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Coriolanus, on the Boston Common (Photo: Tamir Kalifa for the Boston Globe)

How invigorating to revisit something you thought you knew (and might have dismissed as “been there, done that”) and find it utterly compelling. That was my response after seeing the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s production of Coriolanus last night. Not one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, this wasn’t an evening I was expecting to offer as powerful a punch as Steven Maler‘s previous Shakespeare on the Common productions (Last year’s All’s Well that Ends Well, and Othello from 2010.)

But Maler’s instinct to direct this particular play at a time when our political discourse is so partisan and acrimonious is spot on. In Maler’s words:

Demonstrations in the street, politicians jockeying for the loyalty of the populace, consolidation of wealth, tension between the “have’s” and the have not’s” – 2011, right? No, this is the world of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, perhaps Shakespeare’s most political play. The play explores the quixotic and symbiotic connection between the governed and the governors – an issue echoing around the globe in the Arab Spring and in our 2012 presidential election. Coriolanus will capture the energy and passion of the community as we determine leadership of our country for the next four years.

Kudos all around. This production is taut and masterful. The casting is inspired, and both leads are better than any other production of this play I have seen previously. East Bridgewater native by way of Yale Drama School Nicholas Carreire has the physical stature so apropos for the willful Coriolanus (Carreire is a head taller than almost everyone else in the cast) and whenever he is on stage, you get a visceral sense of his unbridled will. Coriolanus is not a introspective character whose thoughts are shared through Hamlet-like soliloquies. He’s a force of nature, and Carreire plays that energy through to the end. Karen McDonald, one of the hardest working actors in Boston (and we are so lucky to have her here), is an unforgettable Volumnia, Coriolanus’ mother. Maler, an accessible and engaging guy who can usually be seen out among the crowd before the performance begins, just keeps hitting it out of the park.

Coriolanus may not be on your Shakespeare’s Top Ten. But for those of you in or around Boston, do not miss this production. Playing through August 12.

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The cast of Woody Sez (Photo: Wendy Mutz)

One of the things I love about India is that the stories most sacred to the culture are preserved everywhere. From street shrines to oversized temple statues, references to the ancient Sanskrit epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are ubiquitous. After a while even interlopers like me get good at finding Rama, the Monkey King Hanuman and the Demon Ravana.

Those songlines run deep in subcontinental consciousness, but they also remind me that we have songlines of our own even if they are not quite as ancient. One of the stories most Americans know is about the Great Depression and the devastation of the Dust Bowl. Drought and farming practices in the 1930s led to the loss of millions of acres of farmland, forcing hundreds of thousands of “Okies” to become homeless migrants in search of work at a time when jobs were scarce.

Woody Guthrie lived through the indignities of that era, writing music that came to stand for the rights of the disenfranchised. He believed in “singing for the plain folks and getting tough with the rich folks.” Guthrie lived what he wrote, and his music was for those who were living the “left out” life too. Without Guthrie we have no Pete Seeger, no music of protest, no Bob Dylan. He’s our lynchpin.

Woody Sez, currently at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge before heading next to Germany (cool!) and Chicago, is an unforgettable retelling of that American epic story through the life of Woodrow Wilson Guthrie. A quartet of multi-talented performers—David Lutken, Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russell and Andy Teirstein—will grab you from the get go and never let you go. The music is nonstop, and every member of this high energy, well-rehearsed quartet can sing and play muliple instruments. The staging is simple and the set unadorned, just as it should be. And just as Woody would have wanted it.

The relevance of this story for today’s times is powerful. To state the obvious—that we live in a culture that rewards greed, selfishness and personal aggrandizement at any cost—often ends up sounding like a broken record that no longer has any bite. But watching this performance put our American songline of injustice and income inequality into a context that is much deeper and more profound than I had expected.

I absolutely loved seeing Woody Sez, and I would recommend it to everyone.

A few examples of Woody Sez:

***
Was a great high wall there that tried to stop me, A sign was painted said: “Private Property”, But on the back side, it didn’t say nothing. That side was made for you and me.

***
Life has got a habit of not standing hitched. You got to ride it like you find it. You got to change with it. If a day goes by that don’t change some of your old notions for new ones, that is just about like trying to milk a dead cow.

***
I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim or too ugly or too this or too that.

***
It’s round the world I’ve traveled; it’s round the world I’ve roamed; but I’ve yet to see an outlaw drive a family from its home.

***
If you play more than two chords, you’re showing off.


Guthrie in 1944 (Photo: Associated Press)

Three Pianos, currently playing at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, is another successful production in line with the theatrical proclivities of artistic director Diane Paulus—theatrical mastery, audience engagement, crisp production values, meaningful content (and context,) and the delivery of an evening out that is both fun and informatively rich.

Paulus has demonstrated a deft hand at finding ways to present existing works of art with a new front end. In Gatz, The Great Gatsby is given a streamlined, ironic and contemporary face. Sleep No More offers up Macbeth as a dreamlike and myth-laden tale. The Donkey Show finds a sweet spot in the disco era for Midsummer Night’s Dream. Productions of canonical works, like Porgy and Bess and Cabaret, are framed bravely within more contemporary memes.

This is not an approach unique to ART or to Paulus. Shakespeare is so fluid that many productions easily move his plays into a variety of historical eras. (Recent productions of All’s Well that Ends Well and Othello by Shakespeare on the Common come to mind.) And Mabou Mines’ recent production of A Doll’s House shifted the experience of Ibsen’s play inexorably by simply casting dwarfs to play all the male characters.

In the case of Three Pianos, the work of art at the heart of the production is Winterreise (Winter Journey), the extraordinary song cycle by Franz Schubert. From that set of 24 songs written in the last year of Schubert’s short life (he died at 31), an entire era is recreated—the political repression in Vienna, the absence of artistic patronage, the brotherhood of artists, the emergence of new forms of the romantic poem and song writing. At gatherings of likeminded artists with Schubert at the center (called Schubertiades by Schubert’s close friends), the concept of the salon was adapted for a more subversive clientele. Poetry, music, camaraderie and ribald adventure came together in a participatory and collaborative way. Rick Burkhardt, Alec Duffy and Dave Malloy have stepped back into that form and created a theatrical event that pays a very heartfelt homage to Schubert, his music and his circle.

Offering every audience member a drink upon arrival as well as continuously throughout the production may sound like a fey device. But it isn’t. Boundaries between the audience and the stage fade as these three actor/musicians take us through the songs of the cycle. There are moments in this journey that are as musically informative as a lecture by Robert Greenberg. The ability to keep the flow fresh and engaging feels well worked, carefully honed and delivered. As characterizations bounce back and forth effortlessly between current time and the early 1800s, the similarities as well as differences in these two eras start to take form. Lots of relevant topics come up in this fast paced production like how should artistic works of the past be accessed, the difference between high brow vs low brow art forms, the constraints of canonical narrowness, the importance of context, how any work of art comes to reflect our own cultural proclivities. And little known facts as well. Who knew the portly Schubert was nicknamed Schwammerl (mushroom)—by his friends?

What’s more, the set is visually lush. The stage is full of iconic references—a miniature house, leafless trees, a graveyard (and other landscape features described in the poems of the song cycle), with pianos that move about freely to form a bar, a prison, a bed, a coffin.

I share my birthday with Schubert. Even as a small child I felt a connection with him and his music. We grew up singing Schubert lieder, and Winterreise was always one of my favorites. The next time we gather to sing that cycle, it will feel substantially different to me—richer, more nuanced, even more personal.

The production runs through January 8.


Rick Burkhardt, Dave Malloy, and Alec Duffy in ‘Three Pianos.’ (Ryan Jensen)


Dr. Pangloss and Candide, from the production playing at the Huntington Theater

Writing and thinking about T. S. Eliot (see my previous post) has engaged me in thoughts about what is timeless and why certain works of art just keep speaking to generation after generation. It is an esoteric chemistry, what must come together for a creation to ride out on the front edge of that wave that travels through time, never getting sucked into the downward pull of the regenerative curl that keeps surfacing what’s new.

Mary Zimmerman‘s production of Candide (currently playing at the Huntington Theater in Boston after previous engagements in Chicago and Washington) presents a version of Voltaire‘s “schoolboy’s farce” (but, as Zimmerman has said, it is the schoolboy’s farce of a genius) that feels so contemporary I had to keep reminding myself it was actually written in the 18th century. Yes, Voltaire’s Candide has a checkered past—banned and celebrated, reviled and adored, philosophical inquiry as well as a satirical farce, allegorical and yet based on true events—and does not have the high polish of a carefully constructed work. But that unfinished quality may also be part of why it feels accessible to audiences hundreds of years after Europe was struggling through the Seven Years’ War and the 1755 Lisbon earthquake.

How could Voltaire capture the particular nature of Tea Party crazy talk that we are all enduring these days? How could he have captured so accurately the quality of our times—living through calamity after calamity, helplessly witnessing one injustice after another, of naive (and destructive) assumptions about god and human nature, of the perils of optimism as a economic strategy? The characters and attitudes in this tale are all too familiar. And my guess is they will be 100 years from now as well.

Adaptation and interpretation. It’s an issue that visual artists only deal with occasionally. But this is a topic that looms large in musical performances and in theater. And what is given license at any given time to be adapted and “updated” is often not clear cut or logical.

The keepers of our collective theatrical wisdom—from New York critics to composer Stephen Sondheim—have been involved in a heated “adaptation kerfuffle” about Diane Paulus‘ latest ballsy gesture, an “excavating and shaping and modernizing” (Paulus’ words) of Porgy and Bess (or as it is being called at the American Repertory Theater before going to Broadway in December, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.) She assembled a blue ribbon team to work with her on this revision: Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks; composer Diedre L Murray; choreographer Ronald K. Brown; and a cast that includes the luminous Audra McDonald, Norm Lewis, David Alan Grier and Philip Boykin, along with a very talented corps of singers and dancers.

I am not a preservationist or a conservator by nature, so the concerns some have about tradition and the need to keep a work in tact are not mine. I am enlivened by modern dress Shakespeare productions or the contemporizing of an ancient Greek drama. Fresh versions of familiar musical classics mostly delight, not offend. So much of the indignation has seemed misplaced to me, especially considering the volatile history of Porgy and Bess since its first performance in 1935 (which, coincidentally, took place at the Colonial Theater in Boston.)

In the collection of essays and interviews that have been assembled for a viewer’s guide, Henry Louis Gates Jr acknowledges his own previous contempt for this opera written by a white man about African Americans: “The story was a relic of an ugly past—not the real past of African-Americans, but rather the Hollywood-imagined past of black folks. The coke fiends, the pimps, the broken black man at the center…no thank you.”

He includes a few other quotes:

Porgy and Bess belongs in a museum and no self-respecting African-American should want to see it, or be seen in it.

Harold Cruise, sociologist

The times are here to debunk Gershwin’s lampblack Negroisms.

Duke Ellington

But as Gates goes on to say:

I don’t share those views anymore, and now I see a character like Sportin’ Life, who used to make my skin crawl, as being in a long line of tricksters—a figure whose performance of duplicity, whose “shuckin’ and jivin’,” is very much part of the African-American literary tradition, and even part of a history of resistance.

Suzan-Lori Parks’ comments about her approach to the work are also insightful:

Different things need to be adapted and changed for different reasons. There are several what I would consider “anthropological moments” in the original, meaning moments created by people who were probably not deeply familiar with any African-American community…These days our culture is more inclusive and familiar across the board so those “anthropological moments” aren’t as necessary.

It is a complicated relationship we have with a work like Porgy & Bess. It requires special handing to respect the prevaling ethos on race and gender, even more than with modern productions of The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew. In addition to that complex navigational challenge, Paulus has also set out to shift the work from opera to musical theater:

Our version of Porgy and Bess takes this work out of the opera house and brings it to the musical theater stage, where we will focus on creating an intimate experience that puts the spotlight on the characters and the story.

There are moments in this new production when these alterations feel a bit unsteady. But if you populate the stage with extraordinarily talented performers—led by a stellar portrayal of Bess by Audra McDonald—you make a night at the theater that is memorable and moving.

McDonald makes Bess comprehensible in a way she never has been for me before. I resonated with Ben Brantley’s description of her performance in his review (which was decidedly mixed) from the New York Times on Friday:

Her scarred, shapely Bess is a heartbreaking mélange of audacity and trepidation. She is like a feral cat who has known years of abuse and is now frightened but tempted by the prospect of a real home…So many of its lyrics have to do with love and home and life itself as provisional and fleeting. The uncertainty on Ms. McDonald’s face and the fear that pulses in her voice register the toll of such profound impermanence.

She’s the sine qua non Bess for me, replacing all previous performers.

Thumbs up if you get the chance. Tickets for the run in Boston (though October 2) are selling fast. The house on Wednesday was sold out and jumped up at the end to give the cast an exuberant standing ovation.


Patsy Rodenburg

Patsy Rodenburg, acting coach extraordinare and author of a number of books including one of my favorites, The Second Circle, has a six minute video posted on YouTube. This short piece could be viewed daily, a quick reminder of how to constellate your day. Her message is simple: Show up. Be present. Be in the moment. Engaged. Connected. “I think we are losing our presence as a society,” she warns.

Yes, her focus is on acting and actors. About how they are important in society because they are trained to be in the moment, now. To stay in that “second circle” which is that place of being present. In this clip Rodenburg tells the story of a very successful woman whose son committed suicide and then shared this insight with Rodenburg: “The only people who could deal with me in my loss were actors. They were the only ones who knocked on the door, came in and were present with me.”

My hermetic life in the studio is a far cry from being on stage, but Rodenburg’s message has a universality that inspires: “If you cannot get present, you cannot succeed.”


Will LeBow as the King of France in All’s Well That Ends Well, now playing on the Boston Common

Do not miss the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company‘s production of All’s Well That End’s Well, free on the Common through August 14. Last year’s production of Othello with Seth Gilliam and James Waterston (reviewed here) was spectacular and raised expectations for this year’s performance. Steven Maler (who also directed Othello) has pulled off yet another winning production with one of Shakespeare’s more challenging plays.

The cast includes familiar faces for Boston theatergoers. The tireless Karen MacDonald—a founding member of American Repertory Theatre and seen this year in The Huntington’s Bus Stop the Speakeasy’s The Drowsy Chaperone among other productions—is the Countess. Other ART alumni in the production include Remo Airaldi (Lafew) and Will LeBow (the King of France). A number of other members of the cast have performed in earlier CSC productions in Boston. Kersti Bryan‘s Helena is pitch perfect in navigating the polarities of Helena as pathetic on one side and a manipulative wench on the other. Yes, the case could be made that she is both—this isn’t a pleasing portrait of marriage after all—but Bryan gives Helena a Meryl Streepian grace in the face of less-than-becoming circumstances. Nick Dillenburg‘s Bertram is successful at bringing us along as his character’s moves to a more mature and conscious place.

Jon Savage‘s set is simple but ingenious. A lazy Susan circular wedge brings sets and characters off and on with an effortlessness that is in keeping with the minimal staging. The costumes work well with the overall aesthetic.

There are some directors who “get” how to bring Shakespearian English into our current language idiom without the esoterics of footnotes and commentary that are often needed in a read through of the plays. It has something to do with phrasing and inflection. This was demonstrated for me when my daughter was 11 years old and we watched Kenneth Branagh‘s Much Ado About Nothing together. This was her first exposure to an entire Shakespeare play, but Branagh rendered the language so comprehensibly that she fell into its rhythms effortlessly and has been Shakespeare-enabled (and Shakespeare passionate) ever since.

Steven Maler has that gift too. Both Othello and All’s Well succeed in achieving a theatrical experience that anyone wandering onto the Common—Shakespeare conversant or not—would find accessible, compelling, funny, profound.

I’m going again this weekend and looking forward to a second helping.


Death and the Powers uses new performance techniques and an animated set, including a musical chandelier with dozens of Teflon strings that can be played by the performers. (Jill Steinberg)

What is it about live theater that is so compelling? Don’t answer that question, just indulge me while I ask it over and over again. It is the mystery of theater and what happens when you are there, in the flesh, that inspires, delights, excites, clarifies. I don’t really want to know why, I just want lots of it in my life.

And lately I have had lots. Not every performance hit the high notes for me, but there is always something that leaves a mark. I have a personal testimony of learning from mistakes as well as failure.

After seeing Elevator Repair Service‘s Gatz last year and being completely overwhelmed by its brilliance (I wrote about it here), I was eager to see another ERS production. Their latest performance in Boston is another mining of the sensibilities of the 1920s. The Select (The Sun Also Rises), is an adaptation (as opposed to the Gatz’s verbatim recitation of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby) of the ennui-ridden, disaffected characters of Hemingway’s novel. Gatz it is not. But then nothing could be, that perfect marriage of a brilliant novel with a theatrical skin that had been lovingly wrought, smooth surfaced and flawless. Yes, The Select has the theatrical staging that is becoming signatory for ERS—streamlined but highly flexible, fluid and yet sharp, clever but not too much so. But that elemental seduction that I love, where the story and the characters cross over and become a part of your internal landscape—that didn’t happen for me with this production. I watched for the moments that worked well theatrically, but it wasn’t an immersive experience.

Neither was Prometheus Bound, ART’s latest production in their alternative Oberon space. It is high energy, with a musical score that is accessible and tuneful, theatrics that are full gestured and high gloss (in a fun way), and the audience participates by being herded around on the performance floor. The subject matter is serious—abuse of power, betrayal, the evil of tyranny, torture—but a rock opera approach can only take you so far into that deeply sobering set of issues. But a spirited and full-bodied experience even so.

Boston has been abuzz with the premiere of Death and the Powers: The Robots’ Opera. The project belongs to MIT professor, composer and inventor Tod Machover (who was a gifted cellist when I knew him as an undergrad at UC Santa Cruz) but Machover aligned himself with a stellar cast of mostly Boston-based collaborators: a libretto by Robert Pinsky, directed by ART’s Diane Paulus, production design by Alex McDowell and conducted by BMOP’s (Boston Modern Orchestra Project) Gil Rose.

The story and set up sounded compelling to me: Robots play out their version of a passion play for digital entities in the future whose ancestral human creators have since fled. The story is full of concepts that are incomprehensible to these digital beings, like death and suffering. As the robots take on these human roles and play out the drama, provocative themes and characters are introduced; a billionaire who wants to skip out on death and just move his essence into a digital form (referred to as The System and functions as a kind of fully ambient presence that lives in the walls); a disabled assistant whose functionality has been saved by technology; the wife left behind who longs for the body as well as the essence of her husband; and the dutiful Cordelia-like daughter who holds a compass of human consciousness for all the characters. When I read about the opera, I imagined that this could be full of the metaphysical explorations that were so moving in earlier works by Robert Wilson’s works (Einstein on the Beach, the CIVIL warS) and Philip Glass (his Portrait Trilogy—Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha and Akhnaten).

Musically the performance was masterful. Machover’s blending of the electronic and the instrumental was richly textured and lush. The orchestra sounded spectacular under Gil Rose’s direction. But the libretto, offered up in superscript, was mundane and uninspiring, as small in stature as the music was big. The hopes for a poetic provocation were undelivered. I like the word my partner Dave used to describe its overall tone: indelicate.

While the technical advances employed have been talked about a lot (Machover heads up the Opera of the Future group at MIT), those techniques could not –and should not—shore up the sagging in other critical areas. Once again I was glad I was there, but I learned more from what didn’t work than what did. Which isn’t nothing.


R. Buckminster Fuller

Content-rich theater is hard to do. Tom Stoppard is probably our most exemplary contemporary playwright of that genre. In so many of his plays, ideas and intellectual constructs take on theatrical forms, functioning almost as characters in the story. The Stoppard experience is deeply layered and yet neither didactic nor instructional. Which is why you (OK, I should say me) can watch the Coast of Utopia trilogy in marathon mode (7 hours) and still be longing to return the next day and do it all over again.

A. R. T.’s current offering at the Loeb Theater is a content-rich theatrical venture as well and one that I would recommend to anyone in the Boston area who has been able to dig their car out of the snowdrifts or is lucky enough to live within the reach of the T. R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe, the long overdue homage to an extraordinary thinker, is performed as a one man play. Thomas Derrah is an uncanny channel for the quirky mannerisms and squaresville attire that seduces you into the playful, provocative and profound world of Bucky Fullerama. He was a man who spent a lifetime seeing things upsidedown and insideout, of bucking (he was well named!) against established norms—including his dismissal from Harvard not once but twice—and unpacking and debunking everyday assumptions. His world view, startling and mind-stretching even back in the 60s when startling and mind-stretching were the norm, feels prescient and timely given our current time and troubles. The production is chock full of mind teasers and provocations, delivered through words and a few well placed and expertly executed visual aids. But like Stoppard’s plays, D. W. Jacob’s production does not feel didactic or intellectually detached, and Derrah holds the sold out audience rapt.

I heard Bucky speak twice when I was a teenager. I was so taken by what I heard that I read everything he wrote and carried his ideas around for the rest of my life. Some viewed him as just plain off the grid, one of those types I affectionately refer to as “scientists gone galactic.” He was cut out of a different piece of cosmic cloth from his bureaucratic, gatekeeper cohorts, no question. But the course of time has taken us closer to his viewpoint than most of his detractors back in the 50s and 60s would have ever imagined possible.

And in keeping with a theme that has been running through my posts here over the last few months, Bucky’s life is another example of lastingness, of someone who was at his best in the second half of his life. His story is full of early failures. At one point in his 30s. he had been thwarted so profoundly that he decided to stop speaking altogether. He wanted every word he uttered to be authentic, defensible, carefully honed. So for two years he said very little. Slowly he reshaped and reclaimed a voice for himself. And once he did find his pitch perfect tuning, he couldn’t be stopped. Both of the Bucky lectures I attended went on for four hours without stopping. He was in his 70s at that time, but the energy he gave off was electric and irresistible.

Recently I asked my college-aged friends if they knew who he was, and almost all of them said no. It is high time to bring Bucky back for another age and another generation.

I’m short on words these day. Sometimes language goes flat for me when I need to hibernate or retreat from everyone and everything. Sometimes it happens when the center of gravity in my life becomes extremely image-based. Sometimes it is a sign of a nascent percolation deep inside, that odd sense that something is showing up and it just won’t allow visitors. Not just yet.

So those are good times to just point. And here are a few:

A good review of the National Theater’s production of Fela!, broadcasted internationally through the efforts of National Theater Live (we saw it at Coolidge Theater last night) on the wonderfully named blog, Monobrow.

A thoughtful piece about wisdom and babes by friend Sally Reed on her consistently well done site, Butter and Lightning.

A wonderful poem by blogger/poet/curator/entrepreneur/friend Maureen Doallas on her best of everything site, Writing Without Paper. This poem features Clydesales, one of my favorite metaphors to describe those of us who were taught the virtue of hard work, often with blinders.

And thank you to Lynette Haggard, an artist and writer who periodically interviews other artists. She recently did one with me on her blog, Lynette Haggard.