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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)

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.

I have written on this blog about several of the productions from Diane Paulus’ first season as artistic director at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge: The tantalizingly beguiling Sleep No More from UK-based theater company Punchdrunk; the stunningly brilliant Gatz, an unforgettable verbatim performance of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby; and Paradise Lost, Cliffford Odets’ quintessentially American play about the Great Depression. Also produced this season—The Donkey Show and Best of Both Worlds.

The closing performance for Paulus’ maiden voyage at the A.R.T helm is a newly minted musical about baseball, the American experience and the Red Sox, Johnny Baseball. The populist leanings of this production are in keeping with the theatrical change of direction under Paulus’ leadership. Those proclivities are being played out off stage as well with the Fenway Park-like atmosphere that includes hot dog, pretzel and beer vendors in the lobby.

As a subscriber to A.R.T. for over 30 years, I view this year’s season as the most dramatic departure from A.R.T.’s theatrical past that I have seen. There is no question that Paulus is a force of nature—razor smart, charismatic and highly energetic—and her views on what theater should be are strongly held. She is insistent about bringing art closer to the average person, chipping away at the gap that has in many ways widened between artist and audience in this postmodern culture. It’s a little like moving from the artsy “theatre” variant back to its straight up American spelling.

What has amazed me is that even though Paulus’ advocacy has been stated quite clearly, the season’s performances have been wide ranging and extremely varied. Her proselytizing point of view has not resulted in theatrical experiences that all feel the same, a problem that has plagued numerous companies with visionary and/or ideological artistic directors. Each A.R.T. production has been its own variant on Paulus’ intention to produce theater that feels participatory, not detached; alive, not anesthetized; connected to our humanness rather than to our heads.

A few years back, before Paulus arrived at A.R.T., I was asked to participate in a theater devotees focus group to talk about the overall theater scene in Boston. Assembled in the room were the most serious theatergoers I’ve ever met outside of New York City. This was a gathering of those kind of theater buffs who knew the inside scoop on what was happening with every company, which directors had board support and which were caught in political crossfire, and of course the inevitable gossip about who was sleeping with whom. They were in a completely different league of devotional theatergoing from me.

What surprised me most about that experience however was how vociferously they hated A.R.T., all 11 of them. I was the only A.R.T. advocate in the room. And I couldn’t get any of them to buy my arguments in A.R.T’s defense—that risk taking is an essential part of great art making, or that no other theater company in Boston had been willing to step out into the stark and slightly scary world of contemporary playwriting and producing. They hated A.R.T’s theatrical mindset—cerebral, Cambridge elitist, inaccessible, insular, smug.

I left that night with my allegiance to A.R.T. even more emblazoned than it had been before. I have had some unforgettably rarefied experiences in the Loeb Theater over the years, and some of those experiences would probably qualify as cerebral, Cambridge elitist, inaccessible, insular and maybe even smug. And yes, some productions were crash and burn failures, without question. But the intention, that’s what I have always been drawn to at A.R.T.

Paulus’ direction is taking A.R.T. down new roads and so far I’m having fun on this jaunt. As the next season was announced I did find myself wondering if there will be room in A.R.T.’s future for those exquisitely crystalline, ethereally detached but ingeniously conceived productions that have been so signatory for this theater company in the past. Is there room in this new “people’s republic of Cambridge” theatrical climate for a translucent Three Sisters, a mesmerizing production by Serrand or Serban? I’m essentially a pluralist, so I want to get some of everything. But that approach to life—and to theater—doesn’t always fly.

Johnny Baseball would never be my choice for season frontrunner but then again I’m not a big fan of the song and dance genre. But loving baseball and in particular the Red Sox helps a lot even without plot complexities or philosophical inclinations. The play is fun, and the cast and the singing are terrific.

An interesting thing has happened since I saw Johnny B. on Wednesday night: I have talked about the play to people I have never mentioned theater to before and encouraged them to go. For the first time I am seeing how two very different subgroups can come together, Red Sox Nation and regional theater. Whether you are have populist tendencies or not, that is something to consider.


Paradise Lost, at the A.R.T. (Photo: A.R.T.)

Watching the spectacle of a family coming unraveled has a long history. Greek dramas specialize in showing us the multi-generational demise of families, from the cursed House of Thebes in the Oedipus trilogy to the murderous implosion of the House of Atreus in “The Oresteia”. A particular strain of family dismantling drama deals with the dissolution of a family due to financial woes, and the most famous example of that genre is Chekhov’s legendary “The Cherry Orchard”.

“Paradise Lost”, written by Clifford Odets 75 years ago, is an American Depression era take on the family-in-financial-freefall theme that played out with pre-revolutionary Russian poignancy in “The Cherry Orchard” 30 years earlier. But unlike Chekhov’s aristocratic milieu, “Paradise Lost” centers around an everyman, solidly middle-class family, the Gordons. Over a two year span we watch them as their world unravels, a process that is set into motion by the economic collapse of 1929. By the end of the play, the lives of their children have been irrevocably compromised, they have lost their home, and what few belongings they still have are sitting out on the street.

For anyone viewing this play in 2010, the similarities between the Gordons of 1935 and the tent cities full of foreclosed American families are obvious and haunting. But to approach Odets’ play primarily as a prescient foreshadowing of our current economic and cultural woes is to miss much of its richness. Odets was an outspoken socialist who was enraged by the exploitative profiteering of the 30’s, and his political views are apparent in the play. But always rising to the surface in this story is Odets’ humanism: his characters struggle with how to live with honor, with a moral code and their integrity intact, especially when the most basic elements of survival are at stake. How differently Odets views his characters’ struggles when compared to other family-based contemporary dramas, like Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”, Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night” or anything by Harold Pinter. The tone of the play is sympathetic, empathetic, nonjudgmental. And even with its starkly bleak ending, it is not without a redemptive note.

“I believe in the vast potentialities of mankind,” Odets wrote to the critic John Mason Brown. “But I see everywhere a wide disparity between what they can be and what they are. This is what I want to say in writing.”

The film director Krzysztof Kieślowski came to my mind while I was watching the performance. His approach to storytelling also speaks to an Odets-like humanism. In an interview published some time ago, Kieślowski said that he wanted to make films about real people and real life. People make really bad decisions he said, usually when they are still young, and then they spend the rest of their lives managing around those catastrophic mistakes. That’s what being human is about, says Kieślowski; we all suffer from our bad choices, from our personal failures of judgment.

Odets’ play does not have the gentle benevolence of Kieślowski’s masterpiece trilogy, “Red”, “White” and “Blue”. But beneath the vitriol that Odets gives voice to in “Paradise Lost” is an undeniable alignment with what is human, even in the face of our glaring failures and shortcomings.

The production at American Repertory Theater, directed by Daniel Fish, is a brave and ambitious undertaking. Some scenes felt inspired and others didn’t quite come together. The set, a postmodern plywood assemblage with an arte povera feel, worked well as a foundation for all three acts. Video is incorporated, projected on the uneven surfaces at the back of the set which spoke to the dismantling we are witnessing in these character’s lives. The first act felt unwieldy and slow to engage (I went on opening night, so the blocking for that first act may still be evolving) but things tightened up considerably in acts two and three. As I have come to expect with most A.R.T. productions, the performances were all strong and well defined.

Just a note about American Repertory Theater: Diane Paulus began her artistic directorship of the A.R.T.in Cambridge this year, and it has been the most memorable season in my 25+ years as a subscriber. I’ve written about two of the productions here—“Sleep No More” in Theater App, or Something Else? and “Gatz” in Gatz. Also presented this season: “The Donkey Show”, and “Best of Both Worlds”, both free wheeling variations on Shakesperean narratives.

sleepnomore

If you live in the Boston area, DO NOT miss this: Sleep No More, at the Old Lincoln School in Brookline. It runs through January 3.

And if you have a nature that is excessive and appetitive like mine, you might need to go twice. (I’ve already purchased another block of tickets to go with a gang of friends and my children.)

There are lots of reviews of this installation theater production, links to which I have included at the bottom of the post. But let me just share the essentials: The production is inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth and is the work of Punchdrunk, an enigmatic theatrical troupe from the UK. This is their first foray into U.S. territory and they are here in Boston by way of Diane Paulus, artistic director of A.R.T. Paulus saw Punchdrunk in action when she was in London a few years ago. After that initial exposure to their work, Paulus said she could not view any subsequent theatrical event without the overlay of that experience.

Paulus is a seasoned theater pro, but her comment made me think about “never the same” theatrical milestones in my life as an audience participant. Living in New York City in the 70s and beyond, I was altered permanently by a number of theatrical experimentalists:

Robert Wilson. The 12 hour production in Brooklyn of The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin. A Letter for Queen Victoria. And then most memorably, Einstein on the Beach in 1976 at the Metropolitan Opera.

Lee Breuer and Mabou Mines. The Beckett projects and the Shaggy Dog Animations, productions that explored how symbols become characters. And then the unforgettable Gospel at Colonus.

Richard Foreman and the Ontological-Hysteric Theater. Where do I start? His performances were almost impossible to describe but I returned again and again.

Andrei Serban at La MaMa. The Fragments of a Trilogy (composed of three plays: The Trojan Women, Medea, and Elektra ) where the audience becomes the Greek chorus and the proscenium-centric format is annihilated. Greek tragedy is us.

Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Esoteric Mormonism was laced throughout the story line, so watching the two plays was like stepping into a highly personalized archaeological dig of my tribal past. Most of those references fell outside the expertise of reviewers, but it was clear Kushner had done some deep research into the psyche of this very American religious tradition.

Tom Stoppard. Anything by Sir Tom, but most unforgettably, The Coast of Utopia 12 hour marathon at Lincoln Center in 2007. At the end of the three play performance, I just wanted to do it all over again.

Should Punchdrunk and Sleep No More be added to that list? I want to go again before I make that call. Does the magic wear off with over exposure? (Does anything survive that most difficult of tests?) Will those haunting rooms feel as imbued with magic as they did last week?

Some of these concerns are captured in a review of the production by Frank Rizzo in Variety:

Shakespeare is not so much spoken as gleaned, and if something is lost in the translation, something else is gained in the experience. This, after all, is not “Macbeth” — it’s a very different theatrical animal with its own agenda, not the least of which is to attract adventuresome audiences in search of what’s new and hip. The production abandons text, poetry and linear structure to create a more engaged audience dynamic. But one can also ask what does that experience add up to: a richly imagined reality or just a fleeting dream?

Whether this type of production becomes more than a novelty will depend on one’s nature, sensibility and endurance. Certainly, those without a fundamental understanding of “Macbeth” — and even those who know the play well — might be lost in the maze (in several rooms that possibility is literally true). For the enthusiastic crowd the show attracted in college-crammed Beantown, it is drama as digression, theater as the latest app, and Shakespeare presented in visual tweets.

Will the next production be as gripping or will it just become the old same-new, with better bar selections? (There’s a lounge in the center of the building where a jazz singer and combo perform for those who need a break, or a good stiff drink.)

As for its possible future in the U.S. after A.R.T., the production would be a staggering challenge logistically and financially to duplicate — load-in time alone was said to be months — and would need a market of young auds to support the endeavor. But in the right environment, it could be just the thing to reinvent and enliven a theater community.

Whatever one’s aesthetics, just be sure to bring comfortable shoes. As the old joke about the aging hooker goes, “It’s not the work but the stairs.”

Reviews of Sleep No More and Punchdrunk:

Variety
Edge Boston
Boston Herald
Boston Globe
Arts Boston
Guardian