Sunday, May 19, 2013

Douglas Messerli | "The Unfortunate Truth of My Situtation" (on Richard Foreman's Old-Fashioned Prostitutes)

the unfortunate truth of my situation
by Douglas Messerli

Richard Foreman Old-Fashioned Prostitutes (A True Romance) / The Public Theater, New York, the performance I attended was on Saturday, May 4, 2013
After years and years of enigmatic and provocative plays, and after having announced that he was giving up playwriting for filmmaking, Richard Foreman has come back with a new play that at times almost appears to be a kind of film script, Old-Fashioned Prostitutes (A True Romance). Like most of his works, this play is set upon a stage decked out with numerous alphabetical configurations, portraits of “significant” people, numerous odd props, and the strings that outline the horizontal shell of the stage, a kind of mix between a metaphorical representation of string theory and an eruv, the defining territory of the traditional Jewish community that outlines the boundaries through which certain objects can be moved or carried on holy days. The effect, no matter what Foreman’s precise purposes, is to draw a line between what occurs on “stage” and the audience. Above all else, Foreman’s plays are definitely not narrative representations that draw their audiences into the “romance” of the story, but are purposefully puzzling brain twisters that demand the audience think about what is being said and done within the author’s domain.

Even Foreman’s title is enigmatic: what are “old fashioned prostitutes?” And how can a romance, usually defined as a form dedicated to idealism and a preoccupation with idealized love, be “true?”  In fact, the central character of Foreman’s new work, Samuel (theater veteran Rocco Sisto), never once has sex with the prostitutes he encounters, and although the central figure, Suzie (Alenka Kraigher) invites Samuel to her room and even spikes his gin, no love occurs—unless one speaks of the love of language and philosophical speculation. The only physical contact that Samuel has with anyone is a sudden hug between Samuel and the mysterious “pimp-like” figure accompanying the two “prostitutes,” Alfredo (David Skeist).

                        (Alfredo, Samuel hug)

I do — beg of you, friend Alfredo                 ALFREDO
(He grabs Alfredo's lapels)                 Careful.
— Convince beautiful Suzie
That when I speak to her directly
This is always the unfortunate truth of my situation

Suzie and Gabriella are not women of love as much as they are women who flirt, “coquettes,” as Samuel describes them, whose major activities include “sipping afternoon alcohol under the roar of distant traffic” and attempting to catch the gaze of passing men.
     As Suzie convincingly argues, she is more a “teacher” than a lover, a woman who shows men the way. And she spends most of her time in this play grappling with Samuel’s attempt to come to terms with what “reality” is, what is the self, and what does it all mean in every day experience.
     There is never a clear set of answers or even a set of codified speculations to precisely what Foreman is arguing for or against in his provocative plays, but there are often clues to the animus behind them. In this case Samuel expresses it quite early in the work:

      But perhaps, ladies and gentleman,
it is best never to speak openly about
such things

But it did happen
That travelling these streets
In bright sunlight
An old man with white hair
Shabbily dressed, trudging slowly
In the direction opposite to the one
In which I was traveling
Carrying a large, soiled cardboard box
with what personal belongings
I could not guess
But — whispered hoarsely under his breath
"Go to Berkeley, make film".

I did not respond.
But I frowned
And a few seconds later
turned to watch him proceed, slowly
Down the street     (girls giggle)

Later in the day                                                                       SUZIE & GABRIELLA
Lying on the bed in my hotel room                            Ooo
I wondered -- I wondered should I have approached him
To ask for clarification.
Was he speaking to me
Or to himself
— yet it seemed appropriate to my concerns
And my possible

Go to Berkeley, my friend
Make film.
Which could have meant, not the city in sun drenched

But possibly the long dead Irish                                                                     GABRIELLA
philosopher of idealism, Bishop George Berkeley himself,                Oooo.
whose view of reality might be poetically re-imagined
as a vision of the world in which experience
itself was but a thin film, spread in illusionary fashion
upon human consciousness.

So that
"Go to Berkeley, make film", could have meant, go
deeper into the notion of the world as
a transparent surface only —
depending upon the impress of a mental apparatus —
snapping the world into apparent being only —

Accordingly, Old-Fashioned Prostitutes does serve as a kind of “thin film” exploring the “illusionary” experience of consciousness, a bit like Proust (and the mysterious city in which Samuel exists reminds me of Paris) steeped in sensual appreciation. Even now and then a voice cries out “hold,” reminding us a bit of a film command. But of course it also suggests that the audience might “hold” that idea a bit longer in the mind.
     Samuel, obviously, is also Samuel Beckett, and Foreman’s seemingly personal memories are often channeled through the great author, vaguely paralleling, in particular, works such as “First Love” and, at play’s end, “Imagine Dead Imagine.” It is not that this play’s story is even similar to Beckett’s first love; there are simply associated threads between the character of the Beckett story who meets a woman, “Lulu,” upon a park bench, a woman just as determined as Suzie to bring home her man. Unlike Suzie, the fat Lulu does eventually lure the narrator of Beckett’s tale into her home, but the two sleep in separate rooms, yet as in Foreman’s play her coquetry (numerous visits to the same park bench) results in very little “love” and ends with some of the same questions about reality and experience that Foreman’s Samuel poses. Similar to many of Beckett’s characters, Foreman’s Samuel cannot even move when he is asked to follow Suzie home, his legs being suddenly frozen in space, wrapped in the production in a gunny sack.
      Since, in Berkeley’s “film of consciousness,” however, nothing is precisely determinable even the memory of such experiences and the identity of self comes into question. If Beckett may lie under Foreman’s Samuel, so too does Foreman’s own persona, Rainer Thompson, recently appearing in his autobiographical film, I Am Rainer Thompson, and I Have Lost It Completely,  which lies behind this play’s character, as Samuel suddenly declares he is Rainer. And in this sense—although it seems preposterous to claim this in a oeuvre that has always been highly personal and autobiographical—Old-Fashioned Prostitutes seems to be one of Foreman’s most intimate works, a kind of strange memory play made up of his own and other writer’s intellectual detritus.
      In the end, however, it is nearly pure Beckett in the final words of a play which has struggled with self-knowing and reality, with illusion and consciousness:

 Emptiness is here
 (all to wall, then pause, then back: Music)

Imagine no world but this world
Imagine no world but this world (THUD)
End of play. (THUD)
End of play.

Despite the play’s declaration of “emptiness,” Foreman, like Beckett, has embraced this world with his hundreds of questions and speculations over the course of his career, surely representing a “true romance” with “this world” with which we have such a difficult relationship.

New York-Los Angeles, May 5-May 13, 2013

Friday, May 10, 2013

Douglas Messerli | "Loud and Quiet" (on Kelly's and Minchin's Matilda)

loud and quiet
by Douglas Messerli
Dennis Kelly (book), Tim Minchin (music and lyrics) Matilda / New York, Sam S. Schubert Theatre, the performance I attended as a matinee on May 5, 2013

The most surprising theatrical experience of this year was provided by the British musical Matilda, based on Roald Dahl’s children’s book. Long before the musical opened and was heaped with praise from New York Times reviewer, Ben Bratley, I had ordered tickets and was looking forward to enjoying it. Along with Kinky Boots it has garnered since the highest number of Tony nominations.

        The set, consisting of a series of lettered blocks cascading across the stage and into the audience space, was quite innovative, and all the technical aspects of this work, particularly the lighting, was wall done. And who wouldn’t love the ridiculously mean child-hater, Miss Trunchbull (played in drag by the excellent Bertie Carvel), the absurdly mindless Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood (Leslie Margherita and Gabriel Ebert) and their brain dead son, Michael (Taylor Trensch). The choruses of urchin dancers put their collective talents in high gear through singing and dancing, and little Oona Lawrence (playing the role Mitilda) was charmingly able and cute. The audience, filled with overweight girls whose parents think it their responsibility to stock each of them with sacks of candies to be crunched throughout the play, absolutely loved it. So why didn’t I?

       Was I turning and old curmudgeon, I pondered mid-way through the first act, the likes of which I’ve always promised myself I would never become. At the intermission, however, the couple next to me, seasoned theater-goers so I had discerned from our pre-curtain discussions, quietly asked me what I thought about the work. I paused, not wanting to staunch anyone’s joy of the performance. “We don’t like it all,” she quietly confided. “I even thought we should go home during intermission” added her husband. And I admitted, for the first time in my life, that I to had just resisted doing the same myself. So began the second act, which continued much as the first—for me an utterly joyless and rote playing out of the ridiculous fairytale about a little girl who is punished for being smart.

      Part of the problem was simply the mumbling of the mostly British cast (Bratley did warn of this). It was often simply hard to understand the lyrics of the basically tuneless songs. Having perceived that, perhaps, the director apparently attempted to turn up the volume, as if we were all hard of hearing. In fact in the 7th song of act one, the singers note that issue precisely in the number “Loud,” and in the final act Matilda herself observes that suddenly, momentarily at least, things have grown “Quiet,” the third song from the last.

      Accompanying these “loud” pastiches, all of which sound, like so much contemporary theater music, as if they were created by a machine programmed to connect the dots, are the well-intentioned dances which both children and adults perform as if they have been robotized. While they certainly leap about with great energy, there seems to be no joy in their gyrations. Only the Wormwoods, she with her dancing partner Rudolpho (Phillip Spaeth), he in his rubbery legged motions within striped lime-green pants, seem to have any “choreographical” fun.

Matilda, whether she is telling “loudly voiced” (at times even shouted) stories to her local librarian or suffering the attacks of Miss Trunchbull and her own family members, almost gets abused out of existence. The only moment, until the musical lurches to its end, that she is allowed to express any joy is when the tender Miss Honey asks to be her friend, to which she responds with a big hug. Otherwise she is just a figurehead, a brilliant young girl at whom nearly everyone else yells in derision. Even poor Annie, of the musical of that name, got more love and attention from her evil headmistress, than does Matilda.

    It is not, however, that Matilda, as its makers have argued, is a “dark” work, as much as it is empty. While Annie, at least, had “tomorrow” to look forward, Matilda is amazingly unflappable, committed to her reading and thinking as mindlessly as Miss Trunchbull is committed to her hate. Despite their thoughtless machinations, I think I’d prefer to live with the Wormwoods than with the fantasy-spinning, slightly aloof Matilda. But, obviously, there is no living with anyone in this tale, since each character is nothing more than a cardboard, cartoonish type. Even the gentle Miss Honey lives out life in a shed instead of a house, as if her whole world has been miniaturized and flattened. Only Miss Trunchbull, ensconced her in ill-gotten mansion, has any “bulk,” and she’s more fun than everyone else put together.

     Indeed, despite the work’s pretense of siding with the small and quiet Matilda, this musical advocates the loud and large, which is perhaps why all the girls both in front and back of me sat throughout with their sacks of candy on their laps.

     So desperate to be loved was Dennis Kelly’s and Tim Minchin’s work, that at one moment near the end, the stage suddenly burst—apparently in response to the downfall of Miss Trunchbull—into a shower of strobe lights, while green lasers shot out across the ceiling of the uncomfortable Schubert balcony. “Awesome,” shouted out a child in the audience. It was at that point I had to admit that this was simply not a work created for the likes of me—nor for my two dazed neighbors, who together with me made our way grumpily back into the crowded mid-town streets.

      “Why do you think,” asked the wife, “this got such remarkably positive reviews?” “I don’t know,” I responded, “but it might have something to do with the fact that this has not been a particularly stellar season. Reviewers have to like something.”

Los Angeles, May 9, 2013
Reprinted from Nth Position

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Douglas Messerli | "Fantatical Martyrs" (on Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites)

fanatical martyrs

by Douglas Messerli


Francis Poulenc (libretto, based on the play by Georges Bernanos), Francis Poulenc (composer), John Dexter (stage director), Gary Halvorson (director) Dialogues des Carmélites (Dialogue of the Carmelites) / 2019 Metropolitan Opera HD-live broadcast / the production I saw and review below is a live MET production in 2013


Francis Poulenc’s 1957 opera Dialogues des Carmélites is an extraordinary musical work, not only for the narrative powerfulness of the libretto, based on both Gertrude von Le Fort’s 1931 fiction, Die Letzte am Schafott (The Last Woman on the Scaffold) and an unpublished play by the great Catholic novelist and writer George Bernanos (the source also of at least two Bresson films)—its musical richness—encompassing as it does musical influences from the Renaissance, Verdi, Debussy, and Stravinsky—but also because of its unusual structure, basically a series of 12 short scenes spread over three acts (the intermission in this production occurred midway between Act II) in which the characters, often antiphonally, relate ideas and their psychological emotions in recitative form. The only “group” choruses occur during the Carmelites’ religious expressions, in their group prayers and, particularly, in the dramatic “Salve Regina” chorus of the last scene of the opera.

     The production I saw (after a delightful breakfast at the Metropolitan’s Grand Tier restaurant) was originally introduced by John Dexter, first sung in English, in February 1977; this 2013 season the Met presented only three performances, the May 4th production being this year’s premiere of the work.

      The opera begins in the wealthy home of the Marquis de la Force (David Pittsinger / Jean-François Lapointe in the HD version), a man who would like to ignore the rebelling peasants outside his estate, except that on one previous journey he and his wife have been attacked in their carriage, resulting in the early birth of their daughter Blanche and his wife’s death. As Dialogues opens his son, the Chevalier (Paul Appleby / David Portillo) expresses his fears for his sister, who has been attending a ceremony in the Carmelite order in Compiègne, and her carriage, it has been reported, has also been stormed by the French mobs. The Marquis, despite his previous horrific experience, attempts to allay his son’s fears, while expressing his own fears of the rising revolution. When the daughter Blanche (Isabel Leonard in both productions) does return home, unharmed, all are relieved. And Blanche herself attempts to make light of her brother’s caring worries. Yet, we soon discover, as she becomes terrified when she observes the shadow of a servant attempting light the lamps, that she is a constantly terrorized young woman, a girl who often finds it difficult to even get through the nights. Perhaps a product of her terrorizing birth, Blanche would like to face up to the challenges of life, but finds it daily difficult to get through each day.


    To resolve some of these problems, she is determined, as she tells her father, to join the hard life of the Carmelite convent, in the hopes to learn how to face up to life’s difficulties and to accomplish something worthy of her. Although her father tries to dissuade her, she insists upon her decision, and in the very next scene we observe her being interviewed by the head prioress, Madame de Croissy (Felicity Palmer / Karita Mattila), a loving but iron-handed leader who explains that the convent, whose major activities are devoted to silent prayer, is not a place of refuge or escape, but a world of engagement with the frailties of oneself and others. As Blanche expresses her determination and her decision of her name, Sister Blanche of Christ of the Gethsemane, a close relationship rises up between the ailing prioress and the young novitiate, perhaps because that was the name that the prioress had originally chosen for herself, but was dissuaded in choosing it since it signified of facing a life of dealing with Christ’s own most human doubts.

     In the very next scene, among the working activities of the nuns, we encounter the other novitiate, Constance (Erin Morley), almost the polar opposite of Blanche. If Blanche is a frightened, nervous woman, Constance is light and optimistic, a woman who remembers dancing and singing with great joy, and in her innocent lightness seems ill-suited to her newly chosen life. Yet, unlike Blanche, she declares, she is unafraid of death, even reporting that she has envisioned her and her fellow nun’s death, both dying young on the very same day.

     So begins a series of “dialogues” about religious vocation and values, as well as the concept of death and even martyrdom which dominate the convent life. On her deathbed in the very next scene, Madame de Croissy, worries about Blanche, consigning her special attention to the strong and loyal observation of mother Marie (Elizabeth Bishop / Karen Cargill). The prioress attempts to maintain the strength she has expressed throughout her long life, yet at the last moments, she too collapses in fear and despair, even cursing God. Only Blanche has been on hand to witness this momentary heresy, and she is warned by Marie to forgive and ignore it, to tell no one else.

      Both Constance and Blanche might wish Marie would now become the prioress, but Madame Lidoine (Patricia Racette / Adrianne Pieczonka) is appointed to the role. As the revolutionary forces daily gain strength, Blanche’s brother arrives at the convent in an attempt to try to convince his sister to leave and return home to her father. In one of the most beautiful duets of the opera, sung between bars of crosses—representing both the separation of the young woman and a kind of confessional wall of admission—Blanche presents herself almost as a proto-feminist, insisting that she has grown in her role as a nun, that she is no longer a child, useless in the world—as her brother and father have always treated her—while she insists she will not abandon her sisters. The love between the two, brother and sister, almost plays out as a confrontation of sexual values.   

     Soon after the convent Chaplin (Mark Schowalter / Tony Stevenson) is forbidden to perform his religious duties and is determined to escape, as the women increasingly perceive that they may become martyrs, just as Madame Lidoine reminds them that their role is to perform prayers; only God can choose them for martyrdom.

    At the very same moment, revolutionary commissioners enter the convent to tell the nuns of their expulsion from the convent. The prioress is called away to Paris, and the nuns, now under the control of Marie, are terrorized, forced to cloth themselves as peasants. Marie, who has always recognized the martyrdom underlying their self-inflicted sufferings, asks the group to vote for a pledge of martyrdom from the remaining women. One by one—an action paralleling their later final voyage to death—each of them passes by the Chaplin, quietly whispering their vote into his ears. But the vote, in order to be valid, must be unanimous; if even one votes against it, they shall abandon their position. To most it is clear that Blanche still cannot summon up the courage to accept death, and as the final vote is announced with only one vote against, it is apparent that Blanche has voted with her fears. Constance, however, comes forward, claiming she has voted against it, but has now determined to change her mind. Might they vote one more time?

      As the second vote begins, Blanche rushes out, just as the others are forced to leave their convent behind.

      Her father having been put to death, Blanche now has no choice but to be a servant at the mansion in which she once lived. Mother Marie finds her there, trying to convince her to join the other women at a safe house.

      Finally, determined to rejoin her sisters, Blanche rushes into the streets to hear that her friends have been arrested. All but Marie are sentenced to die. Marie would gladly join them but is reminded by the chaplain that it is God’s decision, not hers. And it will be Marie’s story ultimately that will become the basis for the recounting we are witnessing.


    At the Place de la Révolution the crowds have gathered. Singing “Salve Regina,” the nuns, one by one, move forward up the path of officers where they enter between two soldiers at the tunnel’s end, who as they pass turn their backs to the audience, the crashing sound of the guillotine coming from just beyond. The powerful chorus continues as each bravely take their turn, finally becoming a trio, a duet, a solo as Constance begins and, suddenly in fear, momentary turns back. Blanche suddenly appearing out of the observing crowd reassures her young friend, following her, finally up the gauntlet to her own death, as the last voice among her order.

       Such a powerful scene of faith and survival surely draws tears from almost all audience members, and, coming as it did, just after the Nazi outrages of World War II, the faith of these figures has special meaning. Yet it is hard to ignore the fact that these women of 1794 were also fanatical martyrs of a kind perhaps not so very different from the Muslim women “martyrs” of today. These 18th century women believed insanely in their powers, but in an age in which women had no power, that perhaps was a very significant statement. Certainly they were not wearing weapons of destruction nor were intending to kill others in revenge. Only their own bodies, which they perceived were in God’s hands, were offered up as symbolic weapons. What else could they possibly offer up in such a world?

    In the case of the Carmelites, their prayerful actions apparently achieved their goals. Soon after, the so-called Reign of Terror and the Robespierre rule fell, in part, in response for these cruel and inexplicable murders. In 1906 Pope Pius X beatified the 16 murdered nuns.

    I must add that conductor Louis Langrée (Yannick Nézet-Séguin in the HD production) brought out beautiful performances from the always memorable MET orchestra. And all cast members, who in this work must act as an ensemble, were excellent. The audience was not easily dispersed, and its applause was quite deafening.


New York, May 5, 2013

Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (May 2013).