Friday, April 26, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "Against Linear Time" (on the performance Time No Line by John Kelly)

by Douglas Messerli

John Kelly Time No Line / the performance I saw with Pablo Capra was at REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater) on April 25, 2019

It is difficult to know how to describe John Kelly’s one-man performance, Time No Line, which I saw last night at REDCAT in downtown Los Angeles. That difficulty has partly to do with the fact that Kelly’s work is so many different things: a kind of muted autobiographical commentary (this particular work is based on his journals begun in 1976 and continuing into the present), a history of his involvement with dance (he performed briefly with The American Ballet Theater), art (for a while he studied with Larry Rivers), and music (he sings a couple of songs in drag and talks of his passion for opera), a kind of silent film presentation, and, perhaps most importantly, a testimony to the many friends he has lost of AIDS over the years.

     The lean and handsome Kelly has had a fascinating and often horrifying life. Playing, in the past, figures such as Joni Mitchell, Egon Schiele, and Caravaggio, Kelly was himself diagnosed as HIV-positive and broke his neck at another point while learning how to sing on a trapeze while playing the female impersonator of the 1920s, Barbette.
      If there’s a sort of self-obsession about this work simply because the performer puts himself front and center as such a multi-talented actor, there is also a kind of humility in simply putting so many loves, endurances, and embarrassments together.
     As reviewer Dan Callahan wrote in The Village Voice, “Kelly’s Time No Line is less about himself and more about the people he has lost.” The people of whom he speaks, some of them with whom I shared distant friendships, became ghosts that haunt his memory, and even when he is sharing his own artistic experiences, Kelly himself becomes a kind of ghost, explaining—or perhaps, at moments, self-justifying—his highly checkered past from dancing with ballet companies, performing in famed art venues such as La MaMa (where this performance appeared in 2018), The Whitney Museum of Art, the Walker Art Center, The Andy Warhol Museum, The Tate Modern and, as well in far less grand East Village venues such as Limbo Lounge, Pyramid Club, Club 57, and the gay bar The Anvil (where long before his 1980 performances there, I met my first lover, the year before returning to the university to encounter my husband of now almost 50 years.)
      It’s a kind of heady mix to perform a song in one of his drag singer’s persona and in the next minute talk about Bush-appointee to the chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, John Frohnmayer who notoriously nixed NEA grants awarded by that year’s panel to Tim Miller, John Fleck, Holly Hughes, and Karen Finley.At one point Kelly chalks a kind of version of Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Vitruvian Man on the stage floor.
   At moments Kelly reads from his journal before performing unscripted events involving props and interacting with his own images from his past projected on a back screen. It’s quite clear, as Kelly has described himself elsewhere, he is a “range queen,” a bit like performer Joey Arias (whom Kelly mentions in passing), a person who can, instant by instant, transform himself, a kind of artist-warrior who battles notions of gender and a notion of a coherent being.
     To comprehend his performances you have almost to imagine a genius-child dressing up and acting out nearly every figure he loves before his bedroom mirror. Only, the fun thing in this case is that we get to be there, to share his wonderment of human life, even if so many of them people and events are now phantoms. Time, in Kelly’s world is not linear, but endlessly circular and even overlaid with both present and past.
     The rather young—I think I may have been the eldest member of the audience—and sophisticated REDCAT attendees clearly assimilated and enjoyed Kelly’s chameleon-like work, even if they might not always know the figures of whom he speaks and enacts. This man/woman/ child gets to have it all along with the much deserved applause.

Los Angeles, April 26, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (April 2019).

Friday, April 19, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "And Where Are You Now?" (on William Finn's and James Lapine's Falsettos)

and where are you now?
by Douglas Messerli

William Finn (music and lyrics) with a book by James Lapine Falsettos / directed by James Lapine at the Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles, the performance I saw was on April 17, 2019

When I first saw the “charming musical” Falsettos—as it was generally described in those days—at a small 3rd Street venue in Los Angeles, 19 years after its major Broadway musical production and long after its original introduction in off-Broadway in 1979, I perceived as a rather “chipper”—if you can possibly conceive as the work ending in the death of one of its central figures dying of AIDS as anything but possibly tragic—in part because of its important subtext of a Jewish family with neighboring Lesbians and other related figures simply arguing, fighting, and trying to survive in a totally broken world with a marvelously ebullient young son, Jason (performed in the production I saw by the charming young Thatcher Jacobs and Jonah Mussolino—I believe Jacobs who was the character in the production I saw)—as anything but tragic, which was precisely what my theater companion, Lita Barrie, experienced it as when we visited the new, large-theater production at the Los Angeles’ Amundsen Theater on April 17th.  The cover of the Amundsen program, in fact, reiterated, sadly, this vision, identifying the tight-knit family with the “lesbians next door, and the “unlikely lovers,” and identifying the son as a “short insomniac.” Sorry, this no longer works for me.
     For this time around, I knew what was coming—after all, the title of my first piece was taken from one of the most powerful songs of the work, sung by Dr. Charlotte (in this production, the remarkable, full-throated singer Byronha Marie Parham), “Something Bad Is Happening,” which presages the entire AIDs world, which I escaped just by the accident of meeting someone (my husband Howard Fox) after I left an active gay life in New York City a few days before the Stonewall events which I attempted to relate to my evening companion, insisting that if I hadn’t left New York those very days and hadn’t met Howard back in Madison, Wisconsin a few weeks later, I would have died soon after—given, what she described them in a strange euphemism as my “frisky days”—a behavior that I might have more likely described as common gay sexual, late 1960s joyful activities, something, incidentally, I have never regretted.
          But knowing, now so many years later, what actually happened, and knowing how narrowly I escaped the death that the married man’s Marvin (Max Von Essen) later-life lover Whizzer (Nick Adams) suffered in his AIDs death, as I am clearly aware that so many other audience members recognized, I no longer saw this work as a somewhat randy comedy of Jewish love, life, and separation. Yes, those lovely ditties such as “A Tight Knit Family,” “March of the Falsettos,” and the second act “The Baseball Game,” “Everyone Hates Their Parents,” are all comic songs of familial love and failure. “The Baseball Game,” in particular is a lovely tribute to what American Jews see as their failures for not becoming a second generation of Sandy Colfax Jewish athleticism:

(everyone shouting various encouragements to Jason)

ALL: We’re sitting
And watching Jason play baseball,
We’re watching Jason play baseball!
We’re watching Jewish boys,
Who cannot play baseball, play baseball!
We’re watching Jewish boys,
Who cannot play baseball play-

MARVIN: I hate baseball, I really do!
Unlike the rest of you,
I hate baseball!

     Given Whizzer’s sudden appearance (he is invited only by Jason) and through his advice to the boy, Jason suddenly hits the ball, yet sadly, forgets in his shock of the event, to even run, how cannot Marvin again fall again in love with this man? How it reminds me of my terrified experiences on the Little League fields of Iowa!
     Or, given another comic example, the everyman/everyboy song sung by Jason’s psychiatrist step-father, Mendel’s (Nick Blaemire) marvelous little confidential confession to his now adopted son:

Everyone hates his parents,
Don't be ashamed.
You'll grow up, you'll come through,
You'll have kids, and they'll hate you too!
Oh, everyone hates his parents,
But, I confess,
You grow up, you get old, you hate less!

     These and so many other songs of this work inure us to what is really going on, not only the anger between the two totally tortured parents—both of whom still love their child (and, perhaps, one another) but realize their paths have completely gone in other ways—who still are determined to make Jason attend to the Bar Mitzvah ceremony, which he, given their battles, now rejects.
     And, far more importantly, their lesbian neighbors, particularly Dr. Charlotte who perceives what is really the essence of this work: it’s not simply the familiar differences, it’s the entire world that is crushing down upon gay, lesbian, and even heterosexual communities in a time in which the Regan presidency had utterly no commitment to the issues at hand:

People might think I'm very dykish.
I make a big stink when I must, but goddamn!
I'm just professional, never too nonchalant.
If I'm a bitch, well, I am what I am!

Just call me 'Doc', don't call me 'lady'.
I don't like to talk when I'm losing the game.
Bachelors arrive sick and frightened.
They leave weeks later unenlightened.
We see a trend, but the trend has no name.

Something bad is happening.
Something very bad is happening.
Something stinks, something immoral.
Something so bad that words have lost their meaning!
Rumors fly and tales abound,
Stories echo underground!
Something bad
Is spreading, spreading, spreading

     Frankly, that song turns everything in this work ‘round, as we realize that the someone enchanting family differences of this formerly domestic “musical” transforms into a totally new context, which, I’m afraid, just left me in tears this time ‘round.
     Because I met Howard so many years earlier and we had both left the gay bar scene, we did not, in fact, know a great many people who died in those terrible, terrible years of AIDs. We only saw it far afar, knowing that perhaps some of our former friends might have disappeared, expressed so poignantly in Marvin’s last song “But where are you now?” So many friends we’ve never every heard from again. Accordingly, this remarkable production brought tears to my eyes for my former self and all of those who I can no longer reach. “Stories echo underground.” Where have they gone? I miss them.
      The amazing cast of singers and actors with only a small backup band—celebrated at the beginning of act two, along with the attendance of a large gay audience with the song “Welcome to Falsettoland”—help to create a true American opera, I realized this time around, that has almost no dialogue, and might be perceived as a kind of pop-opera in the tradition of Rossini, with elements of Wagner and so many other great opera composers of the past.
     There is no question that William Finn’s and James Lapine’s musical composition and book don’t quite make claims to the greatest of American theatrical compositions. Lapine has worked with the far greater composer Stephen Sondheim in Into the Woods. But you need to forget all of that. This production, with a wonderful set that transformed seemingly with abstract (plastic or rubber?) constructions into sophisticated rooms and later into walls that might at any moment fall in upon these fragile characters’ lives, with excellent lighting by Jeff Croiter which helped make this large theater production at the Ahmanson Theatre a theater event into a work that was no longer “chipper,” but one which made me weep and weep.
     The audience, particularly after the final significant aria, “What Would I Do?” to perceive the depth of this work, as Marvin sings not only of his personal loss but of the joys his nearly impossible relationship has allowed:

MARVIN (left alone):
What would I do
If I had not met you?
Who would I blame my life on?
Once I was told
That all men get what they deserve.
Who the hell then threw this curve?
There are no answers.
But who would I be
If you had not been my friend?

You're the only one,
One out of a thousand others,
Only one my child would allow.
When I'm having fun,
You're the one I wanna talk to.
Where have you been?
Where are you now?

   Anyone who has lived through the 1980s or realizes what happened in those dark days cannot but leave the theater with a new devotion to the thousands of lives lost which this American opera sings of. No, this is not a family comedy—although it seems to attempt to cover its tragedy by pretending it is. This is an American tragedy that we now recognize was covered by the entire culture, a grand pretense that breaks the heart.
     The opening night crowd seemed to recognize this, and rightfully applauded with standing ovation.

Los Angeles, April 19, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (April 2019).

Monday, April 1, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "The Gods Fall in Love with Earth" (on Richard Wagner's Die Walküre at the MET, 2019)"

the gods fall in love with earth
by Douglas Messerli

Richard Wagner (composer, based on Nordic texts), Robert Lepage (stage director), Gary Halvorson (director) Die Walküre / 2019 (The Metropolitan Opera HD-live broadcast)

The other day I saw the MET’s production of Wagner’s Die Walküre, an opera I’ve now seen 4 or 5 times. Howard and I watched the previous Metropolitan Opera’s production, Otto Shenk’s 1968 version, at least twice on video (perhaps I saw that one only once, when Howard and I did a marathon viewing over 4 days of the entire Nibelungen cycle at home); we saw the complete Der Ring des Nibelungen, directed by Archim Fryer, at the LA Opera in 2010; and the following year we saw a live-HD production of Robert Lepage’s MET production with Deborah Voight (who played as host to this new production) as Brünnhilde, Jonas Kaufmann, Eva-Maria Westbroek, and Stephanie Blythe. So, despite the glorious new production we saw on Sunday—with Christine Goerke playing the Valkyrie queen, Stuart Skelton as Siegmund, again the superb Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde, Jaime Barton as Fricka, and Greer Grimsley as Wotan—perhaps I should just remain quiet, allowing the thousands of other voices who have written about this remarkable opera speak for me. I have signed in to talk about it on at least three previous occasions.
      Yet since my writings serve also as a kind of personal memoir of my experiences, and I find it difficult to not speak out—this time in brief—about one of the most glorious productions of this opera ever performed. All the singers were at top form, with Goerke, Westbroek and Grimsley representing the highest levels of vocal art.

   But I don’t need to talk about that given that so many other critics have acclaimed their performances. It is Grimsley, who in the intermission suggested that he plays Wotan not simply as a god but as a kind of Shakespearian tragic figure, who helped me, through his performance, to see another dimension—surely one discussed endlessly over the years since the opera premiered in 1870 (the MET first performed it in 1885).
      What Grimsley demonstrated, more clearly than any other performer I have seen, is that the pagan gods (and perhaps even the Christian one) loved earth and its beings far too much. Zeus kept descending to our green planet for sexual affairs with both men and women (Wagner, far more a homophobe than the Greeks, does not hint that Wotan had homosexual affairs—although he certainly does have a deep hankering after his favorite boy Siegmund). And that, we discover finally in  Die Walküre is the major problem, which will ultimately end in the downfall of the gods. If the gods come down to earth seeking love and entering into the daily affairs of the mortals, they, as his spurned wife Fricka reminds him, have lost their conventional powers; their intermingling’s with the earthlings not only suggest to the mortals that they might be imbued by the god’s power and glory, but seeds doubt about Valhalla’s inaccessibility.
      Siegmund, the perfect example of a hero beginning to have his doubts, even refuses the journey to the Norses’ heaven if he cannot take the woman (his own sister, with whom he has entered into an incestuous relationship) who represents earthly bliss, with him, and claims that he might rather go to Hell—quite literally. Perhaps he has, given the fact that Brünnhilde returns on her sky-traveling steed with his wife rather than him.

   It his Wotan’s recognition of the errors of his past that forces him to agree with Fricka that he must look less toward the future and change, and more to the rules that he himself, in his original godhead had enforced.

      So too has his beloved daughter, Brünnhilde, fallen in love, in her many journeys there, with earth and its beings, including Siegmund, who, defying her father’s insistence that she not intrude in his battle with Hunding (Günther Grossböck), attempts to help save him from a certain death, must be doomed herself to become one of the mortals—and in this production, high atop the now-famed Lepage “Machine” she is crucified to later become a kind of female Christ to the world with she has fallen in love. The theme, of course, is repeated in the opera Siegfried. It has always fascinating to me that in Wagner’s world, the Christ is not the dead hero, but the woman who has sacrificed her own immortality for man.     

     Grimsley’s Wotan is almost sick to death for his immortality, readily willing to die if only he might be able free himself from his own restrictions, to become a “free man” able once more to enjoy the sensual pleasures available, evidently, only on earth. If only someone might come along Wotan sings, to, without his interactions to save them, become a kind of hero who might deny the gods and destroy their power. This is Nietzsche, of course, speaking through Wagner, or Wagner, prefiguring the great philosopher.

      But it is also Ulysses defying Zeus and the other Greek gods; it is Augustine speaking out against the Roman deities; it is Ibsen’s Brand denying his own faith. Earth and all of its failings can be such a lovely place that even the gods, who realize they must severely punish its sinful denizens, long to be there. How the Christian God must have envied his Adam and Eve!
     If only the mortals stopped attempting to be gods!

Los Angeles, April 1, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (April 2019).