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 jet├ęs, 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).