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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.


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)

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.

The Blue Flower, A.R.T.

Tom Stoppard’s last two plays, Coast of Utopia (a 3 play trilogy) and Rock ‘n’ Roll, explore the historical periods preceding significant events as a way of contextualizing and unpacking those outcomes. To make sense of the 1917 Russian Revolution, Stoppard placed his 9 hour Utopia trilogy in the years between 1833 and 1866 when philosophical debates were raging in pre-revolution Russia. RnR tracks the role that popular music played in the democratic movement that emerged in Eastern Bloc Czechoslovakia between the Prague Spring of 1968 and the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

To hold to a historical orthodoxy while still creating an engaging theatrical experience is not a trivial accomplishment. Stoppard, a master of the theater of ideas, is well positioned—probably more than any living playwright—to deliver up both history and theater. Speaking personally, both these plays have impacted me deeply, transforming my view of the evolution of these two major historical events.

The Blue Flower, currently playing at the A.R.T. in Cambridge, takes on another historical arc—the transition in Europe from the Belle Époque at the turn of the century through the end of World War II. Conceived, composed and written by a musician and a visual artist, Jim and Ruth Bauer, the production approaches the tumultuous events of this period primarily through the lens of art. The lead characters are based loosely on three artists—Franz Marc, Max Beckmann and Hannah Höch—as well as a scientist, Marie Curie.

Ruth Bauer’s sensibilities as a visual artist permeate the production as well as the narrative point of view. There are art tropes throughout, from the Blaue Reiter’s defiant rebellion to Dadism’s absurdist response to the Great War. The staging and the styling of the production are fragmented and collage-like, a kind of grand gesture homage to Kurt Schwitters. It is rare to find so much art consciousness in a dramatic stating.

In a particularly brilliant move, the lead character Max Baumann, (inspired by Max Beckmann) refuses to speak his native German. For most of the play he communicates in an invented language, Maxperanto. Not only is his refusal to speak the common tongue a powerful statement of political and cultural defiance, it is also an adept metaphor for the artist’s position in a world gone mad.

The musical score, mostly minor keyed, is poignantly crafted and expertly performed (Bauer describes his eclectic sound as “Kurt Weill going tête-à-tête with Hank Williams”.) The music also serves as an emotional bridge between events that took place over 100 years ago and the incomprehensible mess we are grappling with now. Our world seems every bit as fragile as Weimar and also poised for catastrophe from polarizing politics, short sighted policies and institutions that no longer work.

The program notes are some of the best I’ve encountered and in many ways are required reading to step fully into The Blue Flower experience. The contextualizing provided is thoughtful and insightful.

Here are a few sample passages from Jim Bauer’s accompanying commentary:

Weimar, the fragile German experiment in democracy after World War I, became a classic and singularly tragic confrontation between traditionalists and modernists, conservatives and liberals; between those who believe that what is past is pure and those who believe that what is new is better.

By and large, events from the early part of the twentieth century lie hidden in the long, deep shadows cast by Hitler, the Holocaust and World War II. Like a three-legged colossus, they stand so large in the middle of the century that it is difficult to see past them. But it is only by peering into those shadows that one can see how the twentieth century took shape and how the twenty-first may yet be sculpted.

We have always lived and, it seems, will always continue to live in or between two wars: whichever the last one was and whatever the next one will be.

In the beginning of the Weimar period, ballast for heavy grief and suffocating remorse was provided by a weightless sense of relief, a buoyant feeling of optimism. there was a burst of creativity, a sense of freedom, adventure and open horizons, a feeling that the world could be made anew. The Weimar spirit was driven in part by the possibility and thrill of creating things instead of destroying them, building them up instead of tearing them down…But Weimar was also a world fractured into many pieces and deeply divided: outwardly blooming with hope but inwardly trembling with fear of and gnawing doubts about the horrors of the past and the shadows those horrors cast on an uncertain future.

With a demagnetized compass and a broken rudder, society swirled freely about in a political, economic and cultural maelstrom until Hitler, wasting little time and with a keen eye for opportunity, found a way to make things appear simple.

This is a thought provoking, slow fused work. An evening of light entertainment it is not. In that sense Don Aucoin’s review in the Boston Globe misses the point altogether. Anyone concerned about the state of the world will find The Blue Flower deeply moving.

The Blue Flower runs through January 2011.

The blue flower of the title references a romantic concept originating with the poet Novalis that symbolizes the artist’s longing for perfection.

Plays that deal with visual art and art making can be problematic. I remember seeing La Bohème as a child and already being cognizant that the bohemian lifestyle portrayed in the opera was mythic, a well used trope that only people like my father believed was real. (He tried to discourage me from pursuing my life as an artist with this warning: “All artists are immoral. They sleep with their models. It is not a career for anyone with standards.” Did I miss that class in art school?)

My friend Benny Sato Ambush recently sent me a copy of David Hare’s, The Bay at Nice. This small jewel of a play (a “chamber piece” in Campbell Robertson’s words) takes place in a museum in Leningrad during the Communist era. Valentina, once a young and wild art student in Paris who studied briefly with Matisse, has been asked by the museum curator to authenticate a painting that is purportedly by Matisse. No longer young, idealistic or even nice, Valentina’s character owns most of the performing space in this piece (Estelle Parsons and Irene Worth played the part in productions in London and Hartford.) We meet Valentina’s daughter Sophie and grope through the difficult life decisions she is facing in her relationship with her mother, her husband, her lover and a totalitarian government. There’s plenty to chew on. And as I told Benny, Hare captures an essence of visual art that does not feel forced or theatricized. Several passages are memorable and feel authentic to me. This isn’t your all purpose gaggle of bohemian wannabees singing, drinking and eating.

A few samplings:

Valentina: Picasso lived in a house so ugly—a great champagne millionaire’s Gothic mansion with turrets—that all his friends said ‘My God, how can you abide such a place?’ He said, ‘You are all prisoners of taste. Great artists love everything. There is no such thing as ugliness.’ He would kick the walls with his little sandalled foot and say, ‘They’re solid. What more do you want?’

The Museum Assistant: All art is loot. Who should own it? I shouldn’t say this, but there isn’t much justice in these things. If we examined the process whereby everything o these walls as acquired…we should have bare walls.

Sophia: Down here below you, people are forced to be ridiculous. Yes, We lead ridiculous lives. doing ridiculous things, which lack taste. Like working for a living. For organizations which have ridiculous names. ‘Oh, I’m from the Department of Highway Cleansing.’ “Oh, I’m Vegetation Officer in Minsk.’ that’s work. its called making a living. Mother, it involves silly names and unspeakable people—the mathematics teacher, for me to work beside her, to have lunch, to watch her pick her dirty grey hair from the soup, it’s torture, I’d rather lodge beside an open drain. But that’s how people live. We have to. We scrabble about in the real world. Because we don’t sit thinking all day about art.

Valentina (on the topic of Matisse): He taught us rules. He believed in them. not Renaissance rules. Those he was very against. He disliked Leonardo. Because of all that measuring. he said that was when art began to go wrong. When it became obsessed with measuring. Trying to establish how things work. It doesn’t matter how they work. You can’t see with a caliper. Of course there were rules. he was a classicist. This is what no one understood. He disliked in modern painting the way one part is emphasized—the nose, or the foot, or the breast. He hated this distortion. He said you should always aim for the whole. Remember your first impression and stick to it. Balance nature and your view. Don’t let your view run away of its own accord. For everything he did there was always a reason…

He said you should think of the body as an architect does. The foot is a bridge. Arms are like rolls of clay. Forearms are like ropes, since they can be knotted and twisted. in drawing a head never leave out the ear. Adjust the different parts to each other. Each is dissimilar and yet must add to the whole. A tree is like a human body. A body is like a cathedral.

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.

Jim Fletcher as Jimmy Gatz, AKA Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island

Try telling your friends there is this 7 hour, two-part play at the Loeb Theater in Cambridge that consists of nothing but the text from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece The Great Gatsby. Then try telling them it is one of the most memorable nights you’ve ever had in a theater.

The truth is, Gatz is hard to describe. It sounds like a high brow yawn, self-conscious and unappealingly long. Someone reads from a book and that’s the whole play? Well, yes. And you found this engaging? Utterly.

It opens in a dingy office where every wall and fixture looks like it is coated in 40 years of grime. A bedraggled office worker enters and sits down at a ramshackle desk. When he can’t get his 80’s vintage PC to boot, he is left with nothing to do. Ransacking idly through the items on his desk, he finds a copy of Fitzgerald’s novel stashed in a floppy disk holder. In an odd but strangely organic moment, he begins to read the book out loud. Slowly, one at a time, others in the office join in to bring the story into form. It is as if they cannot resist getting caught up in this very American and bitterly heartbreaking tale. Just like all of us in the audience. It has the irresistible gravitational pull of a myth.

It is a preposterous and outrageous undertaking, to be sure. How do you take a book most of us have read and make it feel brand new? How do you create a theatrical frame that can hold the action while still allowing Fitzgerald’s jewel-like prose rise up without constraint? How do you pace the thing, ornament it, bring in humor (but never too much) and set a tone for the production that is pitch-perfect?

The Elevator Repair Service theater company began working on this project in 1999. For years they couldn’t get the rights to the material and ran into other external obstacles. But it wouldn’t die. Finally the stars aligned, lucky for us.

The plays (Part 1 and 2) run through February 7 in Cambridge and then heads to New York (according to the program notes by director John Collins.) Both my partner Dave and I woke up the next morning and said to each other, “Wouldn’t it be great to see the whole thing again!” That’s not surprising coming from me, notoriously excessive with an endless passion for going under the spell of what art can do. But the more measured and temperate Dave? Now that tells you a lot.

Here’s a few excerpts from the play: WBUR