to do a Boston accent - about as wide a stretch as any actress may have ever been asked to make!

As for Horovitz - he's well served by Hub, even when he seems to be off-handedly playing with fire just for shits and giggles.  To be honest, none of these scripts (not even the brutal "Beirut Rocks") is for the history books.  But they all pulse with this playwright's distinctive energy; indeed, Horovitz seems able to toss off a fierce little play as easily as a song. I only wish he'd ponder one of his melodies long enough to give us a full symphony.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Lost under the Ether Dome

James Youmans' striking set for Ether Dome. Photos: T. Charles Erickson

I suppose playwright Elizabeth Egloff makes no big mistakes in Ether Dome, her sprawling account of the discovery of anesthesia (which wraps its run at the Huntington's Calderwood Pavilion this weekend).

But she makes no big decisions either - and this, coupled with many missteps in terms of focus and form, leads the playwright to wander back and forth over the historical record without ever gaining any dramatic traction on her topic. The resulting assemblage of scenes does boast some effective moments - Egloff has a healthy skepticism toward the "great men" crowding the halls of our own Mass. General (where ether was first systematically introduced), and so often floats an amusingly mordant tone; and she briefly entertains larger political ideas and philosophical perspectives - indeed, you can sometimes sense the author musing on the various episodes of her own play even as it proceeds. Which made me wonder whether the whole thing might work as a miniseries, where diffuseness counts for less. Because as a "play," alas, Ether Dome barely exists.

Although to be fair, wrestling the messy story of the invention of modern surgery into theatrical shape would be a challenge for any dramatist.  There are three, and maybe four, key players in the story - the idealistic dentist, Horace Wells (Michael Bakkensen) who first glimpsed the possibilities of nitrous oxide as a painkiller; his unscrupulous assistant, William Morton (Tom Patterson), who had his eye forever on the main chance; the arrogant John Collins Warren (Richmond Hoxie), the head of surgery at Mass. General, who was confidently blind to the transformative discovery staring him in the face; and the visionary Charles Jackson (William Youmans), who dreamt of many more inventions than he ever managed to actually invent.

Arrogance and avarice meet over the operating table.
But wait, there's more - much more, actually, some of it in Hartford, some of it in Boston, and some of it even in Paris! Thus as the plot not so much thickens as fissures, we long for some vivid core of this strange, eventful history to come to the fore, while the rest fades into the background; but Egloff lacks the technical skill to sculpt so complex a narrative into coherence - instead she reprises her horror-of-surgery gambit, takes repeated detours into dramatic dead ends, and often "cuts away" from a conflict just as it's coming to a head.

But the bottom line is that she simply never decides on any particular focus. Which means she is left with no real theme, either. At the close of the play, after several lives have been wrecked by the intrigues that played out under the Ether Dome, head surgeon Warren scratches his head over the whole debacle and wonders how it ever came to pass.  

And we feel much the same way.

What's most frustrating about this particular misfire, however, is that the Huntington has done its physical production up right, with a grand, striking set and imaginative projections by James Youmans (at top) - and has also fielded an accomplished cast that not only convincingly breathes the air of the nineteenth century, but seems up to the challenges of playwrights like Ibsen or Shaw (Hoxie and Youmans are the stand-outs, but there's solid work across the board).

Of course current political considerations prevent us from programming too much work by Dead White Men like Shaw and Ibsen - who also, it's probably worth noting, hardly need the ministrations of the development department. Although we also note that Ms. Egloff has been working on Ether Dome since 2005; that's nine years, people. Some have counseled that the play simply needs more surgery (with or without anesthesia, I suppose); and certainly several sequences - such as the sojourn in France - all but cry out for amputation. But I'm afraid I feel differently. Cruel as it may sound, if a play is still on life support after nine years, I think it's time to pull the plug.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Good news about Bad Jews

Daphna attacks! Alison McCartan, Victor Shopov, and Gillian Mariner Gordon in Bad Jews.  Photos: Craig Bailey

I'm afraid anti-Semites will be disappointed by Bad Jews, Joshua Harmon's acid take on the current state of dysfunction in the tribe of Judah (which plays through this weekend in a nastily crackling production at SpeakEasy Stage). Because the title's just a come-on - Harmon's Jews aren't really "bad" because of any nefarious conspiracy against the goyim, as the tinfoil-hat crowd would have it; they're "bad" because of their attitude toward their own Jewishness, its fraught legacy, and their responsibility toward their tribe.  In a word, these aren't so much "bad" Jews as judgy Jews.

And judging from this playwright's jaundiced, knowing view of certain Manhattan precincts (the whole show plays out in a one-room condo on Riverside Drive), every Jew seems to think of the rest of the tribe as "bad" to some degree or other.  Of course this is perhaps only the inevitable result of a great tradition's slow divergence into many streams; "Jewishness" now yokes together a continuum of religious observance and political affiliation ranging from the Haredi to Jon Stewart (born John Stuart Liebowitz, btw). So the Jews, longtime advocates of diversity, have plenty of diversity to celebrate themselves - which, Harmon hints, only cloaks opposed philosophical and spiritual agendas, ongoing blood feuds and clashes on issues of gender, sex and race, and a perhaps unbridgeable divide over the ongoing project to establish the land of "Greater Israel" on the West Bank.

A traditional "chai."
Got all that? Well, don't worry, you won't really need it to enjoy the poisonous pleasures of Bad Jews, which isn't so much a political tract as a vituperative character study (or maybe even something like revenge porn). Front and center is one Daphna, née Diana, a Vassar grad who now prefers her Hebrew name to her English one - and indeed prefers all things Jewish to just about everything else. Daphna even plans to move to Israel, and abandon Manhattan's siren call of assimilation (she claims to have a hunky boyfriend serving heroically in the IDF). But before she goes, she is determined to get her hands on a particular family heirloom - the chai heroically preserved by her late grandfather "Poppy" as he somehow survived the Holocaust.

But no, goyishe Starbucks fans, we're not talking about tea. The word "chai" in Hebrew means "alive," and has come to stand as an eternal symbol of triumph over not just the Nazis but all anti-Semites, everywhere, since the Diaspora; thus the glyph formed by its two letters has long been worn as a medallion (particularly by Jewish men), known itself as a "chai" (at left). Chais have traditionally been passed down from one generation to the next - and given the history of this particular talisman, it is, shall we say, almost over-loaded with familial and cultural weight.

Hence Daphna's determination to save it from the clutches of her cousin Liam, with whom she's forced to share that cramped condo the night after Poppy's funeral (his quiet, leave-me-out-of-it brother Jonah is also moping on the sidelines). Liam's pseudo-Irish handle may belie his true identity, but it does accurately telegraph that he's as devout an assimilationist as Daphna is a separatist.  But who can blame him, when his Hebrew name is "Shlomo"? Although alas, Shlomo has run pretty far from that unfortunate moniker - in fact he has all but abandoned the Jews for the Japanese; he's now completing a Ph.D. in Japanese studies at University of Chicago (note that even the institutions of higher learning cited here are precisely calibrated for their obnoxiousness quotient). Worse still, Shlomo's engaged to a shiksa - to whom, in an act of genuine perversity, he wants to offer Poppy's chai in lieu of an engagement ring.

Yes. You may now have limned the clean, cruel lines of Harmon's diagrammatic cage-match: in one corner waits the obnoxious "über-Jew" (to quote the play's own snark), whose piety is mostly a mode of juvenile narcissism; in the other stands the smoothly assimilated yuppie-Jew, who has placed his faith in an idealized, deracinated utopia - just as we're taught we should in civics class! - but who is also genially making his own small contribution to what the Nazis never managed to accomplish: the eradication of Jewish tradition.

It's worth noting, however, that clear as these stakes may be, they're very different types of stakes, and Harmon (sharp as his characters' respective skewers are) is unsure of how to bring them into alignment. We may be eager to see the relentlessly obnoxious Daphna brought low (she's actually a recognizable type from just about every family, in every ethnic tradition); but in the end it's Shlomo who is committing the greater moral crime - and Harmon, though he acknowledges this in a U-turn coda, can't quite bring himself to actually weave Schlomo's calm monstrosity into the fabric of his play.

He's far more interested in nailing Daphna to the wall (or perhaps the cross!), which, as I mentioned, is often satisfying, but occasionally has a creepy revenge-porn edge, and which holds Harmon's rising bonfire of recrimination back from the Albee-esque proportions some have claimed for it. For the viciousness of Albee's characters somehow tears through their social presentation to the hidden truth beneath (we slowly divine in Virginia Woolf, for instance, that George is a greater monster than Martha). By comparison, Harmon lets Shlomo off easy.

Daphna on the prowl.  Photo: Craig Bailey
Still, Daphna deserves much of what she gets, particularly as played by the electrifying Alison McCartan, whose predatory performance is so ferocious that it often seems just a hair's-breadth away from caricature. McCartan's Daphna is a kind of chess-master of the family feud, not to mention a brilliant psychological tactician: she already knows her cousin's every weakness, and so can target his hypocrisies with laser-like precision; but she also expertly sizes up his vapid, unthreatening sweetheart, "Melody" in less than a second - and immediately seizes on the best way to humiliate her (by exposing the lack of talent that prompted her abandonment of her music studies).

The performance is so deeply inhabited, in fact, that McCartan is most magnetic when she's coiled in repose, brushing her hair obsessively, and planning her next mean-spirited move; but she also gives us the full measure of Daphna's grief, whether it's over her past as that awkward girl who cried when she didn't make cheerleader, or the loss of "Poppy," whom she clearly loved - and who clearly loved her back.

Whether Liam truly loves anyone is more open to debate - although the talented Victor Shopov didn't seem too interested in exploring that pivotal question. He does do a dynamite death-stare, however, and his slow burn is among the best in the business; so his Liam always holds his own against McCartan's Daphna; his eventual meltdown is also brilliantly timed, and amounts to comic gold. But I felt a blank where Liam's condescension to Melody should have been - nor was there much buried tension with brother Jonah (which there must be given the play's last-minute twist).

Still, the emotional spray from his blood-sport with Daphna may distract you from these gaps, as director Rebecca Bradshaw has orchestrated their combat so superbly. Bradshaw is clearly a talent to watch, btw, as she has also drawn subtle portrayals from her supporting cast. As Jonah, newcomer Alex Marz may not quite prepare us for the play's dénouement, but he expertly bobs and weaves his moody way through the family trenches. Meanwhile Gillian Mariner Gordon etches an appealing cameo as the empty, gentle Melody (and her subtle parody of second-rate vocal technique is a cringe-worthy pleasure).

And frankly, it's just nice to see a play with a real edge for a change at SpeakEasy. Bad Jews plays to the personal rather than the political, it's true; but as victimology has of late become this theatre's default mode, it was exciting to see them get back in touch with situations where there are no easy answers, and the heroes and the villains look different in different mirrors. You may not get a clear stand from Harmon on the political questions roiling American Jewry - just a sense of the resulting turbulence. But he portrays this emotional chop all but perfectly, and maybe for a young playwright's first big splash that's enough - particularly given that the sheer theatrical craft on display here (both in script and on stage) puts most of the other new plays on our local boards to shame.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Echoes of Laramie at Merrimack

Todd Lawson and D'Arcy Dersham in Dusk Rings a Bell.  Photos: Meghan Moore.

Not all the critics have been kind to Dusk Rings a Bell, the new script by Stephen Belber - who is perhaps best known as a contributor to the Laramie Project - which is running at Merrimack Rep through this weekend only.  And for my part, I'd never argue the play is perfect.  It opens with an exercise in articulate narcissism that's excessive even for Belber (who has never shaken off the Laramie habit of direct audience address); and there's a curious reticence to the writing that mutes, or sometimes even muddles, the author's intents and themes.

And yet . . . the play somehow haunts. This is partly because, whatever flaws the script may have, its production at Merrimack probably could not be bettered. Driven by two remarkable performances from D'Arcy Dersham and Todd Lawson, under the subtle direction of Michael Bloom,  it's nothing less than superb, and steadily engrossing in spite of its author's occasional tics.  But then the two-hander that sneaks up on you thanks to deeply-imagined star turns is by now a Merrimack tradition. (Which is why I schlep up to Lowell to see their shows!)

It also helps that you can feel a closer personal connection than usual moving beneath this material for Belber, whose local productions have included the unsatisfying Carol Mulroney and The Power of Duff, two rather artificial attempts to limn abstract cases of spiritual angst. This time around, though, Belber has ventured closer to home with a tale of a hyper-articulate yuppie who re-encounters the handsome boy with whom she shared a twilit kiss some twenty years before, on the beach where she summered as a girl. Over those two decades, however, "Molly" ascended (to a perch high in PR), while "Ray" descended - in fact he spent 10 years doing hard time for getting mixed up in a horrific hate crime: he stood by one night as his buddy beat a gay vacationer to death.

Todd Lawson tries to explain the inexplicable.
This, of course, parallels the sad story of Russell Henderson, one of the killers of Matthew Shepard, and hence a central character in The Laramie Project - whom Belber also interviewed personally for its follow-up, The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. In those interviews, Henderson came off as a malleable soul who lacked both the sadistic edge of his partner in crime, Aaron McKinney (who dealt the fatal blows) and - tragically - the force of will to stand up to him. Recently even more questions have swirled around the status of Shepard's grisly murder as the iconic "hate crime." Was crystal meth a factor in the slayings? Was Matthew Shepard even perhaps sexually involved with one of his killers? These and other caveats have been added by various reporters to a story that has become more and more unstable.

Hence, perhaps, the more-immediate edge moving beneath Belber's work here. For Molly amounts to his factotum in the piece - she is clearly drawn to "interview" Ray in much the same way the author once interviewed Russell: to try to divine how someone so likable and seemingly good-natured could stand by as a horror unfolded.  The question is here all the more pointed as we eventually discover, in an understated coda, that Molly and Ray shared more than just a flirtatious kiss all those years ago: Ray also offered Molly a random act of kindness, a little nudge of re-assurance that may have proved pivotal to her development. So somehow, deep inside, she knows she owes him: but how much?  And can she really "abide," as she puts it, Ray's great crime of omission - even if his true nature is a gentle and generous one?

Over the course of the play's 90 talky minutes, these questions do come to grip us - but I must admit that Belber never presses Molly toward any real moment of truth; he has a strange reticence about the "engineered" dramatic climax that has often compromised his work, and it compromises Dusk Rings a Bell as well.  

Still, up at Merrimack, D'Arcy Dersham, in an exquisitely detailed and pitch-perfect performance, finds veins of feeling in Molly that eventually redeem the character from our first impression of her as morally glib and relentlessly self-centered. But then she has Todd Lawson to work with, who plays a bemused slow hand against all her chatter that slowly hints at something like a lost, but basically trusting, soul. Those who care about serious acting will not want to miss either performance - which I would rate as easily among the best of the year.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Boston Ballet's new Swan Lake

Lakeside with the swan maidens. Photos: Rosalie O'Connor

Expectations were high on opening night of Boston Ballet's new version of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen had promised a re-imagining that would somehow clarify the mysteries of this iconic dance, which is hauntingly resonant and yet strangely vague in its detail. And he had hired designer Robert Perdziola (whose reboot of the Ballet's Nutcracker had proved a triumph) to help him pull it off.  So the thought on everyone's mind as the curtain rose was something like, "Can they do it again?"

Well, the short answer is - "Yes, they can."

Although the longer answer might be: "But not quite the way they think."

For this Swan Lake is indeed a magnificent achievement - Nissinen's choreography is exquisite, Perdziola's designs are ravishing, and the dancing is of course second-to-none (as we expect of the Ballet by now).  The curtain calls went on forever on opening night, and the house shouted itself hoarse.

But are the depths of this particular Swan Lake really any clearer than the rest?  I'd have to answer no, even though Nissinen has added vignettes, and restored some lost sequences of steps - he's quite the dedicated dance archaeologist, in fact, and you can feel rippling through his Lake the legacy of the great choreographers who made the ballet what it is (Petipa and Ivanov of course chief among them, although there are echoes of Ashton in the men's legwork).

That very proclivity, however, may actually work against clarity in this case, as the history of this ballet is one of constant revision - from the very start - and its central trope (Odette's curse) is simply too complex to be explained in mime. You could argue, in fact, that in any historically informed version, Swan Lake will feel oblique; yet you'd hardly care, because it's so mesmerizingly beautiful.

And we don't really want to boil Swan Lake down to anything, anyhow; it's ok if we're a little confused by that wicked-looking dude (the evil Rothbart) who hangs out lakeside, or can't understand who this evil chick is who looks just like Odette and wants to steal her boyfriend. Because in the end, Swan Lake proceeds by the logic of the dream - and the audience doesn't want to be waked.

Of course many a choreographer has nevertheless tried to plug the ballet's seeming plot gaps with explicit Jungian or Freudian tropes - thankfully, Nissinen doesn't go there (best to let these float just beyond the scrim of fairy tale convention).  But his focus on the ballet's history, and the concrete steps themselves, also led to a few dramatic lacunae; there seemed to be no focus in Prince Siegfried's relationship with either his tutor or mother, for instance, because neither supporting figure really gets to dance.

A rapport with a  tender, trusting core: Jeffrey Cirio and Misa Kuranaga.
But elsewhere there were inspired surprises. The movements of the enchanted corps, for instance, were at first more angular and avian than usual - clearly Nissinen wanted to remind us that these maidens were actual swans; and he subtly hinted that Odette's translation into human form was dependent on her tender touches with the Prince (above). In something like the same vein, he opened the final act with an unforgettable tableau - of the swans' graceful necks rising and falling from the mists of their lagoon. And Nissinen triumphed in his choreography for Odile, the wicked daughter of Rothbart who tricks the Prince into betraying his beloved (and thus dashing her hopes of returning to human form) partly by explicitly styling her as a bird of prey.

This proved Kuranaga's finest hour - her Odette was lovely, but her Odile was riveting.  Every step was a pinpoint thrust, every turn was cut by a glittering scalpel; and the ballerina threw off her famous 32 fouettés en tournant like so much candy tossed to the eager crowd. Kuranaga has always been a technical perfectionist; but this time she burned with a special fire born of her own expertise. It may have been the greatest performance I've ever seen her give.

Cirio was likewise in superb form (and easily shook off a spill that came as he leapt through some over-moist mist in the second act).  His leaps and landings were as nimble as ever, and his partnering Kuranaga was sweetly tuned indeed; by now these two stars share a gallant rapport that hints at a tender core - which is just right for Siegfried and Odette.

Elsewhere in the cast the news was equally good. A heavily made-up Lasha Khozashvili conjured a truly diabolical Rothbart - he seemed to streak across the stage during his jetés like a black bolt of lightning. (Khozashvili even pulled off a tricky little sketch, played against the overture, in which Rothbart first casts his malevolent spell over the panicking Odette.)  The work from the corps of swans was, in contrast, gently transparent and controlled, while the pas de chat of the five little cygnets - Ji Young Chae, Shelby Elsbree, Rie Ichikawa, and Seo Hye Han - was delicate perfection.

One of Robert Perdziola's sketches for the production.
Back at court, Dusty  Button and Whitney Jensen were luminous as ever in the opening pas de trois, partnered by a newly confident and supple Roddy Doble; later standouts included a spirited pas de cinq from Ji Young Chae, Lia Cirio, Rie Ichikawa, Paul Craig and Patrick Yocum, and a buoyant Neapolitan dance from Dalay Parrondo and Isaac Akiba.  Here Perdziola's costumes were at their most dazzling, and were often studded with telling details (in one ironic touch, for instance, the princesses summoned to woo Prince Siegfried all sported feathers, too); and they sparkled against his most striking backdrop, a vertiginous view of the palace stairs and ceiling that Escher might have admired.  I think I preferred, however, his final gambit, a poetically spare sketch of the fateful, titular lake, a tiny moon above it, cast like a dime on the dark counter of the night, with a single moonbeam slipping from it like a silver spear.

Of course when it comes to a new version, the first question from a Swan Lake veteran is usually "How does it end?" For while tradition demands the ballet close with tragedy, its central conflict has sometimes been spun toward triumph. Nissinen seems to want things both ways, which doesn't quite satisfy - although part of the problem is that the lovers' final pact leads to something of a vanishing act, rather than a death-defying plunge or some similar stage coup. Oh, well - it was only one small misstep after dozens of dazzling ones!

And luckily there were even fewer errant notes down in the pit, where Jonathan McPhee conducted with a surging sort of sympathy, and the famously lush harp part was spun expertly by Kathleen Lyon-Pingree, as Barbara LaFitte's oboe glided just as yearningly as it should in Tchaikovsky's famous swan theme.  Like everyone involved in this production, they seemed to know they were polishing yet another jewel in the Ballet's growing crown of achievement.