MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Frank Castorf at Berliner Ensemble

For his first major post-Volksbühne production in Berlin, Frank Castorf has staged a version of Les Misérables at the Berliner Ensemble. It inaugurates a new relationship with BE, which itself is now its first season under Oliver Reese (following the quarter-century tenure of Claus Peymann).

Castorf brings his signature approach to Victor Hugo’s epic (whether in the full c. eight-hour “director’s cut” or “shortened” to a six-hour staging), blending characters and narrative threads from the novel with oblique references to Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s portrait of pre-revolutionary Cuba in Tres Tristes Tigres to generate a montage-like dream state of non-linear associations. The connection with the barricades of the 1848 Revolution in Paris has to do with Hugo’s pronounced support of Cuban freedom fighters.

The usual Castorf technical apparatus plays a central role: close-up real-time filming of the actors projected onto a large screen, using a fantastically lit rotating stage representing a Cuban cigar factory facade, a market stall, a sort of storage area, and a watchtower.

Excesses of physical exertion, emotion, reaction punctuate the theatrical rhythm to overwhelming, at times stupefying, effect. The most indelible performance of many highlights for me came from 85-year-old Jürgen Holtz, playing both Marius’ grandfather–in a nearly-half-hour-long opening monolog on the metaphoric sewers of Paris–and Bishop Myriel. Holtz’s portrayal of the latter’s compassion as an agent of social justice is theater at its most compelling.

Filed under: Frank Castorf, theater

Krapp’s Last Tape

Getting in the mood for Beckett tonight at Edinburgh International Festival.

And companion piece Not I:

 

Filed under: theater

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

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