Friday, March 30, 2012

Porgy and Bess

Much has been written about this controversial new production. I just wanted to hear that glorious music again, live. We had a record of Porgy and Bess with Leontyne Price when I was a little girl and I grew up with this music. I really wanted to see it onstage.
All I can say is, next time, I'll catch it when they stage it as a full opera. Because this downsized version is all over the place, and musically, it's a disaster. I am not an expert, but I can tell when singers are overamplified and the orchestra is not, so the instrumentals sound dull or they are drowned out by those microphones from hell. The sound was atrocious. Operatic voices like Audra McDonald's don't need amplification. It makes them sound tinny and kills their warmth.
Then there is the lack of commitment to one style or another. If the Gershwin estate gives its blessing to a Broadway musical version, fine; it's an opportunity for people to experience this wonderful work, who otherwise would not be caught dead at the opera. But then mixing operatic voices with pop voices is a disaster. For instance, Audra McDonald (Bess) drowns out Norm Lewis' (Porgy) every time they sing together. The high voices of the female singers drown out anybody else. The orchestrations sound muddled. The orchestra is not loud or big or precise or passionate enough. This was painful.
George Gershwin composed many wonderful Broadway musicals, but he composed Porgy and Bess as an opera, and that's how it works best, both musically and dramatically. The plot is a heartrending story that fits the mold of traditional operatic tragedies. I have seen no other versions for comparison, but dramatically this adaptation by Suzan-Lori Parks and director Diane Paulus seems rather thin and tawdry. The conception of Bess is unconvincing. At first she is trouble, a fallen woman, then she reforms through the ministrations of Porgy, but there is something in her that can't avoid self-destruction. In his review in the NYT, Ben Brantley almost died and went to heaven over Audra McDonald. I was underwhelmed, probably on account of the miking, but also because she seemed a little dull (Wednesday night, after a matinee and a prior break for illness, perhaps she was a bit off). I didn't see any of the lusty forces that would make Bess gravitate towards Sportin' Life (the excellent David Alan Grier) or Crown (the fantastic Phillip Boykin). She played Bess like a joyless victim. David Alan Grier is great but Sportin' Life should be more of a menacing, irresistibly charming snake. Bess should teeter between reform and wantonness with more moxie. When the operatic recitative becomes spoken text, things come down a notch. Sublime melodies are accompanied by pedestrian bits of dialogue.
The audience didn't seem to mind. Regaled with such songs, one just tries to enjoy them as much as possible, and the wonderful cast does much to attenuate the production's wild confusion. Everybody onstage is great. Norm Lewis is a very moving, dignified Porgy, and my favorite was the irrepressible NaTasha Yvette Williams as Mariah, the preacher lady.
"Summertime", "Bess, You Is My Woman Now", "A Woman is a Sometime Thing", "I Got Plenty of Nuttin"", "It Ain't Necessarily So", "My Man is Gone Now", and more: what a rapture.
Not that the opinion of a white lady matters, and to judge from the sizable number of Black people in the audience, not that it's an issue any more, but I fail to see how this work is racist, an accusation it has always endured and is still making the rounds. In the 1930's, it was normal to have blatantly racist attitudes in Hollywood films and cartoons (now it's just veiled). Given the time in which it was created, Porgy and Bess was quite revolutionary, as it sought to honor the magnificent Black musical tradition as an essential American art form. Its attempt to be naturalistic did not mean to belittle, but aimed to give a heroic dimension to a people that was mostly seen through degrading stereotypes. What is racist and narrow-minded is to claim that a genius like George Gershwin didn't have the right to create a magnificent work of art based on the music he revered (jazz and gospel, plus his own Jewish touch) just because he was white. Gershwin was not appropriating anything, he was giving back.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Death Of A Salesman

Philip Seymour Hoffman is only in his mid-forties, but he is playing a formidable Willy Loman in Mike Nichols' fine production of this classic play by Arthur Miller, currently on Broadway. I sat way up in the mezzanine, so if I had not known that Hoffman is on the younger side, I could not have told. He inhabits this magnificent American  loser very convincingly. This is a great role and Hoffman commits to it with his every fiber. He is fierce and doddering, self-delusional, angry, tired, frustrated, funny and complicated. He is very moving. Apparently, Hoffman played the character when he was in high school, he is playing it now, and it will be awesome to see what he does with it when he gets to be Loman's age, about 15 years from now.
I was afraid that the play would be a musty old chestnut, that it may not have aged well. Even though a bit of it feels slightly quaint (less so thanks to the sharp and sprightly direction of Mike Nichols) I was surprised that it is so moving, and so resonant today. This is a play about gigantic losers. About epic, spectacular failure. It goes against the grain of the American mythology of winning. As such, Death of a Salesman fits our age like a glove.
Perhaps in 1949 Arthur Miller was a bit of a killjoy and a kvetch for portraying a tragic vision of the little guy, always striving, always struggling and ultimately losing the battle with expectation and achievement (and taking everybody down with him). Not to mention a deeply accurate portrayal of the cruelties of capitalism, even for upstanding Americans like Mr. Loman. It was the post-war era and America was doing swell. There were big cars and big houses and people made a living. People like Willy Loman were indoctrinated and intoxicated with the possibility of success, material wealth and dreams of endless prosperity.
But now that we have been taken to the cleaners by the rapacious criminals of Wall Street and the spineless government that abets them, we must feel closer to Willy Loman than any audience ever before. He's struggling to pay a mortgage, struggling to pay for appliances, to hold on to his job, alone in the vast wasteland of selfishness and feral competition that is this country. He's full of hot air and not the greatest role model for his two loser kids, and a sexual hypocrite to boot. He is a man of today.
Mike Nichols shepherds this rather clunky play through humor, tenderness, orneriness and real pathos. He has a golden touch with tone. This production is swift and entertaining, and truly devastating: a great American drama (as opposed to some of the stuff I've seen lately, like Other Desert Cities or Seminar, meaningless drama lite). I was moved to tears at certain points. And there were plenty of accompanying sniffles around me.
As an innovation, Nichols uses the set design of the original 1949 production and the original music by Alex North. I agree that there is no point in modernizing this play. It works like a charm as it is. But until I read in the playbill that the set was designed more than 60 years ago (very expressionistic and realistic at the same time), I felt it looked cheesy, given the marvels of sets we are used to in this day and age. But it is a poignant choice and it grew on me, as it enhances the more poetic aspects of the play. The music by Alex North is perfectly suitable, cinematic and tasteful, but in my view, distracting. I could have done without music, which distracts from reality and sometimes competes with the actors' lines. I assume it exists because the action travels back and forth inside the memories of Willy Loman. The play does not heave to the conventions of unity of time and place, and the music and some projections of autumnal leaves aid these flashbacks and give Loman's reveries a dream-like quality.
The cast of splendid actors is uniformly solid: Linda Emond (she made me cry at the end), Bill Camp, John Glover, Finn Whitrock, quite impressive as Happy Loman, Glenn Fleshler, Remy Auberjonois. My biggest and only beef is with Biff, a difficult role, played by Andrew Garfield (The Social Network, and soon Spiderman MCXII). Biff is another major loser, but one who sees the self-delusion in his dad, and one who has seen the truth beneath Willy's crumbling facade of authority, the only one in whom flickers a feeble ray of hope, as he struggles to be his own man and pursue his own way. But this Biff seemed to me too wimpy, too soft in the middle, and sometimes Garfield reached too furiously. I kept wishing Ryan Gosling would materialize on stage. Biff should be more of a formidable antagonist, more of a threat, to that enormous dad of his, but this one doesn't cut the mustard. He is the weak link in a very strong production of a surprisingly good play.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Make Kony Famous?

This 30 minute ramble of a video by Invisible Children is one of the most bizarre things I have ever seen. It made me both cry and cringe. Problem is, I cringed far more than I cried. And I cried.
The good intentions are beyond reproach, as usual. Who doesn't want to bring a monster like Joseph Kony to justice? Or better yet, kill the bastard. Its humongous viral reach is now beyond discussion. But I sat there utterly flummoxed as it unfurled, way too slowly and randomly, over 30 minutes of can-do American pizzazz. It was so gnarly, it captured my attention.
I agree with the video that the internet and social media are capable of giving the public across the world the power to exert pressure for change in an unprecedented way. So far so good. Then there is this ominous voiceover by Impossibly Handsome, Well Meaning, Not a Little Self-Enamored Dude that the next 27 minutes are an experiment and in order for it to work we have to pay attention. Treat me like a 6th grader, but okay, still with you. Next? Footage of the birth of this dude's son. A full minute or more of his cute little coddled son doing cute things, like fake bombing someone's ass with a special effect (they both love to make movies, the film will have you know). A lot of me myself and I and my golden child so far. Then finally, around minute 8, the actual story of Jacob the Ugandan kid. This is the part where you cry and want to give Invisible Children all your money, you want to go into the jungle and kill that motherfucker Kony by the most painful means at your disposal. This is all that was needed.
But then the silliness starts: we are going to stop African warlord Joseph Kony and Dude is going to tell us exactly how to do it: with posters and bracelets and a lot of enthusiastic high school kids asking the US government to militarily aid a foreign army. Hmmm... Oh, and by tweeting Rihanna and Lady Gaga, among other celebrities. Celebrities. Wow. I'm sure this and tweeting policy makers like George Bush and Condi Rice will bring Kony to his knees.
Then, in what I consider the most cringeworthy segment of all, Dude brings out his poor son again (there seems to be a daughter in there somewhere, but she is ignored) and supposedly explains to him about "the bad guy". You can self-aggrandize all you want, but why bring your child into this? It feels staged and willfully naive and is terribly unseemly. After all, you are talking about helping children who live in a nightmare of poverty, war, disease and violence. Get your spoiled kid out of the picture.
That the kid and his dad seem to have almost the same simplistic notions of morality is a little scary and quite telling, albeit unintended, I'm sure.  In the United States we live in a universe comprised of moral absolutes. The rest of the world understands life is a gray area.  But here is the kid talking about the bad guys in Star Wars, and it seems in Dude's worldview there is not much difference between that and a horribly complicated African civil war. The over-simplification of the American "bad guy" ethos is what gets the US in hot water most of the time, after all.
I could not help but notice every time they showed the International Court most wanted list, the second guy after public enemy number one Kony was also an Ugandan. Another Bad Guy. What about him?
The biggest problem is the marketing aspect of the whole thing. It sounds, smells and looks like one of those integrated campaigns that win advertising awards at the Cannes Lions every year. This one is glib, simplistic, banal, self-aggrandizing, willfully naive, tasteless and embarrassingly tone deaf. Don't get me wrong: the Dude has tried to make a difference with great amounts of passion and persistence for 9 years, and his operation is as buff and shiny and beautifully produced as a Hollywood movie. I don't begrudge him his commitment. In fact, I waver between admiration and queasiness, because I am trying to do something similar for a more modest social issue concerning kids (getting Mexican high school students in NYC to finish high school). And I had the same idea, being a creative person, to use creative tools and talent to raise awareness. A lot of what I saw in the IC video is admirable, and worth emulating, but I found most of the creative strategy and execution quite disturbing. More schools and mentors, education and support for Ugandan kids? Awesome. Bring it. Cheerleading the US to interfere with the Ugandan Army? Is that the only option? I'm not so sure.
I thoroughly despise the concept of "make Kony Famous". I find the posters that Shepard Fairey has designed to be so cool as to make desirable the icons of the "bad guys" (Kony, Bin Laden and Hitler, another reductio ad absurdum). Does Fairey have only one visual idea left? It looks just like his Obama poster!
I find the whole thing naive in the worst kind of way. And I'm not even discussing the realpolitik aspect of it, which I barely understand.
Clearly a lot of the money has gone to produce this highly polished piece of work, which is extremely well done, beautifully shot and edited, as is the website for the organization. These guys are communicators, not policy makers. They may have succeeded in bringing attention to the issue, but the fact they are being harshly criticized points to an extremely flawed communications problem.
In short: the campaign makes little sense. The posters of donkeys and elephants merging with a dove with a Kony 2012? Confusing. This might work stateside, but what does the rest of the world care for the GOP and the Dems? It makes it seem like Kony is a third party candidate, an option even worse than Santorum, which until now was inconceivable. Don't be surprised if some yahoos actually think Kony is  running for office. This beside the fact that it is way too American-centric, instead of aiming for a more global reach.
Buried in all that slightly revolting can-do all-together-now spirit is a tagline that makes sense: "the one thing we can all agree on". A global campaign could be built around this idea, beyond our pathetic two-party system. However, it's lost among all the aimless American self-congratulation. The bracelet? Let's not even go there. Tweeting Ryan Seacrest? Barf. And the idea of making this criminal famous? Abhorrent. This is the plan to bring Kony to justice: under cover of night we are going to paper our magnificent cities in posters. Now the entire world will know about Joseph Kony. Is this going to make him come out of the jungle waving a white flag? He is probably relishing the notoriety as we speak. Terrorists love fame. That's how they terrorize. Is this the best way to bring the guy to our attention, let alone the plight of Africa? No. It is the glibbest, the most vulgar, the most unfortunately attuned with our own farkakte, assbackwards American celebutard values, but that doesn't mean it's good.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Other Desert Cities

Due to popular demand (that is, my friend Scott asked), I will tell you what I thought of Jon Robin Baitz's play Other Desert Cities, directed by Joe Mantello and with a stellar cast comprised of Stockard Channing, Judith Light, Stacy Keach, Justin Kirk and Rachel Griffiths.
First thing that takes your breath away is the set by John Lee Beatty. It's the living room of a mid-century home in Palm Springs and it is so perfect in so many ways, that every time my attention flagged I just marveled at the set. The lighting is spectacular too, for there is a high window behind which you can see two palm trees, and the color of the desert sky changes completely accurately from morning to dusk to night. I could write an entire paean about the set decoration, but I don't even know how to call things. However, if you ever perused an Architectural Digest from the seventies, you will immediately recognize the style. Modern, cream colored, trying hard to be tasteful.  A living room that wishes to soothe and to offend no one.
And so it is with this wealthy Republican family, the all-American Wyeths, living their retirement glory days in Palm Springs. Stacy Keach, who is excellent, plays a retired actor who was chums with Ronnie and Nancy Reagan, the astounding Stockard Channing plays his wife Polly, who insists on brandishing a goyish Texas twang even though she's Jewish, the extraordinary Judith Light plays her fucked up ex-alcoholic sister Silda Grauman (both were in showbiz in LA), Justin Kirk (from Weeds) who gets better as the play goes along, plays their son Trip, who produces a reality law show were the judges are celebrities, and Rachel Griffiths plays their daughter Brooke, an unabashed liberal who has fled to the East Coast and written a memoir about a family tragedy that threatens to tear the family apart.
Brooke's role is tough to nail. Baitz wants to confound the expectations of what he knows to be his smugly liberal audience by making Brooke's parents very charming and funny while the daughter is a monster of whining. As played by Griffiths, the one element in the production that is a tragic mistake, Brooke is a pill, and she is so grating and unconvincing, that I almost switched party allegiance on her account. There are American actresses Griffith's age who could have better understood the passage from a California golden child to a depressive, insufferable East Coast neurotic. Mary Louise Parker, a talented actress I find hugely hammy, comes to mind. That I'd rather watch her than endure Griffiths' reaching for emotion, not able to find the sympathetic nugget at Brooke's core, is saying something. Martha Plimpton, Laura Linney, Cynthia Nixon, Edie Falco, Lily Taylor, we could go on. I did not believe Griffith's grief, nor did I believe her adopted East Coastness, too blunt and unsubtle. She seems to be trying really hard. And because she is at the tragic center of the play, if you don't believe her pain, the play is thrown off balance and all the artifice in it shows.
However, the greatest joy of the evening comes from watching a trio of amazing veterans who are truly electrifying: Channing, Light and Keach. They all find layers of nuance into the broadness of their characters: Peppy Palm Springs Society Matron, Over The Hill Hollywood Drunk, Ex Handsome Bad Actor. Channing in particular blew me away. Her Polly is a no non-sense wisecracker, trying to out-goy the goys, with the core of a lioness. Light is also fiercely funny, sad and brave as crazy Aunt Silda, and Keach is sweet and thundering, totally believable as an old Hollywood star, now swaddled in wealth and grief. They are all pitch perfect. Even Justin Kirk, who at the beginning is slightly grating, finds his footing, leaves the shtick behind and delivers beautifully in the second act.
The play is well written and has many funny moments. It straddles a very thin line between comedy and melodrama. For the most part, director Joe Mantello balances the jokes with the pathos admirably, which is no small feat. Sometimes the tone falls into his particular brand of shtick where all the characters speak in weird, affected cadences that try to be naturalistic and sound extremely theatrical. This is annoying, but it seems to go away as the play progresses.
My problem with the play is that the second act is one beat stretched to the limit, with a couple of bombshell revelations thrown in to spike it up. So Brooke wrote a tell-all where the parents come across as evil, selfish people who are just interested in keeping their political connections; but different points of view reveal the fragile nature of the "truth". The truth according to whom? There is a final twist in which Brooke learns she does not know the first thing about what really happened, and in the end the play is about reconciliation. I thought the ending was a cop out. Turns out that the parents did everything they did for selfless reasons. Republicans? Selfless? Oh, dear. Maybe it's the times, and maybe Baitz is a better man than I, but I find reconciliation with Republicans to be essentially impossible and thoroughly inadvisable. Who wrote this play, Barack Obama?
I commend Baitz for not writing the liberal screed his audience wants to cheer for. I commend him for going for nuance and complexity and attempting to shed light on the myths and versions of the truth that are at the core of every grieving family. But like they say in Mexican wrestling, when I go to the theater: "Quiero ver sangre!" I want to see blood!

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Let's Rant Today

We haven't done it in soooo long, it's starting to feel like this Enchilada has lost her kick, but we can always count on someone to get a rise out of us, so here goes:

Yesterday, attending a performance of Other Desert Cities on Broadway, the guy stuffing the seat in front of me is wearing a white baseball cap. Every time he moves his head, instead of the stage, I see a huge blob of visor, flap or however you call it. This has happened before. Usually people take off their headgear as the lights go down, and in case they don't, one only has to ask politely and people will comply.
I had a feeling that with this individual it wasn't gonna be so easy. Who wears a white baseball cap to a Broadway play at 8 pm at night? In the sweetest voice I could muster, I said:
Sorry to disturb you, but will you please remove your cap when the play begins?
It is disturbing my view.
You will see just fine.
No I won't.
Even in the dark?
I considered calling the usher, but there were plenty of empty seats around me so I switched seats and I let it go, not before saying:
"I want you to know that this is extremely rude and in bad taste. I asked you politely". 
Then I muttered "stupid people with caps" and "asshole" sotto voce, for dramatic flourish.
Now, if the guy had said, "I have a protuberance the size of Nairobi that will distract you far more than the lousy cap", or "you really don't want to have my naked pate with random hairs in front of you, lady, it's a horror show", or seriously, "I have a medical condition and I can't do that for you", I would have been empathetic.
But where the hell do neurotic New Yorkers get off with this sense of entitled self-pity? ME ME ME! I am special, so screw anybody else. Whatever happened to manners? Back in the day, you had to remove your hat any time you went inside. Those were the rules. Hey, back in the day people would go to Broadway in evening attire, not jeans and sneakers. I wished I could channel Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey and give this whiner a piece of my mind. I hate that show (oh yes I do) but Maggie Smith is God's gift to mankind. She is immortal.
I am addicted to Farmland Dairies Skim Plus Chocolate Milk with Omega-3. I have a bowl (or two) of that with Cheerios every night and I credit this diet with losing 7-8 pounds since the Summer. Roll your eyes as much as you want. The milk is creamy, tastes strongly of chocolate, and last time I had a cholesterol screening, my good cholesterol went up. Heaven. Now, this baby does not come cheap: almost six bucks for a half gallon. I guzzle it like a Hummer guzzles gas. Alas, the last two times I bought it, it had changed. Gone was the creaminess, gone was the chocolatey flavor, now it was plain mediocre milk with a faint taste of chocolate. The price, however, remains the same, if it has not gone up. In the Morton Williams in front of my house, prices rise by the hour. Anyway, you bet I gave them a call. And spoke at length about my disgruntlement to the answering machine. Very politely, but not, as devastatingly as Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey.