MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

August Wilson’s Birthday

One of our very greatest playwrights would have turned 72 today.  He was only 60 when he died in Seattle in 2005.

From the New York Timesappreciation of August Wilson’s legacy:

In dialogue that married the complexity of jazz to the emotional power of the blues, he also argued eloquently for the importance of black Americans’ honoring the pain and passion in their history, not burying it to smooth the road to assimilation. For Mr. Wilson, it was imperative for black Americans to draw upon the moral and spiritual nobility of their ancestors’ struggles to inspire their own ongoing fight against the legacies of white racism.

And from the Paris Review in 1999, Wilson’s response to the question, “If you had to construct an imaginary playwright, with what qualities would you endow him or her?”

Honesty. Something to say and the courage to say it. The will and daring to accomplish great art. Craft. Craft is what makes the will and dating work and allows playwrights to shout or whisper as they choose. A painter who has not mastered line and form, mass, perspective and proportion, who does not understand the values and properties of color, is not going to produce interesting paintings no matter the weight and measure of his heart, or the speed and power of his intellect. I don’t think you can ever know too much about craft. So I would give your imaginary playwright a solid understanding of craft. All that is necessary then is ambition . . . which is as valid and valuable as anything else.

Filed under: American artists, August Wilson, theater

Brecht on Stage

Filed under: Brecht, theater

RIP Edward Albee (1928-2016)

Another great artist of our time is gone. From the New York Times obituary:

“All of my plays are about people missing the boat, closing down too young, coming to the end of their lives with regret at things not done, as opposed to things done,” he said in the 1991 Times interview. “I find most people spend too much time living as if they’re never going to die.”

Jeff Lunden for NPR:

“You know, if anybody wants me to say it, in one sentence, what my plays are about: They’re about the nature of identity,” he said. “Who we are, how we permit ourselves to be viewed, how we permit ourselves to view ourselves, how we practice identity or lack of identity.”

From Playbill:

His home in Manhattan was in a loft in a former egg warehouse in TriBeCa, which he bought long before the neighborhood became trendy. Always interested in art, he filled it with large African and pre-Columbian sculpture and abstract paintings.

Several years ago, before undergoing extensive surgery, Mr. Albee penned the following note to be issued at the time of his death: “To all of you who have made my being alive so wonderful, so exciting and so full, my thanks and all my love.”

 

Filed under: Edward Albee, theater

New Season, New Intendant at Luzerner Theater

luzerner-theater

Luzerner Theater transformed into a space inspired by Shakespeare’s Globe: iamge by David Röthlisberger

Lucerne Festival isn’t the only arts organization to have introduced major leadership changes this year: down the Bahnhofstrasse from the KKL and the train station, the 39-year-old Peter von Benedikt  has just begun his tenure as new Intendant of the Luzerner Theater (aka Stadttheater Luzern).

The original 19th-century institution opened in 1839 with (what else?) Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell. The Luzerner Theater now ranks as the oldest still-operating repertory theaterin Switzerland (offering a varied season of opera, ballet, plays, etc.).

After being gutted by a fire in 1924, the theater reopened in 1929; it has been renovated since — including in a recent rethink for von Benedikt’s first season. Among his plans are experimentation with new spaces, new reconfigurations of the theater.

The native Kölner von Benedikt arrives with impressive credentials and has a notable passion for opera. He was part of the directing team for the world premiere of Péter Eötvös’ operatic treatment of Angels in America, and in 2011 he won the Deutscher Theaterpreis Der Faust as best director in the music theater category for his staging of Luigi Nono’s Intolleranza 1960.

Nono was von Benedikt’s choice as well to open his first season with a new production of the Italian composer’s  Prometeo: A Tragedy of Listening from 1984 — talk about challenging your audience!

The choice is also unusual in terms of the relatively small space (400-plus seats) for a work that’s encountered (when it is encountered live) mostly in concert halls. For this production von Benedikt had the theater reorganized to mimic the multi-level Globe theater of Shakespeare’s day — and to encourage an intimate, “egalitarian” experience of Nono’s remarkable, one-of-a-kind music theater.

More from the company’s description:

Die Komposition handelt zwar von Prometheus, der aber nicht als Figur, sondern als Prinzip vertreten ist. Nono setzt dem Vorwärtsstreben, der Fortschrittsgläubigkeit desjenigen, der in der Mythologie den Menschen das Feuer bringt, das Langsame, Leise, das Unspektakuläre entgegen.

Nono und sein Librettist Cacciari benutzen Texte von u.a. Aischylos, Rilke oder Benjamin, die jedoch nur fragmentiert und in verschiedenen Sprachen präsentiert werden. Man soll sie nicht verstehen, sondern ihr Inhalt bildet den Hintergrund für etwas, was wir erahnen, erspüren mögen.

Sie umkreisen auf höchst abstrakte, dichterische Weise Fragen wie: Wie autonom ist der Mensch? Oder aus der Sicht der Antike formuliert: Wie ist das Verhältnis von den Götter und den Menschen. Was ist Bestimmung, was Schicksal, haben wir aus der Geschichte gelernt, gibt es im 20. Jahrhundert noch Utopien oder leben wir in einer Zeit, in der die Hoffnung auf Veränderung erloschen ist.

 

Filed under: theater

Common Ground at Maxim Gorki

Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theater launched its season last night with a reprise of the acclaimed Yael Ronen production Common Ground

Exploring with the aftermath of the fall of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, it’s the kind of ensemble piece that Gorki has made a signature.

Reviewing n earlier version of the work-in-progress two years ago, critic Anne Peter noted:

Ronens Theater weiß es nie besser und hält sich nicht heraus. Sein Trumpf ist Selbstironie. Immer befragt es auch die eigene Perspektive, stößt sich und uns auf unsere eigenen Widersprüche, ohne dabei mit irgendeiner “richtigen” Haltung vor unserer Nase umherzuwedeln. Kaum der Rede wert, dass bei dieser vom Publikum ausgiebig bejubelten Premiere noch nicht alles wie am Schnürchen lief, mancher Satz verhaspelt wurde. In einer Zeit, in der Europa auseinanderdriftet und sich entsolidarisiert, populistischer Nationalismus vielerorts erschreckend hoch im Kurs steht und die Ukraine ganz konkret vor einer möglichen Teilung steht, beschert uns Yael Ronen einen brennend wichtigen Abend.

If anything, Common Ground is proving even more relevant for the Europe of 2016.

 

Filed under: Maxim Gorki Theater, theater

Harold Pinter on Samuel Beckett

Filed under: Harold Pinter, playwrights, theater

Faust on the Brain

I’m still digesting Akropolis Performance Lab’s recent productionEcce Faustus, which is now tangling in my head with Mahler’s Eighth. I need to sort this out.

 

 

 

Filed under: Mahler, theater, themes

Before … and After … and Now: Rabih Mroué’s Riding on a Cloud

On the Boards_Rabih Mroue

Fans of experimental theater and performance art are likely to already have Rabih Mroué’s latest show on their radar: titled Riding on a Cloud, it opened last night at On the Boards and plays through Sunday. But anyone interested in the issues that theater is so ideally suited to explore should see this unclassifiable performance. Anyone interested in the paradoxical truce between fiction and reality that underlies the very impulse to make art.

The Beirut-based Mroué wields a beguiling mixture of provocation and poetry, using his medium to pose fundamentally human questions about the identities we invent and the stories we fabricate to make sense of our past and present reality.

In Riding on a Cloud Mroué turns to the story of his own family– specifically of the youngest sibling, Yasser. Near the end of the Lebanese Civil War, in 1987 (when he was 17), Yasser was shot in the head by an urban sniper. He survived improbable odds, forced to slowly relearn as a young adult the lessons he had tackled in kindergarten.

Along with aphasia, one side effect of Yasser’s injury is the loss of his ability to process representations: he could no longer recognize the image of a person or thing (say, in a photograph) when abstracted from the reality — even including photographs of himself.

But the story that Riding on a Cloud seeks to tell isn’t the story of the war’s endless cycles of violence and suffering. Aside from a few specifically political references, Mroué shows no interest in dissecting blame for the war in this piece. (Some of his other theater works address different aspects of the conflict.) Most importantly, Riding on a Cloud does not offer a feel-good dramatization of “the human condition” and our capacity to heal; it’s not an entertainment to stir up emotions and then offer redemptive resolution.

Mroué works with fragmentary scenes, stringing them together by way of loose associations rather than linear narrative logic. There are many narrative tangents — the coincidence of his grandfather, Hussein Mroué (a significant Arab-Marxist philosopher), being assassinated by fundamentalists on the same day Yasser is shot by the sniper, or the sexual kindness a Soviet nurse shows Yasser when he is recovering — but before we can become too invested in any one of them, Mroué shifts his focus to provoke a fresh set of questions.

Moreover, he frames the entire piece so that we’re continually reminded of the divergence between what we’re seeing and what it seems to represent: Mroué’s dramaturgy, in other words, seeks to mirror Yasser’s Oliver Sacks-like condition — to see in it a kind of metaphor for the condition of art.

Rabih Mroué has written the script that Yasser actually performs — in Arabic, with subtitles and accompanying visuals on a large screen centerstage. Both language and visuals serve as the playwright’s tools to undermine the naive unification of what is represented with reality.  To what extent are these Yasser’s autobiographical memories, in sync with the “I” onstage who re-enacts them through narrative?  Should we understand Yasser to be representing or playing “himself”? How much is fantasy?

Through most of the show, Yasser is stationed at a desk downstage right (reminiscent of Spalding Gray). From there, casually dressed, he operates a complicated regimen of discs and tapes: a turntablist spinning memories. His voice is beautifully hypnotic, his Arabic flowing with elegant rhythms and poetic clarity. (The title Riding on a Cloud apparently comes from one of Yasser’s poems.)

But on occasion Yasser unpredictably abandons the role of performer and walks behind the screen, reappearing as a spectator of its images, of the stage. This juggling act between inside-out, role playing and reality, gives Riding on a Cloud a subtle, quizzical tone that’s best reflected by the often silent, attentive audience. We are given no cues to guide us to the “appropriate” response (which, in theater-as-entertainment typically manifests in the catharsis of corporate laughter as a relieving signal that “we get it”).

Throughout the piece are woven more abstract, non-narrative segments that give a taste of Mroué’s other projects as a video and installation artist. (Riding on a Cloud just appeared at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and was performed last year at MOMA in New York City, which earlier exhibited his pigmented inkjet prints The Fall of a Hair: Blow Ups drawing on cell phone images of violence.)

We see a sequence of TV screen snow shots, all the more mesmerizing in their variety: random “noise” usually left to be ignored, that here suddenly seems to offer an important clue, if only we could unlock its meaning…. Is this the image of the representations Yasser confronted after his injury?

In another memorable image, a video close-ups on a piano keyboard as five fingers painstakingly pluck out a slow melody. Its simplicity evokes the radical concentration of Arvo Pärt.

By its nature Riding on a Cloud provokes an uneasiness — the show is driven by a series of questions that beget more questions in their wake — but Mroué leavens this remarkable material with a welcome blend of warmth, humor, and humility.

The effect overall is marvelously liberating: as the artist points out in a recent interview, when we are forced to question everything, to meet reality (including ourselves) as a stranger, that means we have to abandon cliches and stereotypes as well. “You have to introduce yourself to yourself again.”

(C)2016 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

 

Filed under: On the Boards, review, theater

American History, Taylor Mac Style

Taylor Mac

Taylor Mac

The performance phenomenon known as Taylor Mac has been riding a wave of more mainstream success of late.

A few seasons ago he was a smash in a remarkable production of Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechuan by the Foundry Theatre at the the New York Public Theatre (playing both Shen Te and Shui Ta). The run of Mac’s wild new play Hir at New York City’s Playwrights Horizons was recently extended — yikes, recognition by the global capitalist economy! — and Hir is showing up on several best-of-the-year lists. (The title of this darkly absurd comedy about a dysfunctional, moving-to-postgender family conflates “his” and “her,” though Mac’s own gender pronoun of preference rejects both of these in favor of the delightfully befuddling “judy.”)

And Mac is heading into 2016 with his most-ambitious project ever: A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (still in progress), which will ultimately comprise 24 concerts, each devoted to one of the 24 decades of the history of the United States (from 1776 through 2016).

Ultimately Mac plans to stitch these programs together into a single blow-out extravaganza of three acts, eight hours each, spread over a continuous 24 hours. Food and a medical tent are being promised; bring-your-own bedding is encouraged; communities will be forged.

You can sample an excerpt from the intended magnum opus in this weekend’s show at On the Boards, where Mac is making his belated debut.

At the opening last night, Mac offered a brief overview of the scheme: a string of popular songs, with each hours’ worth more or less representing a particular decade. Many are of course instantly recognizable numbers, but he’s mixed in some genuine obscurities (and will also be writing some of his own songs).

Mac also promises some spectacular diversions will be part of the still-gestating Gesamtkumstwerk. For example, last night he remarked that he’s come to see the necessity of including a skit for 24 Tiny Tims: “half of them the ukelele-playing Tiny Tim, and half the Charles Dickens type — as choreographed by my dear friend Susan Stroman. (But she doesn’t know that yet.)”

Actually, “a history of popular music” is a misnomer: the songs serve as vehicles for nothing less than Mac’s subversive, “subjective history” of the United States. Through his running commentary — with abundant use of audience collaboration — he de- and recontextualizes the songs.

Mac’s Seattle show involves a distillation of material from the larger project into a stand-alone concert focusing on the theme of “songs of the American right” across the decades.

The guiding conceit is to get the audience to enact a “ritual sacrifice”: Mac’s version, more or less, of catharsis, of which, admittedly, we’re all in need in these unsettling times.

Songs of the American Right wants to force us to face ugly moments in American social and political history and then, through Mac’s ironic deconstruction and parody, to enable the audience to exorcize the associated negativity in what he calls “a radical-fairy realness ritual.”

Backed in this show by a band of three musicians (piano, bass, and drums) and a local burlesque artist as guest performer, Mac morphed from standup comic to larger-than-life glitter queen to confrontational therapist. The show flows past several hiccups with an improvisatory rhythm.

He was clad in a fantastically overwrought, deliriously reflective costume, complete with a Lady Liberty crown, that was designed by Machine Dazzle (who’s crafting a different costume for each decade of the big show).

Mac had a sequence of topics in his sights: religious and political hive-think, capital punishment, gender conformity, sexual repression, civil rights, and homophobia.

Each of these he hooked onto associated songs, preserving the original lyrics but undermining them with his commentary and audience-participation frolics. (Don’t even  think of trying to weasel out by sitting in the most anonymous seat. You won’t succeed.)

Some of these were self-consciously gimmicky, but forgivably so thanks to Mac’s sheer humor and stage moxie and humor; some, like a call to a communal “high school same-sex prom dance” (where Mac insisted that the entire audience leave their seats and join together onstage, intended to “undo” the judgmentalism of Ted Nugent’s 1970s song “Snakeskin Cowboy”), introduced a fascinating dynamic of awkwardness and vulnerability.

That points to the real flavor of Songs of the American Right — and of  Mac’s overall aesthetic. This is an artist not interested in offering a polished “product” to his audience to consume as performance. Some segments of his show were less polished, less persuasive, some were too drawn out. The historical points are intentionally exaggerated, at times sledgehammer fashion. (“What is there about this,” he asked, pointed to his costume, “that says ‘lack of hyperbole?!'”) But for Mac, a “mixed” experience is more authentic than precision-engineered illusions of perfection.

Mac sang a few well-known icons, like “An Okie from Muskogee” and the opening “Amazing Grace”, sung to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun.” But many songs on his set list were historical curiosities, doubtless first-time discoveries for the audience: “Christ the Apple Tree” (a pious hymn popular in the 1790s), the 1920s tune “Masculine Women! Feminine Men!” and the anti-war song from the WWI era, ““I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier” (cleverly set off against its “right-wing” counterpart urging manly men to go to war).

Mac wasn’t too concerned about a literal association of each song with a “conservative” perspective. “Amazing Grace” became a symbol for the topic of churchgoing conformity — “one of the few kinds of rituals we still have in America, like sports,” Mac said. “Where everyone’s on the same team, and it’s homogenous.”

As with the anti-war/pro-war song confrontation from the early 20th century, he counterpointed the racism of Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” with Nina Simone’s defiant “Mississippi Goddamn” in one of the show’s most electrifying highlights.

And does judy have pipes: Mac’s remarkably versatile vocal stylings were grounded throughout in charismatic musicianship. In a touching encore, Mac rose high above the audience, perched on a stool, leading a group-sing of Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power” — gently yielding the reins to the assembled crowd.

–(C)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: performance, review, theater

Nothing Human Is Alien: A Poignant Mother Courage and Her Children at Seattle Shakespeare

 Trick Danneker, Chesa Greene, Jeanne Paulsen, and Spencer Hamp; photo by John Ulman

Trick Danneker, Chesa Greene, Jeanne Paulsen, and Spencer Hamp; photo by John Ulman

One of the shows on my personal most-anticipated list for the season opened Friday, and I’m still digesting the experience. Staging Mother Courage and Her Children, which is on the boards now at Seattle Shakespeare Company, is not an effort to be undertaken lightly. This is, aside from their 2011 production of The Threepenny Opera, Seattle Shakes’ first time out with the work of Bertolt Brecht.

Obviously at home with the dislocations and built-in “alienation effects” inherent in Shakespearean dramaturgy, the company brings to the challenge a valuable perspective from its long experience with the Bard.

An unconventional, class-focused production of Coriolanus that Bertolt Brecht saw in Berlin in the 1920s (directed by Erich Engel) was, after all, one of the formative influences on the German playwright’s ideas for a radically new kind of theater.

Directed by Jeff Steitzer, this production uses the acclaimed translation David Hare prepared for a Royal National Theatre production in 1995 (directed by Jonathan Kent).

That choice establishes a basic interpretive grid from the outset. Hare’s version underlines the caustic, cynical humor of the text, mostly leavening any hint of preachiness in the longer philosophical asides with a theatrical tartness reminiscent of Samuel Beckett. Could it be that some variety of humor — the more acid-etched, the better — is our preferred modern form of “alienation”?

A couple of topical references depressingly bring home how little has changed over the past two decades. In fact the most “Brechtian” aspect of this Mother Courage might be how it shows the ease with which the condition of war becomes normalized — in the ways it gets talked, even joked, about, justified, maneuvered around.

No matter how far we like to think we’ve advanced since Brecht’s masterpiece was first produced in 1941 (in neutral Zurich, in the middle of war-torn Europe) — or since the play’s setting in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), for that matter — the headline news of today’s refugees unnervingly echoes the grim plight of those caught up in those historical conflicts.

Jeanne Paulsen as Mother Courage; photo by John Ulman

Jeanne Paulsen as Mother Courage; photo by John Ulman

Mother Courage is a play, and a project, riddled with paradoxes that are necessarily insoluble — starting with Brecht’s theoretical aims versus realizing the play in praxis. One of these is the (very Shakespearean) ensemble nature of the work which at the same time requires a “star” quality performance to make the role of Anna Fierling (nicknamed “Mother Courage”) work properly.

That’s what Jeanne Paulsen delivers in her unflinching, gritty, sentimentality-proof portrayal of the intrepid matriarch whose idée fixe is to make a living and get her three children — Eilif, Swiss Cheese, and Kattrin — through the war.

But the living she makes by trading from her moveable canteen turns out to be most profitable when nations are at war, so Mother Courage is not to be thought of merely as a pitiable victim of the violence — even if she ends up losing all three children to it.

That’s the paradox anyone who takes on the role has to cope with, and Paulsen emphasizes how this contradiction has hardened Anna into a position where her own cynicism is among her most potent weapons of self-defense.

Paulsen’s steely-tempered Anna delivers her repartees with the deadpan timing of a 17th-century Bea Arthur. She has no need of a Shakespearean fool — it’s the character inside her who comes out with devastatingly witty responses to the war. We see Paulsen’s Mother Courage endure unbearably cruel experiences, yet at her core she’s already been numbed from the beginning.

Seattle Shakes has assembled an admirably strong cast to counterbalance Anna’s powerful personality with other vivid character portrayals and effectively paced ensemble work.

R. Hamilton Wright and Larry Paulsen; photo by John Ulman

R. Hamilton Wright and Larry Paulsen; photo by John Ulman

Trick Danneker gives the elder son Eilif a touch of a dark-spirited Candide, swiftly corrupted by his success at slaughter but too slow to learn the rule of moral relativism that holds sway. Spencer Hemp plays the good-natured Swiss Cheese like the ill-fated hero of a Brechtian fable. As the mute, genuinely heroic daughter Kattrin (in a world where heroism is a sick joke), Chesa Greene does superb work inhabiting her character to life with only gestures and body language.

Larry Paulsen, who accompanies Mother Courage through many of the play’s peripatetic sequence of scenes, reveals the complexity Brecht built into the Chaplain — exactly the sort of character you initially expect to remain a nasty caricature of the evils of religion doubling as an excuse-maker for war. While he doesn’t disguise the Chaplain’s cowardice and opportunism, Paulsen underscores his contradictions, which are almost as imposing as Anna’s — including a sense of compassion he develops in contrast to her stuck-in-place cold-heartedness.

R. Hamilton Wright makes a terrific Cook, an everyman with a well-developed carapace of cynicism as well as a philosophical streak that can match Anna. Alyssa Keene’s Yvette, showing her own ways to profit from the war, also brings to mind a few scenes of Candide in her cartoonish arc from pneumatic camp prostitute to plump, rich widow.

Reacting to the first of her children’s deaths (just before the one intermission taken in this production), Paulsen retreats inside her wagon and lets out a searing cry of anguish — heard but never seen, for as Mother Courage her entire survival strategy requires a constant facade of acting, never revealing true emotion.

Jeanne Paulsen and Chesa Greene; photo by John Ulman

Jeanne Paulsen and Chesa Greene; photo by John Ulman

It’s a wrenching moment that crystallizes the larger issue that looms over any production of this play: the paradox of Brecht’s epic theater of ironic emotional detachment versus the urge to feel sympathy for Anna. Steitzer’s staging essentially opts to set this contradiction aside, with only a few token efforts at creating “alienation”: the bare-bones set design with curtain (Craig B. Wollam) and some over-the-top stylizations of ancillary characters like the Commander-in-Chief Bill Johns) who mentors his young warrior Eilif.

Otherwise the dramaturgy and design (including Doris Black’s period costumes and Rick Paulsen’s lighting) aren’t really too far off from the staging of a Shakespeare play.

The one area where I’d most expect the distancing to be played up — the songs — represents the production’s weakest aspect. Oddly, there’s no clear credit in the program for the composer of the new songs (not Paul Dessau’s), just a reference to Robertson Witmer for “music arrangements.” In any case, the score offers little more than pallid imitation Kurt Weill. The pre-recorded tracks sound a bit too canned and, not surprisingly, inspire lackluster singing at best. (Seattle Shakes’ blog posts a playlist of songs from various Brecht plays.)

That aside, Seattle Shakes has achieved a powerful and thoroughly engaging theatrical interpretation of a show that tends to be more revered as a “classic” than actually experienced, particularly by American audiences. Anyone bothered by the deviations from Brecht’s principles would do well to remember that the playwright himself believed the classics like Shakespeare only survived through “sacrilege.”

If you go: Seattle Shakespeare’s production of Mother Courage and Her Children plays at the Center Theatre at Seattle Center (305 Harrison Street, Seattle) through 22 November 2015. Tickets here.

–(c)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Brecht, review, Shakespeare, theater

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