Friday, November 30, 2018

Douglas Messerli | "Somewhat Off the Road" (on John Fleck's Blacktop Highway)

somewhat off the road
by Douglas Messerli

John Fleck (writer and performer) Blacktop Highway: A Gothic Horror Screeplay’d on One Man’s Body / Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, directed by Randee Trabitz, with video by Heather Fipps / the performance I attended was on November 18, 2018

If you can imagine Charles Ludlum’s The Mystery of Irma Vep (with a cast of only one, not two) sprinkled heavily with doses of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and elements of Tay Garnett’s endlessly campy The Postman Always Rings Twice, and with elements of even Frank Capra’s version of Arsenic and Old Lace, all narrated by an intelligent undergraduate college philosophy major, you might begin to contextualize performance/theater artist John Fleck’s Blacktop Highway: A Gothic Horror Screenplay’s on One Man’s Body, a work which originally premiered at Los Angeles’ REDCAT theater in 2015, and which I saw in revival on November 18 at the Odyssey Theater in west LA.
      Of course this work, concerning twins, Jane and Frank—who as children vie for father’s attentions, Jane easily winning out since their father, a veterinarian/taxidermist, evidently is a heterosexual pederast, who invites is daughter into his room to “sing”—is filled with clever but clearly “naughty” sexual content that years ago got Fleck, along with several other performers and photographers, in trouble with the National Endowment for the Arts and several senators and congressmen (such as Senator Jesse Helms and Congressman Dana Rohrabacker for example). In this work, the twins apparently can’t keep their hands off one another, and when a child that looks like both of them is born, they quickly fricassee the fetus. I could see even the smart westsiders who attended this event flinch when Fleck described this scene. Good for them! This performer requires moral scruples in order for his art to mean. Horror can only be horror if it stands against our culture’s deepest values, which, of course, is the problem with certain senators, congressmen, and even presidents who cannot attend to that differentiation.
     This House of Taxidermy (also described at its entrance as a School of Vocal Inflection), clearly, is a house of horrors, into which the Garfield-like character, William—“a very attractive man with a lush head of hair (and a secret),” who drives his sports car off of the blacktop highway into a ditch in the state of Maine, is as certain a victim as Marion Crane in Psycho (both of whom have apparently stolen a great deal of money). Certainly, Jane (now Old Jane) sees the young William with a vision of guilty lust similar to that of Anthony Perkins’ in his taxidermically decorated den just behind his motel’s front desk.
     Since Frank (now Old Frank) is temporarily out of town, she invites the handsome William in; who soon perceives that the territory into which he has entered is close to The Island of Doctor Moreau (if you haven’t seen John Frankenheimer’s just awful 1996 version with Marlon Brando, rush to it before it disappears; the titles alone are worth the trip). Crows, crickets, parrots, pigs, even an orangutan (all of whom Fleck brilliantly imitates) inhabit this house, who, when for inexplicable reasons the entire citizenry, evacuated this Maine outpost, posted their animals on Jane and Frank’s front porch. Now in their second and third generations, the completive animals appear to be the major food source for the twins.
        William, despite the cackles, snorts, imitative shouts, and hoots, seems to survive the night only to be destroyed by Jane for daring “to sing,” now outlawed—for quite obvious reasons—in the house she shares with Frank, killing her new occupant, whose corpse she quietly explains away when Frank returns from his voyage out.
       As an attending owl might proclaim, this wonderful production is all a “hoot,” with the narrator and Fleck as the artist himself constantly interrupting to explain, for example, that in the terms of Roland Barthes we must question who is really speaking, since obviously it is all of one ventriloquist-like being (Fleck himself). As he notes in the script:

Paradoxically, this 'screen/play
writer' is also the ‘actor’ onstage
playing 'fictional' characters,
upon which you, the audience
receives and projects meaning as
it observes action through the lens
of a 'screen play's 'concomitant
'performance' of camera angles &
p.o.v. which provokes a question:
'Who' is watching 'who'?"

Later, the narrator/academic quotes theorist Jean Baudrillard who proclaims that the imitation (the “simulacrum”) has replaced the real, and that we can no longer determine which is real or not. Is this strange vision of horror actually the “real” vision of the author or is it played out in metaphors concerning his personal family situations?

     Fortunately, even here Fleck plays the comedian, arguing that the word simulacrum itself sounds like a baby formula (again creating a wonderfully new metaphor, suggesting that Baudrillard’s idea is a kind childish formulation of ideas about imitation and truth), and admitting that “Honestly the only real reason that I’m doing this that it appears I’m too old to get a job in Hollywood, so I said “Fuck em’ I going to make my own movie and play all the parts.”
      It is this constantly shifting perspective, with its different irrelevancies, that finally makes Fleck’s Blacktop Highway so amazing to watch. The voice (the vocal inflections suggested by Jane’s musical talents) of the performer works to actually define this theater piece, as if the final result were not so much a true dramatic presentation (thank heaven) than a series of poetic strategies to explore our own dreams and psychoses. It is the artist himself who is at the center of this work, representing a series of endless voices, human and animal, to explore identity. Beware of which voice you believe. All of them, even that of the chicken, shouting out “buck buck buck,”—which evidently William had a great many of in his mysterious briefcase—might turn you into a money-hunting desperado, as Old Jane becomes, seeking a new way out of your closed-off life in order to run away to Miami with her orangutan or “the pathetic beast.”
      Just as in all those great dark Hollywood films, the police always arrive to collect the killers before they can truly escape.
      If some might have thought that Fleck transcends the limits of proper moral values, I’d argue that his works reveal the true morality that our society often refuses to accept. I’ll embrace Fleck’s crazy vision of values any day, and hope in the last days of this production, everyone rushes to experience them as a good dose of reality in these days of delusion.

Los Angeles, November 30, 2018
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance) (November 2018).

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Douglas Messerli | "Tumbling Through Their Own Sentences" (on Nico Muhly's opera Marnie)

tumbling through their own sentences
by Douglas Messerli

Nicholas Wright (libretto), Nico Muhly (composer), Michael Mayer (stage director), Habib Azar (director) Marnie / 2018 [The Metropolitan Opera HD-live broadcast]

I should begin this essay by admitting that I never much liked Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 film Marnie, mostly because of its hack psychological story, as retooled from Winston Graham’s 1961 novel by screenwriter Jay Presson Allen. I don't particularly admire her film-writing and cinematic doctoring of works such as The Prime of Miss Brodie, Travels with My Aunt, Forty Carats, Cabaret, Funny Lady, and other box-office successes. What she basically does is take interesting novels and plays and “re-fix” them in ways that exaggerate their central characters—Liza Minelli’s Sally Bowles in Cabaret being a perfect example (Allen complained that director-choreographer Bob Fosse didn’t much like the Bowles figure, and if you properly read the Isherwood book, why should you?) Although she was known as someone who might re-write and improve works, I think she often turned them into glossier versions of darker figures in the original writings; Marnie, in particular, under Hitchcock’s handling, is a film about a tortured psychotic whose problems were simply explained away with a childhood incident. Apparently, seeing her prostitute mother being attacked by a sailor, the young Marnie took up a fireplace poker and clubbed the intruder to death, the sudden remembrance of which frees of her compulsions and permits her to remain with her husband, Mark Rutland as her protector instead of her facing jail time for her numerous acts of robbery in her past.
    I attended the new Metropolitan opera live-HD production yesterday, accordingly, with some consternation and a great many doubts. Although Muhly and his librettist Nicholas Wright immediately embraced the idea of turning Graham’s novel into an opera, I still feel it’s a highly confused and second-rate work. Even if we discover the heart of Marnie’s problems are quite different from the movie, it still doesn’t quite explain her hatred of all men and her insistence upon robbing them and turning much of her evil gain over to her detestable mothera bad woman through and through as even her stage incarnation Denyce Graves admitted in an intermission interview. But, at least, in refocusing on the novel, Muhly and Wright, along with director Michael Mayer, have given us a much stronger and denser work, which takes the celebrity luster off both the Tipi Hedren and Sean Connery characters, exposing their far darker natures.
      Fortunately, Isabel Leonard (as Marnie) and Christopher Maltman (as Mark) are remarkable singers who take their cues from oboe and trombone intrusions, all colored with Muhly’s lyrical explorations that occasionally remind us of Bernard Herrmann’s scores for Vertigo and other Hitchcock scores, including the original Marnie.

      That is not to say that Muhly’s score is unoriginal. In fact, along with Wright’s libretto, Mulhy pulls the work away from the great film director’s version, taking its figures deeper into the shadows of human behavior by not only repeating the heroine’s seemingly pointless behavior, but revealing the ugly manipulation of Rutland, as, after discovering Marnie’s role as a serial thief, forces her into a marriage and, finally in frustration, tries to rape her. The end of Act I ends violently with her attempt to slit her wrists in rejection of his advancements.
     The introduction of Mark’s rather sleazy brother, Terry (played by countertenor Iestyn Davies), moreover, takes us into yet another dimension. This Cain-marked man—a red patch crosses his face from birth—also allies him to the outsider if physically nearly-perfect-looking Marnie. As Davies recognized about his character, although he is another detestable figure in this tale of anti-heroes, he is the truthteller, determined to make Marnie realize who she truly is.

      But, obviously—given the fact that Muhly and Wright have literally split Marnie’s character into four other madrigal singers, all dressed and with hair coifed in a similar manner, simply wearing coats of a different color in order to represent a few of her various identities—it is nearly impossible for her to discover who she is. If Terry sees her as simply a liar, she perceives herself as merely a survivor, someone who is attempting to stay alive by challenging all the dominant men (and women) in her world who tell her, time and again, that she is not only worthless, but an evil being.
    The most horrific of these is her own mother who has convinced her daughter that she has jealously suffocated her baby brother soon after his birth—an absolutely terrifying possibility completely exorcised from Allen’s screenplay. But Mark’s own mother (Janis Kelly) is not much of a lesser monster for him, deciding that despite her distaste for his appearance and morals, Terry is perhaps more ruthless and, accordingly, better able to run her son’s printing operation. If Kelly, as she suggested in an intermission interview, saw her character as only being “strong” instead of evil, the book, in which Mark’s mother is secretly buying up stocks in the company in order to oust Mark, makes it apparent that she too is a destructive force. In short, no one in this opera version is a truly good person. Each wants something from one another.
     Strutt, the first we see among the many Marnie has robbed, wants only payment, presumably endless, for her having broken the illusion that she was an extension of his ego. Others in her past creep out of the woodwork, represented by the group of black-suited men who dance always around Marnie and her four symbolic selves (with wonderful choreography by Lynne Page).  Is it any wonder that Marnie hates men?
      Relocated from Virginia and Maryland back into its original location of the English countryside, it makes total sense for Marnie to be a horse woman who prefers the beast to men. Her horse, Florio, she luminously sings, is the only being she truly loves. But even here she is betrayed as, when she is disgusted by the hounds who are attempting to rout out a vixen from her den—surely a cornered beast with whom she can identify—she turns Florio away, sending him on a wild race away from the hunt, which ends in his disastrous stumble over a wall, Mark’s own fall into a hospital bed, and Marnie being forced to take out a gun and kill the only thing she ever loved.
     She is now finally ready to continue her criminal career, stealing Mark’s keys and breaking into his safe. Yet something has changed; she can no longer put the easy money she discovers into her purse. Perhaps the very fact that he has stayed by her side, even knowing the truth, has altered her perception of men. He may have brutally used her to capture her as a bride, yet he has remained a kind of gentleman of sorts.
    The discovery of the truth, after her mother’s death, that it was Marnie’s mother who herself strangled her newborn, transforms the work into a kind of study of how the central character seeks morality in a world with little of it to offer, thrilled by her inner freedom even at the very moment that handcuffs our placed around her wrists. Unlike the film, Marnie is not “saved” or even protected by Mark’s chauvinistic actions, but must now make her own decisions of how to salvage her life, becoming perhaps the only character who is truly free from the ugly controls imposed them. If in her robberies she might have imagined she controlled the men for whom she worked, she now perceives that instead they determined her—and in that recognition, she becomes a kind of feminist figure able now to go her own way, wherever that may lead her.
    Marnie may not be a great opera, but it is certainly a fascinating one, where the composer and librettist, often, hardly allow their characters to sing out full sentences living in a world that won’t entirely allow them to speak out any true emotion or truth. Tumbling through the mostly exuberant score, the singers come at last to a kind of peace with their own inabilities to express the fullness of their lives. And Muhly’s opera transcends its own somewhat pedestrian story.

Los Angeles, November 11, 2018
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (November 2018).


Thursday, November 8, 2018

Douglas Messerli | "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" (on Luis Valdez's Valley of the Heart)

let us now praise famous men
by Douglas Messerli

Luis Valdez Valley of the Heart / Los Angeles, Mark Taper Forum / the performance I attended was on November 7, 2018

Let me begin by saying the obvious: playwright Luis Valdez—a major force in American theater and the very heart of California Chicano theater, a man who, working in the fields with Cesar Chavez in the mid-1960s, taught migrant workers how to perform plays we wrote for them, produced on a flatbed truck—has never been a subtle playwright. As in his beloved Zoot Suit, perhaps the longest running play in Los Angeles history and recently revived at the Mark Taper Forum (see My Year 2017), Valdez’s talents lay in how he makes history come alive, infusing his works into a political context and a sense of emotional feeling. The families he portrays, often with the generational tensions between the Mexican-born or, in this instance Japanese-born, elders who must come to terms with their US-born children and vice-versa. Even in their assimilation with their world, the younger generation must also pay homage and learn from their elders. He represents the kind generational pulls that are at the center of almost every immigrant family.

There is almost a dance of these generational tensions in Valdez’s retellings of historical events, and in his newest play, the first in nearly 13 years, the field workers, both Chicano and Japanese, literally dance in patterns as they make their way up and down the broccoli fields of the Central Valley, in this instance the pre-World War II Valley of Heart’s Delight, now known as Silicon Valley.
     Valdez’s newest play, first performed in 2013 in the little mission community of San Juan Bautista, now having finally reached its core audience in Los Angeles, is also a kind of “Romeo and Juliet” story, without that work’s tragic family consequences. Well, that’s not quite true; there are certainly tragic consequences that result from the immediate love that overwhelms Benjamin Montaño (Lakin Valdez), the son of hard-working Cayetano (Daniel Valdez) and Paula (the always resplendent Rose Portillo). Benjamin’s younger brother, Ernesto (“Tito”) (Moises Castro) and sister Maruca (Christy Sandoval) also get swept up in the tragic events, on both a personal and national level.

      Yet, in this later-life play (Valdez is now 78), the author shifts his focus to another ethnic group, people who may own the land on which the Montaños work, but suddenly are far more vulnerable that the migrants who work the fields. The Yamaguchi family are only slightly better off than the laborers; they have a great wood-heated stove, an in-house bathroom, and a large wooden sauna. But immediately after Pearl Harbor they are in even greater danger than their faithful workers, as, Valdez emphatically reminds us, they are gradually rounded up, men before wives, children soon after, to be taken away to nearly insufferable Japanese detention camps, where they are forced to live in inhuman conditions, sometimes in California race-horse barns and, finally, in this case, the Heart Mountain Relocation Camp in Wyoming, where the dust and snow (depending upon the seasons) are nearly endless.
      By the time that Thelma (“Teruko”) (Melanie Arii Mah), her parents Ichiro (Randall Nakano) and Hana (Joy Osmanski), along with Thelma’s younger brother Joe (“Yoshi”) (Justin Chien) are forced into detention, Thelma and Benjamin have been secretly married and she is pregnant with Benjamin’s baby.
     Although her mother is aware of her daughter’s nearly insufferable “transgression,” her father is clueless, having already been sent away from his family to another detention camp in Louisiana. What can you do? You simply try to survive, the young farm foreman, Benjamin, promising to keep the farm until their return, while still attempting the impossible visits to her mother and the woman he loves—all made more complex by the fact that the man her family had wanted Thelma to marry, Calvin Sakamoto (Scott Keiji Takeda), is interned in the very same camp.

The far more assimilated and culturally dismissive Calvin mostly serves as comic relief, proving himself again and again as someone totally unsuitable for the caring and thoughtful Thelma—that is until, refusing to sign the terrible “loyalty oath” demanded from a government in which many of internees had thought of representing their own country, he is imprisoned. The Yamaguchi family became “yes-yes”-ers as opposed to Calvin’s alignment with the “no-nos.” Thelma’s brother Joe even agrees to serve in the military.
      Meanwhile, Benjamin and his family, having moved into the former Yamaguchi house find that they love the small improvements in their lives, and Benjamin becomes increasingly torn between his commitment to his now almost always drunken father and his wife’s family and their condition. The farm succeeds, he selling many of its now extensive fruits, squashes, and other vegetables to the American military. His brother, as well, signs up for service, and his sister, joins the WACS.
      A visit he makes to Wyoming to see his wife and son, Benjirou, ends badly when the re-united father orders him to leave, the now suffering elderly man unable to accept the marriage between him and his daughter. Both families suffer tragedies when Ernesto is killed in battle and Joe is killed in Europe, both awarded purple hearts. And even after the war, which also ends in the death in camp of Thelma’s father, she must remain with her mother who is in danger of being returned to Japan.
      I know this history well. I edited and published Violet Kazue de Cristoforo’s ground-breaking memoir of the camps and anthology of Concentration Camp Kaiko Haiku, May Sky: There Is Always Tomorrow on my Sun and Moon Press in 1997 (see my obituary comments on her in My Year 2007), but it is also clear that many younger and even older Americans don’t recall when American citizens were arrested and imprisoned simply because of their race.
      And, in this year of 2018, when another American president threatens the same fate upon the future Chicanos of our world, perhaps there could not be a more appropriate play; for despite all their impossible differences, Thelma and Benjamin did survive as a couple; their Romeo and Juliet relationship produced Benjirou (who, played by the same actor who acted as the young Calvin, is told by the now ancient Benjamin, that he looks too much like Calvin, producing guffaws in the audience) and his several children, some gay, some straight. Benjamin’s younger sister is also clearly now a lesbian.
       I told you Valdez is not a subtle writer, and he gives his audience what they (we) want to hear when, late in the play, one of his central characters states: "California is now half Latino and Asian, and there's not a damn thing anybody can do about it." When the lights went down and came up again, the audience, made up of some of the old-time subscribers, but also, amazingly, of a audience of Japanese men and women and Chicano couples, some even dressed in their native attire, hollered out with screams and hoots for their complete appreciation of Valdez’s work. His is truly a theater of the people, something perhaps we need in these terribly divisive times. Valdez’s play is about bringing communities together, and it works. Let us now praise famous men.
     And I should remind my readers of the wonderful sets of Japanese-like sliding screens by John Iacovelli, the projections by David Murakami.

Los Angeles, November 8, 2018
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (November 2018).

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Douglas Messerli | "Dancing Deep Memories of the Past" (on Bill T. Jones' Analogy Trilogy, with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company)

by Douglas Messerli

Bill T. Jones Analogy Trilogy (with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company) / Royce Hall, UCLA / the performance I saw was on November 3, 2018

The extravaganza, 7-hour (with intermissions and dinner buffet) production of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company’s vast Analogy Trilogy, which I witnessed last night at UCLA’s Royce Hall in Los Angeles, was very different from what I might have imagined it to be. Yes, this fairly young company—consisting of dancers Vinson Fraley, Jr., Barrington Hinds, Shane Larson, I-Ling Liu, Penda N’Diaye, Jenna Riegel, Christina Robson, Carlo Antonio Villanueva, and Huwang Zhang; as well as singers Matthew Gamble, composer Nick Hallett, and pianist Emily Manzo, along with numerous creative designers, lighting people, and numerous others, are all quite wonderful, with the dancers performing in often athletic groupings that work against the gender differences of the characters they are playing, but always brilliantly performing as they move in and out of each other’s theatrical space with great élan and theatrical presence.
      Yet never having seen this popular company previously  I couldn’t quite have imagined just how much Jones and his former collaborator Zane—with whom Jones had a romantic relationship, and who died of AIDS in 1988—were more importantly “storytellers” and dancers fascinated by a wide range of music than the dance techniques which are, supposedly, at the center of their works.

he three performances of this long work basically use microphones to relate the lives of three rather remarkable figures, Dora in Analogy/Dora: Tramantane, the story of a young Jewish woman, a rather fearless figure, coming out of Flemish Belgium in the early years of Nazi rule, and working with such groups as ORT, WIZO, and SIFO which helped in Vichy France and other regions to sneak out children—often replacing them with their elders (as Dora laments became something she could no longer stomach, the process of choosing some Jews to go to the camps while saving others of the organization’s choice)—so that they might escape to Switzerland and elsewhere. See my essay on just this process in My Year 2015.
      Using large seemingly light-weight metal sculptural pieces, silver on one side and red on the other, the dancers moved in and out of spaces representing, apparently, the terrifying artifices, cold and friendlier, in order to survive. At one point, a Gestapo member, asking for Dora’s passport (a bilingual being, she has two varying passports, but determines to give up her German one, listing her as a Juden) she reveals that not all the Germans were monsters, the man reading the passport, after which simply closing it and returning it to her, freeing her, quite obviously, from transport to the execution camps.
     Her less politicized sister, however, trying to survive the good live in Marseilles, does not survive, growing ill and unable to live through a world she did not quite comprehend. Yet Dora’s fierce actions come through, despite the many doubts she personally suffers, and she does survive, despite the death of her mother, her father, and sister’s deaths. Not all Jews, it is clear, allowed themselves to suffer the German occupation; some, for whatever reason, chose to fight, however painful, and survive, allowing many others to live.
     Dora’s story, moreover, is made even richer by the introduction of the vibrant remberances of several others, some active in the underground movement and a few, such as her “distant cousin” Marcel Marceau, the famed mime, who was born to a Jewish family as Marcel Mangel, who is described as contributing to the escape of dozens of Jewish children. Part of the power of Jones’ storytelling is how it incorporates, as does his mentor in these works, novelist W. G. Sebald, upon the intense secret interrelationships between known and unknown historical figures.

    For me, the second of these works, Analogy/Lance: Pretty aka the Escape Artist, the tale of a young boy, who even as a child was so talented that the San Francisco Ballet offered to take him into their training. Yet as a very young boy, studying ballet, he became addicted to drugs, and nightly visited the gay areas of the Castro and more seedy city regions, picking up older men and threatening them with the revelation of their pederasty if they didn’t give him money and continue to pay him. He reports that he never did report them to their wives, their employers, and others, but survived by the threat, enjoying his own sense of a being more powerful than these abusive beings.
     Yet his drug addictions, his continual jail sentences for drug possession, began to unravel his career. Even then Lance/Pretty, and the dozens of other names he had given himself through whom he survived, led him on to incredible careers, including a Broadway play, composing and singing gigs, a phenomenal drag queen identity in Paris (where he, as a black man evidently channeled Josephine Baker) made for a life larger than he might even imagined, wherein often he made phenomenal amounts of money.
      He later fell in love with a straighter prisoner, Michael, back in jail, and was able to resurrect himself yet again in New York. Yet despite the apparent love and continued support from his “uncle,” a elderly man who describes as his “husband,” who himself appears to be trying to kick his drug habit, Pretty/Lance/LTB and the many other identities he as assumed, is gradually consumed by his habits, soon unable to walk and refusing to admit what his doctors are truly trying to tell him: that he is dying of AIDS.
     Pretty, in his constant escapes from reality, will not admit to his own condition, yet gradually, with the help of his interlocker—the central focus of all of Jones’ dance dramas—he finally admits his “faith,” his belief that when you “cross to the other side,” it is alone and is based on the life you lived, not upon carriers taking you over. The dancers throughout create metal-rod-like constructions of what a room or home might temporarily look like, the same image being projected upon the screen behind them, referencing an imaginary world that “Pretty” never quite can reach.  
     It’s a kind of marvelous existentialist perception that finally redeems him and helps us to recognize that his thousands of mistakes have nonetheless make for a fascinating life. If he is beautiful, if everyone seemed to love and enjoy him; the problem was that he was still a flawed being, unable to live up to the dozens of amazing potentials he had imagined for himself.
     Both the figures whom had been presented before our buffet were, in some senses, immigrants, individuals traveling through many spaces and societies in which they might never feel completely comfortable, and had, accordingly, been forced to assimilate new identitites. As Leonard Bernstein wrote about one of his major figures in his comic-opera Candide, “I am easily ‘assimilated.’” And that is precisely the case of Sebald’s character of Andros in his The Emigrant, a man who evidently fell in love with the great American aviator, Cosmo Solomon, who, himself falls ill and is institutionalized in a mental facility. Ambros assimilates by becoming a servant to Cosmo’s family, and when Cosmo’s wife dies, himself follows his friend into the same fate as Ambros, permitting and even allowing himself the terribly brutal electro-therapy gladly enforced by the brutal institutional director. That all of this, in turn, can be attributed itself to the effects of the Holocaust should surely come as no surprise.
      I have to admit that I have always had problems with Sebald’s own sense of displacement (he too was a kind of emigrant, a German living in England for much of his life); but I find some his tropes about that sense of outsiderness too carefully constructed and even, at times, far too facile—despite the claims of many of his reader’s of his enormous perspicaciouscacity. Nonetheless this work surely does resonate with the other two dances that proceeded it.
     Finally, I must also admit that, although anyone who knows me might perceive that I love story, I’m not sure it’s my favorite way of looking at dance. If these wonderful performers are truly good actors, set-movers, and, at times, exhilarating personalities, I want to see them simply move more often, to see their lovely bodies in motion rather than in carrying about sets and shifting in their undulating gender-free story-telling. When they gathered in the center of the stage or in intimate moments which reiterated the cubist-like tales they were relating, I was enchanted. Yet, I felt there needed to be more of those literal bodily encounters, moved away from the storytelling, as intense as it often felt, that Jones and his dramaturge had created.
      There is no question about the profundity of Jones’ themes in this vast trilogy, and one can only admire his imaginative perspective. But I might have wanted to see it more through the movements of dance than through those more abstracted and literally-constructed microphoned voices. For my taste, the fragments Jones was seeking which were narratively based—were often rather literal—and might have been better served through the movements of bodies in space.

Los Angeles, November 4, 2018
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (November 2018).

Friday, November 2, 2018

Douglas Messerli | "A Queen of the Piano" (on Margaret Leng Tan)

a queen of the piano
by Douglas Messerli

Margaret Leng Tan Curios (by Phyllis Chen) and Metamorphoses (Book I) (by George Crumb) / the concert I attend at REDCAT was on November 1, 2018

At the wonderful REDCAT performance space in the heart of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, I saw a performance by Margaret Leng Tan, often described as “the queen on the toy pianos.” Well, if there is a queen of such small instruments, it must surely be Tan, yet I cannot help but feel that in describing her as such, it somehow diminishes her immense talents.     
     There is no doubt that Tan is often playful—in all senses—particularly in the first work of the evening while performing Phyllis Chen’s Curios, what the program describes as a “cabinet of curiosities,” which, in this case, connects with the German circus and carnival traditions (although it also appears in several French works, such as Jean Renoir’s famed film Rules of the Game, in one of the central figure’s collection of mechanical musical instruments, perhaps a nod to the war that Germany was soon to engage with France). Here Tan, playing the comic-musician, dons various costumes, winds us various toys which briefly march across the performance space, blows on a mini-pipe organ, chirps out a bird whistle, and plays her famed toy pianos, all with such a whimsical joy that you can only be convinced that this “cabinet,” at least, is filled with a clownish spirit that is highly worth listening to.
     The real gems of the evening, however, are to come in George Crumb’s evocative  Metamorphoses-evoked work which, a bit like Mussorgsky’s too oft-performed Pictures at an Exhibition, steals images from modernist painting, but takes them in entirely new directions—with images from Paul Klee, Vincent van Gough, Marc Chagall, James McNeill Whistler, Jasper Johns, Salvador Dalí, and Vasily Kandinsky performed mostly on amplified toy pianos and, after an intermission, on a grand Steinway, with prepared piano and grand swirls of musical composition on keyboard, along with accompanying moans, grunts and squeals by this remarkable artist, with its highly memorable Perilous Night, a response to Jasper Johns’ 1990 composition itself a response to John Cage’s 1944 composition.      
     Despite her wonderful toy-piano playing, I can only say that the second half of Tan’s concert on this particular evening, mostly with her playing, in very John Cagean, but with highly original Crumb techniques, the embedded strings of the instrument (in one instance, apparently, forcing her for a short period off the stage for a temporary finger or finger-nail injury).
     I’ve never been a true admirer of Chagall’s painting The Fiddler, but in Crumb’s experimental rendition, the fiddle strummed upon the piano’s innards created an entirely new vision, reinforced, moments later, with the very slightly Jewish-inspired chords Tan played out on the keyboard.
     If Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory, with its melting clock faces, is not your favorite vision of contemporary art, Crumb, with Tan’s great artistry, plucks up an evocative sense of finitude and loss of something slightly now slightly out of reach, reiterating that memory is simply something that needs to be recaptured and reiterated.
     The Tahitian death chant of Gaugin’s rather terrifying Contes barbares, sung by Tan as she performs, is a slightly sinister and horrifying movement into the grave.
     The little Blue Rider of Kandinsky’s work, in Crumb’s insistence and in Tan’s performance, rides into the landscape so forcefully that you simply have to applaud his presence upon the much larger space unto which he has launched himself. He is a hero, in this musical version, in the making, a figure on the verge of reality which in his relentless rhythmic forward drive forces himself upon the scene.
      The span of the toy to the grand, prepared, piano, in short, represents a world in Tan’s significant shifts throughout her theatrically-gifted performance. that spans the comic to the tragic, moving from a world of childish wonderment to a deep immersion into the human psychology.
      If Tan is a queen, it is of total piano performance. The “toy” is only the half of it.

Los Angeles, November 2, 2018
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (November 2018).     

Monday, October 29, 2018

Douglas Messerli | "A World of Endless Picnics" (on Maureen Huskey's The Woman Who Went to Space as a Man)

by Douglas Messerli

Maureen Huskey (writer and director) The Woman Who Went to Space as a Man, music by Yuval Ron / Los Angeles, Son of Semele Theater / the production I saw was on Sunday, October 28, 2018

You might describe the Son of Semele Ensemble’s small, hole-in-the-wall theater—which I attended for the first time yesterday afternoon—as being a haven for believers in drama the way many religious believers perceive their store-front churches. For this small company preaches “bold and imaginative theater” (what they describe as risk-taking work) that “embraces the friction between emotion and intellect.” In Greek myth Semele’s son, fathered by Zeus, was Dionysius.
      Clearly, they have found just such a playful and risk-taking work in Maureen Huskey’s science-fiction musical, The Woman Who Went to Space as a Man.

The play, however, is not quite as inexplicable as its title, for this work recounts the strange story of real-life science fiction author James Tiptree, winner of several Hugo Awards (given annually to the best science fiction or fantasy writing), who was beloved by fellow writers Ursula LeGuin, Joanna Russ, Philip K. Dick, and numerous others, and who had a large group of admirers with whom the author corresponded for decades. Tiptree was known for a masculinity of tone, much as was Hemingway; but the plots of these works did not always favor the male heroes, who were often destroyed, killed the entire population of earth, or themselves were destroyed—as we observe in the opening tableau—by the author’s female characters, as in “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” when, after being saved by a crew of female astronauts, the males cannot resist their tendencies to rape and abuse. Seemingly inexplicably, in this first theatrical image, while the women crewmembers inject vials of poison into the males on the rampage, a woman (Betsy Moore), who appears to be the pilot of ship, sits, stage center, with a gun held to her head—obviously contemplating suicide.
     For those of us who have never heard of Tiptree, let alone read his works, the stage actions seem almost like some bad science-fiction film that makes little sense. Yet soon after, another of Tiptree’s female characters, Mira (Megann Rippey) appears in full extraterrestrial garb (beautifully realized by costume designer Lena Sands) to guide the suicidal Alice back through the history of her life, which unravels and helps to explain what we have just witnessed.
     One might have feared such an obvious structural device of unspooling the central character’s past could lead to a rather predictable series of interactions that psychologize and simplify what has just begun as a fantastical mystery. Yet Huskey’s play, fortunately, retains its playful confusion, in part by introducing sung music by composer Yuval Ron, that functions a bit like such whacky musical interludes in the plays of Mac Wellman, charming us at the very moment that, in their unexpected appearance in what might have been a simple genre play, deeply enrich the work.
     Even if we are taken back down the yellow-brick-road from the Emerald City to the land of the Munchkins, we are never quite certain where we are. We begin, in this instance, in Alice Bradley’s (later Alice Sheldon’s) childhood (with the lovely Isabella Ramacciotti playing the 12-year-old little Alice) as she appears on what she later describes as one of her “endless picnics,” this with her mother, Mary (Anneliese Euler) in the wilds of Africa where, it appears, the imperious woman has just shot her first elephant, apparently an absolutely normal activity for her and her husband of the elite class (reminding one a bit of the Trump children). Surely, the wealthy socialite Mary seems to presume that the entire world belongs to her, including her own daughter’s childhood writings, which the mother quickly incorporates into her own published travelogues, which celebrate the fact that she has undertaken such a dangerous journey with a young child. The newspapers later shouted the fact that in their travels it was the first time the pygmies had even seen a young white girl.
     They hardly have time to return home before Alice, now 16 (played by Paula Rebelo) is told that it is time for her Chicago appearance at the debutante ball. But by now Alice is clearly resentful of her mother’s heavy-handed control of her life, and impulsively elopes with a handsome young man who is also a drunk and, somewhat like the men in “Houston…” regularly beats her. Six years later she divorces, enlisting in the army where she serves as a World War II intelligence officer.  
     We also now perceive that Alice may have some lesbian tendencies, but she quickly squelches any such desires and, almost again on a whim, marries another veteran, Col. Huntingdon Sheldon (Alex Wells), with whom she keeps a romantic distance, while he fondly looks after her. By this time she is also working on graphic art (she had a work shown at the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington, D.C) and some manages to obtain a Ph.D in experimental psychology (these things not featured in our theatrical presentation of her life), but yet she obviously still feels vaguely unsatisfied.
      Part of the problem is her conflicting notions of her self-worth—and who wouldn’t be uncertain about oneself given the complete self-assurance of her mother—she becomes determined to write, not the travelogues of mother, but in a genre she had long admired, science fiction—insisting that her husband never tell her mother of her new venture.
     We suddenly realize who that woman sitting it the spaceship’s pilot-seat truly is, as the now Virginia housewife determines to take control of her life by writing under a pseudonym (James Ferrero taking on the role of her pseudonymous self), James Tiptree, Jr. So begins her incredible career, wherein as she put it elsewhere, “His pen was my prick,” allowing her to perhaps create a kind of transgender self in a time when it was simply unthinkable. For decades, through her imaginary self, Alice made not only a new career, but a new identity filled with the possibilities of being a male in a world that still held women in their homes. She could create strong men and kill them off, weak women and give them dignity. She finally had the power to kill off whole universes if she chose.
      Only when her own mother died, and she took a small break in her writing, did it become apparent who James Tiptree, Jr. really was. Her science-fiction fans were shocked by the revelation, and questions arose about what masculine and feminine writing was—the inklings, we can imagine, of the gender issues that are still being struggled with today, particularly given that the Trump administration has just announced their intention to define individuals only by their sexual parts.
      Even though she continued to write under the Tiptree name for another decade, she understandably must have felt she had lost control of her voice, and when her husband was in ill-health and could no longer care for himself, and she herself was suffering from bad health due to years of smoking, she shot her husband and put the gun—the one we see in that very first scene—her head, creating a double suicide.
      Huskey does not give us any easy answers to this tragedy. We must work them out of her purposely fragmented work ourselves. But the issues here are not only contemporary ones but force us to go back in time to wonder how many others—and there were far too many—who felt they had to tamp down their talents and their voices for fear of cultural shunning. I think its so fascinating that this author chose an alternative reality, both imaginatively and in terms of gender, to demonstrate her talents. When that was taken away, there was little left. She was simply a little old lady in Virginia writing well-crafted fantasies.
      I should add, that besides the cast members I mention above, all the ensemble players, including Kamar Elliott, Emma Zakes Green, Nathan Nonhof, Robert Paterno, and Ashley Steed were quite convincing. The lighting by Rose Malone was memorable. I’ll be back to worship at the altar of this small space soon.

Los Angeles, October 29, 2018
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (October 2018).

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Douglas Messerli | "Going West" (on Puccini's La funciulla del West)

going west

by Douglas Messerli

Guelfo Civinni and Zangarini (libretto, based on the play, The Girl of the Golden West, by David Belasco), Giacomo Puccini (composer). Giancarlo del Monaco (stage director), Gary Halvorson (director) La funciulla del West / 2018 [The Metropolitan Opera HD-live broadcast]

Rather oddly, given Howard’s and my adoration of opera, I had never previously seen a production of Giacomo Puccini’s 1910 opera, commissioned by the New York Metropolitan Opera (a production conducted by Arturo Toscanini, with Emmy Destinn as Minnie and Enrico Caruso as Dick Johnson), La funciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West). I’d heard many of its pieces on disk and radio, but never actually experienced the production itself.
     Attending the production alone, I found myself seated by a local gallerist friend, Ruth Bochofner, a joyful coincidence.
     I’d always thought about this late-career Puccini opera as a kind of last gasp, followed only by his La rondine and his series of three short operas, also first performed at the Metropolitan in 1918; yet, I now realize this was a terrible misconception.
     Supposedly Puccini thought that this David Belasco-based opera was his very best, and almost all of the performers argued for its difficulties with, in the case of Eva-Maria Westbroek, arguing that it was one (if not the) very favorite of works in which she had performed. The personable Italian conductor Marco Armiliato, who directed the score from memory, seemed impassioned about its difficulties and argued how more contemporary, given Puccini’s highly romantically-based operas before this, it was.

     I must agree that this work, given the remarkable vocalizations of Westbroek (as Minnie), Jonas Kaufmann (as Dick Johnson), and Željko Lučić (as the sheriff Jack Rance) is something I had never before imagined. And yes, this is definitely not the usual Puccini concoction of beautiful arias and character types as in
La bohème, Tosca, or Madama Butterfly—even if, clearly, there is some of the last-named opera’s exoticism that creeps into his vision of Belasco’s wild west—with many quick references to Turnadot—wherein, like the proud queen of Peking, Minnie refuses her love to the miners from all over the world who have gathered in their mad desire for gold to offer her their treasures.
     On the surface, in fact, they seem mostly to be good friends, almost making up the foundation, sans wives, of a future civilized community. They gather in the local bar to drink, gamble, and to release some of their aggressions, but their trust in their mother/potential lover, owner of their bar, Minnie, is so very touching that we quickly comprehend why they use the lower shelves of her bar, overseen by the gentle bar-tender, in which to hide their life savings. The local Wells Fargo rider tries to get them to bank their wealth in his company (terribly ironic today given what we know of that institution’s 21st-century actions), but the stagecoach has often been robbed by a local bandit, Ramerrez, and they trust the virginal Minnie as the better banker.

Together they vie for her attentions, Rance believing, just because of his position as a sort-of-law-and-order ex-gambler and heavy drinker, he has the best chance of wooing her. While Sonora (Michael Todd Simpson) believes he might be her favorite, given his status as a kind of group representative of the goldminers. If the various challengers for Minnie’s love sometimes break out in violent confrontations—this is after all the violent West of Hollywood myth which still suffers brawls and violent interchanges when a gambler is found to have been cheating—they seem to be a rather affable group, with even an ability to help out a fellow, very depressed miner, who is desperate to return home to England, by taking up a collection to send him home. We might almost imagine that this will soon be the “well-intentioned” Western town of Hadleyville if only some women were to arrive. What might be the desire for immediate violence could eventually turn into a refusal to get involved if you give these crude believers enough time.
     In the meantime, the gun-toting Annie Oakley-like figure of Minnie has to serve as both the vision of law-and-order and the mentor/educator of this rough community, calling them to order, serving up their liquor, and then reading to them from the Bible about King David and other major biblical figures. She’s a tough teacher, scolding them for their lack of memory, but also a loving and caring being who, we later discover, has served as nurse, confessor, and supporter of many of these toughs.
      She also, as she later puts it, is herself a kind of gambler/capitalist, one of them really, who sees herself as a kind of coarse, uneducated woman, who survives through her instincts—without even realizing that it’s truly been her kindness and intellect that has allowed her continued existence. For she is, surprisingly, a reader, having stashed away a complete library in her mountain cabin, reading late into the night, mostly, she admits, love stories—while still rejecting the advances of many of her would-be suitors such as Rance’s (with the angry and moving “Laggiù nel Soledad”) through her claim of  attempting to find “true” love.
     Minnie is a remarkable combination of a tough Western survivor and a naïve innocent, who goes through her life saved simply because of that impossible combination.
    Given this rough-and-tumble world, and Minnie’s and her community’s own mixed emotions, Puccini must have realized that he had to create a different kind of opera. Here, for one of the first times in his music, beautiful wrought musical passages are again and again interrupted, as if almost suggesting a kind of modernist composition, as characters cut across each other’s would-be spiritual expressions. It’s a bit like an early intonation of jazz: the moment a phrase begins, another instrument (in this case an intrusive voice) interrupts to express his or her own viewpoint. People in this opera get in the way, constantly, of all the others, shouting down the arias they may have sung, refusing to hear any of the melodic sentiment of a standard Puccini opera.
     So what you get here are wonderful flourishes of romanticism—the wonderful theme of the golden girl herself, the almost Rodgers and Hammerstein early greetings, the somewhat clumsily American-intonations of the miner’s greetings of “hello,” and the painful interludes between the past and present when the bandit Dick Johnson and Minnie first meet, recounting their early accidental meeting as almost kids—constantly interrupting one another's sweet memories, without truly being able to communicate what they both feel is a sudden passion.
      Minnie becomes immediately becomes so girlish after inviting Dick to come to her isolated cabin in the sierras, that she does truly remind one of the corny Doris Day film when Annie Oakley tries to dress up for Wild Bill Hitchcock. It’s the trope: suddenly get out of your slickers, put away your gun, and put on a dress (in this case with a rose stuffed into your bosom) to attract the man of your dreams—even if, she quickly discovers, he’s worse that you might even imagine yourself, a simple bandit who has been consorting with a local Mexican whore.

    As one of the commentators noted between the acts of this marvelous production, this opera projects the sense of a kind of early movie, with the music and events tumbling over upon one another so quickly that sometimes you can hardly catch your breath. Musical phrases literally pile up only to collapse into more profane chords of everyday commentary. For what seems like hours, a tense three-hand poker game—during which Minnie cheats Rance to escape his desired rape of her and her own attempt to claim the man (just like he was a gold mine she has suddenly discovered and determined to claim)—tamps down all music except for sort of percussional tempo—that is unlike anything you’ve before encountered in Puccini’s previous scores.
      Minnie’s final song of love in Act II, after she illegally wins, might almost be perceived as a kind of mad scene out of Strauss’s Elektra or Salome. And Puccini has suddenly moved away from the late 19th century into new territory. Even Westbroek had to admit, during an intermission chat, that she had completely “nailed” it.” It was a moment of opera to remember forever. And the audience went wild.
      And, finally, unlike almost any Puccini opera before it, this is not a tragedy. Despite the attempt of the miner’s community to get their revenge, the impossible strong woman at the center of this work, returns, guns in hand, to righteously claim that her man escape the local noose, despite the odds, releasing her lover from their actual legalistically-justified arguments by reminding these locals of all she has done for them.
     In the end, the freed couple walk off together into the rising sun to never return, perhaps moving on to a new southern paradise, I’d like to think, of Santa Barbara or the then-nascent Los Angeles. No snow there, which is what almost got Dick killed in the second act.
      I agree, this may be, as Puccini himself believed, his very best opera. Not a work that displays his immense melodic skills at music-making but expresses a kind of new Italian-Wagnerian notion of what opera can become. Had he only lived long enough to continue that transformation!

Los Angeles, October 28, 2018