Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "Making Swan Lake Dangerous" (on Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake)

making swan lake dangerous
by Douglas Messerli

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (composer), Matthew Bourne director and choreographer Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake / 2019 (the review below was written after I saw a production in Los Angeles at the  Ahmanson Theatre  on December 10, 2019, after which I watched the film version).

In 1995 English dancer and choreographer Matthew Bourne did something quite audacious in the world of ballet by taking the often-stuffy tutu-laden Tchaikovsky ballet Swan Lake into a world of a fantasy about the psychological turmoil of coming to terms with one’s gay sexuality. He was grandly helped by the set and costume design of Lez Brotherston.
      While keeping much of the basic story of the original, particularly the romantic tale of a young Prince falling in love with a swan, by transforming the basic tale into a modern-day story of royalty not so very different from the Court of Queen Elizabeth, he presented the myth through a very different lens. Except for the fact that this young Prince, having daily to face the cold and distant attentions of the Queen (elegantly and often humorously performed by Nicole Kabera in the production I saw and in the film), is clearly not the obviously heterosexual Prince Charles, but you might well understand why Australian choreographer Graeme Murphy was tempted to embrace this ballet into the context of Charles’ marriage to Princess Diana.

      Yet Bourne keeps the more mysterious elements of ballet intact, partly by representing the highly-regulated life of the young Prince through a corps of servants, all looking a bit like his disapproving but, nonetheless, sexually active mother, as they bathe the young prince, brush his teeth, and dress him each morning, to which the audience with whom I was attending broke out in laughter.
      The young prince of Bourne’s production simply wants love and seeks it out first with a vivacious woman intruder (Katrina Lyndon), titled in the program simply as “The Girlfriend.” This gauche young woman, clearly hated by the Queen, is certainly no friend and is less a young girl than an outright tart. The Queen, obviously, wants her son to marry someone of his own class, made clear in the attendees of “The Royal Ball” in Act Three. Actually, she is planted into the royal castle by the Queen’s “Private Secretary” (Jack Jones), who hopes to bring down the monarchy and put himself as the Head of State.
      The Prince (Andrew Monaghan / Liam Mower in the film) clumsily attempts to dance with the intruder while attending a very funny ballet performance, which wittily imitates earlier productions of this same ballet, with his mother, secretary von Rothbart, and his sudden “girlfriend,”
     He even attempts to track her down in a sleazy bar, The Swank, where lusty men and women dance quite licentiously—clearly a world to which the innocent young man is not accustomed. When he finds that even the new girlfriend is completely disinterested in him, he mopes alone at a separate table and is eventually tossed out into the streets by the sailors who inhabit the disco.
     Despondent, he wanders off to a nearby park wherein, on a lake, several swans swim. Bourne has already shown us that the Prince has had nightmares about the swans, and now we witness a sign posted nearby warning visitors not to feed the swans. We can only recognize that the food on which the swans might feed are not bags of fish-chips, but the bodies of male human beings—precisely, after posting a note about his suicide, the Prince feeds them himself as he quickly becomes enthralled with the virile naked torsos and feather covered leggings of Bourne’s leaping and flying dancers.
      The lead swan (Max Westwell / William Bozier in the film production), in particular captures his heart, and after a series of teasing and flirting gestures, takes the young courtier into a pas de deux that, in part because of its daring gender shifts, is far more sensuous than anything possible in other Swan Lakes—although we might imagine that Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky might have loved it!
      The outstretched inviting hands, always imitating the neck gestures of swans, are accepted and rejected, while the common male-female lifts of the Prince into the Swans arms represent the former’s transformation into a world of sexual bliss that as strange almost as what Edward Albee describes in his odd 2002 play The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?
     After all, this is not the first time that animals have transformed themselves into animals in order to seduce the human race: one need only to remind ourselves of Zeus’ transformation into a swan in order to impregnate Leda.
      In part, Bourne’s ballet gives the heterosexual world a vision of what it means to “come out,” as the beautiful Prince, now transformed by the male version of the traditional version’s Odette, becomes obsessed with his new lover. Is it at all surprising that he sees the face of the Swan in another intruder into the court, the Royal Ball the Queen has commanded to present numerous international beauties from which her son will have to choose for a proper wife?
     These supposed “beauties,” particularly once the sexual “Stranger” (as in the original wherein Odette appeared as Odile) enters—seemingly a human version of the Prince’s swan-lover—become equally enchanted the man, entering into tarantellas and tango-like entanglements with the man, whom the Prince now shockingly perceives as a kind of reversal of behavior, a “black” swan-like being (dressed in a black waist coat and black leather pants), if nothing else a darker, far more aggressive vision of his gentler new-found lover.

     Seduced all over again, but shocked by the darker aspects of his love, is it any wonder that the young innocent resorts to violence, ultimately killing his “Girlfriend” in the process?
      As in so many such family situations, the sexually “confused” young son is incarcerated in an asylum, looked after by an army of a doctor and nurses, all of whom, as in the first scene, appear to be various apparitions of his dominating mother. Bourne almost seems to be hinting here of gay conversion therapy, which often makes the patient go mad.
      Laid into his overlarge bed by his nurses, the demons of his sexual desires are let loose, the swans coming out, as in a horrified child’s dream, from under the bed itself, even from within the mattress to haunt him. Although the lead swan reappears in an attempt to calm the sufferer, the swan corps turn on both of them, terrifying the Prince.
      Bourne has brought us, as I read it, into a kind of mad gay bar wherein everyone wants a piece of action with the cutest man in the room, which Monaghan clearly is. There are subtle hints here even of The Red Shoes (a ballet in which Monaghan has performed), as the Prince, once he has accepted his longings, cannot escape the consequences of his own open sexuality, dancing himself impossibly into death.

    Here there are no grand jetés, assembles, or even graceful lifts. The sweaty male torsos now shift from the sensual into almost a demand for a swan-orgy. And the only grand leap is the one in which the Prince, utterly exhausted, jumps into death, where he can finally join the lead Swan into an embrace of eternity.
     What we realize in Bourne’s brilliant re-creation of this balletic chestnut is how fresh it can still be and how marvelously accurate it is its conception. Swan Lake, with its infusions of myth and fairy-tale, must have seemed almost dangerous upon its original production—although it was, at first, not particularly popular, and only later came to be seen as a major work of art. But Bourne in 1995 Bourne re-energized it, made it come alive as a dangerous work again. And in the wonderful production which I visited last night, subtitled “The Legend Returns,” we are truly brought back into that magical world where humans copulate with swans, and swans are freed to become almost human, and queer humans at that.

Los Angeles, December 11, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (December 2019).

Monday, December 9, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "A Man of Different Stories" (on David Mynne's performance of A Christmas Carol)

a man of different stories
by Douglas Messerli

David Mynne, performer, A Christmas Carol (based on the fiction by Charles Dickens) / directed by Simon Harvey / the performance I attended with Diana Bing Daves McLaughlin and her granddaughter Elcie on December 7, 2019 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Lovelace Studio Theater in Beverly Hills, California.

Cornwell, England performer David Mynne, directed by another Cornwellian, Simon Harvey, performs the Charles Dickens’ Christmas classic A Christmas Carol as a kind of gang of voices, from the sounds of the wind to the chains of his former partner Jacob Marley. In a sense Ebenezer Scrooge, in this performance, becomes, if nothing else, a one-man dynamo, who seems to be everywhere at every moment. This is certainly not the isolated and trying-to-sleep businessman of Edwin L. Marin’s 1938 movie where Reginald Owens plays a miser desperately seeking to escape all human contact. No languid escapism in this version of the work!
      Just for the fact that Mynne himself performs the specters who threaten him throughout the night, we see a far greater vision of the physcologically-driven spirts who haunt him.

     It reminded me that Marley and he had been students together at the awful Dickensian boarding-school they both attended, and that the older “partner” had taken the younger under his wing, so to speak. I’ve always been interested in that strange male bonding, which, by accident, I discovered another fictional telling about two days later in The New York Times Book Review, a review of Jon Clinch’s new novel Marley which more carefully explores their relationship.
      Obviously in Dickens’ work there is no homosexual or even homoerotic connection between the two, but, as Clinch writes, “The adolescent Marley immediately establishes a viselike hold over the newly arrived Scrooge,” and you do have to wonder how Scrooge in his early days so interned himself as an accountant—a role Bob Cratchit later plays to the miserly Scrooge—to a secretive man who may have been working in his business dealings in the slave trade—so Clinch suggests—who, when Scrooge discovers the fact, attempts to redeem the company to which he is attached. But ultimately, it is the “frightening and dangerously attractive” (as critic Simon Callow describes him) who, through his love of Scrooge’s sister Fan, is redeemed while Scrooge becomes the greater monster.
     This fictional version of events, obviously, is not completely there in Mynne’s wonderful performance; yet there is something even stranger about his sudden attraction to Crotchit’s dying son, Tiny Tim, who he sits upon his shoulder as a hand glove, in such an intimate action that it almost suggests an act of pedophilia.
      I looked to my friend Diana Bing Daves McLaughlin’s grandchild Elcie to see how she was reacting to all of this, but realized her crawling into and up above her seat that she was probably simply enjoying the crazy puppet-like actions, as if Mynne’s shoulder sock might be just another version of Sesame Street.
      Yet Mynne’s lively production was not so tame as that children’s series. Even as he buys a giant turkey to feed Cratchit’s brood, there is something transactional about his actions. The family is well-fed, but we cannot quite comprehend how they will survive in the future, even as Scrooge now delightedly attends the Christmas dance party of his nephew.
      If he has found a new life in his very sudden conversion, we recognize him still as the same man of whoosing winds and horrors he has collected through his life. The leaves seem to pile up, created through his own voice, even as he attests a new joy in the Christmas season.
      Given he is a single tornado of voices, we can never be sure in this version who Scrooge really is. He has, in a sense, become his own past, Marley, the Spirit of Christmas’ past, and the horror of possible Christmas’ future all in the single spirit of one failed human being. And we never know when one of those myriad voices will again turn on the human race to express “Bah Humbug.”
       If Marley is locked-up in chains of his own terrible actions of the past, this Scrooge’s life is equally compelled by the man different stories he tells of his own existence.
       A “slave trade” is truly what Dickens’ work is all about, the trading of human flesh (or at least a giant turkey) for one’s own pleasure and servitude. Bob Cratchit must eventually return to work and Tiny Tim will ultimately be removed from the arm which has brought him back to life.
      Having lost his youthful sister, his dearly beloved partner, and his lover Belle, Scrooge will never truly be one of the ordinary people who surround him. Bitterness will surely sadly creep into his life once again. In this production, moreover, Mynne plays all the fragile figures and even the landscape of a world of capitalist greed, where all the tiny figures of money made and lost gets toted up. After all, money buys a large turkey for Christmas dinner; poverty buys an occasional small goose.

Los Angeles, December 9, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (December 2019).

Douglas Messerli | "Attempting to Save a People Who Do Not Need Saving" (on Cailin Maureen Harrison's Defenders)

attempting to save a people who do not need saving
by Douglas Messerli

Cailin Maureen Harrison Defenders / directed by Reena Dutt at The Broadwater Black Box / the performance I attended was on December 8, 2019

Cailin Maureen Harrison’s play Defenders, directed by Reena Dutt at The Broadwater Black Box in Hollywood, although based on fact, is nearly an absurdist work, revealing perhaps just how absurd things can become in war.
    Fearful that Iceland would come attack of the Nazis, the American military ordered soldiers into that island country. The three figures of this play—Lieutenant Marcus Jansen (Bryan Porter), Sergeant Frank McKinley (Tavis Doucette), and Private Fred LaFleur (Spencer Martin)—are ordered to the island’s northern coast.
      But almost everything that could go wrong does. A powerful storm shipwrecks their vessel, and they are forced with a broken radio and jammed machine gun to take refuge on the smaller, rocky island of Hrisey in a derelict church. They are so fearful that the area may have already infiltrated by Germans, that they almost reject the much-needed help of two locals, Geir Stirdson (John P. Connolly) and his daughter Vigdis Geirdottir (Una Eggerts), who finally are able to convince them that they are friendly, fetching coal for the ancient stove, feeding them, and bringing homemade liquor to comfort the small military unit.

     While McKinley desperately attempts to bring the radio back to life and LaFleur tries again and again to unjam the dead gun, the dynamic leader of the group, Jansen barks out orders and every now and then attempts to scout out the island in search of the enemy, each time returning with more and more serious injuries as he and his loyal second in-command fall into bogs, are whipped apart by the unusually strong winds, and are nearly struck by lightning. All McKinley wants to do is return home, hoping that the evidently wealthy Jansen might eventually take him along into a better financial life.
      Although Geir speaks English, his beautiful daughter speaks mostly Icelandic spiced with an occasional English word (the actress is an Icelander). On top of that LaFleur, obviously from the backwaters of Louisiana, speaks a mix of heavily accented English and Creole. While his seniors pretend to be rational beings, the Private is almost a kind of young mystic, intertwining biblical verses with the Icelandic Eddas, a collection of which has been left behind in the church. It is almost inevitable that he and Vigdis shyly fall in love.
      In short, if this play of meaningless acts did not end so tragically, it might almost be described as a comedy of errors.
     Yet a kind of madness ultimately takes over the mind of Jansen, while a mix of magic and myth spills over from the Icelanders coloring, LaFleur’s already overwrought imagination.
      Iceland, and particularly this small offshore island, has a history of different sets of invaders and pirates, and the stories of the Edda call forth the harsh weather they daily suffer as a kind of protection. Accordingly, they are almost as fearful of the recently arrived American soldiers as the three intruders are of the Nazis, whom they seem imagine behind every rock.
      Accordingly, despite the best intentions of those trapped in this quite ridiculous situation, weapons are brought out, ending in the death of Jansen and the near death of McKinley before an American vessel arrives to save them. Only the innocent LaFleur walks off the island by himself. But we also recognize that he will never be the same again, that the absurd experience where his leaders attempted to save a people who did not need saving, will haunt him the rest of his life.
      The small company which presented this arresting play, Pandelia’s Canary Yellow Company, has created a truly admirable production, with all the actors performing quite brilliantly, and with an arresting set by David Goldstein, appropriate costumes by Shon LeBlank, and excellent sound design by Jesse Mandapat. One might wish that all such small theater Los Angeles companies were so wonderfully professional.
      If Defenders is not precisely a major work of theater drama, it’s certainly a fascinating one, searching out through these long-ago events to balance the impossible-to-believe with a heart-felt spirituality—a need to believe. Every war throughout history has seen such bizarre encounters that only fiction and theater—the representations of our myths—can tell.

Los Angeles, December 9, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (December 2019).

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "The Rough Voice of Tenderness" (on Dorian Wood's XAVELA LUX AETERNA)


Dorian Wood XAVELA LUX AETERNA / Alberto Montero, conductor / the performance I saw with Pablo Capra and Paul Sand was at Redcat (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater) on November 22, 2019.

In a period of just 2 months I have now attended 3 solo concerts in 3 different theaters of major singers performing in languages other than English: in October I attended, at the Wallis Theatre in Beverly Hills, a production of Brooklyn Rider and Megos Herrera singing in Spanish and Portuguese; in November I saw the glorious Julia Migenes singing French chansons at the Odyssey Theatre; and last night I attended Dorian Wood performing XAVELA LUX AETERNA at Redcat,
     On stage was a rather large barrel-chested man (Wood, who clearly prefers, as evidenced in the program, the pronoun “they”) dressed in a long white dress and earrings singing, along with a string quartet (made up of Madeline Falcone, Emily Cell, Cassia Streb, Isaac Takeuchi, with percussion by Marcos Junquera, and synthesizer backup Xavi Muñoz) songs sung by the great Mexican-Costa Rican singer Chavela Vargas, "la voz áspera de la ternura" (“the rough voice of tenderness”).

     Beginning as a street singer, Vargas was known for wearing masculine clothes, smoking cigars, and toting a gun. She was beloved by many in the literary and art world and was rumored to have a sexual affair with painter Frida Kahlo.
      As Dorian Wood’s baritone voice, moving sometimes to a strong tenor, reveals with lovingly rough tenderness, passionate, often almost ululating plaints, “they” are absolutely stunning, while at the same time incorporating Vargas’ famed songs along with other Costa Rican compositions, dug up, apparently by Wood’s musical director, the Spanish-born Alberto Montero, who at one point joins Woods on stage with guitar in a truly lovely, quiet love song.
      At other points, Wood is joined on stage with vocalists SAN CHA and Carmina Escobar, allowing the water-slurping Wood to momentarily rest “their” vocal chords, necessary since “they” explode into such intense musical passages that even the hands of the singer tremble with delight and desire.
      After listening to just a couple of Wood’s powerful songs, you quickly forget that “they” are not of the feminine sex, and begin to feel that “they” may have actually channeled the great Mexican-Costa Rican singer Vargas, an utterly amazing transformation since Wood doesn’t look anything like the singer herself.
      In a sense, what Wood has been able to do is to turn Vargas’ singing and masculine identity upside down, to retrieve the deep femininity within her then-radical lesbian demeanor. It is almost as if, dressed in a white quinceañera-like dress “they” reprieve the deep sexuality of the original singer.
      What was just as fascinating to me, as an outsider, not fluent in Spanish, was how the audience—a nearly full-house made up, obviously, of a large group of folks of Central American and Mexican heritage—clearly knew the songs was performing. Only in major US metropolitan communities and border towns might you find an audience who could easily join “them” in singing one of the last songs “they” performed. My friends, Tony winner Paul Sand and publisher/editor Pablo Capra were equally delighted by the entire ambience of the evening.
      At a time when immigration has increasing been vilified, it was truly wonderful, as I again realized, to live in such a remarkably diverse city. Wood, born to Costa Rica parents in Los Angeles, had his mother in the front row, and, after a much-deserved demand for an encore, brought up “their” mother to the stage to break open the large piñata that had been hanging over the entire proceedings.
     The small, handsome woman, took several powerful swings and opened it, pouring what appeared to be small papers instead of any candy treats; the audience, fortunately, had already had almost all the sweet treats we could endure for one night. This time the standing ovations (and there were several) were truly deserved.

Los Angeles, November 23, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (November 2019).the rough voice of tenderness
by Douglas Messerli

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "The Wiz and the Tin Man" (on my relationship with André De Shields)

the wiz and the tin man
by Douglas Messerli

I was a bit startled the other day when Howard, after reading the cover article about actor, dancer, choreographer, and singer André De Shields, born in 1946, in his On Wisconsin magazine, asked me: didn’t we know this sartorial handsome man back in Madison?

      The article recounted his career and his recent performance in Hadestown on Broadway for which he won a Tony Award for singing and acting. And, his career, a long one, including performances on Broadway in Warp!, Ain't Misbehavin', Play On!, The Full Monty, Impressionism, and the title role in The Wiz was detailed in the article.

   The piece also detailed his amazing performances in small university productions at Bascom Hall at the University of Wisconsin with the Screw Theater company of Titus Andronicus and De Shields playing Martha in a gender-switched production, refused by Edward Albee’s representatives, of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I read about that production when I was a student, studying in Bascom Hall, a scandale of the day, but unfortunately never attended it. Well, it began late at late night and lasted into the early hours of morning. I have always been an early to-rise-person, which I am still today. But how I wish I could move back in time and see all the events I missed, including that company’s even more scandalous production, in which he played Tiger Lily, in Peter Pan, with the cast mostly in the nude.

     De Shields argues that his friend Gordon

       “used the fantasy tale to depict the loss of political 
       innocence in the wake of the violent crackdown on 
       the Vietnam War protesters during the 1968 Democratic 
       Convention and the of the assassination of Martin 
       Luther King, Jr. Members of the Black Panther party 
       were stand-ins for Neverland’s indigenous people, 
       Captain Hook was the mayor of Chicago, and Peter 
       and the Lost Boys were hippies. The play was to 
       feature a dance by seven nude young women but 
       ended up with just two of them plus De Shields, 
       who stepped in when others dropped 
       out for fear of consequences.”

      In those early 1960s days people, particularly academics, were utterly terrified by the human body. I recall now how a photographic show of few male nudes at another University of Wisconsin campus, in Milwaukee, caused a complete rumpus, with many administrators demanding its closure. I did visit that show in a university hall and was amazed by its rather modest presentation of the male body. The fuss was truly about nothing I realized even in my youth. Why were these stuffy old men so terrified by it? Envy? Desire? Fear of their own inadequacy? Or just fear of the loss of their own youths? In any event, the company in which De Shields performed was basically banned.

      De Shields, so his friends declare in this article, were literally transformed by De Shield’s personality:

             De Shields captivated people with his personality, 
             says Viki Stewart, cofounder of Madison Civic 
             Repertory. She recalls the green nail polish he wore 
             when they met and the scene at the cast party for 
             The Fantastickswhere he was surrounded by young 
             men and women, ‘all on the floor listening to his 
             every word.’
     I never experienced that alas. At least not with De Shields.

     Howard asked me, didn’t we know him?

    Yes, I admitted, I met him in that small Madison gay bar off the square in which existed the State of Wisconsin’s State Offices (it is the Capitol of Wisconsin), and was enchanted just by his appearance, and that night went to bed with him. So many years later, I can’t remember whether we had good sex or not, but I recall that night yet today. He was a beautiful young gay man on his way to fame, and I knew it even then.

Los Angeles, November 20, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "Going Home to Milk The Cows" (on Pat Kinevane's performance Before)

going home to milk the cows
by Douglas Messerli

Pat Kinevane (writer and performer), Denis Clohessy (composer) Before / produced by Fishamble and Odyssey Theatre Ensemble by Beth Hogan / the performance I saw was on Sunday, November 17, 2019.

The noted Irish actor/author Pat Kinevane, who has presented, through his association with Jim Culleton’s Fishamble Company in Ireland, numerous solo performances, including Forgotten, Silent, and Underneath, in his new show, Before, is interested in exploring issues that have been mostly comically treated in such movies as Kramer vs. Kramer and Mrs. Doubtfire (the latter of which, somewhat ironically, given the contexts of this performance, will soon open as a Broadway musical); but while the totally imaginary world of musical theater is put to work in Before—musical songs composed by Denis Clohessy, with highly clever lyrics by the actor—Kinevane’s central character, Pontius Ross is far more serious about how his daughter conceived in an intense one-night stand with a woman named Felicity, was literally taken away from him in a far from felicitous encounter.
      Paying alimony, even though his one-night lover has given no real evidence that her daughter is his, the country rube Pontius grows to love the child for the first 4 years he is given visiting rights to see her. Yet one night, returning to the rather wealthy home in which Felicity resides to reclaim a coat he has left behind after his short visit to see his daughter, he finds his former sexual partner having another intensive sex interlude with a ponytailed man, who turns out to be her cousin—perhaps the real father of the child.
      Going ballistic after the discovery of her incestuous relationship, Felicity does damage to her own face, blaming Pontius, whom the police arrest and is soon after denied all access to the child he had grown to love.
      Is it any wonder that the young boy who has grown up in a family devoted to local theater productions—his not-so-handsome father singing, in a strong voice, behind a screen, and his theater-devoted mother, who designs hundreds of costumes for these productions, sewing up dozens of kimonos for a production of The Mikado—declares he hates musicals, which all end in redemptive happiness.
      Yet, we easily perceive, Pontius has been raised under their umbrella, and the actor enters the stage with a “Singing in the Rain”-like protection and quickly gives it up, along with his leather coat, to sing (not as spectacularly evidently as his father) and dances (perhaps not as brilliantly as his hidden hero, Gene Kelly), but with great aplomb. Kinevane convinces us that we might all be stars in the musical genre, dancing and singing our way through somewhat lonely and ordinary lives.
      This actor turns his Cork county rube into a rather sophisticated human being, while reminding us that in Ireland local theater is as beloved as the great Dublin theaters such as the Abbey, where Kinevane originally performed, and the Gate. Kinevane has a powerful, rather charming voice, performing such lyrics where he rhymes, amazingly, words such as “miserable” with “advisable” (credit this fact to the Edinburgh Fringe Review by Rosemary Waugh), and numerous other lyrics that Cole Porter might have delighted in. The songs alone might be a reason to attend this great solo-work. But then there is the amazing dancing (choreography by Emma O’Kane). Kinevance can spin on a dime, play-out scenes from both Kelly’s and Fred Astaire’s amazing dance performances, and, finally, put on white tap-shoes to test the best of them. If he’s a little sluggish, well that’s what this everyday lover, who has lost his heart, is all about.
      Apparently, Pontius has not only lost his innocence, his love (in the form of his lover), but his sexual libido in the sexual assault Felicity has made upon him. It appears he never has never had sex again. “One orgasm was enough to last me for my lifetime.”
     As Kinevane noted in an interview, given the new demands of contemporary Irish culture, there are a great many lonely farmers left in the lurch by Ireland’s increasingly commercial success.
      There is a slight danger that he is arguing here for the patriarchy or even for a kind populist notion of what Irish life should be. Yet, given his hidden love of all thing’s theater, his deep love of his illegitimate daughter, we easily dismiss his sins. He is, after all, performing this all in the great Dublin department store Cleary’s on the very last day of its existence, a store his mother evidently thought might contain everything you ever needed, as the constant interruptive store announcements proclaim, becoming increasingly, as the play proceeds, more and more personal, until the public announcements tell him what he should purchase.
     His daughter has invited a possible meeting after 17 years and he has come up to Dublin with the mixed feelings of a possible reconciliation and, frankly, a psychological reintegration of his years of loss and desire.
     The white dress he buys for his long-lost daughter is stunningly beautiful (costume designer Catherine Condell) as it literally shivers from a hanger on the stage. It is almost as if his daughter has already entered the dress and become the beauty he has lost after all these years. She is on her way to a new life in the US.
      Kinevane’s ending is purposely ambiguous, and readings by audiences will be radically different. The actor/author seems to suggest that he waited and waited, realizing that she would never show up. His later reference to an almost transcendent sense of release in a flight over Lockerbie, Scotland suggests, perhaps that he might have himself died on the infamous Pan Am flight 103, which killed in air and on ground 207 people.
       Yet there is utterly no reason why the Irish farmer, returning to milk his cows, would have been on that flight. It was apparently his beloved daughter, on her way to a new life, who has died in the Lockerbie disaster, the plane on its way from Frankfurt and London to New York and Detroit. All that had been previously taken away from this good Irish outlander was taken away yet again. If he must declare that he “hates musicals”—as much as I personally love them—we can totally empathize with his feelings. He may have to sing and dance his days alone for the rest of his life.

Los Angeles, November 18, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (November 2019).

Friday, November 15, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "Frozen in a Bed of Chance" (on Julia Migenes performance of French chansons, Le Vie en Rose, at Odyssey Theatre Ensemble)

frozen in a bed of chance
by Douglas Messerli

Julia Migenes Le Vie en Rose / Directed by Peter Medak, Odyssey Theatre Ensemble / the performance I saw was on Thursday, November 14, 2019

At some point in her performances of French chansons last evening, opera singer, theater performer, and Grammy winner Julia Migenes revealed that if she were to perform all of her most-loved chansons, we might be in the Odyssey Theatre space for at least 4 days.
      I might actually have loved to do that, hearing a world that has only been revealed to me previously by a handful of records. And Migenes’ incredible soprano voice and her French-language intonations were so perfect that, along with her very deep knowledge of the genre, it might have been so revelatory that it would have completely altered concepts in the US of the depth and range of what is now generally perceived a lovely, almost chanted, but not incredibly important songs of love and loss in Paris. And I’m particularly sad to hear that this is her final musical tour, representing her retirement from singing in general.

     Consequently, I feel honored to have been able to hear her sing last night works from several of the most noted singers of chansons, including works by Maurice Yvain, Georges Moustaki, Léo Ferré, Francis Lai, Michel Legrand sung by noted singers such as Edith Piaf, Charles Aznovour, Jacques Brel and others.
      The red-haired beauty not only interprets these with great finesse, but provides her audience with a short-course about who the composers and singers were: the fact that Piaf, for instance, had begun her career as a street-singer, in a sense a kind of prostitute, which helps us comprehend why she might, in her song “Milord,” wish to invite it a man, addressing him with honor in order to lure him to her table:

                        Come on my Lord
                        Sit at my table
                        It’s so cold outside
                        Here is so comfortable
                        Let yourself be, Milord
                        And take your ease
                        Your sorrows on my heart
                        And your feet on a chair
                        I know you, Milord
                        Your never saw me
                        I am only a girl from the port
                        A shadow of the street

      Or why the popular singer Mistinguett, drowned in Ostrich feathers she and her male dancers wore, might wish to sing the sad now well-known English-language version of “Mon Homme,” made popular her by Billy Holliday and, later, Barbara Streisand:

                         Oh, my man I love him so
                         He’ll never know
                         All my life is just despair
                         But I don’t care
                         When he takes me in his arms
                         The world is bright, all right
                         What’s the difference if I say
                          I’ll go away, When I know
                          I’ll come back on my knees some day?

     Migenes not only explains these songs, singing them with great reverence, but shows us pictures of the composers on the covers. She even threatened, quite hilariously, to have appeared as did Mistinguett, in Ostrich feathers, but she might also need ten or more male dances, lots of feathers, and net stocking up to her waist, along with a bustier. As lovely as Migenes is, it is hard to imagine her in such a costume.
      The great singer even gives us glimpses of her own operatic career in Austria singing Lulu, a nearly impossible score with the singers move in different registers and directions from the orchestra, and, after her on-stage murder by Jack the Ripper, enjoying a kind of decompression by hearing the The Doobie Brothers, whom she brilliantly compares to the music of Charles Aznavour, who, she insists, so compacted his lyrics that he left the rest of the lyrical passages just for the musicians. She sang two songs by Aznavour—an early supporter of the LBGT community—whose “Hier Encore” notes:

                      Yesterday still, I was twenty, I was wasting time
                      Believing to stop it
                      And to hold him back, even ahead of him
                      I just ran out of breath
                      Ignoring the past, conjugating in the future
                      I preceded from me any conversation
                      And gave my opinion that I wanted the good
                      To criticize the world casually

     Time, obviously, is a major issue in these chansons, particularly in the music of Ferrè, whose son “Avec Le Temps” begins with a lament on how “With time goes everything goes away / We forget the face and we forget the voice. The heart when it beats more / It’s not worth going further / You have to let it go and that’s fine.” It sounds a bit like Alzheimer’s disease to me.
      Oddly, Migenes is particularly brilliant singing the male-composed love songs such as the endlessly chain-smoking Jacques Brel’s “Les Paumés du Petit Martin” and “La Chanson des Vieux Amant,” followed by her excellent pianist Victoria H. Kirsch’s lovely piano rendition, as Migenes temporarily leaves the stage, of one of his standards.
       Her last song, Michel Legrand and Jacques Demy’s grand paen to love from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, reiterates just how time is at the center of the French chansons.

                       If it takes forever I will wait for you
                       For a thousand summers I will wait for you
                       Till you’re here beside me, till I’m touching you
                       And forevermore sharing your love.

        For any of us who has seen the film, however, know, the singer does not wait for her lover, who’s been sent off into the French military. She marries a wealthy suitor instead of waiting for her gasoline-station owner-lover. Love in these songs is always a thing of chance, a fleeting glance as Francis Lai and Pierre Barouh suggest in “A Man and a Woman.”
       In performing these iconic and often ironic songs, Migenes, with director Peter Medak, has indeed taken a chance that might help you fall in love with the French chant-songs. I’ll never hear any of them again in the same way.

Los Angeles, November 15, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (November 2019).