Friday, January 23, 2009

A Winter's Tale

Winter, yeah. Discontent, no.

"A Winter's Tale" is a magical play, if not one of Shakespeare's A-list plays. The first act has the darkness of Othello and King Lear. The second act is light-hearted and goofy, like As You Like It and Twelfth Night. It feels like two different plays.

Director Michael Edwards staged it that way, and it works brilliantly. The first act is an ice pick to the brain exploring jealousy, paranoia and angry gods. At the act's end, Shakespeare pulls his royal-baby-washed-up-on-a-beach trick and kills the witnesses. We get the famous stage direction:

Exit, pursued by bear.

The second act exchanges cruel Sicilia for hippy-dippy Bohemia, where bucolic shepherds wear flowers in their hair and dance to the tune of "Good Morning Starshine." The tone totally changes — and by now, we need it. Shakespeare seems to realize his big climax is a cliche — and instead of showing you, has the servants relate it in the hall. Brilliant, but I guess I'm not the first one to say it. As long as he's giving you a happy ending, he brings the dead queen from the first act back from the dead, disguised as a painted statue.

I loved it, even if I didn't quite buy it. (My guess is this is early, experimental Shakespeare, though the scholars aren't sure.) Call it Bollywood Shakespeare — something for everybody, tragedy, comedy, dancing, singing, hungry bears, you name it. This production adds Einstein in the Lunar Excursion Module, explaining what happened in the 16-year intermission. I assume, he wasn't in the original draft, but I loved that, too.

The actors had fun, and the audience did too. Brent Bateman is a hoot as the con-artist Autolycus -- kind of a cross between the Skipper on Gilligan's Island and the fat Elvis. Dan Donohue's mentally unhinged Leontes proves once again he's a talent to watch. Kris Danford is touching as Leontes' resurrected wife. David Breitbarth has a lot of range as Leontes estranged brother, Polixenes. Mercedes Herrero is riveting as a self-appointed conscience to Leontes. Heather Kelley and Kevin O'Callaghan are comically clueless as two royal lovebirds. (If a prince falls for a princess who doesn't know she's a princess, that makes it OK.)

It's a long play — one that goes all over the map. When it's over, you don't want it to be. In the right hands, Shakespeare's magic still works.

Friday, January 16, 2009


Death becomes her, the dead person being Louise Nevelson, (played by Kate Alexander) the heroine of Edward Albee's Occupant. Nevelson, for the record, was an avant-garde sculptor, Jewish, a Russian native, equally famous for her seemingly primitive constructions of wood and splashy fashion choices. She's been dead for two decades or so. The first thing she does when she comes back? Agree to an ArtNews style interview. You gotta admire her.

Dead or not, she doesn't take any crap. This is the author of Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe, after all? Albee's Nevelson isn't afraid of anybody. In the first act, the interviewer (Patrick Noonan) can barely get a question out. She questions his questions — their assumptions, presumptions, and implied lack of knowledge. She reminds me of every cantankerous interview subject I've ever had.

Albee, of course, is the cantankerous playwright behind it all. He could easily have made this a one-woman play with a Louise Nevelson character supplying biographical nuggests in a narrative thread. The interview format questions biography itself: especially artists' biographies and our urge to nail down living and dead creators into the coffin of a consistent storyline based on unambiguous motivations. Instead, Albee's Nevelson character zips and darts away from the questions like a fox evading the hounds. We see bright flashes of her, but nothing definitive. That's the point.

In the second act, Nevelson seems to calm down and let the interviewer get a word or two in edgewise. Once we know that the facts of her biography are conditional and contradictory, Albee allows the facts emerge. The basic fact: Nevelson achieves success, but late in life. It's a bittersweet victory. In the end, dying of cancer, she has them take down the sign in her hospital room announcing "LOUISE NEVELSON" and replaces it with "OCCUPANT." She returns to the shadows. It's a poignant moment.

Director Susan Greenhill achieves a nice pacing with Albee's lines — which are constantly creating a rhythm, then interrupting it with other rhythms, like waves cancelling each other out in a coffee cup. She pulls it off and makes it sound natural.

Alexander puts in an amazing performance in a very demanding role — I'd say once in a lifetime, but I've seen her do it before. Noonan, as her interviewer, is great too. He's the straight man and the punching bag. Albee's play is not without humor. The joke is on all of us who, like the interviewer, want hard and fast answers. The joke is on him, and he takes it like a man.

The play is a must-see. Along with everything else, it's a fine argument for appreciating the work of great artists while they're still alive.

Through Jan. 31
FST Gompertz Theatre

Saturday, January 10, 2009

I could have told you, Vincent ...

Vincent Van Gogh was out of his mind. He suffered from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia — or something. He had a nutty artistic theory equating light and the color yellow with God, and spirals with the life force. Maniac that he was, he painted like a maniac. His paintings didn’t sell and he never understood why. No woman ever loved him; he never started a family. Van Gogh failed in his transcendent goals; he failed in his mundane pleasures. Ultimately, he shot himself, and failed at that too. It took him six hours to die.

Whatever the reality of Van Gogh’s life, he turned into a saint in the popular mind. A kind of artistic Jesus Christ who sacrificed himself and died for his art. Starry, starry night … and all that crap.

Steven Dietz' Inventing Van Gogh takes on the myth — and chickens out.

To boil down the main plot, Rene Bouchard (David Briethbarth), some contemporary, art world bigwig (a forgery detector in the forgery business) hires a young painter, Patrick Stone, (Jason Peck) to fake Van Gogh’s lost self-portrait — the one Van Gogh supposedly painted the day before he shot himself. The painter has at it — and Van Gogh appears to him like the Ghost of Christmas Past. The play bounces back and forth between Van Gogh’s life in the 1870s and Stone’s life in the 1990s as he struggles to complete his forgery. Back in the past, Van Gogh seems to see the contemporary painter in his visions. It’s a nice conceit: If I can be in your hallucinations, you can be in mine.

Initially, the painter attacks the myth of Van Gogh. But he falls for the myth. He seems to be possessed by the spirit of Van Gogh. He paints the forgery, and the art world buys it. Sad to say, the same thing seems to happen to the playwright. Dietz starts out attacking the hagiography of Van Gogh. Then he falls for it. He expects the audience to buy it.

Problems with the material aside, the Asolo production is stellar. Dan Donohue, as Van Gogh, is worth the price of admission. David Breitbarth shows brio in a dual role as the art world grifter and Gauguin. The other actors are good, but stiffed by the script. The female lead has lines that sounded like rocks in her mouth. (“Hi. I’m the fragile, female, art-whore neurotic who craves attention. Why won’t you speak to me?”) John Windsor-Cunningham gets spongy lines. Peck, as the young artist, hardly gets any lines — his character barely speaks. It’s a brilliant solution to the problem of dialog and characterization: a character who keeps his mouth shut.

I like Brad Dalton’s direction — stately, weird magical realism, brilliantly staged — but that’s sort of like saying I loved the parade float that The Emperor With No Clothes was standing on. I never quite buy the material being directed. Dietz is brilliant, in terms of structure, but he doesn’t follow through with the implications of his premise. And he can’t write female dialog to save his life.

I kept thinking WWSKD?

What Would Stephen King Do?

I.e.: Van Gogh’s nutty ideas drive him crazy. He goes out to a wheat field and shoots himself — but he passes the infection on. 100 years later, the art history teacher gets it — and goes out to a wheat field and shoots himself. His student fights the infection, then comes down with it too. He “becomes” Van Gogh and paints a forgery. The world applauds, but you know he’s destined to go out to a wheat field and shoot himself.

But no. That's not what happens.

Dietz’ play doesn’t go there. Stone completes his forgery — and that's a good thing. The spirit of Van Gogh is painting through him. Stone starts out as a skeptic — then falls down on his knees and says "Yes, Lord" to the cult of Van Gogh.

Van Gogh is a popular saint. Dietz' play invents him (or reinvents him) and makes no attempt to deconstruct him. It starts out by taking on the myth — and then has second thoughts. Dietz gives the audience what he thinks it wants.

At the end, Van Gogh walks into a painted sunset, like Uncle Remus at the end of The Song of the South.

And I could’ve told you Vincent
The world was never meant.
For one as beautiful.
As you.

Imagine, say, a play called Inventing Jesus Christ. The play you'd expect would rudely take apart the notion of Jesus — the play would tell us the Jesus we know in our heads is a fraud, an artifice, a fake, our own invention. Blasphemy, sure. You'd expect a similar artistic blasphemy with a play titled Inventing Van Gogh. A deconstruction of Van Gogh's artistic sainthood. Of the cult of Van Gogh.

But this is not that play.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The vision thing

In Melanie Marnich’s Blur, Dot, a 17-year-old girl, starts going blind. Our plucky young hero faces the gathering dark and finds love.

Well, no. No exactly.

She faces the gathering dark, kicking and screaming like an angry baby. She finds love because she’s a teen bubbling with hormones and that’s what they do. Her coming-of-age story just happens to coincide with her gahhhh-I’m going-blind story.
There are touching moments, but no sentimental moments.

Blur could’ve easily turned into Butterflies are Free for the new millennium, but Marnich resisted the temptation. It’s harsh where it could’ve been mushy. It asks hard questions and gives no easy answers.


Marnich writes in poetic language about a realistic situation.(There’s even a realistic explanation for the poetic dialog. Like Gena Rowlands character in A Woman Under the Influence, Mom is shooting out Shizophrenic word salad. Her daughter inherits her whacky tendencies.)

The playwright sticks to the particular. Isn’t all blind people; this is just Dot's story, not a universal story.

At first, Dot takes it badly. She says hurtful things like "I wish you were blind” to her mother; she rejects her mother for lying about passing on the genetic trait; she assaults her supportive friends.

There’s a philosophical question, but the playwright leaves it on the back burner. You know: WHY DO BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE?



The playwright refers to the hard questions obliquely. The charming priest (who becomes a charming, defrocked homeless priest) obviously wrestles with the question. He’s the theological elephant in the room.

The play's improbable ending reminds me of Places of the Heart. Everybody comes together. Dot creates a community, comprising herself, her boyfriend, the defrocked priest and the lesbian. This commune of the saints in a New York City walkup isn't exactly realistic, but I think the playwright has earned the ending by digging in her heels and refusing to let her character be universal. Dot isn’t all blind people. We assume others who go blind jump off buildings, or do greater things, or just muddle through. Blur just happens to be Dot's story. She’s blind because she’s blind. It’s bad luck and this is how she deals with it.

The production
As words on a page, the script ain’t exactly a yuck a minute. The tone is up for grabs. Director Barbara Redmond went for a comic tone —a matter of timing, emphasis and staging. The sets are minimal and whacky. The scenes are announced with actors striding across the stage holding signs (like Wile E. Coyote) labeled “THE PIER” or “THE ZOO" and occasionally walkling into walls. Another director could’ve taken the material and done something heavily heavy to it. This is clearly comedy tonight, which is fine by me. The material is hard to take as it is.