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Full Brow

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Jim Lichtscheidl, Louis Jenkins, Mark Rylance, and Kayli Carter in Nice Fish. (Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

The term highbrow was first used in the late 19th century, a reference to the arcane practice of phrenology. In this head measuring methodology, people of intelligence were believed to have a higher brow line. While phrenology was eventually discarded as pseudoscience, “brow-ness” continued as shorthand for measuring artistic and cultural sophistication.

That stratification began being actively dismantled 30 years ago (with books by Lawrence Levine, Peter Swirski, John Seabrook, among others) and those distinctions have melted away. Art making, music, theater, writing have all increasingly pulled in resources from every end of the creative spectrum.

From his New York Times piece, Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow — Do These Kinds of Cultural Categories Mean Anything Anymore?, Thomas Mallon put it this way:

The sheer availability of so much art, its ubiquity in the wide, wireless world of the present, assures that more and more blends and mash-ups and integrations are bound to occur. To some extent, people used to settle on a brow for themselves and then pattern their reading and viewing and listening accordingly. Increasingly, art at all levels now comes to us, seizes our attention for a few digital moments before being elbowed aside by something else. More catholic tastes seem bound to result from more catholic exposure, our brows raising and lowering themselves like a spreadable iPhone photo. (Of course, Shakespeare’s audience never had trouble doing that in the course of a single evening, laughing at rustic horseplay and thrilling to lyrical declamations in the same production.)

Two theatrical events in Boston this past week speak to that browlessness. One is a playful and inventive “adaptation” of Twelfth Night performed by London’s Filter Theatre at ArtsEmerson. This muscular and well-honed ensemble takes a Shakespeare favorite and turns its underbelly to the upside. The set looks like a disordered recording studio, and the staging appears casual, disengaged and haphazard. Inspired by Virginia Woolf‘s claim that the play “seems to tremble perpetually on the brink of music,” sound becomes the essential through line. I’ll never see Twelfth Night the same again.

The other is Nice Fish, at American Rep. A collaboration between actor/director Mark Rylance and Minnesota poet Louis Jenkins, Nice Fish has just one stage set: out on the ice. Rylance and co-star Jim Lichtscheidl play two ice fishing friends who, as they tend to their fishing rods, talk about their lives. Their words are primarily prose poems by Jenkins. Buried in the commonplace of Jenkins’ everyday speech are larger questions. But the transcendent sense of things is subtle and mostly stays below the surface, much the way the life teeming under the ice is implied and only occasionally exposed.

Nice Fish feels like a blend of a whole bunch of memes most of us recognize—the existentialist stupor of Samuel Beckett‘s Waiting for Godot, the wacky but endearing quirkiness of the Coen BrothersFargo (both the movie and spin off television series), the simple truths in the everyday of Thorton Wilder‘s Our Town, the Midwestern self-parody of Garrison Keillor‘s A Prairie Home Companion, the All-American réalité of Cowboy Poetry and poetry slams.

But Nice Fish is more than an assemblage of contemporary cultural reference points. Having been trimmed down and tightened up after its earlier run at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, the play achieves a memorable balance between the light and the heavy, the silly and the serious, the mundane and the poetic. A tangible air of affection for the material permeates the production. Rylance and Jenkins both have connections to the Midwest—in spite of Rylance’s “veddy English” reputation—and they have become good friends during the process of working on the play (Rylance has famously recited Jenkins prose poems as his acceptance speeches at several award ceremonies). Even Jenkins himself comes on stage to play a role. What’s more, the play is directed by Claire Van Kampen, Rylance’s wife. Nice Fish is unpretentious, made by hand (a high compliment in the art making world) and sticks to the ribs.

Rather than the popular brow-busting term nobrow, I prefer thinking of Nice Fish—and other artistic efforts that draw from a wide range of influences—as full brow: something for everyone.

Here’s a sampling of Jenkins’ sensibilities:

The Afterlife
by Louis Jenkins

Older people are exiting this life as if it were a movie…”I didn’t get it,”
they are saying.
He says, “It didn’t seem to have any plot.”
“No.” she says, “it seemed like things just kept coming at me. Most of the time I was confused…and there was way too much sex and violence.”
“Violence anyway,” he says.
“It was not much for character development either; most of the time
people were either shouting or mumbling. Then just when someone started to make sense and I got interested, they died. Then a whole lot of new characters came along and I couldn’t tell who was who.”
“The whole thing lacked subtlety.”
“Some of the scenery was nice.”
“Yes.”
They walk on in silence for a while. It is a summer night and they walk
slowly, stopping now and then, as if they had no particular place to go.
They walk past a streetlamp where some insects are hurling themselves at the light, and then on down the block, fading into the darkness.
She says, “I was never happy with the way I looked.”
“The lighting was bad and I was no good at dialogue,” he says.
“I would have liked to have been a little taller,” she says.

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Note to potential theater goers: This isn’t a fast-moving, laugh-a-minute kind of play. One friend saw it when she was jet lagged and had a hard time staying engaged. It is best seen when you are rested and relaxed so the pleasures can be found in this slower paced, pared-down production.

Twelfth Night is at the Paramount Theater in Boston until January 30. Nice Fish is at the Loeb Theater in Cambridge through February 7.

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Riding the Comet

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“Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” (Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva, courtesy of the A.R.T.)

Diane Paulus‘ theatrical vision and aspirations are the driving force behind some of the most successful “immersive” theater events in Boston since she took over as artistic director of the A.R.T. at Harvard*. While previous productions have offered the audience an invitation to participate in these dramatic excursions, the latest Loeb Theater offering isn’t asking politely. From the minute you arrive at the theater, your sovereignty of audience detachment is snatched from you: The entrance and lobby are now a war zone, lost in stanchions of plywood, plastic sheeting and haphazardly affixed Russian posters. Once inside, the theater has become a 19th century Russian drawing room with red velvet curtains and paintings hung salon style, floor to ceiling. The audience is sitting everywhere, alongside musicians and sets, embedded between arabesques of thrust stages and platforms. But this isn’t a pure period-themed creation. It is a rhapsodic and random mashup from Russia’s volatile history over the last 200 years.

Because this time round, it is all about Russia. Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, billed as an “electro-pop” opera, is based loosely on Leo Tolstoy‘s masterpiece, War and Peace. And like Tolstoy’s massive novels, Great Comet wants to take you over, body and soul. Once this show begins, you are irrevocably on a wild theatrical jalopy ride that can’t help but be funky, full-bodied and fun.

Great Comet brings Dave Malloy‘s work back to Boston once again. Most recently he did Ghost Quartet, Beowulf and Three Pianos (about Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle). As a composer and writer, Malloy speaks to his own proclivities:

I can’t help but notice that almost all of [my work] is adaptions of classic works…there is such rich opportunity for humor and illumination through anachronism, colliding time periods to both highlight the similarities and revel in the bizarre and subtle differences between then and now…too often for my tastes, adaption can rely too heavily on trite ironic distance and parody; for me, the more rewarding choice is always to take these tales at face value, and work to unlock their secrets for contemporary audiences in ways that are joyful, surprising, and ultimately cathartic.

Colliding time periods, humor and anachronism are Malloy’s steady tools. The language, costuming and staging move between early 19th century Tolstoy-esque to present day. Lyrics often speak to our cooly detached, postmodern mind sets:

this is all in your program
You are at the opera
Gonna have to study up a little bit
If you wanna keep with the plot
And it’s a complicated Russian novel
Everyone’s got nine different names
So look it up in your program
Everything will be clear

The singing, dancing, music-making and audience involvement (be ready for Russian potato and cheese concoctions delivered right to your seat) make Great Comet irresistibly fun. How lucky we are to have these theatrical options in Boston. But like attending one more party where the extrovert takes over and entertains us endlessly, the more introverted, subtle, introspective theater experiences are also needed in a city’s theatrical offering mix. As is my perpetual plea on this blog, the both/and, please!

Great Comet runs through January 3 at the Loeb Theater in Cambridge Massachusetts.

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*In addition to the perennially running The Donkey Show at Oberon Theater in Cambridge, other immersive theater offerings from Paulus’ years at the A.R.T. have been reviewed on Slow Muse:

Sleep No More My all time favorite in this category. (A version of this production is currently running in New York)

The Light Princess

Witness Uganda

The Heart of Robin Hood

Pippin

Three Pianos

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Imagined map of the word, Japanese

I am reading a book recommended by my daughter Kellin Nelson: The Art of Thinking Clearly, by Rolf Dobelli. It’s designed with the 21st century reader in mind—succinct, straight talking advice on rampantly human cognitive errors in 99 chapters, each only a few pages long.

Dobelli nails all of us right from the start by detailing those pesky proclivities that flaw our thinking and perceiving. The chapter heads capture much of the spirit of the book: If Fifty Million People Say Something Foolish, It Is Still Foolish; Why We Prefer a Wrong Map to None at All; Why You Systematically Overestimate Your Knowledge and Abilities; Never Judge a Decision By Its Outcome. You get the drift.

In talking about the “confirmation bias,” Dobelli writes:

If the word “exception” crops up, prick up your ears. Often it hides the presence of discomfirming evidence. It pays to listen to Charles Darwin: Since his youth, he set out to fight the confirmation bias systematically. Whenever observations contradicted his theory, he took them very seriously and noted them down immediately. He know that the brain actively “forgets” disconfirming evidence after a short time. The more correct he judged his theory to be, the more actively he looked for contradictions…

Literary critic Arthur Quiller-Couch had a memorable motto: “Murder your darlings.” This was his advice to writers who struggled with cutting cherished but redundant sentences. Quiller-Couch’s appeal is not just for hesitant hacks but for all of us who suffer from the deafening silence of assent. To fight against the confirmation bias, try writing down your beliefs—whether in terms of worldview, investments, marriage, health care, diet, career strategies—and set out to find disconfirming evidence. Axing beliefs that feel like old friends is hard work but imperative.

After several hours of Dobelli’s direct imperative to dismantle the cozy comfort zones we make with our ideas and beliefs, it is hard to not step back a bit and look more closely at your cherished beliefs, proclivities and tastes. We give ourselves permission to set standards and issue judgments, and we do it all day long. Reading Dobelli has reminded me that we each pave a road through the landscape, and all we see is what is on either side of that narrow travel lane.

So “murdering my darlings” plays out in so many aspects of my life. I know what I like after all, be it in art, literature, music, poetry, food. Dismantling those habitual proclivities takes some doing, but the exercise is not without its rewards.

A recent theatrical outing is a good example. American Rep has staged another production by the high energy, high octane theater company from Chicago, Hypocrites. Last year they brought their very popular production of the Pirates of Penzance (reviewed on Slow Muse here) to A.R.T., and this year they have brought another Gilbert & Sullivan classic, The Mikado.

They state their intentions openly:

Our mission – which is ever-evolving to adapt to the growth of our organization – is to make a Theater of Honesty. We define a Theater of Honesty chiefly through two elements of our work: performance and presentation…Through this balance of an unyielding emotional honesty and accepting a concept of “play,” we seek to strengthen the connection between artist and audience, enriching our audience’s imaginative experience…

We will make theater.
We will respect the audience.
We will create a unique theater experience for every production.
We will push our own limits in order to push the limits of theater.
We will honor the playwright’s intentions.
We will hold interest in entertainment and art.
We will change these rules.

Like Pirates, The Mikado is just plain fun. The “all singing and all dancing” cast carries out this wacky G&S storyline amid the audience members and engages everyone in the high jinks effortlessly. Yes, I do happen to love the deep dives into dramatic profundity and the magic of a parallel reality that great theater can create. But by making a concerted decision (thank you Dobelli) to just let all those proclivities go and enjoy a night of being entertained and delighted, I was. Wonderfully.

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The Mikado (Photo: Gretjen Helene Photography)

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Still Watching

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Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) (Production Photos: A.R.T.)

Suzan-Lori Parks, playwright, Pulitzer prize winner, MacArthur genius fellow, talks about her writing in a manner that resonates deeply with me. She openly speaks about how she lets the spirit inspire her. (A Sanskrit tattoo on her arm reminds her to “follow god.”) “I have a daily practice of writing, yoga and parenting” she proclaimed in a recent interview.

That centeredness spills over into an undeniable sense of self confidence. Parks possesses an artistic sovereignty that enables her to function as her own creative nation state. That is what every imagination-rich artist works for.

From a recent article about Parks by Patrick Healy in New York Times:

But here’s the thing about Ms. Parks: When she thinks she’s right, she’s certain of it. No doubts, no fretting about self-sabotage. While some have knocked her work as self-indulgent or annoying at times, she has an exceptionally vivid sense of herself as a writer who exists on another plane from dramaturgical nit-pickers.

That passage couples nicely with this Parks quote about process from a remarkable interview/conversation with playwright Han Ong in Bomb magazine:

Well, that’s it. It takes a suspension of ego. In the old days, it was, “willingly suspend your disbelief” But now it’s, for me, “get out of the way.” It’s Zen. Suspend your ego long enough to ask the question, who am I, really? I write for me.

These twin concepts—artistic sovereignty and the Zen-like trusting of the process—are extremely well developed in Parks and so admirable. But Parks also commands my respect with her passion for writing stories about and for African Americans. Parks shares her raison d’être quite succinctly in her conversation with Ong: “I write plays because I love black people. I just figured it out fairly recently. Not that I had any other reason before that, but I realized why I want black people on stage—because I love them. And it probably sounds very vague, but it’s true.”

Taking that concept further, John Heilpern quotes Parks in his piece Voices from the Edge:

“Because of a shameful past,” she points out, “there’s an equation from both whites and blacks that automatically goes: Black people are oppressed. There are some wonderful plays about the black struggle—but is that all we get to write about? There’s another equation, I think. And that’s what I’m interested in. How about black people, period? What if you remove the racial tension for a moment? What, then, is the drama and what kind of theater does it make? Maybe really weird theater! But I’m trying to remove the straitjacket.”

Aligning with Parks’ intentions and approach doesn’t necessarily guarantee a connection with her work however. Parks’ recent play, Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), is on a run at A.R.T. in Cambridge after its premiere at the Public Theater in New York City last fall. (In his review in the New York Times, Christopher Isherwood heralded these first three plays as Parks’ best work so far.) As much as I wanted to connect deeply with this latest work, I found it difficult.

Taking place in the Civil War, these three one-hour plays offer a fresh deconstruction of Homer’s Odyssey. The protagonist is a slave named Hero (later called Ulysses,) his wife Penny, a dog named “Odd-See,” fellow slave Homer and a small “chorus” of other slaves. Part 1 is the set up for Hero’s decision to go to war on the Confederate side with his “boss-master.” Part 2 takes place during the war, and Part 3 is Hero/Ulysses’s return home after the Emancipation Proclamation.

As a story line, this is rich with possibility. But that sense of possibility was thwarted early on for me. Perhaps it was pacing. Parks often talks about how language is music (“There are aspects of music that I borrow and use in my work: repetition and revision. A big part of jazz is repeat and revise, and repeat and revise,” she told Ong.) The rhythm of the whole evening was colored by a tedious beginning. The cadence of the dialogue felt slow and labored, more irritating than enchanting. There were individual moments when language and character did come together—the fierce monologue by the white Colonel/boss-master about how grateful he is that he is white, Hero’s meditation on his worth (as a slave or as a free man), the oddly out of place but engaging soliloquy by the talking dog Odd-See. But I struggled to find the thread that could hold all these pieces together in a meaningful arc, and it escaped me.

It could just be a quirk in me, so I have spent a lot of time thinking about why these plays missed the mark. It may be that I just happened to see them on one of those nights when that mystical theatrical magic—the alchemy that transforms words, actors, music, sets into another reality—just wasn’t happening. I did speak with three other people who also saw the play, two of them on a different night. They also had issues although their list was different than my own. It wasn’t stitching together as a whole for any of us, but each of us had our own explanations for why that is. I would love to have someone who adored this play tell me why they did.

Parks has announced that there are nine parts to this work, a long term project that ambitiously takes on the 100 years subsequent to the Civil War. The remaining six parts will follow the progeny of these characters as they navigate an America that we all know too well as crippled by a legacy of race discrimination. Parks is so formidable an artist that my dissatisfaction with this first installment does not preclude me from telling people to see the play and to sign up to sail with Parks on this ambitious voyage. I am, in spite of my reservations, very curious to see where she will take this narrative in its larger arc.

Yes, I’m still watching.

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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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Rehearsing for Pippin at A.R.T. (Photo: Dina Rudick/Boston Globe)

In my previous post I wrote about how surprising it was to find such striking beauty in the overstated, extremist interior of Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia. It brings to mind one of my art professor’s words to me from so long ago, “To make a great painting you have to push it to the edge where it almost doesn’t work.” That has been a very useful insight that applies to many things in life, not just for my own art making.

Case in point, Diane Paulus‘ latest production of Pippin at A.R.T. A big hit on Broadway 40 years ago, Pippin was an unexpected inclusion (IMHO) for the 2012-13 season. Having seen it on Broadway in 1973, I had cataloged it away as musical comedy light (as opposed to the musical comedy dark of Sweeney Todd) that was saved from vapidity by Ben Vereen‘s spectacular performance as the Leading Player.

And yet now that I have seen it I see that it is a perfect fit for Paulus’ well known mission for A.R.T. to “expand the boundaries of theater by experimenting with a new physical vocabulary of musical theater storytelling.” Fresh from her critical success with an updated adaption of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess and her work with the Cirque du Soleil on their latest creation, Amaluna, Paulus is on a roll. For a play that questions the viability of our desire to be exceptional, she is just that. Exceptional.

This new Pippin feels smart, sharp and utterly beguiling. Paulus cooks up a wild concoction of disparate memes to make this feel very fresh—the musical theater tradition of the 50’s, Bob Fosse-esque swivel hipping (he actually was the choreographer for the original production), Cirque du Soleil circus acrobatics by way of Montreal’s Gypsy Snider and Les 7 doigts de la main, and the structure of a morality play that traces with sincerity the journey for self-knowledge. With that armature in place, add the best of the best creative team (since Paulus has connections with just about everybody doing great work in theater these days)—hot shot Tony award winning designer Scott Pask (Book of Mormon, Coast of Utopia); Dominique Lemieux, one of of the original Cirque du Soleil costume designers; choreographer Chet Walker, heir apparent to Bob Fosse; lighting designer Kenneth Posner; music supervisor Nadia DiGiallonardo, among many others.

Then there is the cast. Pattina Miller is toweringly terrific as the Leading Player (sorry Ben Vereen, you don’t own that role any more my friend). Matthew James Thomas combines a strong stage presence with the necessary innocence of a jejune Pippin. Hell, everyone is good—singing, dancing, interacting, entertaining, working as a well oiled ensemble. Is this production ready for Broadway? Lock, stock and barrel.

And while all the pieces come together so well, Paulus doesn’t lose connection with the substance of the story.

In Paulus’ words:

Pippin deals with an incredibly serious subject: how far would you go to be extraordinary? Will you burn yourself alive to be extraordinary?…This question is deeply relevant to our lives today. It can be relevant to anyone, from an eighteen-year-old trying to figure out the meaning of their life, to a middle-aged person trying to assess what they’ve achieved in their life. What are the choices we make to pursue a life that is “extraordinary”?

What I love about Pippin is that all of this is expressed through a theatrical metaphor. The show is a play within a play. It’s about a troupe of players who are enacting this ritualized performance. In the world of the play, to be extraordinary is to perform “the Grand Finale.” It uses theater as a metaphor for examining one’s own life.

Friends who know me will be shocked that I am advocating for a musical comedy. But like the Sagrada Familia, this wild concoction takes it to the extreme but finds that sweet spot where it works. While Gaudi may have to intercede from across the veil to get his beloved cathedral in Barcelona completed, Paulus is very much among the living and applying her prodigious skills to a steady stream of inventive and ingenious productions.

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Sammy Tunis as Ada Lovelace in Futurity (Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva/Boston Globe)

In an interview with Tony Kushner that took place when his landmark play in two parts, Angels in America, had just opened in Los Angeles, he talked about the genesis of the idea for AA. It was the 1980s and he was living in New York City. The time and circumstances of his personal life had brought a specific set of themes to his attention, front and center: the AIDS epidemic and sexual identity, the role of his Jewish heritage and community, and the American religious phenomenon that is Mormonism. As unconnected as that list appears, he wanted to weave all of them together into a play that used those concepts to forge a much larger story. His success at achieving that has been well documented.

Assembling a cohesive and memorable work of art from a panoply of unexpected themes is ambitious and a bit daunting. It is easier to take one core idea and let it unfold. But when the assemblage approach comes together, the results can be unexpectedly fresh and surprisingly provocative. Futurity, a play with music (I can’t bring myself to call it a “musical”, a term I view as denigrating when applied to serious theater—that being my own prejudice, admittedly) currently being presented by American Rep in Cambridge, is an exploration into that theatrical genre of idea assemblage. Set at the time of the Civil War, the play interweaves narratives of science fact/science fiction imaginings, war, technological utopianism and American roots music. Factual and fictional characters come together and include Lord Byron‘s real life daughter Ada Lovelace, a brilliant young woman who worked with Charles Babbage in thinking through the genesis of computational technology. There is the overarching theme of building a computational prototype, a “steam brain,” that can couple human intelligence and technology to bring the end to war. Part H. G. Wells, part Civil War photographer Matthew Brady, part Red Badge of Courage and part adventuresome and slightly wacky indie-rock opera, Futurity has a lot to recommend it.

The creative team behind the production is César Alvarez and the The Lisps, a “band” by some accounts but more accurately self-described as a “public/performative version of all the relationships you are struggling with.” The members of that creative matrix are well suited at blending music with theatricity. While produced in collaboration with an impressive crew of theatrical talents—Molly Rice cowrote the book and award-winning Sarah Benson directed it—the production still feels like a work in progress however. But works in progress are OK too. The hope is they will continue in their process of being honed, polished and tightened.

A few words about the production from director Sarah Benson:

Futurity is about that power of the imagination to transcend our human frailties and limitations. If war is a failure of the imagination, Futurity asks us to challenge or assumptions and invest in the imagination, our “steam brain” enabling us to think beyond our own perspective and create new possible worlds.

Technology makes real these new worlds. It enables us to realize the imaginary, and as yet, what seems impossible.

And from co-writer Molly Rice:

What was most exciting was that the band was both outside and inside the story. They were never not a band, but never not the characters they played, either…And the mere fact that a band from Brooklyn sought to tell the tale of a “peace machine” made by a Civil War solider/inventor and an unsung Victorian lady scientist? Who also happens to be Lord Byron’s daughter? I wanted to work on that…

In part the piece is about the hidden similarities between seemingly different things, like science, art and war; math, mechancis, and music. And something about about the piece beckoned many disciplines to collide inside of it, from visual art to dance to sonic invention.

Futurity runs through April 15 at the Oberon Theater.

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R. Buckminster Fuller

Content-rich theater is hard to do. Tom Stoppard is probably our most exemplary contemporary playwright of that genre. In so many of his plays, ideas and intellectual constructs take on theatrical forms, functioning almost as characters in the story. The Stoppard experience is deeply layered and yet neither didactic nor instructional. Which is why you (OK, I should say me) can watch the Coast of Utopia trilogy in marathon mode (7 hours) and still be longing to return the next day and do it all over again.

A. R. T.’s current offering at the Loeb Theater is a content-rich theatrical venture as well and one that I would recommend to anyone in the Boston area who has been able to dig their car out of the snowdrifts or is lucky enough to live within the reach of the T. R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe, the long overdue homage to an extraordinary thinker, is performed as a one man play. Thomas Derrah is an uncanny channel for the quirky mannerisms and squaresville attire that seduces you into the playful, provocative and profound world of Bucky Fullerama. He was a man who spent a lifetime seeing things upsidedown and insideout, of bucking (he was well named!) against established norms—including his dismissal from Harvard not once but twice—and unpacking and debunking everyday assumptions. His world view, startling and mind-stretching even back in the 60s when startling and mind-stretching were the norm, feels prescient and timely given our current time and troubles. The production is chock full of mind teasers and provocations, delivered through words and a few well placed and expertly executed visual aids. But like Stoppard’s plays, D. W. Jacob’s production does not feel didactic or intellectually detached, and Derrah holds the sold out audience rapt.

I heard Bucky speak twice when I was a teenager. I was so taken by what I heard that I read everything he wrote and carried his ideas around for the rest of my life. Some viewed him as just plain off the grid, one of those types I affectionately refer to as “scientists gone galactic.” He was cut out of a different piece of cosmic cloth from his bureaucratic, gatekeeper cohorts, no question. But the course of time has taken us closer to his viewpoint than most of his detractors back in the 50s and 60s would have ever imagined possible.

And in keeping with a theme that has been running through my posts here over the last few months, Bucky’s life is another example of lastingness, of someone who was at his best in the second half of his life. His story is full of early failures. At one point in his 30s. he had been thwarted so profoundly that he decided to stop speaking altogether. He wanted every word he uttered to be authentic, defensible, carefully honed. So for two years he said very little. Slowly he reshaped and reclaimed a voice for himself. And once he did find his pitch perfect tuning, he couldn’t be stopped. Both of the Bucky lectures I attended went on for four hours without stopping. He was in his 70s at that time, but the energy he gave off was electric and irresistible.

Recently I asked my college-aged friends if they knew who he was, and almost all of them said no. It is high time to bring Bucky back for another age and another generation.

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The Blue Flower, A.R.T.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Blue Flower runs through January 2011.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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