Saturday, November 30, 2013

American Patterns: So Percussion and The Violence of Xylophones

So Percussion, Bryce Dessner, and David Lang

In a bill of American experimental compositions performed by percussion quartet So Percussion, Matmos, Bryce Dessner, and David Lang, the Zankel Hall audience was treated to a program called American Patterns last weekend which included a world premiere composition by Bryce Dessner, the debut of instruments invented by Dessner for his composition, David Lang's "the so called laws of nature," and the rhythmic and visual theatrics of a quartet who refuse to be easily categorized. 

Before the show started composers David Lang and Bryce Dessner joined So Percussion on stage to talk about their collaborations.  Lang highlighted his desire to push the limits of the seemingly boundless quartet and his interest in playing to their love of theatricality. Lang celebrated So's view from its earliest days that "the definition of a percussion quartet wasn't big enough to hold them."

Dessner, a well-known member of his own band (The National), emphasized the positive aspects of the personal chemistry of So Percussion as a "band."  The band pointed out they use their own musical language with each other which differs from the language they use with composers and other collaborators. The members of So Percussion talked about their particular interest in "living in the now" and not worrying about posterity with their inventive work.

Once the program began, between the pieces performed and the enthusiasm of So's performance, one could not help but feel the vitality of that "now."

Dessner, for his world premiere composition "Music for Wood and Strings," worked with Buke and Gase artist Aron Sanchez to design instruments called "chord sticks" for this piece.  The chord sticks are something akin to an electronic dulcimer which So plucked, bowed, strummed, and struck with pencils.  The piece utilized an alto, a bass, and two tenor chord sticks alongside a bass drum and wooden blocks. 

From something that looked to be little more than a humble plank of wood with some strings on it came a rich, resonant sound. At moments the chord sticks sounded like guitars, at other times more like bowed strings, and sometimes the sound was just indescribable.   But often the actions (striking for instance) generated a strumming sound. The "mismatch" in aural and visual made for a delightfully twisted experience and thoroughly embraced the evening's experimental perspective.  As someone who processes visually before musically, I was entranced by incongruity of motion and sound.  But it was not just about intellectual experimentation. The thirty minute piece brought a full emotional spectrum as well: moving from strands of melancholy to gusts of wistful to sweeps of joy. Swelling to a vibrating crescendo, the rocking melody seemed hopeful with an eye on the future in its sound, form, and feeling. 

I admit it. I'm addicted to Dessner's experimentation. I've talked before about his guitar improv pieces (which I love) but his formal compositions continue to surprise and move me (check out his recent collaboration with Kronos Quartet: the album called Aheym).  Hopefully "Music for Wood and Strings" will be recorded so a wider audience might get to enjoy it. 
Kronos Performing Dessner's Aheym July 2013

Matmos performed two pieces with So Percussion. First, "so-called remix" used videos and swelling voices in loops to build a burgeoning five minute piece. This was followed by "Carnegie Double Music"--a piece designed to be played together but composed independently. It started with staccato gunfire from mallets on drums and evolved to scraping of pipes on clay pots, with some sort of projections taking place behind the musical action (unfortunately from my seat I could not see the visuals). Dessner joined in the piece bowing a guitar.

The final piece was David Lang's "the so-called laws of nature" or as I ended up dubbing it The Violence of Xylophones.  Written for So Percussion in 2002, the composition was made up of three movements using totally different surfaces and textures.  The piece allowed for the audience to fully appreciate the theatrical flourishes of So and the visual delight of their rhythmic cacophony. Starting with pieces of walnut with gaps between them, the striking of each wooden plank was violent--mostly for my eardrums (the quartet wore ear plugs, alas I did not). But the relief and rests between the strikes made me pay attention to the breaks--it meant I focused on the the spaces in between as much as to the notes.  Eventually the wood lost all meaning and each strike started to sound like the voices of a colony of birds. When the quartet moved on to metal pipes there a lot less space between notes as the metal reverberated after each hit. In the final movement (which I had seen in part at So Percussion's benefit this year*) the surface utilized was primarily flower pots.  After so much big music filling the hall, the quiet delicacy of the sustained bell-like ringing of the flower pots was refreshing and made for a wonderful conclusion to the evening.

*For purposes of FTC disclosure:  I purchased my ticket to the Zankel Hall concert.  However, I made a donation to benefit the group So Percussion and attended a benefit concert they hosted in September 2013. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

All that Fall: A Long Way Home

Photo by Carol Rosegg
Am I then invisible, Miss Fitt? Is this creteonne so becoming to me that I merge into the masonry? That is right, Miss Fitt, look closely and you will finally distinguish a once female shape.
Eileen Atkins can readily dismiss people, places, or things with just a cockeyed look. We are lucky enough to get to see her face in this staged adaptation of Samuel Beckett's 1957 radio play All that Fall. Radio alone would not have done her performance justice. Joining her in this production is esteemed actor Michael Gambon. But it is Atkins who steals the show scene after scene.

Mrs. Rooney (Atkins) is on her way into town. Old and creaky, she is walking as best she can to meet the train. She comes across her neighbors and other townspeople. With each encounter we get a taste of her acidic temperament and sharp wit.
Mr. Tyler: What sky! What light! Ah in spite of all of it it is a blessed thing to be alive in such weather, and out of hospital.
Mrs. Rooney: Alive?
Mr. Tyler: Well half alive shall we say?
Mrs. Rooney: Speak for yourself, Mr. Tyler. I am not half alive nor anything approaching it.
She has a complaint and an observation to make at every turn.  A lifetime of woes are carried on her shoulders and with each step she seems to be fighting for her existence as her body betrays her.  But her mind, flitting between the past and the present, remains sharp.  She meets her blind husband (Gambon) at the train station and they make their way back home.  Cantankerous on her own, together they make for a spiky pair.  The train was late. No one says why at the station but there's been something ominous in the air all along.

Photo by Carol Rosegg
With radio microphones hanging from the ceiling, amplified sound effects, and acted out performances, the production, directed by Trevor Nunn, is a hybrid of radio and stage work.  Scripts in hand but dressed in costumes, in some ways I wished they had fully embraced the old-fashioned radio style and shown the sound effects live on stage a la Gatz or The Select. We got Mrs Rooney climbing in and out of a car prop on stage--to great comic effect. But everyone else was left to mime their objects and actions--riding a bicycle, whipping a horse, and watching a train go by.  And the sound effects, because they seem intended for radio, came across on stage as heavy handed and not the usual atmospheric soundscape you'd expect in theater. 

Atkins mines Beckett's droll script for every caustic laugh.  When Mrs Rooney asks after the daughter of one of the locals and he gestures southward and says "they removed everything, you know, the whole...er...bag of tricks," I may have barked out laughter.  Oh Samuel Beckett I'm totes adopting that euphemism to replace lady bits. 


It's an absolute pleasure to see Atkins and worth the ticket for her performance of Beckett's biting prose.  Because of the small house at 59E59, you can be very close to enjoy every sigh and smirk. I would not miss it. 

As for the rest of the cast, Gambon managed fine but instead of pathos he tended to play bigger than was necessary in such close quarters.  His bellowing may have been a case of the character doth protesting too much. But it did not help shepherd in the darker tone shift which largely arrives with his character three quarters of the way through the 75 minute play.  No matter, the journey is still a worthwhile endeavor.


I received a complimentary ticket to this production.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Fun Home: How Did It Happen

"I feel...."
"I want..."
"I..uhm"
"Your swagger and your bearing and the just right clothes you're wearing. Your short hair and your dungarees and your lace-up boots and your keys. Your ring of keys....I know you."

From the moment I first heard the song Ring of Keys during the workshop of Fun Home, I knew this show was special.  Each phrase of the song was the lilting hesitation of a child trying to understand her identity--her sexual identity--but in the only terms she knows.  We feel her experience her first moment of belonging gently and beautifully and from a child's perspective.  Now that the workshop has born a full-production at The Public Theater, with music by Jeanine Tesori, lyrics and book by Lisa Kron, and directed by Sam Gold (The Flick, The Cradle Will Rock, Uncle Vanya, Look Back in Anger, The Big Meal), Fun Home continues to reach down deep into a well of challenging subject matter and complicated emotions and emerges as a clear and powerful achievement in musical theater.

Alison Bechdel, cartoonist, wrote a graphic memoir of her childhood and the discovery that her father, like her, was gay.  This revelation comes out shortly after she does and right before her father kills himself.  The graphic memoir has morphed into this unusual but compelling musical told from the perspective of adult Alison (Beth Malone).  The story goes back in time to revisit her memories of her father Bruce (Michael Cerveris), her mother Helen (Judy Kuhn) and herself as a child (Small Alison is performed by Sydney Lucas) and in college (Middle Alison is performed by Alexandra Socha).  We see the double life her father leads, her mother pretending she doesn't notice, and the children left to make sense of all of this.  We watch as Alison goes away to college and begins to start her life--an honest and open one--only to have that life be interrupted by her father's death.  As Alison takes us on this journey she is sketching and writing what will become her memoir.

Fun Home is historic as it is the rare musical to depict lesbians without making them the butt of jokes or marginalize their sexuality.  But moreover, the musical balances this unique story never told in musical theater with the universal story of adults coming to terms with their childhoods, understanding their parents, sifting lies from truth, and finding peace even if they cannot find answers.  Anyone can relate to the material who has ever struggled with their identity, felt an outsider or misunderstood, or has wrestled with the challenge of unpacking memory.  What sets the work apart is that we see these difficult adult questions expressed through these younger characters.  And isn't that just like life.  We may want to pretend that childhood is all play and learning, but often children bear the weight of the adult crises around them.  There is no one in this story who does not have their share of pain and it is fascinating to see a musical give voice to this across all age groups.  

And this incredible young cast makes this work.  Sydney Lucas's performance is both deceptively natural and incredibly intelligent.  You can see her "think" through the emotions and words of Ring of Keys, as a child would, as she is trying to understand what she is feeling.  A fight between Small Alison and her father over wearing a dress to party is a struggle over Alison being seen as she wants to be seen and her father doing his utmost to cover that up for his own reasons.  In protest to her father's tyranny, she then is mimicking machismo as she pretends to pick up a French damsel in distress in her fantasy number whilst calling her self Al (with the -ison begrudgingly mumbled afterwards).  Everything about her character and her performance is organic and earnest.  I've been talking about her since I first saw the workshop and called her Ring of Keys number a show-stopping baby lesbian torch song.

Alexandra Socha physically personifies Medium Alison as she stumbles upon her own sexuality as she might trip over a crack in the sidewalk.  Suddenly, she is off-balance and her world is topsy-turvy but she catches herself and sees everything anew.  That evolution of character and performance is a delight.  Socha sings I'm Changing My Major to Joan after having sex with her new girlfriend (Roberta Colindrez) for the first time.  The song is about connecting, belonging, and being truthful and it is the most darling of songs not only for its delicious excitement and tantalizing glee over new love but for Socha's tremendous physical embodiment of those emotions--nervous energy, explosive feelings, beaming joy, and unexpected calm. 

And as moving as the songs are in music and lyrics, both Lucas* and Socha manage to elevate them with their vibrant performances. 

Judy Kuhn has the unenviable task of playing the mother who is mostly detached and is sidelined by Alison's own memories.  But when Kuhn finally lets loose in both song and narrative, she is cutting and makes the most of her time on stage. 


Malone's character has probably changed the most from workshop to production.  It's hard to integrate a narrator into this story.  In the workshop she was staged off in her corner, in her art studio, with this story of her family happening nearby.  Now Gold has found a way to physically move her into the family home.  She has less to say and do but watching Malone stand on the sidelines she is still projecting a performance into the space.  It is subtle but she is present.  And this deserves mention.  She is all these people--these memories--and her pushing away or being pulled in is palpable.  This story comes from her but even she cannot control what she remembers.  Gold has managed to find a way to have her step into the action and sing a song for all the Alisons--a lifetime of pain, sadness, and wanting all spilling out.  Have your tissues at the ready for this one.


Despite this heady and emotional material, the musical provides as many moments of laughter as tears.  With a distinct flavor of coming of age in the 1970's, there are wild Partridge Family style numbers (replete with glittering costumes and synchronized dancing) and perhaps the most adorable mock commercial for a funeral home you will ever see, performed by the Bechdel children.  Griffin Birney and Noah Hinsdale play Alison's brothers and I may have snort laughed through their dance number with the can of Lemon Pledge (my mother obsessively made us use Lemon Pledge as children as well!). Because even if life is not what it seems and problems are happening around them they are children after all.  So a bit of play reminds us of that too.   

There are still a few things that don't work.  The sequence of cartoon vignettes that are meant to all pile up on the stage all at once still don't quite work visually.  Lines are drawn around the action but it is hard to "see" the cartoon Gold is going for.  But it is a small nit.  I do miss some of Alison's drawings that were used in the workshop but I understand why they eliminated them.  Gold has sharpened the piece over time.  And made choices to get us from scene to scene more organically.  It may be a memory play, and so time and space are malleable.  Without an intermission he keeps the through-line taut and the emotions elevated.  The story moves quickly and the inevitable conclusion that is coming for Alison bears down upon the audience as much as it does her. Gold never lets us off the hook either.  I've been a fan of a number of his shows (Ok I admit it.  I've seen everything he's directed in the last two years save The Realistic Joneses at Yale) and he again shows here that he works best when he's torn down a few walls and bent space for the benefit of story.

I'm not sure I have ever seen a musical before where each song is so clear in what it is trying to say and yet nothing about this story is simple.  Nothing about these characters is straightforward.  Each song has so much concentrated richness of story and emotion to be unpacked.  And somehow the performances, direction, music, and lyrics guide the audience with confidence through this maze.   I wish I had this kind of clarity over my own life.

This story may be shattering and draining at times, but it still feels life-affirming. It was hard to give a standing ovation with my lap covered in tissues and tears streaming down my face, but I did.

*Truth be told I saw Lucas squeal when she saw Sam Gold in the lobby of The Public before the show and give him a giant hug.  His hotness, her cuteness, and their affection for each other was too much for me to handle.   My ovaries then exploded. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Julius Caesar: Veni, Vidi, Bitteri

"Speak. Strike. Redress."--Brutus

"Speak. Strike. Redress. Focus. Focus. Focus."--Mildly Bitter

Phyllida Lloyd's all female production of Julius Caesar could have been a really fascinating interpretation of Shakespeare but ended up lost in the circus of its own concepts.  This Donmar Warehouse production, directed by Lloyd, is set within a women's prison.  It would seem that the inmates are both living the world of Julius Caesar and performing it under the careful watch of the prison guards.  They are also occasionally playing rock 'n roll music and filming their endeavor with video cameras. Presumably this is a low security prison.

Julius Caesar (Frances Barber) is the beloved leader of perhaps the prison gang...or maybe Rome.  With her adoring Marc Antony (Cush Jumbo) to cuddle and kiss as she likes and also rule Rome with (?).  But lurking in the shadows to Caesar's all consuming power, in prison...or Rome, is Cassius (Jenny Jules) and Brutus (Harriet Walter) who conspire to bring down Caesar so that they can be "free"...or something.  

Really I have no idea what the plot of this play was.  I mean there is a plot to kill Caesar and--spoiler alert--they do, but the integration of this story into the prison setting created layers of confusion.    There were rare moments the "script" strayed from Shakespeare but largely they performed in the Bard's language.  But between performance and production, the meaning of Shakespeare got lost. 

I loved the idea of the female cast in a show that is traditionally intended to be mostly male.  The questions of power, freedom, aggression, and filial love get shaken up by this choice.  The intimacy that is created between the characters and Lloyd's choice to explore that intimacy was one of the most successful aspects of the production.  Gender gets pushed to the forefront and makes us confront our own preconceived notions of it.  It sheds light on the roles we play--husbands and wives, friends and lovers and brothers in arms.  Watching conspirators, touch each other gently and speak in hushed tones when you'd expect bluster, aggression, and vitriol upended expectations. The push and pull between warring men and the women who fear for them and foresee disaster became a much more compelling dynamic when all the roles are performed by women.  Traditionally patriarchal and matriarchal voices get a totally different gloss. 

But all this fascinating work around gender kept getting lost in the myriad of other devices being employed.  I longed for Tim Gunn to walk in, give it a withering stare, and say you've got to eliminate something Phyllida. "Make it work."  The sudden rock 'n roll jam sessions might have been a stand-in for war but you lost me completely with the video cameras, squelchy projections, and the creeping child on the tricycle.  I kept grasping for some coherence as to how we started in the prison and then drifted away from that concept...only to return to it again.  The themes of freedom, liberation, and aggression could be shoehorned into a prison setting but I did not feel those individual prisoners connecting to those themes.  Never knowing who these women prisoners were proved fatal to the production. I struggled to understand if these women were moved to perform Julius Caesar in prison OR if these women were living out Julius Caesar in prison OR if this was just a production of Julius Caesar performed by women.  In the end it felt that Lloyd chose to employ each of these perspectives at different times in the play.

But if you are going to do all three of those stories there has to be reason for the shift and clarity for the audience as to what compels that change in perspective.  Instead, the oscillating interpretations failed to tell Shakespeare's story or the story of these women in prison. I kept thinking of Macbeth starring Alan Cumming.  This too is another production where people are speaking Shakespeare's words but we know they are more than Shakespeare's characters.  As such we need to know who these people are so Shakespeare's words have meaning to us since obviously they have some meaning to that character (or do they?).  It need not be laid out in a didactic manner for the audience but I think the director needs to know who is speaking and why and all aspects of the production need to feed into that goal.

I never felt a firm hand on the tiller here.  The constant herky-jerky movements between different concepts led to a great deal of mental and conceptual whiplash--Caesar kisses Marc Antony. Are they prison lovers? But Caesar has a wife. Is this a prison wife?  A real wife? I'm so confuuuuuuuused. As much as there were strong moments where each of these directorial ideas connected with the source material none of them were a constant.  The moments of conceptual dissonance were far more loud and resonant. I mean, I can love me some dissonance but this was unintentional--a loud metallic scraping sound as concept and text crashed into each other and dragged along fighting for primacy. 
Harriet Walter has an emotional moment at the end of the play. I think Lloyd thought by this point she had established Walter's character beyond the "role" of Brutus and this expression of emotion was an extension of that.  But neither Lloyd nor Walter had given us any insight into that character at all.  And let's just not talk about the choice they've made at the end for Caesar. It received a loud and pronounced eyeroll from me.


Walter opted for a very strange accent and diction for her Brutus.  She has such a commanding voice and I'm not sure why she chose to dull it in the way she did.  Jenny Jules as Cassius chose wild gesticulation to punctuate every line spoken.  It was unbearable and elucidated nothing about the character. 

All in all I went into this production excited to see this lauded cast and I left, frustrated, angry, and disappointed.  I think my ire at this production came from the fact that this had so much potential and that was just squandered. 

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Winslow Boy: A Fine Old Rumpus

"Facts are a brutal thing."

I foolishly feared The Winslow Boy might be a stale period drama, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover a spry and vibrant production of the classic Terrance Rattigan play. Thanks to a fantastic cast and dynamic direction from Lindsay Posner, this production brings the thrill of a courtroom drama without ever stepping into a courtroom.

At age 13, Ronnie Winslow (Spencer Davis Milford) is expelled from Naval College for stealing and forging a five shilling postal order.  As someone in service to the crown he is not entitled to have his day in court. He is his father's favorite and fears coming home to tell his father.  But when his father (Roger Rees) learns of the ordeal he immediately takes up Ronnie's cause to get his name cleared.  Ronnie's older brother Dickie (Zachary Booth) is more interested in learning the latest Ragtime dance steps than focusing on his studies at Oxford and thinks the entire affair with Ronnie is silly. But his suffragette sister Catherine joins her father and his crusade despite her military fiancĂ©'s (Chandler Williams) concerns.  The middle class family hires the most expensive and renown barrister, Sir Robert Morton (Alessandro Nivola) to take their case and it consumes their lives as it becomes a bigger and bigger public event.

From Naval College to the House of Commons, the questions of this young boy's actions become politicized.  To bring the action in court required the Crown in essence to consent to be sued since the acts of the Naval College were acts of the government.  As England moves toward war, and the prime minister at the time took a position of wait and see with foreign powers, this family symbolizes an aggressive and vocal effort to see right be done in the world--albeit on the most personal of levels.  The triviality of battle of the five shilling note divides the nation at the time of the play. It's easily dismissed by many as much ado about nothing. But isn't that the easiest way to see our freedoms and liberties eroded. Tiny step by tiny step.  Convictions are held steadfast as money drains away including Charlotte's dowry and Dickie's Oxford tuition. The sacrifices pile up.  Perhaps as a nod toward the impending war this bloodless battle is fought through politics and law but there are no question many casualties.

In a meditation on right, justice, honesty, faith, and perseverance, Rattigan's 1946 play becomes a fight for individual liberty. An interesting topic today where the debate over individual liberty rages on--meaning to some a right to bear arms and to others a right to control one's reproduction or marry whoever you want.  The Winslow Boy might bear the marks of another time--from the William Morris wallpaper to the meager sum at issue in the theft--but somehow Posner and company makes this production feel like it is part of a vital and ongoing conversation today. 

The cast is truly superb.  Charlotte Parry and Roger Rees are a dynamic duo as father and daughter.  Rees throws his entire body into the role of Arthur Winslow--showing the emotional and physical toll the case takes on him.  Parry makes this role an interesting companion piece to her moving Eliza Dolittle in Pygmalion (She was also fantastic in Look Back in Anger).  Catherine, like Eliza, is a woman whose life is controlled by the men around her but she still speaks her mind, finds a voice, and straddles this moment in history where she wants more for the future but doesn't know if what she dreams of will ever be realized.  Parry brings intelligence and heart to the role.  I'd recommend the play alone on her sensitive portrayal. 

In supporting roles, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio plays Ronnie's mother, a woman of her era, baffled and bewildered by her husband's decision but powerless to do anything except his bidding. Mastrantonio balances a certain scripted dippiness with warmth. Michael Cumpsty is the family solicitor long in love with Catherine. Standing like an awkward stalk of asparagus--lumpy and irregular--he can only be who he is while suffering through the most awkward of congratulations to Catherine on her engagement.  Alessandro Nivola makes a surprising turn as the imperious barrister who seems to be all about the spotlight but has hidden depth.

Despite a long running time, legal jargon, and some Edwardian arcana, the play is riveting. I found myself drawn into the desperation of father and daughter as they pursued this endeavor together. Their need to see this through becomes the audience's desire as well. And despite the sacrifices, sadness, losses, and defeats it is a worthwhile dramatic journey for all involved.