Friday, February 29, 2008

'The Duchess of Malfi' at FSU/Asolo Conservatory

The hit man’s tragedy

John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (1614) makes Macbeth seem like a feel-good romp. Bad things happen to good people. Bad things happen to bad people. Everybody dies. (Everybody you care about.) The moral of the play: Life sucks.

The plot is convoluted and dependent on cultural codes that don’t run on our current mental software. Essentially, the recently widowed (and still young) Duchess of Malfi (Elisabeth Ahrens) secretly marries Antonio Bologna (a man below her station played by Dolph Paulsen). The happy couple has kids and keep that a secret too. The Duchess’ unhappy brothers (David Yearta as the Machiavellian Cardinal and DeMario McGrew as the incestuously inclined Ferdinand) find out about the kids but not the marriage. At first, they think the Duchess has just been screwing around. When they do find out about the secret marriage, they decide to kill her anyway because hubby is low-class. But they torture her first—psychologically. It’s not quite as bad as, say, Hostel, but it’s pretty bad. After that, the play takes a surprising turn—but more on that later.

All of this is presented in dense, deeply-deep Elizabethan language—self-consciously derivative of Shakespeare, but not quite as good. The effect is like Nabokov going back in time and doing a Bard impersonation. (Except he’d probably do a better job than Webster.) It’s as mannered and artificial as a Japanese “Noh” drama.

Anybody staging this stuff in the present is left with two choices:

A) Do an archaeological recreation of the text-as-artifact. Present this stuff exactly as they’d do it back in the day with no apologies or explanations.
B) Frame the artificiality in a larger artificiality. Say, an assortment of post-modern foofaraw.

As you’ve probably guessed, option (B) is what the Asolo Conservatory did in their recent production directed by Susannah Gellert. The actors are in modern dress. The action takes place in what looks like a crappy motel room with a pull out bed, a church-lady-type electric organ, two video monitors and a microphone on a stand. Actors interview each other with a vidcam and you see it on the monitors. Others take turns banging the organ and doing karaoke on the mike. Above it all, a sign proclaims: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS EVIL. I’ll take the Conservatory’s word for it, though Webster’s play seems to offer evidence to the contrary.

During intermission, I heard a few audience members whining, “I couldn’t understand what was happening with the actors in modern dress in that crappy motel room.” Bull. I found that the lack of a literal set forced me to pay more attention to the words. Hey, we’re in a castle now. If you say so, I’ll imagine it. But first, I have to hear you. The lack of costumes and scenery cues forced me to really listen—so I listened and I figured most of it out. Even so, there were lots of times I didn’t know what the hell was going on.

My problem with the production isn’t its lack of period cues or the post-modern gimcrackery as such. (I usually like gimcrackery.) But the structure built around the play’s original structure doesn’t add up to anything – CSI: Malfi, a video blog, a murderous game show, whatever. It isn’t a structure. The bits of business are random. (Some are rip-offs, including one dead steal from Kill Bill and another bit swiped from Blue Velvet.) What should be a frame to see through often turns into an opaque window. That’s my problem. But so what?

I figure the logic behind it all is more pedagogical than dramaturgical. If this had been a typical Asolo mainstage production intended to keep an audience happy, some contemporary playwright would’ve whacked about a third of Webster’s copyright-free original material and made the crooked roads run straight. As this was a Conservatory production intended for teaching purposes, you get all of it—clocking in at 80 minutes in the first act and an hour in the second. Needless to say the students get a workout. And some audience members got worn out.

If you’ve got the stamina to hang in there, it really picks up in the second act. (Trust me.) The Duchess is killed very quickly. (That “I was five and he was six” riff lifted from Kill Bill had me expecting her to take revenge with a samurai sword, but it was not to be.) Bosola (Jason Peck) the killer-for-hire in the red bandana and Def Leppard t-shirt, suddenly gets second thoughts—and it’s like Iago going “What was I thinking?” (At this point, I literally stop slouching, sit up and take notice.) The stone killer becomes a human being—and, effectively, the hero of the play.

Without warning, The Duchess of Malfi turns into The Hit Man’s Tragedy—and from here on it gets interesting, if damn depressing. (Maybe it’s my imagination, but Webster’s writing seems to really get better—as if he got his hands on some really good coffee.) Bosola concludes the play by killing the two swinish brothers who paid him to set their sister up. Bosola dies too, of course. Before the curtain comes down, Antonio dies, the Duchess dies, the kids, the rotten, scheming brothers and various pretty women who get in their way. It all ends badly. But it’s great theater.

Inside the post-modern frame, the acting is consistently good and true to the original characters. The direction veers from dead brilliant to why-the-hell-did-she-do-that? The ride ain’t always smooth. But it’s definitely worth the ride.

Does everything work? No. This is an experimental production and I wouldn’t expect it too. Not all the experiments work, but I applaud the mad scientist gutsiness behind it all. A standard-issue costume drama would have been the easy choice. Gellert’s post-mod production of Malfi is the road less taken. She takes risks; she forces you to be involved; she makes you question the assumptions you carry inside your skull when you enter the theater.

It’s thought provoking theater at its best.

'The Duchess of Malfi'
Short version: What’s it all about, Malfi?

Through March 16
FSU/Asolo Conservatory production
Cook Theatre, FSU Center for the Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

'Jewtopia' at Florida Studio Theatre

Oy to the World
Jewishness is a groove. The Jewish dating scene isn’t.

“Utopia,” according to philosopher Sir Thomas More is an ideal civilization without any lawyers. “Jewtopia,” according to playwrights Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson, is an enchanted kingdom containing 500,000 unattached Jewish women. (i.e., JDate, a website for Jewish singles.) Chris O’Connell (Patrick Noonan) leads his friend, Adam Lipschitz (Brandon Beilis), into that realm on a quest for the ideal Jewish Princess Bride. It’s Chris’ quest too. Adam, a non-observant Jew, wants to find a nice Jewish girl to please his family. Chris is a gentile of Irish-Catholic extraction who has converted to Judaism. He wants to find a nice Jewish girl who will relieve him of the burden of decision-making. Forever.

Adam’s Jewtopian journey becomes a series of bad dates. There’s the Hassidic lovely who sprays a can of Mace in his face; a high-energy, non-stop talker who dances him off his feet; and a sports maniac—155 dates in all, all hilariously played by Jessica Smolins. To further complicate matters, Chris-the-convert thinks that Adam isn’t Jewish enough—and pressures his friend to dress up as four different Jewish personas: a “Fiddler on the Roof” refugee; a manly Jew who likes football, sweating and beer; an art school Jew with an Edwards Scissorhands haircut; and a hyper Jew who dances like a loon. Adam’s romantic quest fails.

Then Adam emerges from Jewtopia, winds up in the hospital and finds the right girl, Rachel (Leanne Cabrera). OK, she’s a Buddhist from Mongolia, but she’s a doctor! Chris has already found his girl, Allison Cohen (Smolins again). Along with Jewish soul mates, the Gen-X guys find every possible Jewish stereotype—including Jewish stereotypes of gentiles. (Such as, “Top Ten Traits that Identify You as a Goy,” which include taking less than an hour to say goodbye and NASCAR fandom.) All seems well, until Adam and Chris and their fiancĂ©es celebrate Passover Seder with Adam’s family. Why is this night different from all other nights? Because it’s the Seder from hell. Adam’s mother isn’t happy that his bride is a member of a different tribe (although Rachel brightly points out the many cultural parallels). Pre-bris Chris exposes his Irish identity. Through it all, Adam’s sister (Smolins in hilarious redux) boils with bratty adolescent angst at the children’s table, dropping f-bombs and rude gestures whenever it’s her turn to speak. (Why do we dip the bitter herbs? Why can’t you stop controlling my life?) Everything that can go wrong does, and then gets worse. In the end, the kids get married and everybody’s happy.

Jay Berkow directs with the verve and rhythms of stand-up comedy. (Fittingly, as Fogel and Wolfson’s play was born as sketch material.) Beilis and Noonan click nicely together as the two male leads. As supporting players, Smolins (as bratty sister, the J-Date babes and Adam’s bride) always steals the show; Bonnie Black puts a woman-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown spin on two different Jewish mothers; Jon Kohler keeps his head down as Adam’s Jewish dad; Peter Levine makes for a slightly off-center rabbi; Cabrera plays her character totally straight with loads of gravitas—and it’s a stitch. Nayna Ramey's clever set (which resembles the JDate website) is a comedy-creating character in its own right. Did I mention this play is funny?
It’s funny. There, I mentioned it.

Is it culturally sensitive?

Nah. This play has a few stereotypes. I’m lying. It’s stuffed with stereotypes. It’s like the stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers where every conceivable stereotype has been packed into a tiny room. Some reviewers have referred to this as Borsht Belt comedy. Or broad comedy. They don’t get it. It’s broad comedy, but smart broad comedy, in the tradition of Mel Brooks, the early Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce. The play isn’t cramming people into narrow definitions of identity to make fun of them. The narrow definitions of identity are the joke. Is Jewishness a religion, an ethnicity, a culture? All of the above and none of the above.

In the end, the characters burst out of the tiny room. Chris reveals the epiphany that drew him to Judaism—a Hasidic wedding where everyone knew the words to a song and joined in, one at a time, like characters in a musical. Fulfilling his dream, one by one, the characters on stage start singing (with Adam on guitar) in a loopy, Adam Sandlereseque groove. Chris joins in and gets his definition of Judaism.

It’s a groove.

Short version:
A Jew and a Gentile walk into the Internet

Through March 28
Florida Studio Theatre
1241 North Palm Ave., Sarasota

Saturday, February 9, 2008

The artist who stole Christmas

Kevin Dean is (in theory) a conceptual artist and (in fact) the director of Selby Gallery at Ringling College of Art and Design. He’s a very cool guy. But I have to tell you …

Kevin Dean hates Santa Claus. And, while we’re on the subject, Christmas.

This exhibit of his bizarre installations proves it beyond doubt. Brutal imagery—well, OK, sickeningly cute imagery with brutal implications—predominates in this surreal mindwalk. Cutesy-pie snowmen, 3D Last Suppers, and jars full of indefinable somethings out of The Other or Frank Zappa’s Kenny’s Little Creatures.

Dean, as post-modernist, conceptual artists do, has raised the level of difficulty for himself. It’s not enough to paint a painting. No. Hell no. Much of his work is in the form of maddeningly specific installations: arrangements of art objects and an insane collector’s dream junkyard of kitsch religious and Christmassy crap. The stuff is cool to look at. But you figure it’s a pain in the ass to set up exactly so.

Dean's art speaks in two different voices, like an overdubbed recording. One voice speaks with the highfalutin dialect of artistic symbolism from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Mary’s blue robe=purity, etc. Don’t forget your artistic decoder ring! That high, deep symbolic language resonates against styrene snowmen and rotating Christmas color wheels. But even that isn’t tough enough.

Dean not only speaks in two voices. He puts his quotes inside quotes. Yep.

Dean’s created the art in character: the work you see is the creation of Dean’s altered ego–a Midwestern, hippy artist named Brandon Whitcomb who, in the implied backstory, followed the Via Dolorosa of the American suffering artist. Whitcomb suffered and died for his art, yep. But, in the spirit of John Wayne, he killed himself by eating, smoking and drinking to death. It’s an all-American martyrdom. A secret mourning for a love lost in a Kent State-style massacre.

This soft, sweet drama lurks inside the hard candy shell of Dean's harsh satire. He takes it seriously; at the same time, he doesn't. It's hard to get a fix on the man. Dean's art reminds me of those 3D icons of Jesus. The image changes, depending on how you look at it. It's hard to nail him down. No evil pun intended ...

But what's he really saying? Is Dean mocking the artist-martyr archetype or the harsh system that screws artists over? What's he really think?

Don't ask me.

It’s up to you to figure it out. He isn’t trying to ruin Christmas. But Dean isn’t doing your job either.

What he’s doing, it seems to me, is building a world. He’s been working at it for 23 years. Hell, I can’t claim objectivity. I remember Dean, back in the early 1990s back when I tried to start an arts paper in the beautiful arts town by the sea, you know, Sarasota. Dean. Putting the bits and pieces of this stuff together. Lecturing students (in character as some academic shmuck) about the life and death of Whitcomb.

I love this stuff. I can’t claim to define what he’s up to.

Like God’s world, the world Dean made is damaged. As are the people in it.

Beneath all the kitsch and crap, the sense of the sacred fights to come out.

It haunts me.

Like those stories they used to tell in church when I was a kid.

Or Santa.

‘Brandon Whitcomb: A Retrospective After Life’
Short version: If you meet Santa on the road, kill him.

When: Through March 8
What: Kevin Dean's mind-blowing art installation.
Where: Mack B. Projects, 500 Tallevast Rd.
Phone: 359-0654