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The Golden Ruhl

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Sarah Ruhl

Sarah Ruhl, award winning playwright and member of the genius grant class (it’s a badge you can wear for life), has been the theme of my week. Her recently released book, 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater, is like trailing after a very verbal and intelligent friend who is, at the same time, juggling her three hyperactive small children.

That is the truth of Ruhl’s life right now, and her book has been written with that reality evident. But at no point does her dual citizenship come off as self-conscious, manipulative or fey. The two black holes of her life—those spheres where demand for attention is limitless and never satiated—are art making and parenting. And in the face of those great sucking sounds, she comes to a position I wish I had found when I was struggling with those issues years ago: Quit trying to win and just surrender.

From Rachel Cusk‘s review in the New York Times:

In these short (and sometimes very short — one of them consists of a single word) essays, Ruhl anatomizes the central drama of creativity, whereby the self and the business of living are found to contain the moral structure of everything that lies outside it. The question of gender quickly becomes germane: How can a woman writer, a mother of three children and embroiled in the domesticity that comes with them, be expected to believe that her condition of life, far from marginalizing her, is in fact bringing her closer to ultimate forms of knowledge? It is a question not just of interruptions but of that other Woolfian theme, cultural notions of importance. “There were times when it felt as though my children were annihilating me,” Ruhl writes in her first essay, “On Interruptions.” “And finally I came to the thought, all right, then, annihilate me; that other self was a fiction anyhow.” The “other self” was Ruhl’s identity as a writer, which she had been trying to cosset and protect from invasion; yet this moment of surrender, crucially, gives her back her artistic authority. “I found that life intruding on writing was, in fact, life. And that, tempting as it may be for a writer who is also a parent, one must not think of life as an intrusion. At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life.”

What follows is a set of observations whose most noticeable characteristic is the freedom of association. Having been left with no choice but to interrogate culture from an autobiographical position, Ruhl discovers there a far greater intellectual liberty. The 100 essays represent 100 different links between art and reality, as Ruhl’s meditations on writing and staging plays find reflection in her experience of family life, friendship, illness and ordinariness.

Ruhl is smart and she is funny. Her insights into theater, writing and what matters are worthy but not overwrought. One essay, “An essay in praise of smallness,” is simply one sentence: “I admire minimalism.” In an essay entitled “Is there an objective standard of taste?” she answers, “No.”

In keeping with this Ruhl-themed week, I also saw a production of Dear Elizabeth, Ruhl’s play about Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. Culling through the 400 letters written between these two extraordinary poets over their 30 year friendship, Ruhl portrays a connection that was deeply sustaining to both writers through their trouble-fraught, complex, often lonely lives.

Ruhl has described her approach to theater: “I try to interpret how people subjectively experience life. Everyone has a great horrible opera in them.” Ruhl’s gift is being able to reach into the “great horrible operas” that were the lives of these two poets and pull out the story of a friendship that was so elemental and life sustaining for them both. The sincerity of their affection, the depth of their artistic connection, the innocence and vulnerability they were able to share with each other—this is a rare and extraordinary storyline, one that Ruhl has carefully crafted from their own words.

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Doing Neverland

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J. M. Barrie

How does it happen, that a something—an image, a story, a meme—secures a spot in the cultural collective, that shared image/idea database full of entities everyone in our cultural milieu recognizes? Some are ancient, like the stories from the Greeks (Aphrodite, Apollo, Zeus) and the Bible (Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham), and some are contemporary, often cinematically sourced (The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Star Wars.) Once apotheotized, those entities take on a quality of ambience, accessible to all of us without having to be languaged or explained.

The story of Peter Pan took up residence in our Western collective unconscious soon after it was written by the Scottish writer J. M. Barrie in the early years of the 20th century. It emerged from his books and plays, and immediately it was embraced, adored and immortalized. The world of children. A charismatic boy who refuses to grow up and what’s more, can fly. Fairies. Adventures without adults. The enchanted world of Neverland. The boundarylessness of imagination.

This storyline so full of playfulness and hope has its own tragic sourcing. The youngest of ten children, Barrie lost his brother David from a skating accident. To comfort his devastated mother, young James dressed up like his brother and even mimicked his speech. This charade born of grief became a pattern, and when James turned 13—the age that David was when he died—James literally stopped growing. For the rest of his life he remained five feet tall, had a high pitched voice and felt more at home with children than he did with his peers. When Barrie met the Llewelyn Davies family of boys in Kensington Park, the bond was immediate and deep. (After the boys’ parents both died, Barrie became their guardian.)

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The Llewelyn Davies boys

Finding Neverland is the latest musical theater production by Diane Paulus at American Rep Theater in Cambridge. There is however no flying Peter Pan or a crocodile with a ticking clock below the plank in this production. The story of Peter Pan is the given that we all already know, and Finding Neverland steps out beyond that shared storyline to expand the context. This is a production about Barrie himself and his beloved Llewelyn Davies boys, brought to life in song, dance and theatrical magic.

And these days no one is doing the “brought to life in song, dance and theatrical magic” better than Diane Paulus. (Her four recent Tony awards are now ensconced in the Loeb Theater lobby.) The professionalism of this production is breathtaking. Paulus has repeatedly demonstrated her genius at assembling All Star rosters for these Broadway-bound productions, and in this one she has brought together a world class team of playwright James Graham, musicians/lyricists Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, choreographer Mia Michaels, and performers who are, to the person, spectacular. What’s more, this time she has the added imprimatur of celebrity producer Harvey Weinstein of Miramax.

The show is nearly sold out and a big hit with audiences. It is already slated to open on Broadway in March of next year. And even for musical theater curmudgeons like me who are more partial to serious drama, the spell cast by such flawless execution made the evening a memorable one. My daughter Kellin did not inherit my musical theater disaffection, and she was utterly enchanted by this production. Neither of us will ever forget the breathtaking artistry of Sylvia’s exit. (I won’t say more in case you are planning to see the play.)

Finding Neverland runs through September 28 at the Loeb Theater. Ticket information here.

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The American Rep Theater production of “Finding Neverland” (Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

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The Tempest, at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge MA (Photo: A.R.T.)

Ah Prospero. You are my favorite character in all of Shakespeare! The masterful conjurings, the lonely exile, the fierce revenge still raging after twelve years away from the lost Dukedom of Milan, the Other embodied in ethereality and earthiness, the willingness in the end to forgive and forego—there are so many parts of his story that have resonance for me. Many have described Prospero as a primal symbol for the solitary (and often solipsistic) artist, and others see him as a particularly personal stand in for Shakespeare himself (it was the last play he wrote before returning to Stratford upon Avon, and he died just two years later). It is a poetic fantasy, and one that asks for us to step out of the world that we know and to enter into a phantasm of sprites, monsters, magic and manipulated nature.

A.R.T.’s new production of Prospero’s world, The Tempest, makes stepping out of our world and into another domain quite effortless. Aided by the skillful blending of what may seem like disparate themes—old time dustbowl carney shows, classical magic tricks (even cards!), the rough and tumble earthiness of Tom Waits’ music played by rough and tumble musicians, physical performers and Pilobolus-inspired acrobatism, staging in and off the proscenium—Prospero’s island laboratory of extraordinary powers invites us in and we are all his, ready to be enchanted.

Co-directors Aaron Posner and Teller (the quiet one from the Penn & Teller magic duo), have also blended their quite disparate visions of the play in a way that gives it a richly layered texture. For Posner The Tempest is a family play, with the island inhabitants of Prospero, Miranda, Ariel and Caliban making up an odd but not unfamiliar version of the dysfunctional family. For Teller it is the magic, the thing he loves most in life. “How different Prospero is from typical fairy tale wizards,” Teller writes. “He doesn’t use spells and potions to affect the physical world. He creates shows, and those shows—’that insubstantial pagaent’—are his weapons. That makes him less like a warlock than like a stage magician.” But as Teller points out, Prospero gives it all up, the very thing that is so essential to his very being. And why? For the love for his daughter, Miranda. Which brings all the theatrics right back to Posner’s view of the play as a story about family.

Yes, the editing of the play has been generous, but I do not take issue with that. Purists are often offended by any prunings of the Bard’s original material. But many of us know this play well, and the well-placed nips and tucks hold this production together in a way that does not feel inadequate or abusive of its intent. And what performances! Nate Dendy‘s Ariel is the best I have ever seen—every move he makes is light as air, and in the end he disappears from the stage as if by magic(!)—plus a Caliban cobbled from two sets of bodies is unforgettable.

We all agreed we would love to see it again. But we would need some serious conjuring skills of our own to make that happen since every show is sold out for the rest of the run through June 15. Standing room, anyone?

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Moe Angelos as young Susan Sontag (and as an older Sontag on a scrim above) in the Builders Association’s “Sontag: Reborn.” (Photo: James Gibbs)

Susan Sontag, author of many books that are now classics—Against Interpretation, On Photography, Illness as Metaphor, Where the Stress Falls, Regarding the Pain of Others—has been gone for 10 years. But her trenchant writing, brilliant insights and fearless expressiveness have kept her very much alive, here in the present. She comes up in conversation frequently in my life, and her books are some of my favorites. Now that her journals are available—she began writing them when she was a precocious and voraciously curious 14 year old—the evolution of her mind’s development has been laid open.

It is a tempting idea to capture Sontag’s quickfire thinking in a theatrical setting, and I can think of a thousand ways it would not work. But when your team is actor and adapter Moe Angelos, director Marianne Weems and the rest of Builders Association team, that rarefied Sontagian world is recreated with a multidimensional richness that is mystifying. In Sontag: Reborn, the many textures are captured—how the mind thinks, how reality is constantly being parsed, how a writer arduously creates (and invents) a self.

“We tried to stage her mind at work, her mental process, in a small way,” says Angelos who plays Sontag both as a young woman and later in her life. Part of that mental process involves the vulnerability that was so evident in the young Sontag, a quality that really struck Angelos when she poured over Sontag’s unedited journals in the Sontag archives at UCLA. Experiencing the awkwardness and discomfort of a young brilliant woman gives a new dimension to the hard edged, combative woman that Sontag was known to be in her later life.

While there is only one actor on stage throughout, this is nothing like the genre of the one woman show. Angelos sits at a desk and begins as a teenaged Sontag. Projected nearby is a larger-than-life image of Angelos playing an older Sontag with that signatory white mane. As the young Sontag shares her insights, the older Sontag interacts and comments. (How appropriate given Sontag’s predilection to review her own early journal entires and allow her older self to annotate them.) Words appear on the screen behind Angelos as she writes, and phrases periodically unravel out towards the audience. The dreamy specter of an older self, the stacks of books that were so beloved, the agonizing struggle to make sense of the self and of life–it all comes together to open up a theatrical window into the private and evolving mind of a writer.

I have heard about Builders Association and their singular mastery of multimedia, but this is the first production by them that I have seen. Their own description is a good one: “The company uses the richness of new and old tools to extend the boundaries of theatre. Based on innovative collaborations, they blend stage performance, text, video, sound and architecture to tell stories about human experience in the 21st century.” I won’t be missing any of their future productions.

If you are in Boston, if you love words, if you are fascinated by Sontag, if you are engaged in the life of the mind, this is for you. The performance is at the Paramount Center and runs through May 18. For more information, see ArtsEmerson.

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From “The Shape She Makes” at American Repertory Theater (Photo: American Rep Theater)

Stories move in circles.
They don’t move in straight lines.
So it helps if you listen in circles.
There are stories inside stories
and stories between stories,
and finding your way through them
is as easy and as hard as finding your way home.

(Quoted by Deena Metzger in Writing for Your Life: Discovering the Story of Your Life’s Journey and attributed to A Traveling Jewish Theatre, Coming from a Great Distance.

On the surface, The Shape She Makes (a world premiere presentation by American Repertory Theater in Cambridge) is the intimate telling of one woman’s life journey, Quincy Beth Harris. She is 11 years old when we first meet her, and already she is exceptional: She has achieved a perfect score on the Brackstone Math Test. But not all geniuses land in a family environment that nurtures their gifts, and Quincy didn’t score high on the Family Support Test. She lives with a dysfunctional mother, and her father abandoned them both when she was two. Her life is not going to be an easy one, and that path into adulthood is the subject of The Shape She Makes.

Quincy has a powerfully linear mind, but the telling of her journey does not follow a linear narrative. This is storytelling that intertwines movement, dialogue, music, pantomime. The blending of these many forms of expression feels effortless and unforced, and the rounded, full bodied nature of the narrative makes it easy to feel intimacy with a story that is so personal and also so heartbreaking.

Even the audience is a participant in this telling. When the story begins, we are asked to play the role of invited guests at a celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Brackstone Math Test. (Sample questions from the test are included in the program.) Only eight individuals have ever achieved a perfect score in all those years, and honoring that achievement will be the highlight of the evening. Quincy is one. Her MIA father Bernard is another. Asked to speak on behalf of herself and her now deceased father, Quincy is forced to come to terms with the circumstances of her life and with who she has become.

Large-bodied, socially withdrawn and shy, the sole caretaker for her aged and cantankerous mother, Quincy at middle age is a believable outcome of difficult circumstances. But her razor sharp intelligence is still in tact. What would it take for her to change this trajectory? At one point Quincy says, “There are two things that are incontrovertible in life. One is that the ocean accepts all rivers. The other is that we fashion who we are.”

But do we? There are large questions at the core of this production, ones that explore how childhood determines the outcome of our lives, about how capable any of us are at changing. While that may sound like the stuff of Oprah daytime TV human interest, The Shape She Makes brings us into an intimacy that is neither maudlin nor manipulative. This is a life portrait that breeches the barriers of viewership and detachment. By using so many forms—dance, theater, music, image—all delivered up by a talented cast, we are inextricably pulled into a circle of deep caring.

Conceived over four years by Susan Misner and Jonathan Bernstein, The Shape She Makes maximizes their collective gifts. Misner is a dancer and an actor (most recently she stars in the FX series, The Americans) and Bernstein is a director who also teaches theater at NYU. Life partners for many years, Misner and Bernstein have crafted a thoughtful, intelligent, emotionally fine-tuned and memorable new hybrid storytelling form. Let’s hope there are more collaborations coming.

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“Ekka,” a newly completed painting (33 x 47″). An art collector had this to say when she stopped by my studio recently: “Lately I have wanted to just quietly commune with a work of art. I am not interested in deciphering references or spending time getting the inside jokes. I just want to find a work that I can sit with alone in silence and feel a connection.” What a heartening thing to hear and very close to the way I choose the art that I want to look at every day.

Theater director extraordinaire Anne Bogart recently wrote a post, Direct Encounter, about attending a theater conference where a young presenter announced that she would not be using PowerPoint in her talk. Bogart was thrilled to hear this young woman declare that she and her generation were moving away from PowerPoint lectures because they understood how much more effective it is to speak directly to an audience.

The bullet points, charts and graphs that fill those dreadful and horribly overused PP decks (and which led to the infamous phrase, “Death by PowerPoint”) actually activate a very small part of the brain, in particular the areas that process language. When you watch a PowerPoint presentation, your brain shuts down its other functionalities.

How different things are when you use metaphor, storytelling, and emotional exchange, says Bogart. “Stories are journeys of the mind that provide the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings. If I can engage a person’s imagination, I will have managed to link our brains one to the other. Our brains are synchronized. We are literally sharing brain activity.”

While Bogart makes her case for the full-bodied richness of the theatrical experience, her pitch is an articulate advocacy for direct encounters in every field of artistic expression. Because so much creative expression now is excessively curated and over-mediated, getting to an authentic, unmediated place requires conscious effort.

Case in point, Bogart shares this anecdote:

In Paris, in 1971, writer Deirdre Bair met with Samuel Beckett to request permission to conduct extensive interviews with him for what would become a definitive biography about the playwright. Beckett granted Bair consent but on the condition that she not tape-record their conversations or even take notes while together. Bair agreed nervously. During their nearly three hundred interviews, she listened closely to Beckett who described countless details about his life and work. Then she rushed back to her hotel room to quickly tape-record her memories of Beckett’s words that day. From this she constructed a readable and consequential biography published in 1978.

Perhaps Beckett understood that an unmediated connection between Bair and him would reap more riches than standard interview techniques that depend upon recording and recounting. Perhaps he trusted the event of their human connection from moment to moment more than any act of reported facts. Perhaps what happened between them, together with Bair’s reconstructed memories of their direct encounters, is what makes her biography of Beckett successful and interesting.

While the visual arts occur in a domain that exists outside the spoken/written language zone—for the most part— other factors obscure connection in that world as well. Exclusivity, self-referentiality, meta meanings and other obscurant scrims can make it difficult to achieve that direct encounter Bogart speaks about. Many an eager and open viewer has left an exhibit feeling exempted and alienated from work that appears to be the exclusive province of a limited and rarefied cognescenti.

The solution is not to dumb down a body of work with languaged explanations. Simplification of that nature flattens the potent and richly layered experience that the visual can offer, stripping it of its unique potential for mystery and evocation. The best solution is a two fold one, where both the maker and the viewer take a step towards each other in that numinous space that exists between them.

Some will find this to be nothing more than an idealistic notion. But I don’t see it that way. I have been an artist for a long lifetime, but I still have to work at being an open and trusting viewer. It is easy to fall into suspicion and cynicism, wary of being manipulated or played. As an artist and as a viewer of art, it is a daily discipline to speak it true, to get as close to that direct encounter as I possibly can. It’s a skill set, not a given.

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Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews of Witness Uganda (Photo: Jimmy Ryan of the Boston Globe)

Authenticity has become a critical factor in an age when so much isn’t. Who could have guessed 20 years ago that a huge category of television would emerge called “reality TV” that uses “found” participants but is as orchestrated and manipulated as any sitcom? We know it isn’t real but some part of us wants to believe it is. There’s something uniquely compelling when a story is true.

This has played out in the world of literature as well. A slew of best selling memoirs from major publishers were recently exposed as fraudulent. Oprah Winfrey was so personally affronted when she discovered that a book she had endorsed, A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, was fabricated that she shamed the author in front of her millions of viewers. So many books were exposed as mendacious that a new genre, the “fake memoir,” came into being. Truthfulness—or some variation of Stephen Colbert‘s “truthiness”—is sometimes more crucial in the experience of a work than the quality of the content or the artistry of the storytelling.

That issue of authenticity is a factor in A.R.T’s latest production, the new musical Witness Uganda. In many ways this is a theatrical memoir: Based on the real life experiences of the lead performer, Griffin Matthews, who plays himself, the production follows him from his first trip to Uganda as a naive and idealistic volunteer to his subsequent creation of an NGO to sponsor the education of Ugandan orphans. Partnered with the music of gifted composer Matt Gould (who also lived in Africa—Mauritania—prior to writing this musical), Matthews’ story of volunteerism gone awry, the conflicts in trying to do good and the challenges of running an NGO is transformed into a narrative that takes on meaningfulness in large part because it is personal, because it is based on this man’s actual life story.

Matthews and Gould understand the criticality of that connection. Witness Uganda started off as a musical infomercial to raise funds for their NGO, UgandaProject, and then it evolved. The characters in the play are a variation of the actual students whose education they have funded, and Matthews and Gould have kept their Ugandan friends involved in this creative retelling. The outreach happening during the run of the show with Ugandan communities and others impacted by this story also speaks to a tacit understanding that this is a project much larger than just musical theater.

But musical theater it is, and the Diane Paulus factor has made sure the production is a masterful one. As A.R.T.’s artistic head and the director of Witness Uganda, Paulus has assembled yet another extraordinary team of creatives to produce a high energy/high feed good evening that reflects the professionalism of her Broadway standards. (Many of Paulus’ Cambridge-based productions have migrated to Broadway where they have been met with great success including Pippin, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, The Glass Menagerie and the most recent, All the Way , starring Bryan Cranston as LBJ.) The music is intoxicatingly great (with a live orchestra led by Gould), the performers are stellar, the choreography terrific, and a set that evokes an Africa of poverty as well as natural beauty.

There are parallels in the visual arts with the “larger than the proscenium” scope of this project. New forms of social practice and performance/conceptual art have expanded the experience well beyond the confines of a gallery or museum to include real services provided to those in need. As a committed pluralist—Arthur Danto calls it “radical pluralism”—I will always advocate for open forms and new variations, in the visual arts as well as other fields. Certainly musical theater has more capacity for gravitas than the lighthearted material at the core of an Oklahoma! or a Showboat. And one innovative way to augment the limitations of a storytelling form that is built around song and dance is to do just what Matthews and Gould have done: Take the experience beyond performance and into the lives of real people. Hats off to those who can do both, and do it well.

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Witness Uganda, from A.R.T. (Photo: Gretjen Helene)

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The Light Princess

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(Photo: A.R.T.)

A young woman possesses no powers of gravity. She can neither walk on terra firma nor can she possess serious thoughts or tears of genuine emotion. She must take the journey to claim that quality of groundedness for herself that the rest of us take for granted.

This fairytale, based on a Victorian short story by George MacDonald, is a simple story with a happy ending. But the conjured image of a floating woman—one who has been tethered to protect herself and who cannot truly feel—has a particular persistence of meaningfulness. She who suffers from ungroundedness and an inability to experience genuine feeling is a haunting spectre for anyone who has contemplated the many complexities of being female, regardless of cultural background or tradition. That image is both obvious and subliminal as are most archetypes and mythic symbols.

That may or may not explain why two versions of the story, The Light Princess, have appeared on stage within months of each other. One is a Marianne Elliott production at the National Theater in London, with music by Tori Amos. The other is in Cambridge at the American Repertory Theater. Capitalizing on the fantastic set designed by Börkur Jónsson for the current headliner, The Heart of Robin Hood (reviewed here), this production is being positioned as an “all ages” show. And with show times at 10am, there are lots of children to enjoy this playful and music-filled production. There is the expected quotient of audience engagement—A.R.T.’s signature style championed by artist director Diane Paulus—and the production has elements that will engage both young and old audience members.

Reviews suggest that a strong feminist twist has been put on the fairytale in the London production. That is not the case with the Cambridge version. But I was heartened to encounter a few sly jabs at the very notion of princesshood which, being a bit of a princess hater myself (gotta be honest), I found enjoyable.

The play runs through January 5th.

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Jordan Dean, Christina Bennett Lind, and Christopher Sieber in American Repertory Theater’s production of “The Heart of Robin Hood.” (Photo: Evegnia Eliseeva/ART)

Theater that is highly physical and breathtakingly kinetic is more common in Boston than ever before. This explosively energetic, acrobatic style requires actors who can both act and move to develop their character and forward the storytelling. In these parts the primary advocate for this style is American Repertory Theater’s artistic director Diane Paulus. Her oft-cited credo since coming to Cambridge has been to bring the theatrical experience closer to the audience (and bring the audience closer to the production, not always the same thing.) Paulus continues to find inventive ways to break that traditional mode of separating the theater goer from the performers. Her vision is to allow everyone to feel participatory in a wild collaboration of adventure, surprise and engagement. This is something that live theater particularly excels in and cannot be achieved easily by most other art forms. (Paulus’ success at achieving that goal has been written about here previously: Sleep No More, Pippin and Porgy and Bess, among several others.)

The latest production at A.R.T is “The Heart of Robin Hood.” Written by the playwright/director team of David Farr and Gísli Örn Garðarsson—whose “Metamorphosis” came through Boston earlier this year at ArtsEmerson—this reworking of the story of Robin Hood is pure and unadulterated fun. Farr and Garðarsson have taken license in repurposing and restructuring this mythic legend from the 12th century and made it much more amenable to contemporary values: In this version Robin is a scoundrel and a brute, and it is Marion who takes on more of the Robin as Friend of the Poor persona. With a strong nod to Shakespeare and most notably his “As You Like It,” “King Lear,” and “Twelfth Night,” the Duke of York’s daughter Marion goes rogue and creates a new identity for herself, Martin of Sherwood. Dressed as a young man, she escapes her life of luxury for adventure, independence and a chance to help the poor. Part of her motivation is that she has met Robin in the forest and has fallen for him on the spot. It isn’t an easy connivance since his credo is that no women are allowed in their band. “Women cause tempests in the heart of man. They make us rash and unreliable.”

The basic story is a familiar one which makes it easy to pay close attention to the set and fast paced acrobatics. Börkur Jónsson‘s ingenious design fills most of the Loeb Theater’s proscenium. A giant English oak bespeckled with thousands of tiny lights sprawls out across most of the ceiling, and the stage floor is a verdant patchwork of grassy knolls, hidey holes which appear and disappear, and even a pond that is used inventively as both an entrance and an exit. At the back of the stage Jónsson has built a giant ski slalom-like hill covered in grass. Characters make their entrances sliding down, their exits by climbing back up on ropes. Cantilevered platforms emerge from the hill from time to time which transform the Sherwood forest into a castle or a cathedral.

In speaking about the inspiration for this fantastical and flexible stage set, Garðarsson puts an Icelandic spin on an underlying theme:

The story of an outlaw is echoed through the old Sagas of Iceleand, where to this day we still believe that the Elves are their own castles inside our mountains. So creating a huge slope for the production that reminds us of a mountain where the “castle” can magically appear, has been inspired by our own upbringing.

The outlaws are rough, ruthless and experts in blending in with nature. They hide in the waters, travel on ropes, and run over mountains. They are at one with nature. This is where Marion wants to be: free and surrounded by nature. It sounds, in a way, like being Icelandic.

(Many of the performers are members of Garðarsson’s award winning theater company, Vesturport, based in Keykjavik.)

As elemental as the spectacular set is, the music of an American roots band from Connecticut, Poor Old Shine, is just as essential. Steeped in their Steinbeck/Dust Bowl attire, they accompany high wattage harmonies with mandolins, banjos, guitars and a full on bass. Strangely, their Americana styling blends beautifully with this Shakespeare/Ye Olde English narrative.

This is not a great work of writing although the gags and humor are spot on and frequent. But it is a great theatrical experience because everything comes together with such muscular surefootedness. This is a “universal donor” kind of show—kids to oldsters will be delighted. And in the way of a nod to the younger generation, Farr and Garðarsson both mention in their program notes that this production was influenced by having daughters. Farr’s two pleaded with him to write a play that had female characters who did more than “kiss the hero, swoon, cook pretty pastries, and sew,” and Garðarsson sums up the show as “a female heroic story.” Delivered.

The production is at the Loeb Theater through January 19th.

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Bryan Cranston as LBJ in All the Way (Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

With what is going on in Washington DC this week it is hard to stay on track with the work that matters to each of us, individually. How do you steer clear of the weeds with this latest caper? I don’t want to be that person, the grouser, with the eye rolling and negativity. But not going there takes a concerted effort.

Here’s one solution: Distraction therapy*. Spend an evening with LBJ. And what’s more, spend that evening with an actor who is at the pinnacle of his career, the master of intensity on your TV screen as well as the stage: Bryan Cranston.

American Repertory Theater’s production of All The Way sends you back to the days (which some of us do remember, amazingly) when deals were struck across the isle, when politics was mano-a-mano, when big ideas—idealism, imagine that!—were stock-in-trade. LBJ was a master of getting the system to work.

The play begins the day of John Kennedy‘s assassination and runs through LBJ’s successful election as President. Over three hours long, playwright Robert Schenkkan gives us a full plate of issues—the Civil Rights struggle, J. Edgar Hoover and his maniacal attempts to discredit Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, the murder in Mississippi of three young men registering black voters, the maneuvering needed to secure his candidacy and presidential win, the arrest of LBJ’s longtime aid Walter Jenkins after he was discovered having sex in a men’s room. But through all these themes and stories—40 different characters are played by a small ensemble of versatile actors—Cranston is on stage throughout and his presence is rivetingly.

As a vehicle for Cranston, All the Way is a tour de force opportunity to show his stage chops. As a play however, it struggles with the same issues I have encountered many times with other historical dramas. Christopher Isherwood of the New York Times captures this issue succinctly:

Theater rooted in history always faces a fundamental problem. Hew too closely to the complicated crosscurrents of the story and you risk shapelessness; take too many liberties in streamlining the drama and you’re no longer in the realm of fact. With the exception of his comparatively unshaded portrait of Johnson, Mr. Schenkkan comes down firmly on the side of complexity, which may be the honorable path, but not necessarily the more rewarding one for the audience.

As a way to take your mind off our current disaster however, this performance is a straight thumbs up.

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*A reader of this blog was confused by the term distraction therapy. As used here it refers to something so immersive and compelling that it takes you out of your life completely. Good examples: Marathon weekends watching The Wire, by David Simon; The Coast of Utopia trilogy seen in sequence, by Tom Stoppard; And the classic that you can turn to again and again, A&E’s production of Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth. Still the best.

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