Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

The Bitch of Living

September 30, 2009

John Gallagher Jr. and Tony Vincent
Photo: mellopix.com/Berkeley Rep Theater 2009

With teenage angst a perennial favorite on Broadway, the interest in adapting Green Day’s American Idiot for the stage would be a no-brainer. So it has come to pass in Berkeley, that the kings of easy-access punk have returned to their hometown crowd for the world premiere of a musical bearing the same moniker as their classic recording. It’s a show whose collaborators are heavily steeped in virtually every successful Broadway musical on themes of young adult angst in the last decade. You’ve got writer/director Michael Mayer and John Gallagher, Jr who were two of the forces behind Spring Awakening. Then there’s the very talented Rebecca Naomi Jones seen most recently in Passing Strange both in New York and Berkeley. Add to this a cast that’s a veritable who’s who of actors having appeared at some point in Rent and it would seem a recipe for assured success. Needless to say, American Idiot has lots going for it including ample energy and visual excitement. Now, if it only had a narrative. The thing about shows like Spring Awakening and Rent was that somewhere in their heart of hearts they had input from the likes Henri Murger and Frank Wedekind.

Instead the authors of American Idiot, Michael Mayer and Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, begin with much more humble substrate. What story there is focuses on three friends, Johnny, played by John Gallagher Jr, Will and Tunny. After a childhood filled with lots of television and early 21st century bad news, they go their separate ways. Will unexpectedly becomes a father and stays home. Tunny joins the military and is off to the Middle East. Meanwhile Johnny heads off to New York to pursue rock and roll dreams, and promptly gets a girlfriend and a drug problem. There are plenty of cliches that follow from this, all of which are partially explored over the next 90 minutes before the testosterone engines driving the show reunite. There are few if any surprises, which is a shame for something that looks so attractive. The stage is walled off by giant poster-plastered walls with numerous video screens set within them. The band is onstage and the cast is dressed in a friendly California punk way that you’d expect. Actors climb scaffolding and mog rock their little hearts out in various states of well-meaning undress.

And as with Green Day's original recording, everyone is reaching high for something as close to a rock opera as possible. There is virtually no dialog between the musical numbers in the show, which are taken mostly form the recording of American Idiot as well as the band’s subsequent release, 21st Century Breakdown. But 15 or 16 rock songs, (or 15 or 16 arias for that matter), no matter how well constructed or linked, don’t make an opera, much less compelling musical theater without some fleshing out of the drama in between the songs. The verse-chorus-verse structure leads to a kind of redundancy and a lack of forward motion in the piece at times that can be frustrating. The songs are great. I just felt that they needed a little more rethinking and restructuring to create a unified piece instead of an elaborately staged concert with lots of extras. But this is likely only the beginning for American Idiot and the things it does have will probably spurn further work on the show, and I certainly hope it returns further down the line as a fuller, more satisfying existence.


Hither and Yon

September 29, 2009

from Suor Angelica
Photo: Cory Weaver/SF Opera 2009

Everyone had told me that San Francisco Opera’s current production of Il Trittico was the show to see this fall. I’d heard glowing accounts of Patricia Racette who plays the three soprano roles in Puccini’s three one-acts - a feat she will repeat later this fall in New York. Plus everyone seemed to like the production from James Robinson, the recently appointed artistic director of Opera Theater Saint Louis who crafted an excellent staging of Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles this past summer. So I was expecting to be blown away, which is not only unusual for a Puccini opera, but especially so for one that had been so spectacularly good here in Los Angeles last fall under James Conlon in a hybrid production from William Friedkin and Woody Allen. But in the words of the immortal Chuck D, don’t believe the hype. Don’t get me wrong; I think it's a worthwhile evening at the opera, but not one that will stick to your ribs if you get my drift. And while I love Patricia Racette as much as the next person, I have to admit I don't always love her in everything. In fact I don't even love her in the same role all the time. Her Butterfly here in Los Angeles was ho-hum, but I felt much stronger about it in New York. As for Il Trittico, I just wasn’t feeling her, although her acting was good. All I could think about is how much I would have loved to hear Sondra Radvanovsky sing these parts too.

from Gianni Schicci
Photo: Cory Weaver/SF Opera 2009

Of course not all the parts of Il Trittico are equal. It's all about the second act, Suor Angelica which featured Ewa Podles as the Princess opposite Racette in the title role. It was her eagerly awaited San Francisco debut. Podles' contralto was one of those voices you don’t ever forget. Her acting was superb as well, creating an intense presence that eclipsed everything in the brief time she was on stage. Robinson's staging was quite strong with the convent of the original moved into the day room of a Catholic children's hospital for a sharp modern look. It was heart wrenching, as the opera should be, but this was a darker than usual turn. Prior to her suicide, Angelica covers the face of the Virgin Mary statue in the day room to shield its eyes from what she is about to do. In Angelica’s last moments as she lies alone on the tile floor about to die, crying out for a sign of forgiveness from the Virgin Mary, one of the young children who had previously visited the day room returns to stare at her through the glass doors. The production seems ambivalent as to whether this was a vision of Angelica’s own son revealed to her by the Virgin Mary or just a child who’d wandered down the wrong hallway. It may have been a sign, but Robinson steers hard away from the phantasmagorical implying that Angelica may not have found the redemption she begged for.

Brandon Jovanovich from Il Tabarro
Photo: Cory Weaver/SF Opera 2009

Suor Angelica was the only piece of the evening that didn’t involve the production's other highlight, Paolo Gavanelli, whose booming baritone marked the strongest singing in the evening's other works, Il Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi. He easily outclassed Racette in both. He also outclassed both conductor Patrick Summers and the rather cheap looking sets in both segments. The bookends to the evening were all about wall coverings be they brick and iron or psychedelic black and white shapes or a badly realized out-of-perspective photograph of Florence. Meanwhile down in the pit, Summers led a rather ham-fisted performance marked by a lack of lyricism and dynamics. Talk about making the argument for the importance Nicola Luisotti has in this company – here is exhibit A. I would also be remiss not to mention Brandon Jovanovich as well, considering his uber-sexy self as Luigi in Il Tabarro. Sure, it’s not clear what this Slavic (via Montana) heartthrob is doing on this particular barge in the middle of Paris, but he actually warmed up to a rather impassioned lover onstage before it was all over.

So, if you were pressed to see only one opera in San Francisco this month, although I know that Il Trittico is the relative rarity, Il Trovatore is probably still the all-around most satisfying production. But you wouldn’t be miserable if things broke the other way – which is always a major accomplishment for a Puccini opera.


The Abduction: Director's Cut

September 28, 2009

from Die Entführung aus dem Serail
Photo: Cory Weaver/SF Opera 2009

Saturday brought San Francisco Opera’s new production of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail or, as its more popularly known to the SF Opera marketing department, The Abduction from the Seraglio. Of course by “new” I mean new to Chicago last Spring and now appearing here in a co-production arrangement. Entführung is a difficult opera to do with its combination of broad comedy, spoken dialog, and 18th century exoticism. As usual, I found myself wanting a little more abduction and a little less seraglio during the evening, but it was by no means a waste. The production is one of those affairs from director Chas-Rader Shieber and designer David Zinn who seem omnipresent in the U.S. these days. I think I’ve decided that I prefer Zinn’s work to Rader-Shieber’s in that more often than not, the sets look fine but the action taking place within them seems far less compelling. This Entführung is set in a model of an 18th century theater complete with footlights, fire curtain and backdrops. The team cleverly avoids the play-within-a-play set up by not putting one in the production. However, it does raise the questions of why the action is taking place in a 18th century theater. I mean it looks lovely with great costumes and all, but the action is minimal besides the cast repeatedly jumping on and off the stage to the main stage below often for no rhyme or reason. It's an idea half-realized.

There are comic bits to be sure, especially from Blonde played expertly here by Anna Christy. But the laughs are few and far between and more often than not the cast is standing around looking for something to do. The vocalists were fine if not excellent. Matthew Polenzani sang Belmonte and Mary Dunleavy was Constanze. Both were pleasant enough but somewhat sloppy at the margins. Peter Rose was Osmin giving the most convincing performance of the evening although he doesn’t have the bottom notes for the part and his voice would periodically drop below audible in those passages.

My biggest complaint, though, is the whole flipping back and forth between German language for the music and English for the spoken passages. I find it distracting particularly when the English adaptation is as poor as this one was with its contemporary colloquialisms mixed with the “thou”s and “thee”s of somebody’s notion of speech from 200 years ago. It would be nice for a little consistency regardless of the overall direction. By all means if you’re worried about the language barrier, just sing the whole thing in English and be done with it. If not, leave it alone. It’s not like the audience is going to laugh at any of the lines of English dialog in this adaptation anyway. Still, this is Mozart and there is no doubt plenty of beautiful music, which conductor Cornelius Meister handled fleetly. The production continues through October 23.


The Dawn Breaks

September 27, 2009


You can always count on the L.A. Times to get around to some actual arts reporting sooner or later. This weekend brings us this pearl from Mark Swed,

"Gustavo Dudamel-- a.k.a. GD and the Dude -- doesn’t hit town until Wednesay, but the Los Angeles Philharmonic has certainly gone into high promotional gear for its new music director, and the media is taking the bait big time. Though well aware of the risk of overexposure and too-high expectations, we at the L.A. Times are hardly blasé as we examine the Dudamel phenomenon."

Gee, it only took how many years to get around to abandoning their blasé attitude toward Dudamel? While Swed goes on to complain about some of the marketing efforts of the L.A. Phil with regards to Dudamel including a video game and iPod app, he fails to gain any insight into the Times’ and his own participation in this “hoopla” and “nonsense.” He has been all too willing to throw laurels at Dudamel’s feet for performances that have been mediocre just as often as they have been good. But now he warns of the "danger" of putting too much pressure on the new maestro through an abundance of hype and unrealistic expectations. Well physician, heal thyself. It's great Swed is finally taking a serious look at the effect the hype around Dudamel could have on him and the L.A Philharmonic. Here's hoping he can examine some of his own role in creating some of this problematic hype to begin with.

Size Matters

September 26, 2009

Blythe and Dimitri Hvorostovsky
Photo: Cory Weaver/SF Opera 2009

Or at least that seems to be the lesson in San Francisco Opera’s current production of Il Trovatore, which is kicking off their 09/10 season this month. It’s one of those shows where there is so much wonderful world-class music making that it’s easy to enjoy while simultaneously being profoundly unexciting. The production itself is the rather plain-jane Goya inspired affair that, like virtually everything else in San Francisco this season, has already graced stages elsewhere in the country. It’s sad that a company which was presenting American premieres of important operatic works such as Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre and Messiaen’s Saint Francois d’Assise just years ago has been reduced to a wannabe Metropolitan or Lyric Opera of Chicago. There are certainly worse things to aspire to, but apparently San Francisco's opera company is a bit more comfortable in the follower role than the leader one.

But there are things to be said from traveling in the wakes of bigger ships - it will provide for some enjoyable and well sung productions of the standard fare. McVicar’s take on Il Trovatore has been both to Chicago and, earlier this year, the Metropolitan Opera with much the same cast. His sets are crammed into the much smaller San Francisco stage which ironically helps them somewhat by making the little activity that takes place in and around them look bigger and more involving. It's still mostly a stand-and-deliver sort of evening. The other benefits to this smaller framed outing are acoustic. It’s a great cast and here at the War Memorial Opera House, they actually get to sing like normal human beings instead of the juiced up machines required to fill the cavernous Met Opera house.

At the head of that pack is the freaking amazing Sondra Radvanovsky as Leonora. I’ve heard her do this twice before both in LA and New York, but it’s still a wonder. She’s so good as a Verdi singer that she puts otherwise exceptional singers in a bind to keep up with her game. Dimitri Hvorostovsky is back as the Count di Luna, but on this particular Friday he sounded much more strained to me than previously. Stephanie Blythe who I tend to associate with lighter fare delivers an urgent and appropriately vengeful Azucena. Marco Berti was a serviceable if not exciting Manrico. Still, you’d be hard pressed to put together a better Trovatore cast anywhere and if you’re looking for a world-class cast of this opera that demands four players at the top of their games, this is it.

But if the evening belonged to anyone it was San Francisco’s new music director Nicola Luisotti. I’ve been ambivalent about him in the past, but he delivered a fantastic, lively performance that at points almost made the vocalists secondary. If San Francisco wants to be an “Italian House”, they have apparently made a very good choice. They may not be writing the next chapter in the opera history books, but its likely to keep subscribers happy with a steady flow of celebrities and great singing. Given Luisotti's presence, this Il Trovatore is worth seeing even with the scheduled casting changes later on before it closes on October 6.


Ordinary People

September 25, 2009

Meg Stuart and Philipp Gehmacher in Maybe Forever

Are you missing Pina Bausch and wondering who might step into her enormous yet fleet-footed shoes? Well how about Meg Stuart. I would be remiss to pop out-of-town to San Francisco this weekend without mentioning Maybe Forever, the dance program this week at REDCAT featuring Stuart and her collaborators, dancer/choreographer Philipp Gehmacher and musician Niko Hafkenscheid. Stuart has been working for years primarily in Europe with her own company only periodically appearing in the US. Gehmacher, whose troupe is based in Vienna, found a kindred spirit in Stuart that led to Maybe Forever, a work that also incorporates music and lyrics from Hafkenscheid. The single act, 80-minute piece has an austere beauty in the face of a decidedly anti-lyrical approach to movement.

Maybe Forever opens with two barely visible figures lying on what appears to be a beach in the near total darkness of the REDCAT theater. The two roll and struggle on the neutral shore as electric music drones in the background. It was fascinating and not at all overdone. When the lights come up, a small curtained room that could be anywhere appears. Hafkensheid enters with his electric guitar and begins to perform the solo tracks that accompany Maybe Forever. They are tuneful songs which alternate with pre-recorded bits of sound and music all of which mirrors the claustrophobic feel of the gray carpeted room. There is a small riser on the left but the space surrounded by heavy dark curtains is only remarkable otherwise for a giant photo of dandelions against the back wall that appears black-and-white initially, but with a change in lighting, bursts into full color. The space feels both anonymous and domestic at the same time and while the dances will later on pull back the curtain and walk out of the space and back, the sense of enclosure and forced normalcy pervades.

The movement is not about great romantic sweeping gestures but more often than not gives off a feel of everyday woes and distress. Often Stuart and Gehmacher seem to be embarking on the same kind of expression you or I might have sitting in an office or at home as we stretch or arch to scratch ourselves. But its exactly this contrast between an ordinary world and the surprising presence of movement that makes Maybe Forever fun to watch. There are implications of a relationship between the two characters as they seem to mimic everyday intimacies - sitting, watching, and holding hands. But the piece never seems to stray into a cliche story of a relationship. There are spoken word passages as well that punctuate the activity but never submerge into the realm of bad poetry. It's a very good show on a rare visit from Stuart and Gehmacher and Los Angeles was lucky to see it.


A Wagnerian Sneak Peek

September 24, 2009

From Act III of Siegfried
Photo: Monika Rittershaus/LA Opera 2009

On Wednesday, I was lucky enough to see the final dress rehearsal for L.A. Opera’s new production of Siegfried. And while it may not have been in the same form it will be in by Saturday’s premiere, I can already tell you that it’s super exciting. The contents of the staging by now should be no surprise to anyone who has seen either of the first two installments of Achim Freyer’s staging of Wagner’s Ring cycle. There are lots of neon light tubes and the stage is filled with black clad mimes and vocalists in colorful, primitive costumes. The action, which takes place entirely behind a neon-framed scrim, careens from profound to comical and back. What’s new in Siegfried is how all of these elements are beginning to gel into a world all of their own. The video elements are expanded and nearly constant this time and Freyer’s own visual leitmotif system is now clicking into its own internal rhythm. The stage can be filled with performers engaged in all kinds of different activities, but strangely all focused on the content of the libretto at the very same moment. At times it can be overwhelming. Act III alone may be the most beautiful moment in the entire cycle so far with its ever present Norns circling above the newfound lovers amidst another sea of red fabric and an ocean of stars (or is it rain) sweeping across the video screen.

Certainly, there will continue to be angst over some of the staging’s elements. John Treleaven, who plays Siegfried, appears in a giant blue muscle suit wearing trousers made of white bear skin. His taxi-yellow mini-dreadlocks can make him look as much a cartoon character as a hero. But he projects youth and daring in this get-up in a way I’ve not seen from any number of middle-aged guys dressed like Barney Rubble in bad blond toupees common among Siegfrieds elsewhere. But the factor you’ll be reading about in Monday’s paper, assuming it isn’t changed between now and then, is the dragon. On Wednesday, when the dragon first spoke in Act II, it is from offstage. Eric Halfvarson’s voice is amplified from back stage as red houselights are brought up on the audience. Freyer follows this ominous lead in with one of the production’s many jokes as a flying four-foot tall stuffed toy dragon spewing battery-operated fire accosts Siegfried. Siegfried grabbed onto the tiny dragon shaking it and inspiring lots of laughter in the preview audience. The dragon then disappears as the rear portion of the circular stage rises. Siegfried pierces a hole in the elevated stage with Nothung and when the stage is later lowered, Fafner the giant is revealed, impaled on the same neon sword. Even though it was a bit of a big switch in tone, I appreciated the possible overtones of the directorial choice of a comic dragon. It’s a clever move that reinforces the dragon's appearance not as the audience perceives him, but more as Siegfried does given his total lack of fear. But it’s a risky choice for an audience expecting something a little more predictable.

I’m not going to comment on the vocal performances other than to say even in the dress rehearsal Graham Clark’s Mime was first rate. He does as much with his arms and hands as other actors do with their whole bodies. I’m also increasingly partial to Vitalij Kowaljow who seems to grow into Wotan with leaps and bounds. Music director James Conlon continues to be the biggest highlight of the show, and the orchestra sounded just great. There are only five performances in the run, which starts Saturday, so plan ahead.


Every Day A Little Death

September 22, 2009

The cast of Putting It Together
Photo: South Coast Rep 2009

Is Sondheim like sex and chocolate? I would argue it is. At least to the extent that like the others, it meets the old qualification that even when Sondheim's bad, it’s still Sondheim. Which was my thought after seeing the South Coast Repertory revival of Putting It Together this past weekend. Not that the production is bad. It’s actually quite serviceable. It’s just that it isn’t great and it left me thinking – well, it is Sondheim still, isn’t it? Putting It Together is essentially a revue. It incorporates songs from several other works and arranges them in such a way as to imply a story line for a group of five performers. The action takes place over the course of a dinner party in the upscale condominium of a New York couple. There’s not a lot of plot to it and most of the action focuses on the relationship stress faced by an older couple and the potential romantic interminglings of their younger male and female guests.

However, the show is really about the songs, and there are many great ones here. Several of them are delivered with a fair amount of insight and emotion. I was particularly taken with “Sorry/Grateful” from Company performed here by Harry Groener. In fact, Groener had his hands in many of the best numbers including “Old Friends”, “Country House”, and “Pretty Women.” The other cast members struggled to live up to his standard vocally and acting wise, though no one was cringe inducing. Matt McGrath who was excellent here in Los Angeles a few year’s back in Robert Wilson’s The Black Rider returns as a far more human and urbane young man. He's witty, but burdened with what appears to be a high school prom outfit complete with shiny vest and tie which does him no favors. Dan Callaway was rather All-American if a bit pitchy at times. The two women in the cast, Mary Gordon Murray and Niki Scalera were plagued by rather poorly tailored and garish costumes. In fact the whole staging seemed like a bit of a period piece with the midtown condominium dining room ensconced specifically in the early-to-mid 1980s.

Or at least it seems like the Orange County idea of a New York penthouse. In any event, even when the quasi-story begins to unravel as it stretches for some way to logically include "Gun Song" from Assassins, it's always possible to enjoy these theatrical songs for what they are. If you're not familiar with the music, I'd highly recommend you go despite some of the clumsiness.

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Regie Rant

September 21, 2009

Karita Mattila in Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2009

As the Fall opera season gets underway, it’s time for the usual soon-to-be-extinct media outlets to devote precious space to an art form in the throws of death much longer than they have been. Thus we have the New York Times casting its eyes towards San Francisco and the Metropolitan Opera with two pieces on their respective opening productions. Never an outlet to find two different stories when one will do the job, the NY Times is ready to wallow in everyone’s favorite sport – regie-bating. You know the tune, general directors from opera companies across the land stand to declare how concerned they are about Regietheater, the non-traditional approach to staging standard repertory that can play fast and loose with popular assumptions. These directors, like Mr. Gelb and Mr. Gockley go on to avow their stand against this tide in their audiences’ interest. In the NY Times piece on the SF Opera opener, Verdi's Il Trovatore, general director David Gockley defends his less-than-inspired artistic direction of the company to date by saying “The research that I have access to says that it’s the core works, the great central works of the operatic tradition, that attract and inspire the new audience. You might have heard, ‘Well, new works or edgy productions are what get the young people in.’ Well, it’s not true.” Yes, everyone knows how much young people love the tried and true over the novel, new, and now. Maybe Gockly just needs to improve his access to research.

Meanwhile back at the Met, the season has opened with a new Luc Bondy-directed Tosca and the bitching and booing is already underway. Last week, Matthew Gurewitsch penned a little compare and contrast preview between the Met’s Peter Gelb and the new general director of the Munich Opera, Nikolaus Bachler, both of whom will oversee the debut of the same new Bondy-directed production in their storied houses this season. After letting Bondy cluck about some of the Met’s recent new productions like Bartlett Sher’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Gurewitsch turns to criticisms Mr. Gelb made in Berlin last year of “directors who set out to provoke and bewilder.” Gurewitsch continues, “In Berlin Mr. Gelb blamed state subsidies, which let theaters get away with ever more aberrant shows that audiences do not want, and the perversity of powerful critics who poison the well for anything else. Opera needs to go mainstream, Mr. Gelb insisted, or it will die.”

So let me get this straight. Gelb and Gockley are concerned about the negative influence of directors who take too many liberties with beloved operas, which they then force on unapproving audiences. And yet, both general directors have hired many of the very same stage directors who have worked over the last two or three decades to create this very situation to begin with including Luc Bondy, Patrice Chereau, Graham Vick, Willy Decker and others. So who’s zoomin’ who? Someone is not being forthright, and I suspect the truth is that both men realize that they can’t keep offering up the same garbage their houses have in the past if they intend to stay alive. However, they must continue to court the most conservative and least aesthetically aware patrons in order to do so in the short run.

Meanwhile, some short-sighted audience members will continue to boo the often thought provoking and insightful work of the Regietheater folks while secretly praying that Regietheater is a temporary phase that will pass. However, that seems doubtful. Considering that this approach is heading into its fourth decade, I’m not sure exactly what the more base group of opera goers thinks is going to happen. The booing may be routine, but the change in audience taste is already apparent. And who cares what audiences like on the whole anyway? Since when does popular opinion create great art. That certainly isn’t the case in movies, television, or publishing, so why all of the sudden for classical music must new productions be loved by the majority of the audience to prove its artistic worth? Sure there are economic considerations, but opera got by for over three centuries without a capitalist bourgeois popularity contest to justify its existence, so why must it be a primary consideration now? Yes, state subsidies in Europe provide for opera programming that may not be as popular as the lowest common denominator fare that fills American houses. But that is a good thing. And if you think two plus decades of Regietheater have made European opera audiences older or less generous than their American counterparts, you'd be wrong there too. In the end, must we all shop at Wal-Mart to be acceptable?

Pace, Pace, Mio Dio

September 19, 2009

Ric Salinas, Herbert Siguenza and Richard Montoya of Culture Clash
Photo: Craig Schwartz/Getty Trust 2009

Who would have ever thought that the Getty Villa would become one of the most well-regarded theater locales in Los Angeles. But it’s true. Four years into the effort to present Greek and Roman theatrical works as part of the larger programming mission of the Getty Villa, the Getty Trust continues to put on exceedingly well thought out productions of works one isn’t too likely to see staged anywhere else. In addition, their taste in collaborators is superb. This year’s model featured Aristophanes’ Peace in a broad adaptation from local theater collective Culture Clash and John Glore. The Getty Villa has preferred to alternate dramas and comedies from year to year given that their "season" is limited to one production with about 12 performances a year in their outdoor amphitheater.

The match between Culture Clash and Peace couldn't be a better one. The story concerns a farmer, played by the excellent John Fleck, who scorns Zeus over the continual plague of war on humanity. Soon he goes on a quest to Olympus to free the Goddess of Peace who is being held captive by the God of War and return her to the earth. Aristophanes' comedy is base and a crowd pleaser in a lowest-common-denominator way. Glore and the members of Culture Clash have attempted to maintain as much of the low brow humor as they can get away with since contemporary audiences might have a lot of trouble with everything in the original. Still, there are oodles of jokes about penis size, defecation, gay sex, and the like. The good news is that it is also very funny. It helps that the three members of Culture Clash have a keen eye for contemporary social satire, and aren't afraid to drag in material that might be a little close for comfort for the hand that feeds. One of the central characters in the play, the Chorus Leader played by Amy Hill, is based on the mentally unstable Getty Villa neighbor who has waged a war against the Villa and its theatrical productions over the last two years by blasting music from her nearby home during performances. (Oh the sacrifices one must endure to live in Malibu!) The neighbor character enters at the rear of the amphitheater midway through the play in an effort to disrupt the proceedings making direct references to the actors in last year's production of Agamemnon. Soon however, the cast of Peace entice her into helping them out on their journey to rid the world of war.

The neighbors aren't the only target. Culture Clash goes after Michael Jackson, Gustavo Dudamel, various L.A. neighborhoods, and even the Villa itself. In perhaps the most hysterical bit in the play, the farmer has "rescued" the marble statue representing the Goddess of Peace and brought her to earth. Once there, he is accosted by Herbert Siguenza and Ric Salinas dressed as Chico and Harpo Marx acting as an Italian delegation who has come to repatriate the statue away from the Getty Villa. Later on Richard Montoya poses as KCRW's own Michael Silverblatt who interviews Aristophanes himself on a segment of "Bookworm."

It's all great fun even if everyone did have to listen to music being blasted from the home of some neighbor again this year. And for those of you keeping score at home, if this production is any marker, next year's collaboration between Culture Clash and the resident artists of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival should be worth seeing. The festival's director, Bill Rauch, directed Peace and has welcomed Culture Clash to Ashland, OR next year with a new work on themes related to American History and culture. In the meantime, we have the very enjoyable Peace out in Malibu. There are still eight performances left through October 3.


Boundary Issues

September 17, 2009

Much Ado About Nohting at REDCAT
Photo: REDCAT 2009

REDCAT opened its doors this week for a performance from a collective of young musicians and artists from around the world working together with Martine Bellen and David Rosenboom on a project under the moniker “A Counterpoint of Tolerance: Ah! Opera No-Opera. What exactly is meant by this is still unclear to me, but I can tell you the title perfectly describes it – 90 minutes that test the limits of virtually any audiences’ tolerance. According to the program notes, “[t]he intention was to create a genre-blind, culturally inclusive experience blurring boundaries that often separate media specializations and people.” To accomplish this, Rosenboom and Bellen developed an “interactive opera generator in the shape of a Mandala with 13 interlinking, hyperlinking stories and their movable pathways.” These text bits, which were mostly spoken in overly serious and unvarying tones, were accompanied by music. And if you’re wondering what the music sounds like when composers from all over the world work together as one, the answer is pretty much what you’d here on an FM smooth jazz station.

Ironically, while the description of the performance would seem to imply some level of variability and interactivity, the performance was about as predictable as one could imagine. If there was anything out of the ordinary, it was the amount of pointless discomforts the audience was asked to tolerate. Everyone was asked to remove their shoes (or put on surgical covers) before entering the space which had been covered in a canvas surface for projection and told that we could move around the performance area. Everyone was brought down and seated on amazingly uncomfortable high stools around the space where they were left perching and battling numb feet until 90 minutes in, when they were invited to actually sit on the floor closer to the performers for about the last 4 minutes or so of the evening. If the show was meant to be interactive, it apparently didn’t occur to anyone that observers do not automatically jettison years of audience behavior context without some prompting.

Instead everyone sat with their legs going numb while we observed 12 or so musicians stationed in a circle around the floor where a single female dancer shuffled around as three vocalists occasionally sang but mostly recited their texts. Video was projected on the floor from above, which was mostly generated live by a cameraman who caught both the performers and the dazed, blank looks of the audience. And while I’m sure there were many talented people in the room, Ah! suggests that the very divisions that we use to define ourselves and culture may in fact be central to the creation of art in the first place. There are two more performances this week on the 17th and 18th which I believe can be viewed on the web if you’d like to sit in the most uncomfortable chair you’ve got at home to emulate the live experience.


All He Cares About Is Love

September 15, 2009

Giussepe Filianoti, Nathan Gunn, and Nino Machaidze
Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2009

You never can tell, can you? Los Angeles Opera opened the 09/10 season last weekend with a show that I wasn't dreading. But I wasn't highly anticipating it either. Donizetti’s L'Elisir d'Amore is an opera it seems many opera fans love to hate. It’s light entertainment at best, to be sure. On top of this, the original selling point of this revival was a return engagement by Rolando Villazon, which, of course, he withdrew from due to his ongoing vocal trouble. He was quickly replaced with Giuseppe Filianoti and things seemed set until Ruggero Raimondi, the scheduled Dulcamara for the run, also pulled out the week before the opening after an injury. His replacement, Giorgio Caoduro, ended up joining a cast that included Filianoti, the Adina of Nino Machaidze, and Nathan Gunn as Belcore.

So I headed off to Tuesday’s second performance with a fair amount of doubt, but, lo and behold, I must admit I had a great evening. In fact, it was probably about the best L’Elisir I think I’ve seen. Despite all the substitutions, L.A. Opera has put together a first-rate cast. Machaidze is a rising star in Europe and was recently featured in a DVD release of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette from the 2008 Salzburg festival as the doomed lover. But even with this recorded evidence, I didn’t think she would be as good as she was. Strong, clear, and with total acting commitment, she commanded the stage. Her voice has a lovely darkish hue that was both sweet and seductive. I hope to hear a great deal more of her - the sooner the better. Filianoti was a friendly and vocally engaged performer. He has a real Italianate sound and here in L.A. he was remarkable. And, although I sometimes sensed things were about to verge out of control for him vocally, they never went that far astray. And as for Gunn, if an eye-patch and handlebar mustache don't bring sexy back, nothing will.

The production itself is as traditional as can be. Directed by Stephen Lawless, it's set in a massive grainery whose giant rear wall has several doors and which raises periodically to reveal the large open field behind. It looks good, although it can be extremely dark at times. I found the overall lack of lighting somewhat peculiar, though I suppose it did have much more of a naturalistic feel than the alternative. The orchestra and chorus sounded very tight as well. (The chorus seems to improve by leaps and bounds these days.) Music director James Conlon was at the podium and, although I found his pacing a bit slow at times, it was very engaged. He also gave the pre-concert talk as has been his choice for the performances he's led here in Los Angeles. Unusually, these are becoming highlights in and of themselves. It was refreshing to hear Conlon give such an impassioned defense of an opera maligned as often as L'Elisir. The show runs through the end of September and there are lots of reasons to go.


Till There Was You

September 14, 2009

Peter Macon and Robin Goodril Nordli in Macbeth
Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF 2009

My final day in Ashland culminated in some relief after a number of disappointments at this year’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival. To be honest, this reprieve may have stemmed from seeing two of the strongest plays in and of themselves of the six I caught. The afternoon featured a contemporary and well-done Macbeth. The play takes so easily to any number of updated settings. Here, the set was post-apocalyptic McMansion foyer complete with a half destroyed staircase, black tile floor, and shadows from a reflecting pool dancing across the backstage scrim. Surrounding the foot of the stage was a relief of many bodies encased in something once molten but now iron solid for a Han Solo-feel. It looked good, and provided an appropriately creepy air. There were other nice touches as well, including the spirits summoned by the witches in their second meeting with Macbeth appearing as small children with misshapen alien heads speaking telepathically through the witches mouths. Granted it’s not Fangoria , but certainly creepy. Director Gale Edwards also elects to go with the more ominous interpretation of the final scene with the witches reaching out to beacon Fleance as Malcolm addresses the crowd as their new king implying that the bloodshed may not quite be over yet.

But plays do not run on atmosphere alone. There’s acting to consider and Peter Macon was cast as Macbeth against Robin Goodril Nordli’s Lady Macbeth. They both gave large, grand-gestured performances, which didn’t work so well in the first parts, but came into their own in the home stretch as the play itself crazily eclipses any subtle emotion in the final scenes. Macon’s Macbeth was much more convincing on the cusp of sanity than when marveling and reviling at his wife's calls to action. There seemed to be a little lack of chemistry here as well, and I often felt like this devilish duo operated on completely separate realms to one another. The rest of the cast kept the energy up and moving higher as the plot unfolded. Some scenes seemed haphazard in their arrangement including the appearance of Banquo’s ghost who ambles down a nearly empty banquet table in a manner that created more fear about falling off a table than for Macbeth’s sanity. But on the other hand, the later scenes were more and more unhinged, frightening, and at times even sexy.

Richard Elmore, Machael Elich, and Linda Alper
Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF 2009

Sunday’s other performance, of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man was also a crowd-pleaser although it too was incredibly slow to warm up. There is something potentially lost in a repertory system such as the one in Ashland with plays only receiving a performance two to three times a week over several months. OSF has not traditionally produced many out-and-out musicals, and that may be in part to the fact that maintaining consistent musical quality may depend on a more rigorous schedule for everyone involved. On Sunday, the first twenty minutes or so sounded awful with a chorus completely out of sync and overpowering what amounted to the chamber orchestra used to proved background noise. It hurt some of the earlier crowd numbers, but luckily as things wore on, the singing and timing improved. Bill Rauch directed the production which was burdened with the precious black-and-white turning into color concept from such places as the film Pleasantville. It didn’t always work here either. The nicest surprise of the evening was Michael Elich’s Harold Hill, which was handsome, smooth and strong sounding. Sadly his Marian, Gwendoly Mulamba, had a little too much vocal unsteadiness throughout whether the source was fatigue or something else. By the second act, however, I was sold on the energy of the good spirit of it all. Even despite the Shipoopi making me long for the days of Monica Lewinski, I couldn't help but be won over in the end.


Almost Paradise

September 13, 2009

Mark Murphey, Leo Gordon, Michael J. Hume, and Richard Elmore
Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF 2009

I wish I could say that my second day at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this year was better than the first, but apparently that is not to be. I should note that Ashland, Oregon, is unbelievably beautiful as it always is, and regardless of anything else, it’s worth a visit here whether you’re into theater, outdoor activities or none of the above. I was very appreciative of all that natural beauty today after some more underwhelming theater. This afternoon was OSF’s current revival of Clifford Odets’ Paradise Lost. It would seem perhaps the perfect time to bring this Depression-era drama riddled with its patriotism and proto-Socialist leanings to the stage. And it does resonate; though, it is supremely ironic to hear some of the very same calls for community action in the face of perceived government abuses espoused by characters from the left within the play now co-opted some 70 years later by the kinds of clueless Americans from the Right that fill news coverage these days.

But so it is, and Odets’ drama is given a thoughtful and loving treatment from director and former Festival artistic director Libby Appel. Perhaps it’s a little too loving, though, in that the pacing often seems overly slow and meticulous. This is a play of ideas, but it is also an exceedingly realist work that suffers from appearing too much like a play. The performances from Linda Alper and Michael J Hume, among others, were quite good, maintaining some focus in a play that gets watered down from a few too many storylines and characters crammed into the proceedings before patriarch Leo Gordon gets to his call-to-unity speech in the home stretch. Despite being a bit sleepy, it was not all together unpleasant.

But as slow as Paradise Lost may have been, it was nowhere near as lifeless as this season’s adaptation of a literary work, Don Quixote, which is playing outdoors on the Elizabethan Stage. Octavio Solis was brought in to adapt Cervantes' novel into a coherent evening of theater to no avail. It seems that episodes from the picaresque work were chosen at random with little regard to how they fit together or might construct a coherent narrative for a single theatrical evening. There is virtually no forward motion in the piece, which seems to wander from topic to topic at will. It’s also filled with every mild, audience pleasing gag you can think of right down to boob jokes and exposed asses. The only thing missing was a fart joke, which seemed somewhat of an oversight given the tone of the evening. There was some lovely puppetry work designed by Lynn Jeffries around the many animals that appear in the adaptation from waddling ducks to Quixote's horse. But it's not enough to hold things together. Cervantes himself is dragged into the production for some contemporary meta-fictional purposes that remain a mystery to me. It's a long, dull dud of an evening.


Straight Answers

September 12, 2009

The cast of Equivocation
Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF 2009

I’ve been away from Ashland, Oregon and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for a few years. This summer, I decided to return to catch up on things now that the artistic reigns of the Festival have been taken over by Bill Rauch, a director with a long history on Southern California stages. He’s made a lot out of those connections already, providing a pipeline for works coming out of South Coast Repertory in Orange County to have continued life up north such as Jeff Whitty’s The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler from last season. He’s also brought many favorite collaborators to Ashland as well including choreographer Ken Roht, playwright Octavio Solis, and L.A.'s own Culture Clash who'll deliver a new work here next year to name only a few. So it was with some anticipation that I greeted Bill Cain’s Equivocation, a world premiere this year that was directed by Rauch in advance of the play’s production at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles early next year.

Luckily, I’ve seen enough projects under Rauch’s guidance to know that Cain’s disastrous play is not likely to be a harbinger of things to come for the festival. Equivocation is almost unbearable. It’s one of those secret life of Shakespeare plays that trades in sly references to trivia about the bard's life and work presumably already known to the audience for laughs and "a-ha" moments. Remember Peter Whelan‘s The School of Night? No? Well don’t worry, you won’t remember Equivocation either. When the play’s villain, Robert Cecil, is given a laugh line in which he suggests to Shakespeare that his plays will surely be remembered 50 years hence, you know you’re in serious trouble. The convoluted and often disintegrating plot concerns the conflict created for Shakespeare and his company of actors when James I, through his servant Robert Cecil, commissions a new play to commemorate the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The play focuses on presenting current events in a manner that is politically and ethically palatable to the company and their King as Cain revives conspiracy theories about Robert Cecil's role in using the plot for his own political ends. I’d be hard pressed to make much more out of this play other than to say it also provides opportunities to quote and refer to multiple Shakespeare plays including extended reenactments of bits from Macbeth. The play’s tension derives more from the audience’s pleasure in their ability to identify allusions than any actual dramatic elements. In fact it’s hard for me to imagine any audiences who might be entertained by this monstrosity other than those here in Ashland where the preoccupation with the bard is more than a pastime. There are also plenty of side references to current issues including terrorism and the ethics of torture, but this is hardly enough to make the play interesting, much less coherent.

Vilma Silva (center) with her ladies in waiting from Henry VIII
Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF 2009

With such a weak opener for my trip to the festival, it made this evening’s other production, Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, feel both light and profound by comparison. Arguably one of Shakespeare’s weakest plays, Henry VIII has often proved more problematic than any of his “problem plays.” In fact it was a cannon shot during the performance of this play that set off the fire which destroyed the original Globe Theater in 1613. There is little about the storied Tudor king or his problems in a piece that focuses almost exclusively on events leading to the downfalls of Cardinal Wolsey and Catherine of Aragon. The plot is muddled and has none of the arcs that make many of the other history plays great. But this is Ashland, and OSF has a way of turning Shakespeare's straw into watchable theater if not necessarily gold. It was a very good looking, high-quality production with a couple of wonderful performances from Anthony Heald (who also plays Shakespeare in Equivocation) and Vilma Silva in these respective roles. It’s not a staging that’s going to convince anyone of the play’s importance, but it is dutifully done.


Not Fade Away

September 09, 2009

Estelle Parsons and the cast of August: Osage County
Photo: Robert J Saferstein/CTG 2009

August: Osage County is a Great American Play. It’s a great play because it does a number of sophisticated things very well, all at the same time. It is hysterically funny. It is literary in an off-handed, unassuming way that bites you in the ass without you knowing it. It has a point of view without beating you over the head with it. And most of all, as with all of Tracy Letts’ plays to date, August has volumes to say about America at the start of the 21st century. It says these things, which may not always be easy to hear, without talking about politics or standing on a soapbox. Instead, Letts’ play, which is on a national tour now at the Ahmanson Theater downtown, takes on America at its very heart – both in geographic and emotional terms.

August: Osage County is about the Weston family of rural Oklahoma, who’ve come together in the wake of the disappearance of the family patriarch, Beverly Weston. They do what families always do in these situations, open old wounds while trying to simultaneously inflict new ones on one another. At the center of this reunion is Beverly’s wife, Violet, the razor-tongued mother of three adult women whose treatment for mouth cancer has morphed into a relapse of her addiction to pain medication. It’s difficult material that Letts delivers without a spoonful of sugar. It's like staring into the sun at times. Of course, this is the kind of strife that makes for the best laughs, and in this production, the role of Violet is left to the veteran Broadway star Estelle Parsons. She’s marvelous and gives an absolutely searing performance. Her appearance in Act II steers the audience from raucous laughter to dead silence with a word.

But this is an ensemble piece at heart, and the touring cast is filled with a number of very good performances. So many in fact, that the three and a half hour running time flies by in a wink. Yet, the feeling remains that even at this two-intermission, operatic length, that you’ve barely been able to spend the time you’d like to with these characters. August: Osage County is the kind of play that demands a second viewing. After seeing it in New York in 2007, where I had strong feelings about the play, I had some trepidation about what might be lost in this touring version. However, seeing it again has only made me more certain about how good this play is. The touring production, which follows the template of the original Steppenwolf staging under the direction of Anna D. Shapiro, is somewhat different this time around with a broader, looser feel that mines more from the many, many laugh lines in the script. Yet it never descends into haminess or self-caricature. But make no mistake, even if it may not have the same razor’s edge, it cuts very deeply just the same.

I sit in a lot of dark theaters throughout the year, and this is one of those experiences you wait for because it is truly unique. To sit in an audience and hear the amount of living laughter, gasps, and sobbing present with August: Osage County is not a typically theater-going experience these days. But, if you’re in Los Angeles, you have a number of chances through October 18 to have this one yourself.


Pinch Hitters

September 06, 2009


By now it’s well known that LA Opera’s season opener, Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore, which will kick off this Saturday, has undergone another cast change. After injuring his leg during rehearsals, Ruggero Raimondi, scheduled to sing the part of Dr. Dulcamara, has withdrawn to be replaced by Giorgio Caoduro. He will now join Giuseppe Filianoti as Nemorino, Nino Machaidze as Adina, and Nathan Gunn as Belcore. In case you’re keeping score that’s two replacements (Filianoti taking over for an ailing Rolando Villazon) and three company debuts (everyone except Gunn.) All things considered, this is not a bad cast at all in the end considering the rising profiles of many of these vocalists. Caoduro sang Belcore in San Francisco Opera’s last L’Elisir in the fall of 2008. In case you’re wondering what these locally unknown quantities may have in store, check out Caoduro and Machaidze in the sample amateur clip above from Lucia di Lammermoor earlier this year at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino.


The Three Faces of Eve

September 05, 2009

The current Pretenders - Martin Chambers, Chrissie Hynde, Nick Wilkinson, Eric Heywood, and James Walbourne

It’s a traditionally slow Labor Day weekend and I’ll be the first to admit the schedule has been spotty lately. The only live performance I took in all last week was a concert headlined by The Pretenders last week at L.A.’s Greek Theater. It was a lukewarm affair at probably only 65-70% capacity for a show that additionally featured Juliette Lewis and Cat Power. I hope that the audience size speaks more to the economy than that this is still sadly an oddity in popular music, a rock concert with three acts headed by women. First up was Lewis who is on her second band since steering her career away from acting and headlong into music. Though based on Thursday’s opening set, she may not have been as far from a theatrical performance as one might have thought. Dressed in glittery spandex that would have made 70s Bowie proud, she wailed through a set that suggested she was certainly playing the role of a rock star if not in fact actually being one. Pitch was not her thing, but it was a blissfully short engagement before moving on to the second course.

Out of place in perhaps the most opposite way, Cat Power appeared next with Dirty Delta Blues backing her up. It was a spare, quiet, and highly introspective bluesy set that was equally beautiful and rather mysterious. Chan Marshall often hid behind the other members of the band and only rarely faced the audience while the band played in the sparsest of light. With only minimal colored backlights, the band played almost entirely in the dark. It was a moody and stirring performance perhaps marred only by its being performed in probably the most inappropriate venue. The outdoor summertime crowd had come to rock, or something like it, and clearly were uncomfortable with such a quiet, introspective precursor to the main attraction. Which is a shame considering they bordered on the sublime.

Then there was the matter of this year’s model of The Pretenders. Chrissie Hynde is back this time with Martin Chambers in support of their most recent recording Break Up the Concrete. The show was what you’d expect. Many of the hits with a few new tracks thrown in. None of the old hits sounded quite as tight as you may have remembered them, but the new material was also stronger than what you might think. Hynde is the star, though, and she delivers a number of satisfying things. First is a voice that is in remarkable shape and at times sounded to me like it could just have easily been 25 years ago. Beyond that, though, is her rock-star posturing and attitude. The Pretenders may have always been more of a pop outfit than some critics would have liked, but Hynde has a big mouth and isn’t afraid to open it. Which is something to be admired. So in the end, the show was a draw, but not without its moments.

Writer's Block

September 02, 2009

Matt Rimmer and Jeremy Glazer in Block Nine
Photo: Joel Daavid/Elephant Theater 2009

Nothing says sexy like having a pistol crammed down the front of your pants by somebody else. Or at least that seems to be part of the thinking behind Block Nine the world premiere production from the Elephant Theater Company currently onstage at the Lillian Theater in Hollywood. To be fair, I think the gun stuffing maneuver in Tom Stanczyk’s water-logged script is supposed to say something about the link between aggression and sex roles, but to be honest when the cramming finally arrives in the climactic scene of the play, it feels as odd as it sounds. The conceit behind Block Nine is a sizable one. It’s a takeoff on 1930s-style gangster films and all the cinematic tropes of the genre. The twist is that the play is performed by two separate casts – one all male and the other all female each of which provides the action with its own homoerotic slant. I took in the “Fellas” version of the play last weekend and despite an abundance of well-manicured chest musculature, was decidedly disappointed.

As the rather complicated action unfolds, an undercover cop goes to jail to extract important but seemingly irrelevant information from a cellmate and eventually lands in the hands of a crime boss after being seduced by both characters in a manner that involves a fair amount of aggression. All of this is distressing to the cop's “partner” left at home who is bewildered by his cop/lover's seeming desire to be kissed and/or suggestively gyrated against by the criminal element. All of this probably sounds a little confusing because it is. The script is crammed with superfluous characters and ideas that are often more distracting than elucidating from two talking corpses to a wannabe mobster posing as a barber. A body lies on a couch beginning in scene 2 and remains ever present until well into Act II. And while the crime boss may not mind the rotting corpse smell in his office, the lack of the author's certainty about what to do with it begins to stink to the audience. Meanwhile, many important plot details are glossed over or alluded to in a way that is so obtuse as to be frustrating. None of this is helped by a decided tone problem. Block Nine wants to be a hard-boiled gangster story, a sly gay sex farce, and a knowing examination of power in same sex dynamics. It does none of these particularly well.

Perhaps the biggest frustration, though, was that the play is never quite as clever as it seems it should be. For example, this is not a single play enacted by two different casts, as much as two versions of the same play. In the “Fellas” version, all of the characters are, in fact male. There is no drag, camp, or gender-bending to the performance, and the only role that would traditionally have been a female in such a story, the gun moll, was instead cast as an effeminate man. Minus the references to gay desire and a few kisses, this is pretty much what you’d expect from a bad 30s gangster movie. Only a little less interesting. There are a few comic self-aware flashes here and there, but they are so few and far between, that when they do arrive, they can seem bewildering. Still, the eager and attractive cast makes the best of it with commitment to the proceedings. It's too bad there's so much for them to chew over in such a disorganized script.


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