Sunday, June 17, 2018

Douglas Messerli | "Hovering Over and Beneath" (on Ben Johnston and Harry Partch)

hovering over and beneath
by Douglas Messerli

The Partch group and Lyris Quartet Partch: Daphne of the Dunes (music by Ben Johnston and Harry Partch) / performed at Redcat (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater), Los Angeles / the performance I attended was on June 15th, 2018

The other evening, I attended a concert at Redcat that presented two works performed by the Harry Partch performers—which, in this case, included Erin Barnes, Cory Beers, Alison Bjokedal, Dustin Donahuem, Vicki Ray, John Schneider, Nick Terry, T.J. Troy, and Alex Wand—playing on Partch-invited instruments such as the Gourd Tree, Canons, Chromelodeon, Boo, and others such as the Diamond Marimba, the Surrogate Kithara, and Spoils.
      This, second part of the program, presented his Daphne of the Dunes (1967), a kind of comic short opera, with choreographic flourishes by Casebolt and Smith and with video art by Joel Smith.
       Partch called this work, which he expanded at least a couple of times, as a “dance-drama,” and this production retained his verbal introductions which he hoped would serve as “a guide to the prospective choreographer.”

     To play out the encounter of Apollo, the god of music (and Zeus’ son) who fell in love with the river Naiad Daphne, the performers used comic masks, and presented the work itself in a somewhat comic manner—despite the beautiful shower of quivering music, particularly when Ray played Chromelodeon, with Barnes on the Diamond Marimba, and John Schneider on Viola—that satirized “music’s” attempt to charm the hard-hearted woman, who was protected by an arrow of lead by showing brief scenes from Hitchcock's and other films.

      I had previously seen and heard this group’s performance of Partch’s long-gestating work Barstow—created first in the 1940s and 50s, and finalized in 1968—in which, somewhat in the manner of Woody Guthrie, Partch sets to music the hitchhiker graffiti of several travelers wandering through that San Bernardino County desert town, known as a hub for various forms of transportation. As I wrote in My Year 2009:

…Upon first hearing each of these numbered pieces, 
presented in a Sprechstimme-like performance by guitarist 
John Schneider, the words are almost laughable. But Partch 
allows us after the original statement to hear the echoes of 
those words, by repeating them with emotionally-charged 
aftertones and dramatic additions (“ha-ha-ha” “dum-de-dum,” 
etc.) that transform them into haunting expressions of fear 
and joy.
      Yet, somehow, that appeared to have missing from this performance, in part, because John Schneider cut most of his commentary, and it seemed as if the whole piece had somehow been cut back. Perhaps it was just that, since this was the last piece of the evening, my mind was still filled with the sounds and sensations of the other works I describe below; but I do feel the small choreographic additions to this piece, probably inspired by the fact that the dancers had temporarily joined the company for the evening, literalized these pieces and stole some of the haunting quietude surrounding these pencil and ink musings.

    Indeed, the Partch works seemed, this time around, almost an afterthought to the great works that began the evening concert. Performed by Lyris Quartet (Sara Andon, James Sullivan, John Stehney, and Scott Worthington, Ben Johnston’s String Quartet No. 9 (1988) and the American premier of the same composer’s Octet (1999/2000) were clearly the featured pieces of the concert.

     Johnston, now 92, was as close as one can get to having been a “student” of Partch. Yet Partch and Johnston, despite both their use of “just intonation,” in some ways couldn’t be more different.
      Whereas, Partch was a kind of American eccentric, Johnston, who describes his musical annotations as “extended just intonation,” allows the great musical traditions of the past, Haydn, Mendelssohn, and American folk music (much like Copland) to permeate his works.
      Although I have studied music, playing saxophone in high school and almost majoring in voice in my early university years (I did sing in the major University of Wisconsin choral groups and performed in a musical production there as a singer and dancer), I find it almost impossible to comprehend “extended just intonation” and its effects. Although I can certainly read music, I am afraid I could not quite interpret a musical score that transforms musical notes into numerical fractions. But the effects of this, so I believe, is that the compositions allow the musicians to work between the rigid structures of traditional scoring to create a music that sometimes hovers just below or over the pitches (what are described as “microtonal variants”) that create a very different sound overall, allowing for the natural harmonic pitches which are preferred by the human ear.
     Particularly in the very first movement of String Quartet No 9, Johnston’s work immediately alerts us to a fresh expression of quartet music, spirited and lush at the very same moment. The audience is immediately awakened from the pre-concert silence. The program notes include a long paragraph by Bob Gilmore which describes the entire piece, but I’ll quote simply his comments of that first movement, titled “Strong, calm, slow”:

 …the most extraordinary movement is surely the lst, 
 where Johnston achieves a real compositional tour de 
 force in creating a six-minute movement, the pitch world 
 of which remains entirely between middle C and the C an 
 octave above and yet retains our interest throughout. Here 
 the richness of just intonation with its luminous pure intervals 
 and their microtonal variants, lets us hear as never before one 
 of Western music’s familiar clichés: the C major scale. Like 
 all of Johnston’s best music, this movement looks both 
 backward (to a musical heritage that he feels is still vital to 
 our contemporary world) and forward, to a world of new 
 sounds and untried harmonies that will continue to engage us 
 as his compositional achievement becomes better known.

     The newer piece, Octet, takes as its central tune Folk musician Jay Unger’s famed tune “Ashokan Farewell,” a piece used notably as the theme of Ken Burn’s PBS television series, The Civil War. Such a beautiful tune, as the program notes, made the film series’ audiences believe that the work was from the 19th century; but Johnston’s final variation of this piece deracinates the prettiness of the piece through his just intonation dissonant harmonies, helping us to see this work as a far less sentimental song, while revealing some of its darker elements which were at the heart of the terrible war.
       In this concert it seems as if the always inventive “father” was wonderfully outshined by his quite brilliant “student.” And I praise the Partch group for allowing their hero to share the stage, so to speak. Surely, I will now attempt to see any concert with Johnston on the program—of which I hope there will be many.

Los Angeles, June 17, 2018

Monday, June 11, 2018

Douglas Messerli | "Tortuous Nights" (on O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night)

tortuous nights
by Douglas Messerli

Eugene O’Neill Long Day’s Journey into Night / Los Angeles, the Wallis Anneberg Center for Performing Arts / the performance Howard Fox and I saw was on the opening day, June 10, 2018

Yesterday afternoon I saw the much touted production by the Bristol Old Vic of Eugene O’Neill’s most important play, Long Day’s Journey into Night.
     While this was not my first time with this long-suffering play (a suffering both for its characters and, often, given the play’s length, for its audiences), I clearly had not seen as many performances as others, so one critic sitting behind me made clear to his theater guest—he’d seen, so he quite loudly 
claimed, at least six productions. I had watched the wonderful Sidney Lumet film, still my favorite of all of the play’s variations, two times, and planned to see it again a few days after this performance just as a reminder; and I’d read the play at least two times, once after having to miss—given a large East Coast snow storm—a production for which I had tickets, starring Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Dennehy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Robert Sean Leonard. Moreover, I had also seen a recent production of the play with Alfred Molina, Jane Kaczmarek, Stephen Louis Grush and Colin Woodell at Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse last year.
     So, when attending the stunningly star-laden production at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, with a cast of Jeremy Irons, Lesley Manville, Matthew Beard, and Rory Keenan I did have a fairly good knowledge of the work, having almost memorized many of the play’s significant scenes.
      Yet, I felt freed from the burden, so it seemed, of many of the critics sitting near me. I could still see this marathon-endurance with somewhat fresh eyes. And my husband Howard had never before seen a live performance, although he too had read it and seen the film version. Accordingly, I was open to a new interpretation, which surely director Richard Eyre presented to us.
     Previous productions and my own readings seemed to suggest that the play began in a kind of haze of a family reunion—Edmond having returned home after his adventurous experiences as a sailor, with his mother, having also returned home from her stay at a sanatorium to help cure her of a morphine addiction—in which things “appear,” a word that should appear in double quotes, to be somewhat normal.
     Mary is, as her husband James Tyrone tells her time and again, “looking fatter”—although in the productions I’ve seen, as well as this one, she looks thinner than a reed—with Mary attending to her much beloved son, Edmund, equally thin, who apparently has a summer cold.
     Of course, we immediately recognize this perception as a true illusion, or more deeply, a delusion. Yet, with the fog having lifted, the sun shining temporarily upon their lives, there is almost a feeling of somewhat pacific family life hovering over them. After all, O’Neill makes it clear from the beginning that Tyrone does still love his wife, and Mary still adores him, as she does her youngest son, just as even the black-sheep of the family, the whoring often drunken Jaime, loves his brother, even his skin-flint father, and their problematic mother. This first act, with its many domestic necessities, the worry of all for Mary’s mental state and the dreaded fear for Edmund’s health, is balanced by the comings and goings of their maid Cathleen (Jessica Regan in this production) and the always irritated and invisible cook, Brigette, who invisibly attempts to bring this family together for their meals.
     Eyre and his cast, evidently, have purposely thrown this first act version away, immediately creating a tension between all the actors that one can cut with a sharp knife. Things that might once have appeared to be tenuous now cut immediately to the bone. The deluded expressions of family reconciliation immediately turn, in this performance, into ironic asides, expressions of true disappointment, dismissals, and evident hatred. The Tyrone’s of this cast almost immediately show their fangs while denying their every next sentence. One might be tempted to suggest that this Long Day’s Journey represents a kind of Trumpian world, where all the niceties have turned into bitter spittle.
      If there’s something almost refreshing in this sharply driven and quick-witted interpretation of O’Neill’s world, we also miss some of the lost belle epoch regalness and rituals that have, after all, allowed Tyrone to rule this ruined household and helped his wife into a drug addiction from which she will never ascend. This is not the world of Oxycontin addiction, but one of hotel doctors, and well-meaning townspeople who wash their hands from any dirty deeds.
   Fortunately, Irons plays Tyrone very differently from the imposing patriarch as we have seen in Sir Ralph Richardson, for example. He is a man, bitter and mean as he is, who is closer to Irons’ character of Claus von Bülow in Reversal of Fortune, a distanced and highly distressed man who sees himself as an innocent in a world in which his wife has faded into non-existence, or as the character describes it, “when she gets that poison in her system there’s nothing you can do.” Like our contemporary leader, he will never be able to comprehend that he is, in fact, part of that poison. In the last long scenes of this seemingly endless night, Tyrone even seems to be a wronged man, a child of a father who has abandoned his family forcing the young boy to work endlessly in the Irish-American child-labor world to make a few cents each week to help support his mother. O’Neill even allows this character to demonstrate that he has been a victim of his own success: having purchased on the cheap a play which made him a matinee hero but closed him out of any of his great Shakespearian aspirations. Even though he claims, however, that the great actor Booth highly praised his acting, we can never know for sure whether or not his desires were so very different from those of Mary to become a concert pianist. There is no evidence for either of their claims. Perhaps Tyrone was simply destined to be come a romantic matinee “ham,” just as the deluded Mary was to retreat to her own bedroom to find a way out of her own “romance.”
      If Irons creates a new vision of Tyrone, so too does Lesley Manville give us a new portrait of Mary. This is not at all the fragile Mary of any other version I’ve seen or imagined. She can endlessly ask, as she does, “is my hair falling down,” but—particularly given the helmet of a wig she wears throughout the play—we know she is sharp as steel. Although she may continually declare that she is lonely, that she wants people about her at all times, we also know that she desires, even longs, to be alone.
     No longer is Mary a kind a butterfly whose wings have been torn through the long years of hotel living and her so-called mediocre summer house, but that she is a powerful wasp, ready to sting all those surrounding. Almost like the bitter sister of Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread, this Mary is angry about everything, even the son whose birth caused her pains that led to her addiction. She does not truly want her family’s company, and escapes, in her imagination, quite willingly into a past of mid-west family life and a beautiful wedding gown that never quite existed—even though she does finally discover the gown in the memory-ridden attic of the house she can never describe as a true “home.” Indeed, Manville’s Mary can never find a home except for the mythical one in her own imagination. She never has had a true friend—actors were not to be permitted into her bourgeois/religious sensibility—and she has never truly embraced the family whom she declares she 
loves. Mary is the very center of this Long Day, and yet she is someone who none of the other family members ever want to see again; if only she would fall asleep, allowing them to tip-toe up to their rooms permitting them to fall into their own frightful dreams.
      Unlike the other Marys I have seen, Manville makes you truly dislike her. She is more than a ghost, she is a kind of haunted horror figure of the past who can only destroy any forward movement of this family.
    But then, as O’Neill quite clearly reveals, this is an already doomed group. Even Edmund’s seemingly loving brother warns him about his own treachery. And the true center of this world, Edmond / O’Neill himself (played by Beard in a kind of accent that is at moments difficult to penetrate) knows that although he is the most loved member of this Greek-inspired destructive familial world, he is also the object of their mutual wrath. One by one, they pet him, kiss him, embrace him, and hover lovingly over his body, while still spitting out their tortuous truths, filling him up with liquor, and, in Jamie’s case, literally pulling him in an out of chairs, almost as if Edmund were a kind of doll which he might use in his own libidinous desires.
      I’ve always thought of this play as a sad tragedy of family life. But this production provides a completely different dimension—not one I’m sure I entirely appreciate—which makes apparent just how sadomasochistic this family was. Their pushes and pulls, their psychological whips and chains are everywhere. And there is no respite for Edmond—or any of the others. Morphine, alcohol, and, finally, Morpheus himself, the god of sleep, are the only escapes from the tortures with which they afflict one another.
      If I have some reservations about this almost brutal production of O’Neill’s drama, I realize now, more than ever, just how close Long Day’s Journey Into Night is to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the “mother” and “father” of the later work afflicting some of the very same tortures upon a young professor and his wife. In neither of these plays do the characters, even though they have little left in their lives, “go gentle into that good night.”

Los Angeles, June 11, 2018

Monday, June 4, 2018

Douglas Messerli | "Testimony" (on Thomas Bird's Bearing Witness)

by Douglas Messerli

Thomas Bird (writer and actor) Bearing Witness, Los Angeles, The Odyssey Theater Ensemble / I attended the matinee on Sunday, June 3, 2018

In some respects, Thomas Bird’s Bearing Witness is a rather conventional monologue relating personal experiences of the author/actor. Yet Bird’s story of two generations of military experiences is so different and moving that it far surpasses most such works of its genre.
       One might begin by pointing out that the two different wars in which father and son served were so radically different that they are barely comparable. Bird’s father, a medic serving in World War II, who, with others liberated the Mauthausen–Gusen concentration camp in Linz, Austria, a Holocaust institution described as one of the major of Nazi camps which killed from 122,766 to perhaps 320,000 individuals, including religious figures, Spaniards, Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, and even errant Boy Scouts, along with Jews, many of its inmates worked to death in the nearby granite quarries to help achieve Hitler’s and Albert Speer’s architectural imaginations. Bird’s father, in short, was a hero who saved many of those near death at the end of a War which—from American eyes at least—was a “good war,” a noble cause accomplished as Dan Rather wrote, by the “greatest generation.” The elder Bird returned home as an understated hero to continue is his good work as a doctor.
     By contrast, Bird served in Viet Nam in B Company of the lst Calvary Division in 1965-1966, living through the experiences of a “dirty” war wherein families and individuals were killed in what sometimes might be described as borderline war crimes, several of which Bird painfully recreates in his performance. Although the younger Bird also received numerous awards (among them, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, a Presidential Unit Citation, and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with palm—none of which he mentions in his monologue) the actor returned to a country not at all sympathetic to that war’s soldiers, and who, like so many of his peers, suffered various versions of what might be described as Post-Traumatic Syndrome—including becoming alienated from his family and abusing several drugs. Close to his father’s death, the dying man admitted that he was sorry that he had “given up on him,” obviously also a shock to his now-recovering son.
       Given the two pulls of this work—his loving memories of his father as a child and his admiration of him, and yet his own haunting memories of his personal war experiences, Bird creates a compelling narrative. And the swings between these two extremes—the author describes them as “circles”—make up the structure of this moving work. At one point, Bird reveals his own “large smile,” entering a Vietnamese Leper Colony to help protect the small, isolated gathering and speaking gently with a woman he describes as “one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen,” yet whose skin was peeling in layers; and at another instance he is commanded to kill an already dying Vietnamese soldier who still holds a grenade in his hand; at another moment he attacks a father simply attempting to protect his family.
       But some of the most poignant moments of this monologue are when Bird visits Mauthausen to attempt to put his father’s great heroism into perspective. The curators and archivists caring for what remains of the prison welcome him warmly as the son of a liberator, but are a bit taken aback when he asks questions about deaths of some of the prisoners who had survived, but who died when the Americans and others had taken control of the camp.

     A day before his father’s death, the elder Bird admitted to his son that at least 13 survivors had died when he and others, trying to help revive them in their near-cadaverous conditions, fed them milk. Unfortunately, it was bad medicine. The shock to their systems killed them, the bodies simply unable to quickly consume such a rich diet. The director quietly meets with him, admitting evidently, the facts, but trying to reassure the curious son that it was unintentional and therefore not spoken about nor recorded. It is as if his own father’s “guilt” has been erased, while his 19th-year old sense of guilt will never be forgotten.
      Bird achieves some sense of peace by simply visiting the small cemetery of those were not gassed in the prison showers. The voices seem to speak to him, and through him to us. Indeed, voices of the past might be another way to describe this work, the horrifying whispers of the so many who have died and continue to die in war.
     The actor/author clearly found a personal revival in sharing his experiences through theater and opera while helping others to share their own nightmares. Bird is still clearly haunted by his and his father’s pasts, and suggests, perhaps, that we as citizens who lived through and even silently participated in these wars might as well be haunted by the ghosts of the millions destroyed. If nothing else, Bearing Witness is a testimony to those who died, with at one point, Bird angrily shouting at those who now deny the millions killed in The Holocaust, and by association those will still not admit to the numerous Vietnamese and Americans who died in a war of shame.   

Los Angeles, June 4, 2018

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Douglas Messerli | "Let's Keep Dancing" (on BodyTraffic Dance Company)

let’s keep dancing

by Douglas Messerli

BODYTRAFFIC (founded by Lilian Barbeito and Tina Finkelman Berkett), performing at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts/Bram Goldsmith Theater / the performance I saw was on opening night, May 31, 2018

Over the past few years the Beverly Hills-located Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts has dedicated a large portion of their programming to dance, this year, particularly Los Angeles dance companies, which, along with the dance recitals of Santa Monica’s Broad Theatre, has helped the ever-increasing LA dance audiences to perceive the richness of modern dance in this city.
          Last evening at the Wallis I watched one of the very best of Los Angeles companies, BodyTraffic, founded by Lillian Barbeito and Tina Finkelman Berkett, perform five fresh pieces, one of them “A Million Voices,” representing a world premiere (although it has been performed as excerpts elsewhere). Indeed, that work was one of the very best of this spirited company’s creations.

Set to music sung by the incomparable Peggy Lee, the piece was danced by Berkett, Lorrin Brubaker, Joseph Davis, Haley Heckethorn, Natalie Leibert, Jessica Liu, Guzmán Rosado, and Jamal White, who worked singularly, in duos, and trios to bring what choreographer Matthew Neenan has described as his intent to demonstrate how even in the most difficult times—yes, “If That’s All There Is,” with its haunting refrain of “Let’s keep dancing” was among the songs to which they danced—“life is worth enjoying.” It was clearly one of the most popular works of the evening.
      If the creation was perhaps a bit too much of a collage, with the dancers coming and going with the shifts in songs, the energy with which they perform, convinces us of a kind coherence to the piece, helped on by a cheering audience, many of them obviously family of company members. Yet, BodyTraffic, having already won a great deal of national and international acclaim and awards hardly needs a local audience to declare the enjoyment they induce. Particularly in the first piece of the evening, Sidra Bell’s “Beyond the Edge of the Frame,” the company, costumed in various modes of fashion and sexually-charged outfits, moved in an out of the frame of the stage, again working primarily in pas de deux, and trios, demonstrating their amazing limberness, as they dance not only horizontal across the space but often move startlingly from standing positions to the floor, bending backwards and forwards, twisting, and rolling—often working in opposition to their more horizontally positioned partners. Lead dancer Joseph Davis, along with Jamal White, and Berkett particularly gave particularly powerful performances here.

     That work was followed by an excerpt from their popular “Fragile Dwellings,” choreographed by Belgian dancer Stijn Celis, dedicated to Los Angeles’ homeless population, and with music by Arvo Pãrt. The “dwellings” of this piece (designed by Erwin Redl) are represented simply by hanging strings of light, a bit like the neon-lit streets of our city, wherein dancers Davis, Leibert, Liu, and White dive, rise, twist, and turn and even writhe between the gradually lowering ribbons of light which by work’s end, like the individuals to whom this piece is dedicated, are finally “bedded,” draped across the stage floor, the dancers almost hedged in by the metal bar that has held the lit-up strips.
     The first piece after the intermission, “George and Zalman,” a solo for the beautiful Berkett, choreographed by Ohad Naharin, with music, once again, by Pãrt, was my least favorite of the company’s works this time around. This “company premiere” used the writing of one of a popular writer, Charles Bukowski, who attempted throughout his life to be a kind of philosopher for the common man. Particularly in this case, where he warns the reader away from Beethoven, The Damnation of Faust, and, apparently any other elated “high” culture events, while arguing she fill her belly with beans, pay taxes, “fuck or, at least, copulate,” and drive a car. Clearly, this is meant to be ironic, reiterated by the fact that Berkett was swathed in a beautiful purple gown (designed by Eri Nakamura); but the work’s constant repetitions and its sometimes literal representations (for example, the belly full of beans was repeated each time by the dancer hitting her belly) that seemed to work against Berkett’s generally graceful and more sexually-oriented maneuvers.
     During the pause after the piece, a well-dressed and quite intelligent woman sitting in front of me, suddenly turned, apparently somewhat irritatedly, to ask “now what did that all mean?” I could only laugh. Did I look to be a sage? Perhaps we should just say that it’s in the tradition of Harry Partch’s Barstow.

     But if there was any doubt of the vibrancy of this young company, their much-admired Ode to Joy, “O2Joy” followed. This popular work, performed across the country, is a testimony to the American Song Book, with jazz music by Oscar Peterson, Count Basie, and great numbers by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields and numerous others. The ecstatic dancers Berkett, Davis, Leibert, Rosando, and White spun and leaped in grand jetes exuberantly, Davis lip-synching a totally camp yet charming rendition of Gerald Mark’s and Seymour Simon’s “All of Me.” It’s this sense of total joy, sexuality, and outright silliness that separates this company from so many others.
     Rather embarrassingly, this was my first encounter with this magnificent BodyTraffic. But I’ll be back to see them the next time they appear.

Los Angeles, June 1, 2018
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (June 2018).