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).                    

Monday, November 11, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "Interpretation of Dreams" (on Jeton Neziraj's play Department of Dreams)

interpretation of dreams
by Douglas Messerli

Jeton Neziraj Department of Dreams / presented by the City Garage, directed by Frėdėrique Michel, Santa Monica, California / the performance I saw was on Sunday, November 10, 2019.

Kosovo dramatist Jeton Neziraj’s play, Department of Dreams, received its world premier in Santa Monica’s City Garage, located in the art center, Bergamot Station. In an odd way, that seems almost appropriate for this experimental company, who have long been committed to innovative European and US productions under the direction of Frėdėrique Michel and Charles A. Buncombe. If their productions have not always shown the most scintillating of acting and direction, they have always been interesting. And for years, the company has challenged us where many other Los Angeles theaters have resisted.

    Neziraji’s play is a perfect example of their exceptional perceptions. In this Orwellian “dream play” the playwright visits a world in which the government is not simply interested in collecting information about their citizens in order to torture and, perhaps, kill them—one should recall that in Neziraj’s youth over 230,000 individuals were killed by the ethic cleansing of Serbian dictator Slobodan Miloševic, documented by numerous journalists and writers, including Susan Sontag--but are determined in gathering their most private thoughts
    The six republics, all in contradiction of the former Yugoslavian country, a manufactured entity created primarily by another dictator, Josip Broz Tito, who as a Communist supporter, allowed his amalgamation of radically different cultures and religious gatherings, broken up with terrible consequences of Tito’s death and the fall of the Soviet Union’s domination.
      The US, through Clinton and other administrators of his government such as Madeline Albright, worked hard to stop the carnage, and eventually supported the democracy of the Balkan countries, although Kosovo came to it at the very latest given the Muslin/Christian oppositions and the Serbian determination to keep it under their control. In 2008, partly in celebration of Kosovo’s final independence (today dismissed by Russia and China), my Sun and Moon Press published the selected poetry of one of the major Kosovo poets, Azem Shkreli, Blood of the Quill. Yet, Kosovo’s survival is still very much open to question, as Neziraj makes quite clear he is a very controversial writer in his own country.
      Is there any wonder, accordingly, that this highly satiric play—reminiscent of the City Garage’s beloved Eugène Ionesco—should suddenly appear, in a new translation by Alexandra Channer, in Los Angeles?
      In Neziraj’s play, not only are the citizens of the country asked to suffer from a deep controlling government, but are, quite absurdly, asked to daily produce their nightly dreams as evidence of their own psychological imaginations. Like Freud’s imaginative interloping into the private in Interpretation of Dreams, the three central figures of this drama, the freshly hired young Dan (John Logan), the aged Official (David E. Frank), and the even more ancient Master (Bo Roberts), daily read these reported dreams in an attempt to perceive what they might be saying about the people who produce them: are they fomenting revolution, hinting at their who destruction of the controlling government, or just issuing subconscious suggestions about where the populace might move?
     No one knows for certain, certainly not the Master nor the Official; yet the new interpreter, Dan, seems to be able to read his culture’s own dreams and to report them quite effectively to his controllers, sometimes to great distress, dozens of the dreamers going to prison and, ultimately, to their deaths.
      The enthusiastic young interpreter, however, soon becomes—like his predecessor, Shortleg (Gifford Irvine), who evidently was able every evening to fly away from his onerous duties, has been taken from the prestigious 4th floor to the 6th, where if you are unable to cleanse your mind puts you up into another level from you no one returns. Shortleg attempts to warn Dan, who, as brilliant in his interpretations as he is, begins to fell terribly sleep-deprived and has fallen in love with one of his reporters, Night (Angela Beyer), obviously representing the world in which he cannot successfully partake, since all of the “interpreters” are allowed little time to sleep, let alone sexual relationships.
      The Master claims he never sleeps, but continually falls into his own deep dreams at his desk, often attempting to delay them by pushing his head into a bowl of cold water. Another dreamer-interpreter, Dreambuilder (Aaron Bray), tortures himself like a religious penitent in a forced attempt to dream about the figures, including the Pope, whom the higher-ups demand he channel.
      This is a world of torture and delusion, as our young friend Dan soon perceives. And, in no time, as he his stripped from his own identity as well as his clothing, appearing throughout the last scenes of this play, naked, realizes there is no role for his desired humanistic behavior here.
      Yet, only he can properly perceive the secret messages of the dreamworld, particularly, when dozens of dreamers reveal similar dreams. Is it a secret revolution, a subtle message of absolute disobedience? Both, of course, and only our young mindless hero can recognize it, allowing him to return from the 6th floor back into the 4th as the new Master.
      It is a horrific return to what the “boss” (the government) determines is necessary. We can truly never know whether he, as the new leader, can return to the humanism he has previous sought. Memos are delivered; lies are repeated again. The beautiful young Dan is established as a new leader of a world we might not ever wish to know.
      People's most private thoughts are forced to be made public. Their imaginations have been taken over by a government determined to imagine what they ourselves might not. Dreams, as we all know, mean something that cannot be explained, even to ourselves. Yet this dictatorial society works infinitely to tell them to the culture at large, a disaster, truly, to the imaginations of the private mind.

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