Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Cultural Studies

August 31, 2011

 
A still from Powaqqatsi by Godfrey Reggio

On Tuesday night, composer Philip Glass made an appearance at the Hollywood Bowl for a concert performance of his score to accompany a screening of the 1988 film Powaqqatsi. This is the second of the three scores Glass wrote to accompany the documentary films of Godfrey Reggio in the 1980s all titled with Hopi language words and meant to reflect on the state of the world with nothing more than Glass’ music and video images of humans and the world they have created around them. Last summer, the Los Angeles Philharmonic presented the first film in the series Koyaanisqatsi with the assistance of the Philip Glass Ensemble to much fanfare and an excited audience. So this return engagement, complete with a new revision of the score by Glass with a commission by the L.A. Philharmonic, was set up to build on that momentum.

Unfortunately, Powaqqatsi, which roughly translates as “life in transformation,” is not as strong a film or soundtrack as its predecessor. By 1988, Glass’ style had begun to change and the repetitive segments of his music were taking a backseat to other elements creating something that was less harsh and softer-edged. Powaqqatsi is rife with more accessible melodies and a substantial vocal part for both children’s chorus and a handful of soloists. Electronic instruments play a bigger role as well with keyboards and whatnot percolating along, resulting in moments that sound like they might have come from any motion picture soundtrack of the period. For this performance the original conductor for the film’s soundtrack, Michael Riesman who is also the Philip Glass Ensemble’s Music Director, reprised his leadership and he gave a best-case scenario for the piece with Glass playing keyboards himself. The Los Angeles Children’s Choir sounded spectacular and gave a wonderful performance without the help of scores for their extended parts in the show. Anne Tomlinson has led the group to a number of substantial performances with the L.A. Phil in the past, but this one stood out as one of the best performances the ensemble has given.

But, despite some fine performances from the Philip Glass Ensemble as well as members of the L.A. Philharmonic, you could easily close your eyes and think of the name Vangelis instead of Philip Glass. Of course, there are no pre-WWII British athletes in Powaqqatsi, but instead images of third-world venues including Peru, Egypt, Nepal, and Kenya with Brazil and Hong Kong thrown in for good measure. The concept is generally to contrast native local cultures with the face of modern industrialization. So you have lots of quaint shots of people in colorful costumes dancing around scenic mountaintops contrasted with geometric aerial shots of villages and trucks kicking up clouds of billowing smoke. Reggio’s film is pretty, but the kind of ethnographic tourism that makes up the bulk of the film looks dated and somewhat problematic. Powaqqatsi delivers all the gritty realism of a dancing, singing, Bollywood film. While not all the images are pleasant ones, they are all played up for their aesthetic qualities in a way that belittles some of the grueling poverty on display. Glass' comfortable ,ethnically hued score wraps all of it up in a peculiarly non-jarring context. And while that might seem like profound commentary for someone whose ideas about politics and culture have evolved little since the 1960s, today it reads as forced and glosses over the very problems it is striving to point out.

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Everything I Do, I Do It For You

August 30, 2011

 

Things are looking up here at Out West Arts. The above promo photo came in the email today and it sure is making the upcoming production of Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show at The Old Globe Theater in San Diego look more and more promising. (Photo by Henry DiRocco.) The seated gentleman is Matt McGrath who stars as Frank 'N' Furter and the tall drink of water is Sydney James Harcourt who’ll play Rocky Sept. 15–Nov. 6 in San Diego. So don’t say I never did anything for you. And speaking of doing for you, I’m in the process of completing the design elements on Out West Arts version 6, which will roll out at this very address next month and I’m contemplating changing some of the functionality of the site. But before I do, I thought I’d ask for input from regular readers. What do you like or dislike about the site? What would you like to see that isn’t here or think I should drop? Feel free to leave comments or email me and we’ll see what develops.

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List, List, O List!

August 29, 2011

 
Robynn Rodriguez, Christopher Liam Moore, and Peter Frechette. Photo: Jenny Graham

Ghost Light, the second fully staged new play to come out of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “American Revolutions” commissioning series, is a perfect fit for the company. It deals with a survivor’s personal emotional fallout from a uniquely American historical event, the 1978 assassination of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. And given that the survivor in question is Moscone’s son Jonathan, an accomplished theater director struggling with his own ambivalence in completing plans for a new staging of Hamlet, the play’s integration into the spirit of Ashland is complete. Now in his 40s, Jonathan, played by Christopher Liam Moore, has begun seeing ghosts including those of his grandfather and that of an imaginary super-sexy boyfriend, the not at all imaginary super-sexy Danforth Comins. Jonathan’s thinking about Hamlet is dragging up all kinds of unresolved issues about his father’s death and soon his subconscious is spilling out all over the place. Hamlet’s relationship with his father, and more specifically his father’s ghost, soon becomes an unraveling parallel to Jonathan’s own inner life.

But Ghost Light is less thriller or history play than it is a psychological autobiography. What’s more, the play’s impact stems in part from the meta-nature of its creation. The script is credited to Tony Taccone, but there is no doubt that the real-life Jonathan Moscone, the accomplished theater director and artistic head of California Shakespeare Theater, is the author of much of the Ghost Light’s content as well as serving as its stage director for this run in Oregon. At times, the proceedings feel incredibly invasive. But any discomfort from the autobiographical nature of the play is offset by the simple facts that the character Jonathan acknowledges it himself: The story of his father’s death has already been endlessly adapted, repeated, co-opted and distorted by the public who knew him as a famous person. Jonathan’s struggle is resolving his own emotional experience of his father against a world of perceptions about the same events that lie outside of his control. And it’s in this capacity that Ghost Light is most successful, where it questions the boundaries between our personal and public emotional lives.

That is not to say the show in an unqualified success. The scenes in Ghost Light proceed not unlike a therapy session. The show opens with the 14 year-old Jonathan sitting in just such a session answering questions from an unseen therapist. Bits of dreams stand alongside more narrative sequences often with little differentiation. Todd Rosenthal’s set provides suggestions of Jonathan’s apartment and boyhood room spread out around a replica of the façade of San Francisco City Hall. A number of the scenes include the son’s younger self interacting with a character simply called “Mister” going on about emotional abstractions that I found rather difficult to follow. This therapy process journal approach to play writing can muddle things at times and one long’s for the more narrative bits where we learn more about Jonathan in the world and his relationship with his friend Louise, played by Robynn Rodriguez. (Her straight talking performance here is as strong as her turn as Barbara in Letts’ August: Osage County which she is also giving this season.) But muddled or no, Ghost Light is a good second showing for OSF's "American Revolutions" series with its twist on the history play, making it about the personal story and not the events themselves. It runs through the end of the season on November 5.

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Fascism: UR Doing It Wrong

August 28, 2011

 

It’s hard to believe the Los Angeles Times employs a music critic as out-of-touch with contemporary culture as Mark Swed, but they do. He’s gone on the record in the past about his disdain for technology, and this weekend his latest salvo in some imaginary war between technology and classical music went up. He talks about what he calls “technological fascism” or the blind faith in services such as Twitter, Spotify, and the social media consultants who advocate the use of online technology by performing arts organizations to increase attendance. And as borderline offensive as appropriating the term “fascism” is to refer to something he objects to about marketing and the arts, his broader point is utter nonsense.

Swed begins by making sure we know he’s a down guy. He’s up on the latest trends and dissolving boundaries between contemporary classical and popular music styles he tells us. He does the kind of routine name-dropping of artists like Bjork and Radiohead that classical music critics always do when they want to ensure that readers understand this fact about them. But what's really got his panties in a bunch is an unreferenced story about a orchestral concert where audience members were encouraged to tweet during the performance if they wanted. Specifically, that this was encouraged by some nefarious unnamed social marketing consultant as an idea to bring in more youthful faces in the hopes of making them regular ticket buyers. Heaven forbid.

His complaint is that tweeting, and much online activity, distracts from actually paying attention to and experiencing live music not to mention the irritation it can cause performers. Fair enough. I’m certainly no advocate of engaging in tweeting or any other online activity during the course of a live performance and find it as irritating as the next guy. But Swed’s extrapolation that the mindless encouragement of such activity poses a threat to classical music or culture on the whole is ludicrous. The point he’s making is that tweeting and use of other services like iTunes and Spotify are perceived by some as unquestionably positive. Furthermore, these technologies have been developed on a pop music model with little benefit and some potential downside for lovers of classical music. The use of these services is then advocated by social marketing consultants to classical performance organizations in thoughtless and poorly developed ways in an effort to increase ticket sales and attendance. But we're told that the threat is much bigger than just some inept marketing strategies. We’re told by Swed that, “This has nothing to do with technophobia but with big and serious issues, and ones that go beyond classical music.” You see this marks the decay of culture and our inability to “disconnect” and experience things without a technological interface.

But I find it hard to believe that all of this is really such a threat to art or culture. First of all, rampant availability of tweeting or online friendly concerts is hardly going to bring in throngs of new faces to anything they aren’t actually interested in to begin with. I doubt there are hordes of 25 year-olds who would love to pay 100 dollars or upward for an orchestra concert now that they now they can use their smartphone during it. And who is to say how one has to behave to get something personally meaningful out of an experience anyway. My focus has waxed and waned at times even in some of the greatest shows I've ever seen. Rapt attention isn't everything. One does want to be respectful of one's neighbors certainly, but there is more than one way to listen to music despite what Mr. Swed would have you believe. As for the issue Swed raises about small recording labels being threatened by Spotify, there is no evidence that this service, or iTunes for that matter, has driven down sales of classical music overall. Though Swed cites Brian Brandt of Mode Records' piece about the devastating effects of Spotify on his label in the last six months, one can simultaneously see Naxos reporting substantial increases of 6% in sales of recordings during this same time period despite their catalog being available on Spotify for over two years. Now I recognize that comparing Mode and Naxos is unfair on many levels, but I think the overall point is still valid. Maybe it's not the technology, but one's ability to use it as a tool to one's benefit that's the issue. Spotify has been available in Europe for years and yet the availability of classical recordings there remains the envy of anyone in the U.S who is paying attention. In fact, Spotify may have the exact opposite effect when it comes to classical music. Having a cheap streaming version of some recordings to sample may actually increase people’s interest in purchasing recorded music, not decrease it.

So while Swed has set up his straw man of rampant smartphone use during classical concerts and invented the bogeyman of internet technology decimating creativity, he ignores the most simple and logical facts. Live classical music performance and peoples’ interest in it has survived the steam engine, the gramophone, electric light, the automobile, movies, television, CDs and Lindsay Lohan. I hardly think that iTunes, Spotify, Twitter or the internet for that matter is going to suddenly finish that off now whether that is big label stars like Lang Lang or emerging independents. Inept marketing has always been with us and will always be so. Art and artists have thrived in much more economically hostile conditions historically than they do now. Art and music will go on. Audiences are smart enough to decide for themselves what they want to hear and in what manner they will pay attention to it in order for it to mean something to them regardless of the technology they have at hand and regardless of outdated proscriptions from classical music critics.

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Pappano Fever!

August 27, 2011

 

Antonio Pappano has been amassing a number of superb recordings over the last few years including notable versions of Verdi’s Requiem and Rossini’s Stabat Mater. The DVD releases of productions under his baton at the Royal Opera House during his tenure as Music Director there alone would make a case for his standing among the finest of the world’s conductors. This year, his winning streak continues with two new recordings that showcase his range in a number of different musical arenas. Since 2005 Pappano has been Music Director of the Orchestra e Coro dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, and earlier this month, EMI released a live recording of Rossini’s William Tell from the ensemble in the original French. Rossini’s final opera premiered in Paris in 1829 and the critical edition used for this recording emulates the version presented at that opening. And while some will grouse that this may not be the most complete version of the opera, it seems appropriate that a performance that returns to the original French uses a text as close as possible to that premiere in that same language.

On hearing the first few bars, though, all concerns about these minutiae are pretty quickly swept away. Pappano leads a brisk, lively performance from the players and this most familiar of overtures immediately connects with new force. The cast is excellent across the board and features a very exciting performance from tenor John Osborn as Arnold. This is a notoriously high part and one of the reasons the opera is not often revived on stage. Yet, Osborn sounds great here with no strain and real excitement through the whole evening. This is not something you hear everyday and it recommends the recording in its own right. Gerald Finley sings the title role. He’s a singer I’ve always liked and in the last few years seems increasingly to be on the top of everybody else's list as well. His rich, warm tone is evident, and he stands out repeatedly in the ensemble numbers. Marie-Nicole Lemieux sings Mathilde and has fine technique and plenty of stamina. It’s also worth noting the chorus work on this CD, which isn’t the least bit sloppy either and is a pleasure to listen to. It’s a recording worth owning the physical CD of as well, given the packaging includes one of those great, if rather outlandish, classical CD covers that comes along once every so often as pictured above.


Speaking of outlandish covers...So we know Pappano excels with bel canto repertory. So what could be more of a contrast that the upcoming release of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole filmed during its premiere run at the Royal Opera House in London earlier this year. ROH has a good track record of preserving its mainstage world premieres over the last several seasons, which has included Birtwistle’s The Minotaur. Anna Nicole shows Pappano in a very different light as he coaxes the ROH orchestra through Turnage’s tour of American musical genres. It’s all here from Jazz and Blues to Country and Western. Turnage isn’t afraid of going for some swelling romantic Hollywood soundtrack moments along the way either and Pappano masterfully keeps the show musically on an even keel with this panoply of stylistic indulgences.

I was most excited about the performance of Eva-Maria Westbroek in the title role. This is not entirely an easy sing and there are some moments where her Wagnerian inclinations serve her well. But this is a very physical and often not very glamorous character and Westbroek does it all from the nervous girl in the plastic surgeon's office to the voracious pole dancer. Gerald Finley shows up here as well as the lawyer Stern, the villian of the opera, and while Stern may not be quite as charming as Don Giovanni, Finley is masterful at the cold and calculating parts of his character's nature. Susan Bickley has a substantial part as Anna Nicole’s mother Virgie and also has some lovely dramatic passages at the end of the evening in a Brangane sort of way.

The show itself is certainly operatic if not necessarily groundbreaking. The narrative is often commented on externally by several characters who step in and out of the main narrative including Anna Nicole herself. It's like everybody's a part of the Greek chorus sooner or later. The story is a standard issue downside of fame and fortune tale. The young innocent Anna Nicole rides her oversize ambition out of her small town marriage and into a strip club and eventual fame only to pay the price. She’s a tragic figure, the victim of the predatory males around her—father, lawyer, husbands, et al. All of this is wrapped in a lampoon about American culture and this year’s model of the American dream. Richard Jones’ production, surrounded by garishly lit corrugated steel walls features any number of kitschy over-sized objects from bobbled-head dog figurines to an uncovered mattress big enough for Paul Bunyan. It’s like a Jeff Koons exhibit with singing. And while Anna Nicole is not The Great Gatsby, the criticisms that it makes about America are still worth making.

The opera conspicuously avoids much reflection on its title character’s actual work as a model and TV performer. The only mentions of her activities outside of her marriages and addiction to drugs come in later scenes where she is victimized by Stern who arranges for a series of the most invasive and personal media appearances. There's a great trio on the set of the Larry King Show with the host. And then there’s the language. The ROH chorus probably doesn’t get too many chances to dress as 1990s TV anchors and repeatedly sing lines with the words fuck and cunt in them, and Anna Nicole may have filled their quotient on that front for the rest of most of their lives. But the language seemed appropriate and was often quite funny. I was particularly amused by the chorus of small-breasted women in Act I and the Jimmy Choo shoe aria Anna sings in Act II. Despite all of this, though, I was drawn into the story and was admittedly moved by Anna Nicole’s tragic end. Turnage and his librettist Richard Thomas have a real sympathy for Ann Nicole that wins out in the end. This caring shines through and that’s what it’s really about, isn’t it?

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You Can Get With This, Or...

August 23, 2011

 
L to R: Eisa Davis, Darren Pettie, and Saffron Burrows Photo: CTG/Craig Schwartz

The Center Theater Group concluded its 2010/2011 season at the Kirk Douglas Theater this month with Melissa James Gibson’s This in a 2009 production imported from Playwrights Horizons in New York. It’s one of the those contemporary plays about contemporary middle-class obsessions – in this case infidelity and its effect on a group of friends- that come and go from theaters across the country with nary a blip in the long-term memory. That Gibson’s play carries a moniker as forgettable as its content is apropos. That awkward title, refers to the inarticulate short-hand used by the characters to refer to the relationships and emotional conflicts in their lives - this marriage conflict, this affair, this feeling over the death of a husband. Tom and Marrell have recently welcomed their first child in an effort to relieve the growing strain in their marriage. Marrell’s college friend, Jane, a mother and widow of one year, finds herself uninterested in Jean-Pierre, the physician Marrell is trying to set her up with, but soon is tempted by the unexpected advances of Tom. Everyone makes sardonic remarks for just under two hours while wringing their hands over the romantic details of their lives. Jane struggles with grief, but it’s as hard to care about her as any of the other underdeveloped characters or relationships in the play. It’s a sentiment that Gibson both telegraphs and unwittingly defends against in a moment when Jean-Pierre reflects on the unimportance of these emotional upheavals in comparison to what he sees working in poor countries overseas.

Much of the cast from the New York premiere including Darren Pettie as Tom and Eisa Davis as Marrell reprise their roles here. The biggest change is the addition of Saffron Burrows as Jane. Glenn Fitzgerald plays the stock token friend/counselor/redeemer/comic relief gay character, Alan. These are all likable actors who manage to give their somewhat meager parts all the care and concern they can. But the clunky direction of Daniel Aukin can muddy the waters. Gibson’s play is filled with the kind of rapid-fire witty conversations that no one really has, but can sound realistic with their repeated interruptions of one another. But these exchanges sound over-rehearsed and robotic like the kinds of things characters say in plays. The laughs are few and far between and not much outside of what you'd hear in a well-written sitcom. Louisa Thompson’s lovely detailed New York apartment set is attractive and gives the audience plenty to concentrate on while the characters whine on, but I wouldn’t recommend spending time with them there. This runs through August 28.

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The Last Time I Saw Cork

August 22, 2011

 
L to R: Adam Haas Hunter, Tim Cummings, Brie Eley Photo: Theater Banshee

Producing the plays of Enda Walsh is no small feat. They can be oblique and surreal and are always multilayered in the way that one can see them time and again and always discover something new. And if having multiple dramaturgical balls in the air isn’t enough of a challenge, most of the plays have comic elements as well. So that Theater Banshee in Burbank has pulled off a staging of Walsh’s The Walworth Farce and done it so well is reason to be excited. It is certainly a reason to travel to Burbank. The play has been seen in Los Angeles before by Walsh’s home company, The Druid Theater in Dublin, who presented the play in 2009 as part of the much missed UCLA Live International Theater Festival that vanished from the scene over a year ago to be replaced by nothing. That performance, starring Michael Glenn Murphy, Tadhg Murphy, Raymond Scannell, and Mercy Ojelade under the direction of Michael Murfi was nothing short of spectacular. And Tim Byron Owen’s version at Theater Banshee does much more than provide an occasion to reminisce about its illustrious predecessor.

The Walworth Farce deals with a particularly dysfunctional family, a father and his two sons, who are indeed, dysfunctional in their own very unique way. Walsh throws the audience right into the middle of the psychological trappings of this triad and slowly clues the audience in about the strangeness that is unfolding in this small, dirty London flat. By the time a stranger calls at the end of Act I, the play within a play presents itself more clearly just as the deeper meaning of the show unfolds. Walsh is taking on big game here like Irish identity, family dynamics, the actor’s process. The Walworth Farce can be very funny and very disturbing with little warning but it is always gripping.

Theater Banshee has assembled a wonderful young cast. Tim Cummings is the unhinged father Dinny and plays opposite Adam Haas Hunter as Sean and Kevin Stidham as Blake. (Stidham is sharing the role of Blake with Cameron J. Oro who is scheduled to appear in the remainder of the show's run.) These are harrowing parts that involve comic timing and all three availed themselves of extremely challenging parts that involve both farce and extreme emotional states. Hunter and Stidham both manage a boyishness in their parts that underscores the family dynamics the play hinges on. Brie Eley plays the interloper Hayley and was excellent as the audience’s reference to the world outside this very strange apartment. Director Owen took an approach that softened some of the sharper edges of that world to focus on the family tragedy at the heart of the play. It’s a take that didn’t always draw the sharpest jabs from the farce components of the script and may have inadvertently de-emphasized some of Walsh’s broader commentary about Irish identity, but his is nonetheless an admirable approach and one definitely worth experiencing if you haven’t been exposed to this play before. This is another chance we Angelenos are getting to see the work of one of Ireland’s—and the world’s—most important living playwrights, so take advantage of this very strong offering on one of the Friday, Saturday, or Sunday performances between now and September 4.

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Let Them Eat Cake

August 20, 2011

 

Over the last few weeks, ads like the one partially pictured above have gone up all over town advertising the upcoming season for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Non-subscription tickets go on sale Sunday to the public. To answer your first question, yes, someone does get paid to come up with tag lines like this. To answer your second question, no, I have no idea what this is supposed to mean either. And no, thinking about it more won't help. The one thing that does strike me about “Passion Forward” though is that at least the marketing folks over at the LA Phil have decided to give us the second “s” back this year. But never fear – overpriced T-shirts with the Dudamel quote “Music is a fundamental human right” emblazoned on them are still available in the Walt Disney Concert Hall gift shop.

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Funny Lady

August 19, 2011

 
Sandra Bernhard

Sandra Bernhard returned to Los Angeles last week with her latest show, I Love Being Me, Don’t You?, and what struck me most about it, besides being some of her best live work in years, is how profoundly complex her routines have become. Her shows are always riotously funny and razor sharp. That is nothing new. The format hasn’t changed much either. She has a unique blend of comic one liners, narrative storytelling, and musical performance that is uniquely her own. She was again accompanied by a band and displayed serious musical chops opening the show with Bobby Womack’s Across 110th Street and closing with a medley of “Lady” songs. She weaved in and out of stories as outlandish and farcical as they were pointedly relevant. There was plenty of the skewering of (our) celebrity culture that Kathy Griffin (whom I love dearly as well) would give up her first-born to pull off with this much flair. Irony, and I don’t mean the Alanis Morissette kind, abounds, and Bernhard’s arch vocal mastery of a phrase drives the whole set.

What was different to my ear was the breadth and depth of her web of allusions. Bernhard never shies away from complex cultural references, but I Love Being Me, Don’t You?, may reach farther than she has previously in terms of what she expects the audience to get from politics of the early 1970s through wannabe celebrities in the pages of today’s lesser respected tabloids. There is a risk that some in the audience is left behind, and to my ear more than a few were in Thursday’s show. The double edged commentary of her performance of Mocedades' Eres Tú was brilliantly oblique. But the way in which these references build in to a greater agenda is remarkable. Bernhard has a revolutionary streak despite all of her homebody protestations, and her calls for progressive defiance wrapped in a smile and a knowing disco allusion is much more than it seems on the surface. At other moments, there are these amazing tonal shifts infused with nostalgia, sorrow or perhaps anger that rivals the kind of narrative tricks Garrison Keillor is known for. The centerpiece of the current show is an extended monologue about her being stood up by a stoned friend for a concert and becomes a meditation on loss and the political and cultural struggles of our own times. All of this is wrapped in a slick musical pastiche of Cat Stevens’ “Sad Lisa”, Scott McKenie’s “San Francisco”, and Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”. The piece is sublime in the way it transverses an emotional landscape. It’s this ability to produce laughs and tears in such close juxtaposition that makes Bernhard one of the greats. The shows continue at REDCAT downtown through the weekend, but at this point tickets are mostly available via returns so count yourself lucky to see the performance if you’ve got them already.

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Let The Sunshine In (Briefly)

August 15, 2011

 
Greg Hicks in The Winter's Tale Photo: Stephanie Berger

The clouds parted if only momentarily on a rainy Sunday for the final day of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s residency at the Park Avenue Armory in New York as part of this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival. While the actual rain kept falling, the artistic sunshine I’m talking about finally came through with the last performance of The Winter’s Tale, easily the highlight of the entire festival. Of course, the ensemble cast was the same as it had been for all the other plays in the festival, and the director, David Farr, was the same person responsible for the rather turgid King Lear in repertory. But The Winter’s Tale succeeded where the other failed due in part to an element of fantasy. Shakespeare’s Bohemia and Sicilia are so far removed from anything historical, that there is little reason to feel indebted to any time period in particular and the need to acknowledge or ignore a set of imagery allows for an opening up. Which Farr did, by creating a very late Victorian look to each of the two kingdoms. He also allowed for some fantasy elements in the scenery as well including a stage littered with papers from dramatically collapsed bookshelves and a giant bear composed of sheets of paper and lights for eyes. All of this was not only interesting to look at, but set the stage for Shakespeare’s own magical ending where a statue coming to life is readily accepted and digested by all parties present.

Michael Boyd takes a bow with cast and crew of the RSC after As You Like It Photo: mine

The visual motif of Leontes’ collapsed library, which did so right before the audiences eyes as his mistaken cruelty becomes apparent to him, provides wonderful contrast to the later scenes in Bohemia. Preserving the physical books and pages as backdrop, the set is transformed by the colorfully imagined rustic costumes in the more overtly comic sections of the script. These scenes were more full of giddiness and joy that anything RSC offered all weekend including the entirety of As You Like It. The show again featured some of the RSC festival’s biggest MVPs including Noma Dumezweni as Paulina and a heartbreaking Kelly Hunter as Hermoine. The sound of sobbing in the audience for a happy ending as The Winter’s Tale came to a close was overwhelming and it was exciting to see this excellent company of actors and crew hit one right out of the ballpark with a production that lived up to their talents.

The cast of As You Like It Photo: Stephanie Berger

After this, I’d had high hopes at that point that the tide for the weekend had turned going into the final performance of the entire RSC residency. But As You Like It managed to bog down in one of the most strangely unfunny stagings of one of Shakespeare’s outright comedies I can recall seeing. Directed by RSC’s own Artistic Director Michael Boyd, who greeted the audience with warm thanks at the end of the show, the first half of the play is set in what appears to be an abandoned and empty Crate and Barrel. A blank white wall and stage are later pulled aside to reveal some greenery to suggest a forest, but this is bare bones stuff. And despite some wonderful performances again from actors clearly with smart comic impulses, the overly serious and frequently dour staging made the “problematic” Winter’s Tale look like a Marx Brother movie in comparison. I was happy to see Jonjo O’Neill excel here as he had as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. His Orlando De Boys became the centerpiece of the play that was uncertain what to do with Rosalind and Celia throughout. Richard Katz gave a memorable turn as Touchstone as well, so it wasn’t all bad news.

But as the confetti reigned down and Michael Boyd thanked the many dignitaries involved in this Herculean venture, I kept wondering from an audience perspective if it was worth it. The idea of bringing a facsimile of the RSC in their home environment to New York was an exciting idea. But as theater in its own right, this was mighty boring, especially considering the plethora of frequently fine summer Shakespeare experiences available around the country from the Public Theater’s Central Park offerings to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. And while I believe the RSC has something unique to offer when it comes to Shakespeare, the Park Avenue Armory residency rarely got to the point of showing what that was.

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Not Packing Lightly

August 14, 2011

 
Sam Troughton and Mariah Gale in Romeo and Juliet Photo: Stephanie Berger

It seemed like a great idea. Well, at least if not a great idea, a grand gesture. The Royal Shakespeare Company would pack up five productions, a company of 41 actors and crew, 21 musicians and build a 975 seat replica of their UK theater weighing hundreds of tons and ship the whole thing to New York for 6 weeks of performances in the summer. Best yet, this would take place as part of the Lincoln Center Festival inside the giant Park Avenue Armory that has become an arts venue of some note in the last few years by hosting many other grand gestures of varying level of artistic success. (Like 2008's incomparable production of Die Soldaten.) The RSC is no stranger to touring, but this visit would present something much more ambitious in scale and create a unique and special occasion. So off to New York I went to experience Shakespeare as it is currently done by the RSC. And on first seeing the construction inside the Armory’s drill hall, I was taken aback. The large metal frame of the theater has four stairwells, two elevators and a steel frame covered with giant red plastic tarps making the whole thing look like a foreboding Anish Kapoor installation. Inside the circular theater space was a thrust stage with rafters full of elaborate lighting and technical equipment through which the roof of the Armory was visible.

Greg Hicks and Sam Troughton in Julius Caesar Photo: Stephanie Berger

So with all this exciting visual set up, what could possibly go wrong? It turns out that even in the Park Avenue Armory with the RSC, the play's the thing. Sadly on this closing weekend of the festival, I’m finding out that the productions on offer despite wonderful technical values are perhaps some of the most boring Shakespeare I've come across. Of the three plays I saw on Friday and Saturday, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, and King Lear the shows have gone from mildly interesting to just barely above the threshold of wakefulness. While there are American’s who believe that no one can perform Shakespeare like the British, the RSC’s visit to New York is proving that is not sufficient for success in itself. What’s most odd is that despite different directors, all three of these productions mentioned above suffer from very similar maladies. All are marked by attractive and well-lit sets, competent casts, and beautiful, cleanly delivered language. All three of them also come off as lifeless museum pieces or dramatic recitations that have little emotional connection with audiences. It’s all very noble and grand, but decidedly unaffecting.

Greg Hicks and Sophie Russell in King Lear Photo: Stephanie Berger

Arguably the most successful production I’ve seen thus far is Rupert Goold’s staging of Romeo and Juliet. Goold flirts with the idea of presenting the young lovers as contemporary teenagers in contrast to the Elizabethan garments of everyone else in the play. The prologue and epilogue of the play are presented as audio commentary that one of the characters is listening to over a set of headphones as if at a museum exhibit. Who knows what this has to do with anything. But when the young lovers don Elizabethan garb for their final crypt dialog only to have their bodies discovered by Columbo and a now modern-dressed city of Verona, the painfully obvious point is driven home. Baz Luhrmann made a cottage industry out of this stuff a decade ago and Goold’s Romeo was timid by comparison. There were several very good performances including Mariah Gale as Juliet and a wonderful Noma Dumezweni as the Nurse. The handsome Dyfan Dwyfor filled in as Romeo as he has for several performances since Sam Troughton injured himself earlier in the run. And just to make matters worse on Saturday, an alarm in the Armory went off twice in Act I stopping the show both times. The fact that Dwyfor was plagued by a torch that refused to extinguish after several attempts in the crypt scene generating lots of unintended laughter just managed to put a cap on a somewhat exhausting performance.

The technical problems for that evening's closing performance of Julius Caesar were only slightly less comical as the audience was greeted with a complimentary, loaner Chinese fan and the information that the Armory’s A/C was out. Director Lucy Bailey’s blood and guts Roman retread veered into somnolence in the extra warmth. The production which starts with a wrestling match between Romulus and Remus, relies heavily on video projections of scenery and panels of scrims where large crowd scenes are augmented with images of extras. These cold computer generated images were only slightly more life-like than the demonstrative oratory approach to the text itself. Sam Troughton was quite good here as Brutus as was Darrell D’Silva as Mark Antony. But this battle was over long before it was engaged by any of the combatants in their mud covered body stockings. Even the battle scenes seemed slow and surprisingly non-threatening. By the time characters started falling on their swords, my interest had long since flagged.

And then there was the final performance of David Farr’s King Lear from the night before. One almost expects King Lear to be bad. It’s not an easy play and there is always that rather contrived plot device of dividing the estate to work around. Farr didn’t fare very well, and certainly not as successfully as Trevor Nunn’s former Lear for the RSC that was last seen in Los Angeles in 2007 with Ian McKellen. Farr uses a combination of WWI costuming and props with Elizabethan touches here and there. Again it's not clear what point this serves other than to evoke a period of war imagery a contemporary audience might recognize. Like the other plays mentioned here there seemed to be the slightest bit of updating to suggest some idea of freshness without actually delivering on it. Greg Hicks was a solid Lear (he also played Julius Caesar) and his daughters Goneril (Kelly Hunter), and Regan (Katy Stephens) were adequately evil and creepy. But none of the mad scenes hit home and the several moments in the play sure to bring tears to the eye fell flat under the weight of a cold and academic approach to the work. It was a slow start to be sure, but with a final day of performances to turn things around, there might be something to be said for all the construction yet.

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Mon Oncle

August 12, 2011

 
Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

When did Cate Blanchett become a big movie star? I remember liking her a lot in films. I still do. I always associated her with a sort of refined air with a hard edge underneath that probably stems more from her performance as Elizabeth I than anything. But somewhere along the line, perhaps around the time of The Aviator and her Oscar, that she seemed to jump into that Hollywood stratosphere that makes me inherently less interested in someone’s work as a rule. I think that explains why her performance on stage in Sydney Theater Company’s production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the Kennedy Center caught me by surprise. I’d forgotten precisely how good she is and her performance as Yelena was remarkable. As you may have read recently, Blanchett is undergoing a Renaissance, at least for American audiences, as one of the most impressive stage actors around. Her visits with the Sydney Theater Company have won rave reviews. I can attest that her performance in this particular play lives up to the hype. Her Yelena is not some beautiful, delicate flower, but a robust, if conflicted lusty, full-blooded woman. Her performance all but explodes in the second act, and yet it is not some star showpiece and she never overwhelms the rest of the ensemble.

I shouldn’t focus too much on Blanchett, however, since she is only one element in an ensemble that makes this such a great production. Hungarian director Tamás Ascher has put together a show that is physical and very bruising in a way one doesn’t always expect from Chekhov. There are out right broadly comic moments in his take right from the beginning when the dark curtain is swathed in what sounds like 1930s cartoon music. And there is an element of Punch and Judy the whole time. There is little of the refined nostalgia one often sees in Chekhov, but instead, an extended family grappling with all kinds of passions. There’s Richard Roxburgh as the long-suffering and somewhat jealous Vanya. His niece Sonya, played by Hayley McElhinney, is equally lovesick and frustrated by rejection. A magnificent Hugo Weaving is the doctor Astrov whose desire for Yelena soon brings events to a head. All of these performances are notable for they easily make the characters appear rough and tumble without the actors themselves coming off sloppy. This is not a production of furtive glances, but one of grabbing, mauling, and direct physical contact. The show feels real and lived in, not just spoken about and acted out. The mid-20th Century setting and earth tone color palette invoke Australia more than Russia, but adds to the sense of people living their lives and bumping up against each other in doing so. It's a much more refreshing approach to Chekhov than the rather dreary political version recently seen on stage in London's National Theater where The Cherry Orchard appeared earlier this summer. I, like many in the U.S. saw that as part of the NT Live series in local theaters. But for those of you on the east coast, this Uncle Vanya is the real deal and right in your own backyard. Don't miss it before it's gone next month.

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I Loves You Porgy

August 11, 2011

 

This week has seen a minor tempest erupt over, of all things, Porgy and Bess. Talk about a slow arts news week. In the story thus far, the New York Times ran a feature story on an upcoming Broadway-bound revival of the work under the direction of Diane Paulus starring Audra McDonald with script-doctoring by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. All three were quoted in the original piece about their take on shortcomings with the opera and their combined plans to address some of these before their show opens out of town this fall. This report ended up setting off some heated responses from none less than Broadway legend (in reputation if not ticket sales) Stephen Sondheim who questioned the creative team’s knowledge and assessment of the original work and what he interpreted as their dismissive tone in the piece. Well, far be it for me to question the composer of Bounce, but I fail to see why anyone would think Porgy and Bess doesn’t need some work.

Undoubtedly the Gershwins and DuBose Heyward wrote some quintessential American music for the show. The work survives and is frequently seen on musical theater and opera stages all over the world. But Sondheim’s assessment makes one wonder if he’s actually seen the show any time in the last forty years. Even with cuts, the show is a dirge. The narrative focus wanders too easily and despite his protests otherwise, the character development is more suggested than evidenced in the score. The ending is underdeveloped and despite the fact that “Lord, I’m on My Way” is a great song, it hardly provides a substantial enough ending to this very long haul that more or less peters out into nothing. Sondheim waxes nostalgic over “one of the most moving moments in musical theater history – Porgy’s demand, “Bring my goat!”” Maybe I’m patronizing the wrong theaters, but it seems to me that Mr. Sondheim may want to go out a bit more. I’m fairly certain that “Bring my goat!” shows up on just about no one’s list of the most moving moments of the musical theater. Perhaps on the favorite goat quote list, but let’s not get carried away, shall we. If you think my criticisms unfair, just look around you. How many opera fans do you known who’ll attest to how much they can’t wait to hear Porgy and Bess again? The truth is that despite the opera’s historical significance and some lovely music, it’s not a show a lot of musical theater people are eager to see show up on a season prospectus—for a reason.

At the crux of Sondheim’s ill-advised tirade against this prospective Broadway revival is the contention that there is a “difference between reinterpretation and wholesale rewriting” and that the first is permissible while the second is not. Of course, he fails to indicate exactly where that fine line is to be drawn. He alludes to Parks’ hubris in assuming that Gershwin would have wanted to make changes to his own score. He then wheels out the old bug-a-boo over what standard repertory operas might look like with a little reworking as if that’s supposed to strike fear into somebody’s heart. Most operatic works have been tinkered with to greater or lesser extents over the course of their lives, and most live on in versions not precisely imagined that way by their composers. So what? If the audience wants to see Paulus and Parks Porgy revision, who cares? I think Parks, Paulus, et al., should go for broke. The more excavation that can be done, the better. Besides the show’s investors, who stands to lose anything? If Porgy and Bess is half the opera Sondheim thinks it is, I’m sure it will survive whether or not this particular team rewrites huge sections of the piece for this particular production. Perhaps it will be stupid. Maybe the adaptors don’t trust the audience and will belittle them. But I think audiences are capable of making that decision on their own. And I doubt that George, Ira, or DuBose will have much if anything to say about it whether or not it does.

Götterdämmerung

August 09, 2011

 
Nick Ballard and Casey Kringlen Photo: Ed Krieger/Boston Court 2011

Injecting contemporary popular psychology into the stories of Greek mythology has been a staple of theatrical endeavor almost as long as there has been theater. Myth is some of the oldest stories we like to tell about ourselves, and this era is no different from any before it in that regard. Some of the Theater @ Boston Court's biggest recent successes have come from this playbook, such as Luis Alfaro’s Oedipus El Rey from last season. (Alfaro had also taken on Electricidad for Center Theater Group a few years before.) This year’s model is Steve Yockey’s obliquely-titled Heavier than…. The topic is the Minotaur in his labyrinth awaiting the latest crop of Athenian heroes including Theseus to arrive. Yockey plays very fast and loose with the Minotaur myth and other legends towards his goal of grafting a modern-day psychological drama about mother-child attachment and abandonment on these events. We meet Asterius, the Minotaur, one day before his 30th birthday dreading the upcoming battle and murder of the Athenians and lamenting his inability to see his beloved mother whom he has not seen since his infancy despite her relative proximity. Yockey also gives us three care-taking chorus women who are more or less the three Fates, constantly making and passing rope throughout the evening and revealing to Asterius images of his mother from the past. There is also a highly amorous and S&M inclined Icarus who repeatedly flies into the labyrinth on test wings in hopes of seducing this built, half-naked man with bull horns though his efforts are largely to no avail. Finally, there is Asterius’ sister Ariadne who appears only briefly to deliver a birthday greeting, and leaving behind the end of a strand of silver thread to this most central part of the labyrinth.

Yockey has a real gift for developing a scene, and one quickly becomes engaged with the interactions between these characters. Abigail Deser's crisp direction creates a urgent flow of events even when the play doesn't feel like it has anywhere to go. The psychological characterizations in the play are kept somewhat in check and don't completely overwhelm the mythological elements. Of course, Yockey’s use of mythology is messy and can be confusing at times even within the play's own logic. The Fates at one moment inform Asterius that they have worked intentionally to guarantee he fulfill his preordained destiny by showing him their visions of his mother. And yet when he finally achieves his destiny, the implication is that the Minotaur is defying the nature of the universe in doing so. It's the dramaturgical equivalent of having your cake and eating it, too. Of course, it's a strategy not uncommon in working with myth, and certainly artists no less than Wagner had a penchant for altering story elements slightly with each iteration inside of a piece to make things fit the way he wanted to at any particular moment. There are many loose ends left dangling in Heavier Than... and if you can look around them, there's a story about the imagined relationship between a mother and her long estranged son to consider.

The production itself is up to the usual high Boston Court standards. The single set looks great and is well lit. The three chorus/Fates, Ashanti Brown, Teya Patt, and Katie Locke O'Brien, are cheeky but their synchronized speech invokes their supernatural heritage. There is more than a little skin to be shown between Nick Ballard's Asterius and Casey Kringlen‘s Icarus who’ve clearly kept up their Cretan gym memberships. Ballard is particularly likable as the young man/monster learning to live with himself in the wake of his mother's abandonment. I was also fond of Jill Van Velzer‘s turn as Pasiphae, Asterius’ mother. Van Velzer was last seen at Boston Court as Hamlet's ex-rocker mother in God Save Gertrude and she is just as interesting to watch here. These likable performances are critical to Heavier Than..., whose lens on them heavily for the show's motion. Even when the mythology boils down to an episode of Dr. Phil, there's enough here to keep things going, and it's a show that deserves to be seen. The show runs through Aug 21.

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10 Questions for...
Sandra Bernhard

August 08, 2011

 

There is no one quite like Sandra Bernhard. Her particular blend of comedy and performance art have helped make her a comic legend and endeared her to legions of devoted fans. She’s well known for numerous film and TV roles and has released several recordings, both comedy and straightforward music over her quarter century career. But her live, cabaret style performances will always stay near and dear to my heart and are the appearances that most distinguish her from those around her. That unadulterated, bracing wit and razor sharp observation of a world full of misguided priorities makes an evening with Bernhard unlike any other. Luckily she’ll be bringing her latest show I Love Being Me, Don’t You? to REDCAT starting this Thursday. It's an ideal spot for the show and it's certainly bound to be a highlight for the month. The show has already been extended due to popular demand into a second week through the 18th, and tickets are going fast. There’s also a recording of the show made in a previous outing in San Francisco that’s available on iTunes. Luckily, Ms. Bernhard took some time from her busy mom-on-the-go schedule to tackle the Out West Arts 10 Questions.

  1. What’s the inspiration for "I Love Being Me, Don’t You?" the new
    recording and show that you’ll be bringing to L.A. this month at the
    REDCAT?

    The world around me and the world within me are always my major inspirations.

  2. How are you coping with the whole digital revolution?

    It's a love/hate thing. I don't like to see people wandering down the street detached on their iPhones unaware of people and places and experiences they are missing out on, but I do like to reach out to people in the quiet of my home and bridge many miles.

  3. Music has always played a large part in your performances. What makes a song ideal for you?

    If it is a song I can put my mark on, and a touch of irony, if it tells a good story that I can weave in and out of my own - that's a good song.

  4. Hollywood comes calling (again?) about a Sandra Bernhard reality TV
    show. Nightmare or dream come true?

    Neither, I simply have no interest in exploiting my life in that manner.

  5. What should I be reading on my summer vacation?

    I just read a great book, In the Garden of the Beasts by Erik Larson. It's a historical novel about Nazi Germany.

  6. What, if anything, has your mother taught you about comedy?

    Well, my mother is an original and an artist and a real character. Her humor comes out of being all of those things, she is a natural.

  7. Who would you like to see in a remake of Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!?

    Myself and Angelina Jolie

  8. What are the absolute necessities when you’re working on the road?

    All of my fabulous homeopathic remedies, bath products, great candles, a down pillow, and organic fruits and vegetables.

  9. You’ve conquered so much of the world. Where would you most like to
    perform, but haven’t yet?

    In Paris, Berlin and Amsterdam

  10. What becomes a legend most?

    Someone who stays true to their muses, and writes down every idea that might lead to a great song, story or painting.



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Girl, Interrupted

August 07, 2011

 
l-r: Lena Louyoumdjian, Cynthia Mance, Ann Stocking, and Justin Davanzo Photo: Charles Duncombe

One of the pleasures in Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, a play with far more pains on offer, is it’s adaptability. The sometimes poetic language of the text is divided into numerous fleeting phrases with no real stage direction and a distinct lack of defined characters. There are some snippets of dialog that can be read as exchanges between a psychiatrist and a patient. But for the most part, this intense examination of a mind on the verge of suicide and the ravages of mental illness is open to broad interpretation. The thing that struck me most in Frédérique Michel and Charles Duncombe's maximal staging, which started its run at City Garage this week, was how much concrete definition this production has, compared to its recent predecessors in Los Angeles.

4.48 Psychosis had its local premiere as part of the tragically now-defunct UCLA Live International Theater Festival in 2004 in the original Royal Court Theater production from London. That three person version relied on a giant mirror, some clever AV tricks, and incredible acting from three performers repeatedly shifting dramatic positions, each taking turns as a "patient" for a show that was raw nerve from beginning to end. The very next season, UCLA presented the show again in a French language version with Isabelle Huppert at the front of the stage and a largely silent Gérard Watkins behind a giant scrim. The monotone half-translated soliloquy produced an eerie and detached effect in sharp contrast to its predecessor. City Garage and its founders and directors Michel and Duncombe have a history of presenting challenging and unexpected material, so Kane's bracing work is not a surprise choice from them. What may be more unusual is that they pull out all the stops with a comparatively huge six person cast. Among those six players are a clearly defined patient, "she", a "psychologist", a nurse, and a chorus of three talking heads. Those heads act as the internal voice or voices of the patient, and Kane's poetic lines are increasingly fractured as they are passed back and forth around the players. The focus on character differentiation extends into some psychological development as well with Michel granting the psychologist figure, played by Tim Orona, with some clearly defined and expressed counter-transference.

Weather or not this increased definition is a good thing or not depends on your point of view. Michel's version feels more like a critique of the mental health system with some of the patient's tortured poetry, which is spoken here by Cynthia Mance, getting lost in the mix. While there is still plenty of examination of the inner workings of the suicidal mind, the external relationships play as important of a roll here. On the other hand the repeated interruptions with music that the patient and her chorus of inner voices find themselves compelled to dance to, cleverly reflects the kind of internal disruptions that many patient's suffering with mental illness face. There is quite a bit of pre-recorded sound in this show and it at times serves as a character in its own right, arguing, cajoling, and bargaining with the others on stage. And despite a few visual clichés for madness, as when Mance wears her boots on her hands during the second half of the show, this is a unified event that captures Kane's downward spiral of a play with all its tragedy.

There was another irony in this most explicit of show from one of L.A.'s most boundary-defying groups and that was its location. City Garage was unceremoniously tossed from its long term Santa Monica home last year and has been on the search for a new home. The company has now taken up residence for the time being in the Track 16 Gallery at Santa Monica's Bergamot Station. It's not a permanent solution, but seeing the company in this space, compared to their former city garage, did have its pluses. Any company with consistent artistic personnel in the same space for so many years, runs the risk of becoming repetitive. The new lighter, brighter gallery space, gave the show a more open feeling than some of those evenings in the alleyway in Santa Monica could have afforded. The light here feels less intense and more diffuse battling against a claustrophobic feel. Seeing Michel, Duncombe, and their regular troupe deal with the challenges of a new environment, even if it comes with some unwanted instability, was theatrically rewarding. 4.48 Psychosis continues in City Garage's new home through September 9.

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In The Wings - Aug '10

August 02, 2011

 
Sandra Bernhard

August is all about theater here at Out West Arts. And while there are still music-oriented events for the calendar, stages both at home and away will occupy much of the coming month. And what better way to start than the return to L.A. of one of the greats of comedy and performance, Sandra Bernhard. She’ll be performing her latest work I Love Being Me, Don’t You? at REDCAT beginning on August 11 for a two week run. (There is a recording of a prior run of this show currently available on iTunes if you're interested.) It’s a great venue for her show and it should be a blast. There are plenty of plays to see as well. I’ll be catching Guy Hollingworth’s The Expert at the Card Table at the Broad Stage on Aug 5, and Pasadena’s Boston Court will continue with performances of Steve Yockey's Heavier Than… through Aug 21. The Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City will open up Melissa Jane Gibson’s This, which should be worth a look, through Aug 28. In Santa Monica, the itinerant City Garage troupe will continue at Bergamot Station with two productions in repertory – Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis through Sep 9 and Moliere’s Sganarelle through Sep 4. I would also make a point in getting over to the Theater Banshee in the valley if you’ve yet to see Enda Walsh’s The Walsworth Farce which is making another local appearance.

Derrick Lee Weeden, Christopher Liam Moore, Tyler James Myers, and Danielle Chaves. Photo: Jenny Graham

There is a lot going on out of town as well. If you haven’t been up to Ashland, Oregon yet this year for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, now would be a great time for a getaway. The festival has had quite a summer after a main supporting beam in the Angus Bowmer Theater broke on June 18 forcing the company to scramble for 6 weeks while repairs were made. The theater, one of three stages at OSF, reopens today with great performances of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County and Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure among other highlights. The company’s perseverance through this crisis should serve as a model for any arts organization in such a crisis. Quick thinking led to performances being transferred to a number of local alternative spaces including a tent in adjacent Lithia Park where the show definitely went on. What’s more, the company’s communication with festival goers was frequent, comprehensive, and transparent. Day-to-day updates including photos were constantly available on their website about the damage and progress toward repairs. I’ll be back in Ashland on August 27 and 28 for Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance and Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part II in the outdoor Elizabethan Stage, and for Jonathan Moscone and Tony Taccone’s Ghost Light about his reflections on the relationship with his father, former San Francisco mayor George Moscone.

From RSC's The Winter's Tale

I’ll also be out of town for a weekend to the East Coast where I’ll catch Cate Blanchett’s Sydney Theater Company at The Kennedy Center in DC with Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. This will be rapidly followed by the closing weekend of the Lincoln Center Festival’s residents the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Park Avenue Armory where I’ll be reporting on all five Shakespeare productions: As You Like It, Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, The Winter’s Tale, and King Lear.

The musical part of the month has two major attraction for Out West Arts. Sade will come to Los Angeles for two shows on Aug 19, 20, and 21. And one shouldn’t forget the Hollywood Bowl. This month’s highlight will be the Philip Glass Ensemble’s return to the Bowl to perform live accompaniment to a screening of Powaqqatsi on August 30. So with all this heat, there’s plenty of reason to be inside this month.

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Starting Something

August 01, 2011

 
Isabel Leonard

There were a number of highlights from this year’s Santa Fe excursion. One of them for me was seeing and hearing mezzo Isabel Leonard in performances that stood out in my mind for their beauty and technical ability. She’s appeared in Santa Fe before this year and is well known on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera as well in both Mozart and Rossini roles. She was most notably filmed in the Claus Guth production of Cosi Fan Tutte during the 2009 Salzburg Festival. This season in Santa Fe she is the scene stealer in Vivaldi’s Griselda where she sings Costanza. The fact that she has one of the most challenging and well known arias from the opera, “Agitata da due venti”, doesn’t hurt of course, but after two viewings of the biggest ovations for any individual singer I saw in this year’s festival it felt like a major arrival to my ears. Of course, Leonard has enjoyed increasing notice all over the world in the last five years and is no stranger to any of the major opera and concert stages. So it may have been my own awakening more than anyone else's, but this Costanza felt like something more than another well-sung Dorabella or Cherubino. Leonard held the large empty stage and kept all attention unwaveringly focused on her prodigious performance, the kind of thing the biggest opera superstars do everyday.

And just to put a point on it, on Sunday I stopped by the Scottish Rite Center before leaving town for a solo recital from Leonard hosted by the Santa Fe Concert Association. The SFCA presents classical programs in Santa Fe throughout the Fall and Winter, and this recital, the first in a brand new series, was a way to give some of the great vocalists involved with the opera festival a chance to perform in a concert setting. It’s a new series and a new program for everyone involved and this first recital, which is followed by one from Daniel Okulitch on August 2 and Eric Owens on August 7, was seen by an almost sold out crowd in the acoustically beautiful, if somewhat visually odd, auditorium of this Masonic temple.

Isabel Leonard as Costanza Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2011

And outside of feeling like I was part of some Cremaster VI movie at the odd moment, it was a purely enjoyable program focusing on bread and butter arias that have made Leonard’s career to date. The hour long set included both of Cherubino’s arias, “Una voce poco fa” from The Barber of Seville, and “Svegliatevi nel core” from Handel’s Giulio Cesare. There were also three songs from Rachmaninoff and de Falla’s Seven Spanish Folk Songs. All of this is likely familiar material to fans of vocal music, but Leonard made the show seem very fresh with her warm personable manner and expressiveness. She could be fiercly intense at one moment and playful to the point of giggling the next in service to these pieces. She was accompanied by Joseph Illick who is the director of SFCA, giving the show an added layer of familiarity and fun. And for the group on Sunday afternoon, including myself, it was clear that this is a young singer destined for much bigger parts in the very near future. (Including Rosina at the Met this fall.)

The other interesting thing about this recital was the continued expansion of Santa Fe as a summer music and art destination. Granted both Santa Fe Opera and the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival have been staples for decades now. And the various art shows including the Indian Market at the end of August give the city a cache in at least one corner of the art and antiques world. But the nearly sold-out recital showed that there is plenty of hunger and interest in music during the summer beyond what the city has already. Perhaps Santa Fe could become the Salzburg of North America? Sure Santa Fe is half the size, but it has all the beauty that rivals that European city. Of course, there are still some major issues including the absence of an association with a major international orchestra, the city’s elevation, and a dearth of performance venues. But wouldn’t it be great to have such an expansive multi-site performance and music festival of that kind on our own shores. One can dream. And maybe our own Karajan will come along one day in the desert Southwest to unify the necessary forces.

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Calendar

1/18/13
Kodály Háry János Suite
Eötvös DoReMi
Bartók Concerto for Orchestra
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Heras-Casado, dond
w/ Midori
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Los Angeles, CA

1/19/13
Reneé Fleming and Susan Graham
recital
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Los Angeles, CA

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