Thursday, October 27, 2016

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Douglas Messerli | "Creating Los Angeles Theater" (on Gordon Davidson's death)


creating los angeles theater
by Douglas Messerli

The death of major one of the major theatrical figures of Los Angeles on Sunday, October 2, 2016 came as a shock to many, and particularly to Howard and me, who’d seen the Davidsons just a few weeks earlier at the MET opera HD production in Century City.
       Although we’d known Gordon Davidson for several years, we didn’t get a chance to talk with him on that occasion, a situation which I now regret. He looked healthy, but also, one has to admit, a little frail, and I’m not certain he recognized us, even though we sat only a few seats away. I had even recently seen him at an opening night production of A View from the Bridge at the Ahmanson Theater on September 14, but in the swirl of the opening night crowd, I didn’t have the possibility of speaking to him.

Image result for gordon davidson       Much has been written about his remarkable career, the invitation by Dorothy Chandler to have him run the then-newly founded Mark Taper Forum, and his numerous successful productions—not all plays which I openly admire, but important in developing an audience for contemporary theater nonetheless—including The Devils (controversial, to the say the least), In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, Children of a Lesser God, and Tony Kushner’s absolutely remarkable Angels in America
       I recall when we first moved to Los Angeles, how my friend Marjorie Perloff expressed her delight in a Taper season devoted to several of Beckett’s plays, but was disgusted by the audience lack of attendance and their disparagement of these works. A couple of years ago, after Davidsons’ retirement from that organization, Howard and I saw a brilliant revival of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at the Taper, with full attendance and admiring reviews, so Davidsons’ great foresight finally did pay off.
      Although Davidson produced many more traditional works, he always attempted to push the envelope, so to speak, introducing new works whenever he could. Davidson liked “issues,” however, more than “experiments” in his plays. As he, himself, put it: “I believe it must be the job of theater to take hard looks at life, at issues people don’t always want to confront. They will listen to what is said to them from a stage. That is the power of theater. I respect it. I am in awe of it.”
      And, indeed, he did many “issue” plays, including The Shadow Box, for which he received a Tony Award, The Great God Brown, and a wonderful revival of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. Perhaps his best known and most successful issue-oriented play was Luis Valdez’s musical play from 1978, Zoot Suit, presented in 1978 with Edward James Olmos in the lead role. Artist Carlos Almaraz painted some of the sets. It played to full houses for a year before it moved on to Broadway, introducing wealthy white audiences of the Bunker Hill theaters to a whole new theatrical tradition. That work, coincidentally, is scheduled to be revived at the Taper later this year, an event that Howard and I can’t wait to experience.
       I first met Davidson when I asked him to join the board of the Sun & Moon Press American Theater in Literature Series, which he gladly agreed to, occasionally attending Sun & Moon literary salons. 
       I worked with him, indirectly, when he invited director Peter Sellars to stage at the Taper playwright Robert Auletta’s modern version of Æschylus’ The Persians in 1993. Doing away with costumes and sets and placing the play firmly into the US wartime activities in Iraq, Sellar’s production was nearly unbearable, for much of the Taper audience, to watch. I know because, having published the play in my Sun & Moon American Theater in Literature series in time for this production, I attended almost every night, selling copies before and after the performances. Nearly every night, half of the audience stormed out in anger, and I think I sold very few copies. But I admired Davidson for bringing this play to his stage. It took guts.
      Even if Davidson did not always present the most innovative works, however, he permanently changed the theater scene in Los Angeles, lighting a fire under its dormant theatrical scene until we finally see today a wide range of theatrical events that in variety and number (there are literally hundreds of small amateur theaters throughout the metropolitan area) seems richer, in some respects, than New York’s Off Broadway. And now, also, with the Taper and Ahmanson on Bunker Hill, the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City (also a result of Davidson’s vision), the Wallis Annenberg Center in Beverly Hills, the Broad Theatre in Santa Monica, and the Geffen Playhouse, and the Pantages in Hollywood, Los Angeles might be said to contain a kind of mini-Broadway scattered across its vast spaces.
       Davidson, finally, was a natural charmer. He always had a smile, at least at the many social events in which Howard and I met him, and spoke, if often excitedly, gently, with a slightly bemused attitude. He was, always, a friend, inviting you into his theatrical vision. Los Angeles will truly miss him.

Los Angeles, October 13, 2016

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Douglas Messerli | "The Sublime and the Ridiculous" (on Wagner's Tristan und Isolde)


the sublime and the ridiculous
by Douglas Messerli

Richard Wagner (writer and composer) Tristan und Isolde / Live H.D. broadcast from the New York Metropolitan Opera on October 8, 2016 / I attended with Howard Fox

The first High Definition production of the new Metropolitan Opera season, Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, is sublime, with outstanding performances by the great soprano Nina Stemme, Stuart Nelson (singing only his second Tristan), Ekaterina Gubanova as the intruding servant Brangäne, René Pape as King Marke, Evegeny Nikitin, singing the smaller role of Tristan’s loyal allay Kurwenal, and, perhaps most importantly, Simon Rattle conducting of the Met’s great orchestra.

       Yet this version of Tristan und Isolde is often equally leaden and confusing through production director Mariusz Trebliński’s decision to set the opera on a war ship in Act One, and upon another ship and in that ship’s enormous lower-deck storeroom filled with large containers of what appear to be weapons all stamped with “Warning” in Act Two. The return to Tristan’s childhood home, where Kurwenal has set up like a hospital room, where other portions of the home, having undergone a fire years earlier, appear ready to collapse, is nearly inexplicable, particularly when Tristan retrieves his father’s military jacket from the floor of a nearly creosote leaden room.

      On top of this, set designer Boris Kudlička’s and projection designer Bartek Macias’ sets and projections sometimes clumsily recreated the story of the young Tristan’s loss of his mother (in child-birth) and father, along with the quite unexplained torching of their home and the woods around, further making murky what is generally a fairly simple tale of love, consuming desire, death, and transfiguration.
      Yes, these various elements do keep our eyes quite busy during the opera’s many long, static passages; and certainly they help to make clear that part of Tristan’s determination to find love—first in his obedience of and service to the King of Cornwall and, later, in his love of Isolde—has a great deal to do with his being an orphan. The worlds of Tristan’s Brittany, Isolde’s Ireland, and Marke’s Cornwall, moreover, obviously are structures of military might achieved through violence—just the kind of world in which Wagner generally locates his operas. Everyone here is a loyal warrior or a traitor, with heroes being awarded and traitors (i.e, the other side) being destroyed.

       But these things are fairly obvious within the long narrative passages Tristan and Isolde recount throughout the opera, and hardly need be reasserted with such heavy handed imagery and metaphorical projections.
       At moments, particularly the long, long love duet in Act II, the projections of clouds and spinning planets truly do give rise to the kind of splendiferous visions being experienced by the loving couple, particularly, as Brangäne interrupts their “maddened” lovemaking with her beautiful off-stage song of warning—a moment, as Rattle himself described it, of near transcendence. But, for the most part, the maritime imagery and weapon’s room storage scenes seemed in opposition to the lovers’ Schopenhauerian ruminations about day/death and night/love. The fact that their verbal love play verges, in itself, on gobbledygook is certainly reiterated by the drab surroundings of this production.

       And finally, the metaphorical ghosts of both Tristan’s child-self and his dead father, particularly in Act Three—although again much-needed visual elements while Tristan lies dying—created more murkiness than clarity. It’s clear that Tristan is being visited by the ghosts of the past, but a child flashing the light of a cigarette-lighter into the dying man’s eyes seems nearly ludicrous—if not dangerous.
      As in all successful renditions of this great opera, moreover, any singer who credibly endures it is a wonder. Here, despite my cavils, this production, particularly given Rattle’s languid and highly nuanced musical direction, along with Stemme’s beautifully balanced and modulated singing and acting, will be recognized as one of the greatest of this opera’s performances. 
      Finally, even if by slashing her wrists, Isolde doesn’t quite go “gently into that good night,” it allows her to represent her “Liebestod” as a gradual transformation of worlds through the gradual loss of blood, making Marke’s and Brangäne’s reentries, once again, simple intrusions on the inseparable lover’s lives.  In Tristan’s and Isolde’s love there is no room for others, not even room for living.

Los Angeles, October 9, 2016