Weekend Round Up, Sept. 29 – Oct. 2
Butterfly Soars at the WNO
Gary Tischler • July 26, 2011
Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” is probably the most performed opera in America. The Washington National Opera, with two different casts among the principals, is in the midst of a run of 13 performances for this most romantic and tragic of operas.
There are reasons for that. “Butterfly” is the opera that depends greatly on its music, which sounds like a given for any opera, but it’s especially true here. But it also has in its core the most basic and classical themes of theatrical literature—enduring, undying love and the tragedy that arises from it. And let’s not forget the classic East-Meets-West at the expense of East theme.
Clocking in at roughly three hours with one intermission, “Butterfly” would seem to be a bit of an endurance test for the operatically disinclined, but in the end, it is exactly what it’s often describe as: the opera for people who don’t usually go to the opera. Which accounts for the frequent presence of the opera on the season schedule of any company that can provide the singers, conductors and orchestra to do it justice.
The WNO certainly has that in soprano Catherine Naglestad (Ana Maria Martinez is the second Butterfly), who sings with heartbreaking clarity and acts the part of Cio-Cio-San, aka Madama Butterfly, in an appealing style that avoids overstatement and operatic histrionics that are sometimes off-putting to the uninitiated. Clearly, she’s the unadorned heroine of this opus. She has a beauty that combines with humility to create a young woman already used to the woes of the world but who clings nonetheless to an unfounded hope. Her movements around the stage are graceful without ever descending into Western clichés about Asian ways.
We all probably know the story—Lt. Pinkerton (ably sung by the Russian tenor Alexei Dolgov), a young and caddish American navy officer at the beginning of America’s robust foray into the Pacific, is stationed in Nagasaki, in a Japan where the Shoguns and codes of honor reign. He’s paid for a wife (both marriage and contract can be waived by him at any time), the lovely teenaged Cio-Cio-San, and duly marries her in order to taste as many pleasures as he can before settling down. Cio-Cio-San, forced to become a geisha because of her disgraced father, is smitten beyond reason, commons sense and caution. The feelings are expressed in a lengthy duet in Act One, but it’s Act Two that fills the heart with apprehension, and the soul with a kind of devastating glory.
Pinkerton of course leaves off on the ocean blue, and does not return for three years: Butterfly has been forced to sell off almost everything she has merely to survive, and has also mothered a son, a beautiful small blonde boy. She believes Pinkerton will return to hearth and home. He’s back all right, with an American wife in tow. Pinkerton never sees her, and it’s up to the American consul to relay that news and that the Pinkertons will take care of Cio-Cio-San’s son. Like some bereft waif, left with nothing, Butterfly’s left with an impossible decision.
Butterfly is at her most appealing as she waits, the ship in the harbor, with her son at her side. She has already let us know in thunderous soaring terms in the famous aria “Un Bel Di” (One Beautiful day), which everyone has already heard, if only as muzak in an elevator. She soars with love and hope and as the aria begins, so does the audience soar. You can practically hear a collective sigh move through the audience as the familiar music rises, and the audience soars with her, totally, tearfully satisfied.
This is the kind of thing you don’t often get in theater—satisfaction expressed in the audience, especially when in the presence of a significant artist like Nagelstad
But what you also don’t usually get is what happens next when Butterfly waits, her eyes on the ship, her heart waiting for a sight of Pinkerton, a sound of a footsteps. This sequence has Butterfly with her back to the audience, her heart to the front, and it’s accompanied by quietly powerful orchestral music, a kind of fugue leading to finalized disappointment. Nothing happens: lights change, become muted and bright, go dim on the ship, turn dark in her lanterns. It’s an astonishing sequence that you could never do in the theater, which relies so much on movement and words. You shouldn’t be able to do it in an opera either, but it works. It creates a kind of strain and pain that can only be relieved by the familiar but always shocking tragic ending.
Bene, bene. Bravo Bravo. Ciao, Cio-Cio San.
“Tynan” at Studio Theatre
Theater Critics love “Tynan,” the one-man show about the acerbic, outrageous, revolutionary British drama critic-as-hedonistic celebrity now at the Studio Theater.
I don’t mean they’ll be uncritical, although you can’t do much of anything but praise Philip Goodwin, who plays Tynan so well that you think you’re keeping company with the man who’s been dead for thirty years.
Rather, “Tynan” is a piece of theater about a piece of theatrical work, a man often lauded as an important figure in the history of theater in the latter part of the mid-late 20th century, for his energetic, stylish, dead-on and highly-intelligent criticism; for his steadfast zeal in championing new and cutting edge playwrights such as John Osborne and Samuel Beckett; and for his role as literary manager of the National Theater of England, headed by Sir Laurence Olivier.
His writings, made famous in English publications, as well as at the New Yorker, were always stylish, even moving, and sometimes came in the form of verbal missiles when attacking bad performances, bad choices, bad trends, bad direction, or worse, anything mediocre in theater. He was brilliant, trenchant, poetic at times, and he could get away with some of his most devastating judgments because simply put, he was just about smarter than anyone else around and not shy about saying so.
There’s a videotape of Tynan on an episode of Edward R Murrow’s talk show “Small World” of the late 50s and early 60s. He is in the company of Samuel Goldwyn and the Oscar-winning actress Vivien Leigh, Olivier’s wife. He looks like a sharp, intelligent, very thin, chain-smoking porcupine.
He had enemies, but as this production makes clear, the worst one, as is often the case, was Kenneth Tynan himself. He had a penchant for the outrageous for its own sake; he wanted to liberate the country from sexual repression by being perfectly frank about his own obsessions, which turned out to be a penchant for mild sado-masochism. He was the author and producer of a 1960s-1970s theater cause célèbre called “Oh Calcutta”, which can be best be described as intellectual smut, which of course was a huge hit. It contained brief episodes of frontal nudity, part and parcel of the sexual revolution of the times. In today’s age of worldwide internet porn, it is mild stuff indeed, although done with a certain intellectual panache.
Tynan, these days, is a dimly distant force— he’s like a star whose light you can see years in the distance, just not very well. Tynan died of the effects of emphysema, the symptoms of which, along with a tantalizing stammer, are evident in Goodman’s performance.
If you have no taste for or memory of theater history, you won’t learn much from this play, a one-man outing based entirely on the latter-day journals kept by Tynan during a period when most of his best life’s works—except for a series of astonishingly good profiles and writings in the New Yorker—was done.
What you will hear and see is the genuine voice of Tynan—he is here in more ways than as the author of his own life story—and it’s a voice that is pungent, gifted in story-telling and narrative, witty and sharply funny, and even self-deprecating in the predicaments he so often finds himself. His talent presides and resides within a wreck, emotional and physical.
Goodwin, who’s consistently produced outstanding Shakespearean and contemporary performances at the Studio and the Shakespeare Theater, keeps it simple. It is an accumulative performance, where the stories he tells, the announcements he makes, are like layers of clothing, being put on and being shed.
The tone appears right—acidity battling with a showy intellectualism, a kind of superiority over his peers mixed with affection, most notably when he’s talking about Olivier. There are theater tidbits here: Christopher Plummer getting canned from a part because he insisted on doing it his way and the like.
Actually, the more you listen to Goodwin/Tynan, the more a sad, somewhat wasted, frustrated man emerges. He was a raconteur and a bad boy, but not a bad man. Listening to Goodwin speak, talking about the pleasures of his particular obsession, about a lost vacation in Spain which turned out to be a harrowing illustration of Murphy’s law, or being caught in a police raid in a special brothel in Los Angeles, you see a man vaulted into a pitiable Laurel and Hardy movie.
Tynan in vivid rises above it, with dignity if not reputation intact. Goodwin is the one that elevates him to that position, by the precision of his words, the intelligence of his choices, the refusal to overplay the material, by the clarity he achieves in the spoken word. There’s a point where you forget to look at the backdrop projections. You don’t even know that they’re there. Goodwin by this time has convinced you that you’re in the company of Kenneth Tynan, good company, sometimes melancholy—he notes steadily the passing of old friends—but always smart and compelling.
“Tynan” has been at the Studio Theatre until February 13. For more information, visit StudioTheatre.org
All About Helen Hayes Awards Nominations
If you want to know a little bit about what’s going on in the vibrant Washington area theatre scene, as well as a little bit about its history, check out the Helen Hayes Awards nominations. They’ve always provided clues about what’s hot and what’s not, trends and directions.
The awards—both a celebration of the area’s ever-growing theatre community and a composite of its members—always provide an ebb and flow about the fortunes of different theaters and different types of theatre.
From the beginning, in the resident theatre arena, the long established Arena Stage has been a strong presence, almost routinely receiving loads of nominations and winning many of them, because Arena for decades was the mother ship of regional theatre companies under founder Zelda Fichandler. But judges, perversely, tended to reward grudgingly newer companies, except for the Shakespeare Theatre Company under Michael Kahn.
It took time for Woolly Mammoth to establish itself as a force, for the Studio Theatre under Joy Zinoman to be recognized consistently (its production of Tom Stoppard’s “Indian Ink” was a major breakthrough). Signature Theatre under Eric Schaeffer, on the other hand splashed, onto the scene with its production of “Sweeney Todd” and established itself as the leading interpreter of Sondheim musicals in the area. Likewise, critics and Helen Hayes judges alike immediately took to the Russian pantomime tones of Synetic Theatre and its movement-choreography oriented interpretation of classic works of literature and theater, forcing writers to spell Tsikurishvili (the last name of the star Synetic couple) over and over again.
Early on, nobody paid much attention to family or children’s theater, not to mention the more assumed-to-be sedate workings of suburban theater and dinner theater. This year Adventure Theater, under the energetic Michael Bobbitt, produced several nominations, as did Toby’s Dinner Theater under Toby Orenstein, a second time around for her.
And Folger, once the Kahn-led troupe that embedded itself at Lansburgh and later Harman Hall, never fared as well as it did this year. This year, all three of its produced plays have been nominated for Outstanding Resident Play: “Henry VIII,” “Hamlet” and “Orestes: A Tragic Romp.”
The Shakespeare Theatre did well for itself with 22 nominations, but none were in the outstanding resident play category, where it’s rotating majestic double bill of “Richard II” and “Henry V” were sadly missing. Nor was Michael Hayden, who wore both crowns, nominated for his acting tour de force here in playing both kingly roles, including the best Henry this writer has ever seen outside of perhaps Kenneth Branagh’s movie version.
Omissions and inclusions always cause a little controversy, even in this self-celebratory community, and the one that seemed to be almost uniformly decried was the absence of teenaged whiz June Schreiner for her dazzling, high-energy turn as Ado Annie in “Oklahoma,” a show that’s up for Outstanding Resident Musical and helped Arena snare 23 nominations. Schreiner got deservedly ecstatic notices for her work but failed to convince the Hayes judges.
“Oklahoma” gave a rousing opening to Molly Smith and Arena’s new multi-million dollar, elegant space out in Southwest, and the show, which looked as fresh as could be, will be clashing with the Shakespeare Theatre’s co-production (with the Goodman Theatre in Chicago), of Leonard Bernstein’s and Mary Zimmerman’s “Candide.”
“Candide” is an example of what you might call out of town resident shows—that is, there’s enough of a local presence in the cast or production to put the dazzling show into the resident category. If there was any justice, this would produce a tie, because I can’t pick between the two. One of my peers in the theatre world, however, loves the Toby Dinner Theater production of “Hairspray” to death.
Arena actually had three musicals in the outstanding resident musical category—two others, produced before the big move, were the smash hit production of Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Ladies” in Duke’s old neighborhood at the Lincoln Theatre, and “The Light in the Piazza,” with Molly Smith getting two outstanding director noms for “Piazza” and “Oklahoma.”
Some other highlights: Adventure Theater getting an ensemble acting nod in the resident musical category for its production of “”If You Give a Pig a Pancake,” which featured Hollywood as a tap-dancing pig.
The outstanding lead actor in a resident play produced a record ten actors vying for the award.
Theater J scored heavily with its production of “New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza.”
Per usual, the Kennedy Center dominated non-resident categories with 23 nominations of all sorts for such shows as “Thurgood,” “South Pacific” and “Golden Age,” part of a wonderful Terence O’Neill mini-festival.
Ted Van Griethuysen was nominated yet again, in kingly fashion, for “All’s Well That Ends Well.”
The Helen Hayes Awards will be announced April 25 at the annual ceremonies at the Warner Theater.
For a complete list of nominations and all things Helen Hayes Awards, click here!
“The Odd Couple”: All the Laughs, and a Bit More
Oscar Madison and Felix Unger. The slob and the neatnik. We know these guys, since, like forever. They’re Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. They’re Walter Matthau and Art Carney and or Jack Lemmon. They’re “The Odd Couple.”
Yeah, those guys driving each other nuts like a married couple and delivering sure-fire laughs to thousands, millions of theatergoers, and movie and television viewers.
Neil Simon, until he actually got a Pulitzer
Prize for “Lost in Yonkers,” used to complain regularly that he wasn’t taken seriously enough as an artist. He claimed people considered him just a superstar gag writer and author of hit plays—which in turn became hit movies, and in the case of “The Odd Couple,” hit television series.
He deserved better, but god bless him, he sure could make you laugh.
“The Odd Couple” is often used as Exhibit A of a big laugh machine. The production, now at Theater J at the JCC, is also Exhibit A for the case that Simon had a legitimate complaint. People forget. This production, with two of DC theater’s more gifted actors in the leads, shows again and for sure that Simon was writing about people who struck a chord with audiences, not just because gags and jokes came out of their mouths faster than a speeding bullet, but because they had something to say about who we were ourselves.
Simon, in short, was funny because he struck a nerve—because we men and women, single and married, old and young, all recognized ourselves in his characters. For men of a certain age, that’s especially true of Oscar and Felix, the most polar opposites who ever ended up sharing the same living space (except perhaps for Ernest Borgnine and Ethel Merman). For them, laughter isn’t just the best revenge, but also the best disguise.
We are so familiar with the plight of Oscar and Felix that we think the play is one joke after another, a barrel of laughs. And it still is in the sure hands of director Jerry Whiddon. The actors are equally commendable. Rick Foucheux plays Oscar Madison, a grumpy, divorced and perpetually broke sports writer. J. Fred Schiffman is Felix Ungar, an edgy, fussy, neat freak news writer who’s just been thrown out of the house by a long-suffering wife.
The laughs are still there—Oscar’s apartment where he and Felix hold a weekly poker game is alone worth the price of admission. When pigs fly, this is where they come to rest. The space, as imagined by designer Misha Kachman, looks like a city dump with a ceiling and windows where old milk cartons, beer bottles, cigarette butts, dirty ashtrays, and frayed couches share space with yesterdays socks and newspapers. It is a man’s cave, a man who’s completely forgotten how to clean up after himself and his friends.
When Felix can’t be found, but does finally show up at the poker game, there’s concern for the forlorn, wounded, almost-but-not-quite suicidal grown waif. Oscar, who hasn’t gotten over his own divorce, takes him in. The rest is basically a pain-filled, funny, destruction derby, especially when Oscar lures two expatriate British ladies from upstairs down for a disastrous couples dinner party.
Often, this material is played almost strictly for laughs: the nuances in the script get trampled by the situations, even when they revived the play with a female cast a couple of decades ago, starring
Rita Moreno and Sally Struthers.
Here the nuances, thanks to the actors, arise out of the situations to the point where you see Oscar and Felix for what they are: a couple of lonely guys, unused to being alone, who recreate exactly the atmosphere that caused their marriages to fail.
It isn’t just that Oscar is the ultimate cigar-smoking, milk-rotting-in-the-fridge slob; it’s become a proud habit with him. And Felix is the ultimate fussy, I-love-to-cook, control-freak type who goes so far as to wash the poker cards. These are ingrained habits that are bound to drive the other men crazy. And they do. And it’s funny. And it’s sad. And it’s just like men get sometimes when all they can do is what they’ve always been doing.
I don’t mean to suggest that “The Odd Couple” doesn’t retain the power to make everyone in the audience laugh. It does. It’s just that this production, thanks also to a great supporting cast, reveals itself to be a terrific play full of characters, instead of caricatures. Watch the two guys together on the stage: Foucheux’s Oscar stands up like a wad of paper unrolling itself; he’s all round valleys and paunches, balding a little at the top. Felix, next to him, often holding a duster or cooking utensil, is all straight lines, white shirt, tie, shiny, perfectly tied shoes, edgy face—you could get a paper cut just touching him. And they can’t help themselves, just as when Oscar drops a cigar butt on the floor in final exasperation and grinds it out with his feet, and Felix guilt trips him or nags him like a fussy mother or wife.
“The Odd Couple” is still funny as all get out. But now, when the laughter stops for a second, we see who Oscar and Felix are. They’re us guys, unfettered by the imagination.
“The Odd Couple” runs through November 28 at the Jewish Community Center on 16th Street.
‘Circle Mirror’ Shows Promise for Direction of Studio Theatre
-David Muse makes his official debut as the new artistic director of the Studio Theater (he succeeds founder and long-time A-D Joy Zinoman) by directing “Circle Mirror Transformation.”
This is not a debut accompanied by trumpets blaring, and neither is Annie Baker’s muted but ingratiating play about a group of people who are part of an acting class in a small community in Vermont. But the play and the production send out several promising signals about the future,
each in their own way.
“Circle Mirror Transformation” signals a new voice, for one thing, in playwright Annie Baker, who’s made it a point to transform the often inarticulate way we speak and communicate today into a kind of music and poetry — a revelatory method that leads, like acting, to a kind of truth.
It’s an understated play with a little bit of this and a little of bit that. It has soap opera elements, theater stuff, acting stuff, and it’s both contemporary and naturalistic in its look and sound and old-fashioned in its dramatic elements. Baker seems to suggest that acting arrives at difficult truths by way of artful, hard-learned artifice, much in the same way that literature arrives at the same destination by way of fiction.
While the production often seems loosey-goosey and unformed, Muse’s direction and Baker’s writing keep things directionally focused: “We and the folks at the acting class are going somewhere here, and the road and destination seem uncomfortably familiar.”
In the program, Baker says that “the way human beings speak is so heartbreaking to me—we never sound the way we want to sound. Speaking is a kind of misery.”
You can see that observation in action in “Circle Mirror Transformation.” This is especially true for the three students: Schultz, a yearning, confused, recently divorced man full of inarticulate, shiny wounds; Theresa, the bright-eyed, sexy former actress and especially Lauren, the quiet, painfully shy teenager who wears her hoodie like a turtle wears its shell.
The school is run by the insistent, work-it, risk-taking Marty and her husband James, who’s middle-aged, phlegmatic, and a walking disappointment.
We see all of them right at the beginning, lying in a circle at the studio, which is lightly cluttered with a mirror. They’re doing an exercise, an acting exercise, in which they try to count to ten one at a time without anyone counting at the same time, interrupting, or jumping in. In other words, it’s a clean, nearly-impossible exercise in team-work and empathy.
Throughout the play, which is preformed without interruption for nearly two hours, you get exercises which resemble a kind of group therapy, as opposed to anything to do with the theater. The group takes turns “being” each other, hence the initially startling appearance of Jim talking about “my husband.” They try telling stories along a string that is taking a story word by word from one place to another. Interspersed are moments of reality, where the characters interact and relate, and those interactions reverberate in the exercises and vice versa.
That’s especially true of Theresa, played with almost anything-goes, playful energy by Kathleen McElfresh. She’s bounding, bouncy, mobile, and uses every part of herself — the flouncy hair, the long legs, arms, fingers, body — to become a kind of focus point, a magnet for the two men and wary distance for the other two females.
Things happen that probably shouldn’t, but the process itself is what counts. There’s a five-point build-up to the play as we do what they do: at first we keep following Theresa around, then Schultz’s plaintiff voice makes itself heard, and then we note the tensions and old hurts that are part of James and Marty’s marriage. We barely register Lauren’s goth-ish, quiet ten and her voice, barely audible at first. She’s closed in.
But it’s with the final two exercises — a risky write a secret on a piece of paper, then pick out of a hat and read it, and an imagination of what happens after – that we realize that it’s Lauren who’s been paying attention the most, not the least of which was an earlier comment asking, “when do we start acting?”
If MacKenzie Meehan, who plays Lauren with thorough, skinny-teen authenticity and stops-and-starts, is a stellar surprise, Jennifer Mendenhall as Marty is the play’s elastic but tough glue — it’s center and heart and soul. She holds everyone together, even when she comes close to falling apart. We’ve known and seen Mendenhall a long time, especially at the Studio and the Woolly Mammoth, and we’re always struck by her particular brand of guileless, sexy and open-faced naturalness. She doesn’t hide much and can therefore wound you at the oddest moments.
For Muse, it’s a solid start — a bid for a long relationship with the audience worth building. (“Circle Mirror Transformation” runs at the Studio Theater through October 17.)
Till Fellner at the Embassy Series: A Resounding Climax
-Most worthwhile efforts have small beginnings, and this is also true for the Embassy Series, the unique musical events put together every year by its director, Jerome Barry, now in its 17th season.
Barry began his series of concerts/receptions at Washington embassies, ambassador’s residences and occasionally cultural centers with a core spirit. Many early offerings were held at European embassies like the Embassy of Austria and the Federal Republic of Germany.
The cultural core of the early concerts was the music of what may be Europe’s greatest cultural contribution to the world—a kind of library of great 18th and 19th century composers from Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, Brahms, the Strausses, Haydn and others whose compositions amount to the great and lasting saving grace of the German-speaking nations and peoples of the continent.
With them came the pianists, the violinist, the quartets and ensembles and trios, the flautists and cello players, the young as well as the world-renowned to play the works of European geniuses in settings and atmospheres unique to the music. Recitals, solo performances, sonatas, the E-minors and B majors, and all the technical bravura and skills are all important here. They are the missals for the body of European music’s masses and scriptures.
Over time, the Embassy series concerts have expanded into the wide and wider reaches of the world, embracing the rest of Europe, Russia, the Slavic countries, Latin America and the Middle East. With its acceptance came a wider scope of music with different sounds, emphases and instruments, which sprung from the fountain of different cultures and traditions.
But the Series always returns to the great composers, the great wellspring of European music, and even now such concerts are unique in and of themselves.
In that sense, the recent appearance of Till Fellner, the rising-star pianist, at the Embassy of Austria was so illustrative of the performance of classical music that is really classical beyond the music.
Fellner came to Washington to conclude his project of playing the complete cycle of Beethoven Sonatas—all 32 of them—on a journey that included New York, Washington, Tokyo, London, Paris and, appropriately, Vienna, where Fellner was born and which is home to a gilded, triumphant musical reputation and aura.
On the Sunday afternoon of his performance before a sold-out audience, Fellner completed the cycle by playing Sonata 30 E major, op. 109, Sonata 31 a flat major, op. 110 and Sonata 32, C minor, op. 111. The numbers, of course, tell you absolutely nothing unless you are an aficionado of Beethoven’s sonatas, or know your way around the little manifestos that describe how a piece will be played as in (for No. 32): Maestoso—Allegro con brio ed appassianata Arrietta: Adagio molto semplice e cantabile.
This is not meant to be even remotely a critical piece, which, in any case, this writer isn’t qualified to do. But I’m pretty good on history, setting, atmosphere, feeling and response. And I know a super-star when I hear one—here I mean Beethoven—and a budding super star when I see one. The Sonatas Fellner played are works from 1820-1822, and music history suggests that they were meant to be of a piece.
Fellner performs, behaves, and plays like a man dealing with a masterpiece. This is not just a question of technique, but a kind of presence, where the artists become a priest –my fingers to God—who is inspired and inspiring to listen to. All great pieces of art, and perhaps most especially of music, have a religious quality to them even if composed, written and created by agnostics or atheists. They are offerings meant to penetrate the great void and give it density, nuance, glory, suppleness, a kind of knowing. They are like sacrificial smoke rising up in swirls. The Sonatas do that like King Lear’s lament, Rembrandt’s touch of light.
Great musicians, always in their own ways, behave accordingly. There is a ritual involved, and a pact with audience and player. Unlike music and performances from other areas of the world, which have aspects of naked emotion and celebration in them, a kind of intense sociability, concerts like this one require, and always have, a certain embrace of stillness. The object is not to clap your hands, but to sit on them, or to stroke your mustache or listen intently with your eyes and heart. A performance such as this calls to action that part of the brain that can hear a lapse in technique, a missed key, or the buzz of a fly two blocks away.
In a sense, concerts like these are indeed like being in church. It’s smoke and incense and faith and appreciation; apt enough since much of European composition begins with church and ended up there too.
Felnner has the requisites of a star player. He knows it’s not enough to wear a black tuxedo to the chair. You have to spread out the tails in a certain way. You must every now and then, with a shake of the head and a wave of the fingers coming up from the keys, add human drama to the notes. At 39, he maintains those boyish good looks that seem to be built into the genes of future pianists, so that when he bows, it is a polite but not quite humble act.
No need for humility, in any case. Playing the last three sonatas seemed not just a climax to a personal musical journey, but a journey in and of itself where movements soar, tremble, and achieve a grand serenity in the end.
A Modern, Muddled History of Afghanistan In Three Acts
Even while talking with Nicholas Kent on the phone, you could hear the murmur in the background.
Kent, the artistic director of the Tricycle Theater Company in England and the man responsible for putting together “The Great Game”, an ambitious three-play project on imperialism and other forays into Afghanistan at Sidney Harman Hall which ended last Saturday, was delighted by the buzz in the background. That would be audiences from the first two parts of the trilogy, talking it up about what they saw.
“That was one of the concerns about taking these plays on an American tour,” said Kent, who also directs “Black Tulip”, one of the mini-plays in the second part of the trilogy. “We didn’t know how the audiences would react. Obviously, it’s a very timely subject for Americans as well as Europeans, given the state of the commitment of the American military effort there.”
“The audiences,” Kent says, “have been amazing. There’s really a reaction here. It’s not like people are sitting there dutifully taking their medicine of serious or historic drama.”
In Washington especially, that was bound to happen, although it takes theatrical stamina and determination to take in all three plays, which feature the participation and writing efforts of twelve playwrights. The trio of plays actually comprises about a dozen plays of varying lengths. “We basically sent out a call for plays, and we got quite a result.”
Afghanistan looms large in the Barack Obama presidency. It haunts the minds of the U.S. body politics, and the cost of the effort in human loss can be seen almost every day in the small dramas provided by funeral corteges that make their sorrowful way to a plot in Arlington National Cemetery. “The Great Game”, a phrase coined by the eminent chronicler of the British Empire Rudyard Kipling, is an effort to tell the story of three great power efforts — futile on the first two, school’s still out on the last — to control events in Afghanistan. Part One is called “Invasion and Independence” and focuses on the British Empire’s efforts there, some of them ending in major massacres and defeats up until 1930.
Part Two chronicles the Soviet Union’s efforts to create a subject state by way of invasion, and the CIA’s varied forays there, helping the Mujahedeen’s anti-Russian rebellion. The same group would eventually morph into the Taliban. Part Three, “Enduring Freedom”, are the stories of the American presence after 9/11, a story that remains unfinished if not undone. “Obviously, Afghanistan is a hugely important event in terms of the United States,” Kent said. “That’s why we thought it would be an appropriate undertaking, especially in Washington.”
Kent’s Tricycle Theater Company is an odd mixture of a theater, and very much reflects the interests of its director. “I think sometimes people here think we just do plays they see as political, or archival, or documentary,” he said. “We also do entertainments, if you will, like “The 39 Steps”, or straight plays, including “The Great White Hope.” You do want to have an audience – it’s theater after all.”
But the so-called tribunal plays are what sets Tricycle and Kent apart from the rest of the theater world. Kent has staged plays about the war crime tribunals created in the wake of the break-up of Yugoslavia, about the British in Ireland, about Apartheid in South Africa and the Nuremberg Trials, as well as Guantanamo. Much of the dialogue in these plays comes from verbatim transcripts and documents of trials.
Kent chafes when people see him as a left-wing ideologue. “I’m not a lefty, per se. It’s not about lefty, right wing and things like that. It’s about justice, history, not forgetting. It’s about understanding history and its repetition. You shouldn’t really talk about Afghanistan if you know nothing about what’s gone on there for centuries.”
This sort of approach to history and theater can be highly affecting and dramatic in and of itself. During the course of a performance of the play about the Nuremberg trials, which included actors playing Hermann Goring reciting testimony from the trials, an elderly Holocaust survivor in the audience became so distraught that she stood up and shouted at the Goring character , yelling “Liar, murderer.”
“It was quite astonishing, yes,” Kent said.
“I don’t see these plays as political plays,” he said. “I don’t see myself that way. If you’re going to call my interests something, call them humanitarian.”
“The Great Game” is still of great interest to Americans here. Of course in Washington, the CIA, the government, the defense department, the state department, the national security and intelligence apparatus located here could fill several theaters for several weeks at least. It would be nice to think they’re checking out “The Great Game.”
Meanwhile, we can still hear the buzz, the murmur in the background. Though the troupe just left Washington, the first stop on its US tour, it will be in NYC from December 1-19 at the Public Theater. Check the Tricycle Theater website at www.tricycle.co.uk [gallery ids="99202,103429" nav="thumbs"]
Tammy Grimes: Some Kind of Genius
-Even if she hadn’t announced herself, the voice on the phone, a little whispery, a little dramatic, not as strong as in some other years, was still instantly recognizable. “Hello,” the voice says. “This is Tammy Grimes.”
Of course it was. Tammy Grimes, the legend.
She came to Washington for a concert as part of Barbara Cook’s “In the Spotlight Series” on cabaret singers; a category which seems almost whimsically focused to define Grimes. Cabaret singers are by and large original in such a way that they can be compared to no one else.
As she was in the 1980s when we talked to her in the midst of a concert gig at the now defunct Charley’s, a tony, jazzy, New Yorkish night club on K Street in Georgetown, Grimes is in the Duke Ellington mold: beyond category.
And probably by now, so thickly is she held in the affections of New Yorkers and by people who care more than they should about Broadway lore and stories, she’s also probably beyond criticism. She continues, in her mid-seventies, to fiddle around the edges of her creation, that is, her story and herself.
“Well, I’ll be singing songs by Tom Waits, Jimmy Buffett…” she said almost blithely, as if they might be the standard repertoire for a woman who rose to become a Broadway star for decidedly un-Buffett, un-Waits-like material.
But then again, maybe not. If Grimes repeats anything a lot, it is a simple thing. “I like songs that tell stories,” she says to me on the phone, and again to us in the audience of the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. The story she tells, of course, is her story, and so a concert like this, and others written about New York, are about her. They are familiar stories, and the songs are pertinent to them; about two ex-husbands, two Tonys (“The Unsinkable Molly Brown” and “Private Lives”), about Cole Porter, Noel Coward and Truman Capote, about loss and love, family and children, theater openings, parts made her own and parts she never got.
Hence, “Moon River.” She tells me the story over the phone, and it’s like we’re just talking. There was the time that, ”Truman Capote–we were friends–said that he’d written “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” with me in mind. He saw me as Holly Golightly, and he promised that he would get me the part in the film. And of course, Audrey Hepburn got it.” And on the phone it’s a matter of fact telling, a good story, with no hard feelings or regret in it, because those things happen and Truman is Truman and that sort of thing not said, but implied. On stage, she tells the same story, but here it becomes a no-regrets bridge, a way to launch into her anthem, “I Ain’t Down Yet” from “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” the Meredith Wilson musical about a particularly defiant survivor of the sinking of the Titanic.
For sure, Grimes is a legend, but it’s hard to say exactly what kind of legend. Noel Coward discovered her after her hearing her sing. he had dinner once with the shy Cole Porter, whose “The Oyster Song” she makes a hugely enjoyable enterprise in performance. “We were both shy, I think,” she said. “We spent the whole dinner not saying a word.”
Imagine that. She has plenty to say, of course, and more to sing. She talks about her ex-husband Christopher Plummer, the grand actor, “a beautiful man.” “He still is and now we get along just fine,” she said. “And we had our beautiful daughter, Amanda. Honey, if you’re listening anywhere, please call home.”
The higher registers of her voice are something of a tremulous adventure now, but the lower range is alive with danger, feeling and unpredictable adventure. She sits most of the time now during her concerts, although she will walk to the mike and grab it forcefully. And she sings “The Pirate Song” from Kurt Weill’s “Three Penny Opera” and kills it. The song has all the vengeful menace that it offers up.
Sometimes you suspect people haven’t always known what to do with Tammy Grimes. She’s made a number of mostly forgettable films and done all sorts of unruly television work including her own brief show.
But it’s Broadway and New York that are the stars in her crown, where the cheering still goes on as it does with the Terrace Theater audience, as well as at the Metropolitan Room. Walter Kerr, a legendary drama critic, flat out said, after seeing her as Molly Brown, “She is a genius.” The question is: what kind of genius?
Listening to her sing-tell Waits’ “Martha,” or Buffett’s “He Went to Paris,” or “You Better Love Me While You May,” you pick up on her strength more than the fragility, and the tremendous loss the death of her husband, the composer/arranger Richard Bell must have been. She doesn’t hide it. She merely swings into “You Gotta Ring Them Bells” or something similarly fist-clenched and forward-moving.
For me, and I suspect for New Yorkers who have heard and seen her at the Metropolitan Room, she’s an urban unicorn, a legend for whom, when they appear, the slate is always clean and the stories always rich.
Grimes is the kind of performer who is a reminder that you don’t go to the theater or the cabaret to forget.
You go to remember. And Tammy Grimes, while she may forget a lyric here or there, has a rich store of memories and music.
She came back with everyone standing up clapping for an encore: “I’m going to sing ‘The Rose.’” I heard her sing that song on a wintry night in Charley’s, snow on the ground. Bad news in the news like today. She pushed up the rose and made you remember.
Future of Music Policy Summit
Musicians are invited to discuss with professionals about how to be successful in the music industry and answer the big question of how to make money as a musician at the “10th Anniversary Future of Music Policy Summit” (October 3rd to 5th) at Georgetown University.
The Future of Music Coalition is a national non-profit organization that fights for musicians in the constantly evolving industry of music.
The keynote speakers for the conference will be Rocco Landesman, Chairman for the National Endowment for the Arts, and Victoria Espinel, U.S. Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator. The line-up includes a presentation by renowned musician and producer T Bone Burnett, who just took home an Academy Award for best song for his work in the film “Crazy Heart,” starring Jeff Bridges. The conference costs $259 to attend, but there are a limited amount of $20 special priced tickets for students.
The conference begins Sunday October 3rd with “Musicians Education Day,” featuring a presentation by Ariel Hyatt who will offer a master class on music marketing and social media. The day focuses on topics such as fan analytics, direct-to-consumer case studies, and the possible impact of health care reform on musicians.
October 4th and 5th of the conference will focus on the future of the music industry, the role of the government in sustaining creative communities, artists as cultural ambassadors, and the viability of music delivery moving to “the cloud,” or a service that would provide a database of music where people could listen to what they want when they want if they are members of a service that provides such a database.
Monday night there will be the “Dear New Orleans” benefit concert at the Black Cat. The concert will feature New Orleans musicians and artists from the benefit album “Dear New Orleans,” which was produced by Air Traffic Control to mark the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the floods. Doors open at 8 p.m.
Tickets for the concert are $20. VIP tickets are $100 which gives attendees the opportunity to meet some of the artists before the show. The concert benefits efforts to help support and rebuild New Orleans’ unique musical and cultural traditions.
All’s well with “All’s Well”
Almost any production of William Shakespeare’s “All’s Well That Ends Well” is bound to be problematic.
That’s because the play is, well, one of those problem plays in the Shakespeare canon — plays which are difficult to stage, about which there are critical misgivings, to say the least. To that category you could probably lend the title “lesser Shakespeare”. They don’t go down well with their after-taste and often don’t play as well as they should because lesser characters sometimes take over the play. Put “Cymbeline” on that list alongside “Pericles”. Perhaps add “Troilus and Cressida,” “Henry VIII,” and even “The Winter’s Tale,” — let alone “Timon of Athens” to which we can only say, when’s the last time you’ve seen that?
The problem with “All’s Well That Ends Well” is that it is, at its core, something on the order of “As You Like It” and “Twelfth Night,” a romantic comedy with a shining leading lady attended by swains, fools and royals. Helena, the brave, resolute, witty, and smart as anybody and more heroine, loves her man and has to have him, and with no cooperation from the hero she gets him.
The problem then is that “All’s Well” doesn’t really end well in the romance department. It clears up the plot mess the author has devised and gets the two lovers together, but somehow this resolution
doesn’t sit well with most audiences. Because the object of her affection is the hunky and high-born Count Bertram, who’s a snob, a dolt, an idiot, albeit a brave one, and a fickle swain like one of those over-tanned bachelors on reality television. He’s totally unworthy of the fair Helena, so you know they’ll have kids (evidence on stage) and remain married while making themselves miserable. All this is done just to please the King of France and Bertram’s sweet, soulful mother, the Countess of Roussillon — a devout role model and guardian of Helena.
Tell you what — forget the idiot. Much like the more self-aware courtier, liar and coward Parolles, Bertrand is an easily recognized member in good standing of the vast army of the self-absorbed Michael Kahn, who’s directed this production for the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Kahn has given it a kind of stylish authenticity in the way he treats the language of the play. This is especially true of Miriam Silverman as Helena, whose way with the rhythms and rhymes of the words give a kind of musical insistence to her character. You can fault her for her why-do-good-women-go-for-lousy-men problem, but you can’t fault her for clarity, courage, smarts and bull-headedness.
Helena, the daughter of a famed physician, comes to court and promptly cures the king of a possibly terminal ailment. In return, the grateful king offers her any husband she wants. She picks Bertram, who is so mortified that he goes off to the wars in Italy and leaves Helena with a challenge; she will never be a true wife unless she gets his family ring off his finger or conceives a child by him, two things he vows will never happen.
Don’t ever challenge a woman to do the impossible. It’s a cinch. How she does it is one of those wonderful tricks that occur in many of Shakespeare’s comedies and romances, without anybody batting an eye (see “Pericles”, see “Winter’s Tale”). But proceedings are helped by the tolerance and love of the adults, Ted van Griethuysen as the French King, and Marsha Mason as the Countess. They provide a portrait of paternal and maternal affection rare in the theater. In the French king’s case, it’s not only good to be king, but it’s better to be a good king.
And there is Paxton Whitehead as the aristocratic court member Lafew, who’s acerbic wit is matched only by his kind patience toward the impossible Parolles, a man of whom it is noted that “he knows who he is, and is STILL who he is.” As played by Michael Bakkensen, self-awareness is Parolles’ saving grace, that, and a complete lack of any sense of shame.
“All’s Well” ends well because it has to. The play itself is better than just well — it is stylish, acted with panache where appropriate and authenticity by the company. The shortcomings of the play, well, just say author. (“All’s Well That Ends Well” runs at the Shakespeare Theater Company’s Lansburgh Theater through October 24). [gallery ids="102543,120008" nav="thumbs"]