Archive for the 'Performance' Category

Bedazzled

No matter the season, when I was a kid and my family took a trip to Frankenmuth, Michigan, we always made a stop at Bronner’s, where it’s Christmas all year round. Straight on through the doorway and veering slightly to the immediate right brought you to a show floor full of decorated Christmas trees, towering to the ceiling. As I remember them they were largely of the aluminum variety, in every off-color imaginable: magentas and silver, greens that corresponded to nothing in nature. Even the icicles of tinsel were gaudy to my young eyes (tinsel being verboten in my household because it was considered overkill by my parents’ sensibilities). I was eager to move on as soon as possible to find another unlikely character figurine to add to an already crowded nativity scene (the choices seemed without limit: there were water carriers, bread makers, musicians and even an elephant).

The vivid memory of that indoor forest came rushing back upon entering Yerba Buena’s exhibition of Nick Cave’s Soundsuit creations, many of which reach altitudinous heights. If there was any sign of my jaded childhood self amongst the visitors, I missed it: the kids in the gallery seemed absolutely agog at Cave’s wild creations, which are fitted to mannequins standing on platforms, set in an a nearly intersecting X-formation, in the center of the room.
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The costumes of Meet Me at the Center of the Earth show influence of the ceremonial garb of many world cultures, but they also display a keen eye for taking the most unpretentious and even (dare I say) vulgar of articles and constructing something beautiful from them. After all, here are the baskets that began appearing like clockwork every Christmas when my grandmother succumbed to a beaded plastic phase, the ones my sister and I would hide behind any bit of decorative screen available before guests arrived. I wish she was visiting now so I could point them out and she could shoot me a triumphant look of confirmation.

Attached like barnacles are potholders and knitted caps, God’s Eyes and plastic blossoms. Stretched over the shape of a polar bear frame are Aran Sweaters. One suit sports metal perches for porcelain birds, giving the appearance of a wearable candelabra. A tall polka-dotted feather duster looks ready to spring from the platform, an over-sized moldy bag of mobile Wonder Bread waiting to be set loose on an unsuspecting public. Like a fungal forest, another is covered with jutting brightly colored toys: tops and noise makers and rattles.
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Eventually, a line of shaggy pom-poms come into the room as the day’s performance gets under way. The dancers are wearing costumes less elaborate than those on display but which allow them more freedom of movement. Their rustling procession seems to bring a hush of calm to we visitors a bit blissed out by the visual overload of the exhibit. What starts as the quiet percussion of brush on drums eventually becomes a loud and well choreographed group dance after the performers snake their way back into the side gallery near the stairs. I was a bit disappointed at first that I didn’t get to find out what, say, the sound of a suit-clad stroller with an abacus face mask sounds like. But the recital eventually won me over, even crammed as we were in that tight space. It was also rather humbling to find a profusion of cringe-inducing signifiers of my childhood, the lost articles of hundreds of flea market trips, making a star appearance, as if to say, this is what we were waiting for all along.

Memorable Equinox

I was explaining to the woman on the phone, calling regarding A.C.T.’s upcoming shows and my possible attendance, that money was tight. Looking over their lineup, and realizing I couldn’t possibly afford to see many plays this year, I admitted that honestly I probably wouldn’t be going to see any of them. “It sounds like you’re just not a lover of the theater,” she smugly observed.

And yet somehow I always manage to scrape together enough at the last minute for a new Cutting Ball production. Perhaps my tastes just align better with director Rob Melrose’s, but I think it also has something to do with the fact that I’ve never felt let down by any of their performances. Since they’re a relatively small company, you get to know their usual suspects and look forward to seeing how an actor will tackle an upcoming part.

When last I saw Paul Gerrior, he was popping his head out of a bin in the fairly dotty role of Nagg in End Game. In Krapp’s Last Tape, which just closed at the Exit Theater this weekend, he wheezes and huffs his way about stage in the lead part, with David Sinaiko providing the voice of a younger Krapp recorded on reel-to-reel audio tape. Although for much of the play the character is simply listening and reflecting on ruminations of his thirty-nine year old self, Gerrior is wonderful to watch. Whenever he moved to the foreground to perform some business, we all eagerly craned our necks to see above the obstructing sea of heads. Likewise we followed his every dash off stage to the loo with rapt inquisitiveness. I’ll venture that never has a banana been more lovingly regarded or more breathily consumed than in Gerrior’s portrayal of the elder Krapp.
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The meat of the play is sixty-nine year old Krapp’s reaction to the tape dutifully logged as “box 3, spool 5,” wherein the silky voice from out of the past is found to be embarrassing and infuriating but also prompts melancholy over opportunities missed, sensations unsavored. Long suffering over his magnum opus, which his younger self abandoned much to labor over, has ended up producing a book which has only sold seventeen copies. “Perhaps my best years are gone… But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now,” explains Sinaiko’s voice, as Gerrior ruefully but tenderly curls his arm around the machine. In this sense, Krapp is more than just a one man show. While visibly absent, Sinaiko’s presence, the optimism, the curiosity and recklessness come through strongly in his performance giving Gerrior a strong foil to play against. The pathetic reality of an old man, living largely vicariously through his own words and observations is softened by Gerrior’s physicality in the moment. A shake of the head in disapproval is softened by a smile, a burst of anger that clears the desk is balanced by his bursting into a baritone song, evidence that he indulges in what his younger self could never bring himself to do. The once eager author-to-be is now nearly voiceless, “Nothing to say, not a squeak.” Yet we still all burst out in laughter to hear the relish with which he barked out the inane exclamation, “Spool!”

The hour frankly whizzed by.

Back Stage Pass

A new ShadowLight production is always reason to celebrate, so Saturday found me headed to Yerba Buena Gardens’ esplanade to catch The Marriage Contest for Princess Tatewati.
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On the way, I spied a hijacked Clear Channel billboard with some interesting faces and stopped to snap a few pics.
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Holding the event outdoors as part of Yerba Buena Gardens Festival series allowed ShadowLight to reach a larger audience than usual. When asked how many were attending a SL show for the first time, the majority of attendees raised their hands.
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The night’s performance was a little different from the usual SL fare. Typically, the company incorporates both the new and the old in their work. Traditional techniques are infused with innovation. They’ve created adaptations with unusual sources (Joseph Moncure March’s flapper era poem The Wild Party) as well as produced works from completely original scripts (2002’s 7 Visions).

The Marriage Contest however was an attempt to give Western audiences a taste of Balinese shadow puppet theater (wayang kulit) in its traditional form. Hence, the evening began as is customary with a performance on instruments called gender wayang.
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For a performance, either a pair of the instruments are employed or four at once. The musicians play the bronze keys on top like a xylophone, the sound reverberating in the air through the bamboo resonators below the keys. Stretched out on the grass, we waited for darkness to fall (and the heat to go down) to the sound of the music.
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One of the particular joys of a SL production is the opportunity to see the performers in action. When I attended Monkey King at Spider Cave at SOMArts back in 2007, you had two options: a ticket for the usual bleacher seats in the house of the theater or seated behind the scrim. Either way, you couldn’t go wrong.

For The Marriage Contest, the audience was actually invited to experience it both ways. Spectators could wander freely behind the screen at any point during the show.
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Knowing capturing shadow puppet images on screen was a dubious prospect, especially with my puny SX100 with its interminable shutter speed, I decided to spend most of the time back stage.
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One modern concession that was made to the night’s wayang (aside from the sound system) was the employment of an electric lamp in lieu of a damar (oil lamp).
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It burned with an acetylene brightness as SL Artistic Director and tonight’s shadow master dalang Larry Reed deftly employed the figures.
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Here you can see how the dalang has set up for the performance. To his left and right the puppets are stacked like playing cards (but vertically), so that he doesn’t have to fumble through them while performing, looking for the character he needs.
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Surprisingly, despite the fact that the images the audience sees are in black in white, the puppets themselves are vibrantly painted.
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Perhaps the fact that, as the show notes reveal, “a Balinese shadow play is used to complete a religious ceremony” as well as employed for entertainment that accounts for the beauty of the figures.
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The Marriage Contest of poor Princess Tatewati is between two kings, one human, one a demon, meaning the dalang can have a lot of fun with the voices of the more ogreish characters.
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Interestingly, while the puppets are arranged to either side of the dalang for ease of use, they are demarcated along lines of good and evil. Good are on the right (sorry Lefties).
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Eventually good and evil begin to pile up…
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…meaning the show is nearing its end.
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The lights go up, so it’s okay to use a flash again.
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The electric lamp revealed looks like a dad’s Christmas nightmare with its tangle of wires and bulbs.
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A good look at the gender wayang instruments (sans presumably exhausted musicians).
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Another view.
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Next up for ShadowLight is Ghosts of the River, which I’m particularly excited to see since it will premiere at the Brava Theater on 24 St., just a few blocks from my apartment. Next Saturday, the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival continues with The Sephardic Music Experience. Cool night on the grassy esplanade after a hot day = bliss.

Terminal Case

Saturday was closing night for William Kentridge’s staging of Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses at Project Artaud, a production that incorporated puppetry, hand drawn animation and a diverse sampling of various body-imaging video from MRIs to CAT scans. A command to disable our “reproductive devices” before the performance began elicited a chuckle from the audience which was met with annoyance by the seemingly distracted SFMOMA director.

ulyssesKentridge moves the action of the Prologue to an operating theater. As the musicians look on from the raised tier above, Time, Fortune and Love examine the huddled form of Ulysses on his bed, employing a pointer to delineate the many sufferings he has endured during his travels. Ulysses, represented by one of the nearly life-sized wooden puppets, barely stirs beneath his bedsheet. The accompanying projection on a screen above interweaves animation of the ills the flesh is heir to with actual footage from medical videos: disquieting glimpses of organs being probed and journeys through quivering canals. So in actuality Ulysses is somewhere betwixt the two states hinted at by the stage and screen: hospitalized but perhaps barely clinging to life.

As far as visual input goes, that’s a lot of balls to keep juggling in the air at once, and at times I had to concentrate so that my attention wouldn’t fixate on one aspect of the production over another. There are a number of nice touches that help bridge the divide. As the puppeteer manipulates his character on the right, the singer keeps one hand on it from the opposite side (the puppeteers of Cape Town’s Handspring Puppet Company appear in full view onstage, Bunraku-style, but dapper in suits or dresses rather than swathed in black). Together, the singer and the puppeteer keep their eyes fixed on the character’s face and you can read the range of emotions in their countenances as well as in the puppet’s movements and the swelling of baritone and soprano. At times the screen becomes a backdrop. After Ulysses finally finds the strength to leave his sick bed, he arises and, sheets wrapped about him like a toga, strides confidently in front of the projection, footage of hospital corridors trailing behind him.

Unsurprisingly though, it is Kentridge’s signature animation that holds everything together. Cartoonish renderings of a knee being sutured abstract into dozens of stitches appearing first as little macaroni curves piercing the positive space before pulling taut into straight lines by an invisible hand. As they multiply we are reminded of Penelope’s tapestry needlework which she builds up only to unravel later. Stitches become threads, which in their turn become the string of Ulysses’ bow and the very arrows with which he dispatches the suitors.

It is this mingling of physical trauma and pathology with our life’s journey that form the backbone of the production. In Kentridge’s Ulysses we are always aware of the hair’s breath that we all are from illness and bodily harm and that our lives can be seen as ones of rapid growth followed by continual decline. Kentridge pairs Ulysses’ distraught wandering and all its attendant woes with the vicissitudes of aging: the degradation of our mind’s sharpness and the wasting away of our physical selves. Disease mirrors dis-ease. The deterioration of our bodies, and with them our intentions, hopes and resolve, is metaphorically represented by images of temples crumpling into ruin, of the ancient succeeded by the modern as scrolling pastoral landscapes fill with the choking presence of the street signs and highways of contemporary Johannesburg. Cross-stitches too must eat up the blank cloth; animation is a succession of images wherein the new one must kill the old in order to come to life, like a cancerous growth. It is a lament perhaps, but Kentridge, by blending the many visual sources together is also reminding us that it is the natural order of things.

Of course, Ulysses does eventually recover his resolve and vigor, and like Penelope unraveling the tapestry and beginning anew, the temples rebuild themselves. Spreading ventricles in a anatomical cross-section sprout into trees in bloom. Kentridge recognizes that the arc of Monteverdi’s Return of Ulysses is one of reawakening to purpose and as the opera progresses the number of joyful moments begin to increase in number. The suitors that appear late to the tale stole the show when they punctuated each chorus that Penelope would love again with a little waggle of their bodies. When the old shepherd Eumaeus and Ulysses walk through the fields, their gaze darting about as if to take in every bit of wonder in the landscape, the accompanying duet between Jason McStoots and Ross Hauck made me almost wish people sang their lives in the real world. Transformation of the decrepit to the fecund is part of the magic of the opera, and Kentridge tries to help we the viewers relearn how we react to images that we respond to based on association. Video of a cardiac operation may strike us initially as morbid, but Ulysses tries to teach us to appreciate the fact that our heartbeats are the tempo of our lives keeping time for us whether we bow to our suffering or not.

Resistance Movement

After somehow getting turned around and completely lost in the Tenderloin for the quarter of an hour, I made it in time to the Asian Art Museum for my first experience with Butoh dance last night. The Trace of Purple Sadness was presented by CAVE, a Brooklyn based art collective and featured a performance by Ximena Garnica, with video projections and installation designed by Shige Moriya.

Draped from criss-crossing cables attached to the thick columns in Samsung Hall were a number of long transparent scrims cut in banner-like strips which formed a kind of aery tent over the platform in the center of the room. During the performance, Shige Moriya (using an Apple laptop with the bars of the Peace Sign taped over the glowing logo) projected successive patterns which multiplied and overlaid one another, each new texture erasing the last like new rain on dry cement.

resistance1Garnica began with her body wrapped into a tight ball, until finally her feet dug into the thin layer of chalk on the stage, propelling herself in a slow circle. Leaning forward into an uncomfortable looking position balanced on her shoulders, her tensed arms began to repeat several compulsive gestures, hands meeting and separating as though stretching out a piece of taffy, and then obsessively knocking on the stage or upon the air. After stretching both legs toward the ceiling and holding for an ungodly amount of time, the performance accelerated as she worked her body into a standing position, her hair enveloping her head like a burial shroud. When later she cast a long searching gaze upon the audience, the effect was startling. What had preceded it seemed more some kind of shamanic trance than an act of will. Still later she leapt from the stage, scattering clouds of chalk dust as she shook in place before circling the room in a dance of alternately jarring and graceful steps.

Punctuating the dance was music provided by Tatsuya Nakatani, an ambient arrangement of subtle chimes, strings that screeched loudly like rusted medal, and reverberating drums intermingled with the occasional word or prolonged growl. The video, music and dance reached a crescendo at the end: it was like the seasons changing in quick succession to match the mood of the dance. I’m not sure how representative CAVE’s performance was of Butoh (if there is indeed any kind of “traditional” way to do it) but I enjoyed it immensely. A 45 minute running time was, I think, just right, although quite a few people gave up early in the performance. There were no easy-to-read expressions or expected gestures, just a rapid and varied exploration of the body as a vehicle of art.

Camera Moves, Cabbages and Kings

After a sour first impression of Korean composer Unsuk Chin’s operatic version of Alice in Wonderland on DVD, I decided to give it a second look. I’m glad I did because most of my gripes seemed less evident on a subsequent viewing.
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From the start, I did appreciate the look and staging of the production itself. The set design, puppetry, costuming and scene changes are breathtaking in their execution. When an enormous Alice happens upon Rabbit’s home, her huge arms unfurl across the length of the stage. At one point, the set becomes an enormous clock with Alice as the focal point, the silvery gloves of actors forming the Roman numerals.

In fact, my main critique remains the over-busy camera work, which pushes in tight when it should be in a wide shot and is off on an adventure when it should be front and center. The action takes place on a slanted stage, with characters appearing and vanishing from its surface, Alice never budging much from her starting point. This is actually, I think, quite in the spirit of the original, where Alice doesn’t seem as though she’s on a journey at all, rather the landscape appears to shift and move around her.
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I also had some concerns with the darker themes of sexuality explored in the opera, particularly a subtext of sexual abuse that bookends the libretto. I simply didn’t believe that the original could bear the weight of the imposition of more serious concerns on what is, after all, a collection of wonderful nonsense. Compare for example the satisfyingly daffy logic of a comment like:

“If there’s no meaning in it, that saves a world of trouble, as we need not try to find any!”

With Alice’s lament from the end of the play:

“The earth is dead, barren, no beauty, no value, no flower seeds here.”

The libretto absorbs the original into a new context, with the well known and well loved episodes from Carroll’s work becoming something less frivolous and fun, an escape from reality or rather a submersion of reality into a world where illogic and lack of understanding rule the day, because the harsh truth is too much to bear. Watching the opera a second time, the idea is no less disturbing, but it seems less like something simply tacked on. The change in language felt necessary rather than a failure to mimic Carroll’s witty writing.
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So my feelings have softened somewhat but I still feel appreciation of the production is harmed to a great degree by the camera work. Amongst the irritations I jotted down in my notebook while viewing: “pans to nowhere,” “reaction shot after reaction shot of masks without revealing what they are reacting to,” “obsession with the actresses’ hands (which admittedly are indeed lovely),” “events playing out on immense backdrop but the camera stays doggedly with Alice,” “cameraman has now discovered the dissolve and is practicing for future assignments,” “having one person manipulating a puppet that represents a character while another sings their lines is fine, but the camera work makes it hard to ascertain when this is the case,” “dutch angles and camera tilts at every possible opportunity,” “at one point, it follows a line on the set terminating at a random point- what the significance was I have no idea because I couldn’t see the context.” Again, these irritations were less grating the second time around, and I noticed the inclusions of establishing shots more often than I did during my initial viewing. In retrospect, the problems were probably not the result of the camerawork per se, but poor editing choices that make it seem like it was produced live-to-tape, whether that is the case or not.
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For all those waiting for a verdict regarding the score, I must abstain. I’m new to opera and I have a feeling it will be an appreciation hard won. What at first seemed monotonous or dour to my untutored ears was rather dark and lovely once I turned off the subtitles and just listened. The expected cliché of the overweight titan belting out notes never materialized, as Sally Matthews as Alice completely embodied the role, her lines delivered with childlike urgency or petulance, the pitch spiking every other word, before settling in for a pout with hands cradling the huge mesh mask or twirling, twirling a finger through the tendrils of yarny hair. If there are other newbies out there, give it a try and let me know what you think. Considering the fact that opera is priced out of the reach of most of us, DVD releases are a good option to test the waters. It’s lamentable then that Alice suffers from such amateurish-looking camera work and editing.

You Think You’re Alone Until You Realize You’re In It

On the surface, the plot of Victims of Duty, currently playing at the Exit Theater on Taylor, has all the makings of a gripping psychological thriller. I can even hear the (awful, awful) trailer voice-over in my head: “A fugitive from justice. A detective obsessed with tracking him down. And one man who holds the key, who will have to journey into the darkest corners of his own memory to reveal the terrifying secret.” Thankfully, a trailer already exists, and it looks like this.

As far as I’m concerned, there are only four names of any interest to me when it comes to Twentieth Century Theater, and they are Beckett, Pirandello, Stoppard and Ionesco (please remove your hat Herr Brecht, you’re blocking my view). Having done justice to Beckett’s Endgame, director Rob Melrose now takes on Ionesco, and the change of venue from the Travelling Jewish Theater to the Exit means the actors are practically in your lap, which is no doubt how the playwright would have liked it.
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As a husband and wife playfully dissect the tired conventions of drama and speculate on the government’s recommended policy of detachment over coffee, a detective arrives on the scene, fulfilling one of the husband’s observations that all plays are comprised of an investigation. The fun of Victims of Duty is that there is no subtext: if the characters begin to speculate on what a new kind of theater might look like, it will be while they simultaneously go through the motions on stage (they are in a play after all, so why shouldn’t they?). There’s a happy literalization of every request and command. Prodded to delve into his psyche in search of information of the missing man Mallot, the husband Choubert takes us the long way around, dredging up all kinds of buried moments from his life. When the Detective tells him to dig deeper into his memories, Choubert, played by actor David Sinaiko, scoops at the air with his hands and wiggles around the stage, diving between the couch cushions.

Sinaiko gave such a virtuoso performance as Hamm in Endgame that I was excited to see that he was the lead in Duty. But Ryan Oden’s part is too good to be true, and he makes the most of it. The Detective is basically every cliché of the hard boiled investigator ever to appear in print or film. Driven and uncompromising, he’s a man who takes twelve lumps of sugar with his coffee. The actor’s comic timing is deadly. The wife Madeleine quickly lines up with the detective, as if she were a lodestone irresistibly drawn to the greatest source of power in a room, and actress Felicia Benefield deftly oscillates wildly between sympathy and disdain without missing a beat.

Ionesco can somehow manage to remove any serious consideration for the outcome of the central “mystery” and yet still entertain, presenting moments of real personal emotion, all while delivering a manifesto for the future of the stage. His plays are like some brilliant imaginary Literature class, where every time a student starts to make an observation, the professor tut-tuts them, “No, no, act out your ideas for us.”