Archive for November, 2013

Page 3: Bart Teush

November 27, 2013

Theatre, Film


Mike Nichols’ Betrayal:
You Can’t Argue with Success
(Well, maybe just this once…)

Twenty-five years ago I eagerly anticipated a production of Waiting for Godot at The Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater directed by Mike Nichols and featuring an all-star godot playbillcast, including Steve Martin, Bill Irwin, F. Murray Abraham and Robin Williams.

I saw it.

For me, the two most vivid images of the evening were Al Goldstein (then publisher of Screw magazine) and Lauren Bacall, both asleep in the audience.

Waiting For Godot was, like Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, a must-see event based on the names attached. The obvious question arises now, as it did in 1988, how could so much talent be assembled without anything resembling a significant result—aside from the guaranteed gate for such a star-studded package and the opportunity to see real-life husband and wife, Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz, betrayed?

Like Waiting for Godot,Betrayal is a challenging play. betrayal 2013Its intricate narrative flows backward in time, telling the story of Robert (a publisher), Emma (a gallery owner and Robert’s wife), and Jerry (a literary agent, Robert’s best friend since university and Emma’s long-time secret lover).

Like Waiting for Godot, it is a deep and accommodating text if the actors and director begin by making only three monumentally simple assumptions:

1) the characters all mean exactly what they say;

2) each time a character speaks he or she accomplishes something quite specific, not merely a broad intention or simple attitude; and

3) the characters do not keep saying and therefore doing the same thing over and over again, anymore than we do, for lack of a better phrase, “in real life”.

For instance, Jerry remembers a moment in Emma’s and Robert’s kitchen with their daughter. “I threw her up”, he recalls. By “I” he means himself, by “her” he means Emma and Robert’s little girl, and by “threw her up” he must mean he lifted her and tossed her up in the air, presumably catching her on the way down. No matter who’s acting Jerry, no matter what he’s been directed to do or think, if he doesn’t mean exactly this when he tells Emma (and us) “I threw her up” then he’s no more acting the character of Jerry than a bus driver is driving a bus with his hands off the wheel.

Let me beat this to death a moment longer.

Before the actor does anything else,” means anything else. He must make a statement of absolute fact based on a clear memory or vision. To ask if he really does these very specific acts of mind because he’s acting in a play would be like asking an NFL linebacker if he really tackles a runner because he’s playing a game. We don’t go to a football game to see the game interpreted; we go to see it, duh, played.

If the actor fails to commit these obvious but crucial acts, let’s call them “acts of mind” then absolutely nothing will happen, at that moment or in the very next moment—when, in the case of this wonderful play, Emma reminds Jerry that it was not her kitchen, but his kitchen, where this playfulness took place. His memory has betrayed him, not an unimportant event in the development of his character, nor in a play titled Betrayal

Sounds simple, but in just such fundamentals a production nichols3of Betrayal evolves, and this production remained clueless. The evening at the Barrymore was mechanical, predigested, synthetic; attitudes, mannerisms, rhythms and gestures were hauled from one scene to the next by actors who seemed otherwise unengaged and undirectedbeyond engaging in some extraneous behavior grafted on despite its irrelevance—perhaps intended to pinterkeep our attention, but also to assert the director’s control in lieu of more important work avoided elsewhere, and definitely in lieu of doing what Pinter handed Nichols to do, time after time.

Ben Brantley, in the New York Times, astutely describes a few of these garnishes and gives a feel for three separate moments in what he rightly called a “crude and clunky” evening:

Once Jerry leaves, Emma starts to cower and tremble as if she expects Robert to hit her. Instead he kisses her — hard and bruisingly — and then forces her onto the sofa where he starts to undress her. Between you and me, I’m not really sure how much Emma wants what’s coming, even if Robert is Daniel Craig. But it’s an unsettling, uncomfortable moment, fraught with blurred layers of love, hate and power.

Let me pause here to give you Pinter’s original stage directions for that moment: ‘Robert returns. He kisses her. She responds. She breaks away, puts her head on his shoulder, cries quietly. He holds her.’ That suggests rather a different tone, no?

There are no stage directions, either, for the simulated copulation (she’s on top) that takes place . . . between Jerry and Emma in the love nest where they meet for erotic matinees. Nor is there any indication in the script regarding the scene in which the affair between them begins, that he is as drunk as any jerk in a Hangover movie, and she is smoking pot.”

Three interpolations, presumably by Nichols, three pointless intrusions, three evasions of what is given to be done. I’m not suggesting, I hope you realize by now, that we should sit in the audience with a copy of the play and follow along to make sure the director and actors are doing the play as it was written.

But what is the effect of all this aimless sidestepping if they don’t?

Frank Rich, in his original review of Waiting for Godot, answers the question in brief. Commenting on Robin Williams’ rendition of Estragon, Rich observes, “it seems a waste that Mr. Williams rarely stands still long enough to permit his partner to engage him in an intimate exchange;” the key word, “intimate”, the key act, “engage”, the key event, an “exchange.”

The arbitrary agitation at the Mitzi E. Newhouse in 1988 barred intimacy, just like the lathered-up dry humping and pot smoking at the Barrymore in 2013. Each of the three accomplished actors in Betrayal was a creature of the director’s intentions, not the writer’sdependency on one side, control on the othera theatrical welfare state.

Truthfully, looking back, I don’t remember one intimate exchange in a text whose only reason to exist is the intimacy of the exchanges it provokes. After all these decades Nichols was again hanging actors out to dry.

So if we want to hand out blame at the Barrymore, I don’t believe it was at all the fault of the actors. Although Daniel Craig might not like to hear it, any 60 seconds of his work as James Bond has more dimension, authority and wit (and engagement with his counterparts) than any moment he was allowed to achieve as Robert. Neither Rachel Weisz nor Rafe Spall had a moment together that would account for their attraction to one another; Jerry, despite his centrality in the play (standing in for Pinter himself in the drame à clef), was an afterthought to Robert, and Robert’s indifference was iterated and reiterated until he became a green thought betrayal-posterin a green shade. (We only have to compare David Jones’ casting of Jeremy Irons and Ben Kingsley in the far more conscientious 1983 film to see how far from Pinter’s shore Nichols marooned these actors.)

Enough said; enough done.

I don’t want to take anything away from anyone’s achievements elsewhere, but there was something so wrong-headed about this mash-up of intentions, something so perverse about the avoidance of the play and falsely promising about the packaging, that I hope another 25 years will pass before a writer, cast, or audience is lured by the promise of past successes, which, as on Wall Street, bull is clearly no guarantee of future results.

Cooper’s London

November 23, 2013

Music, Books, TV, CDs, DVDs,




All Ye Need to Know

Paul Kildea, Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century. Allen Lane (an imprint of Penguin Books)

Well-researched, fairly balanced in its judgements paul kildea 2(mostly), advocating the “greatness” of Britten while fully aware of the flaws and difficulties in both the man and the works: in this hundredth anniversary year of Benjamin Britten, this is the outstanding background read about Britten you should seek out. Paul Kildea sets bookBritten firmly in the context of his times, arguing that Britten was a far more political man than most people consider, and that his politics influenced his choices of subjects and texts considerably (as well as his choice of lifestyle).

Britten was a pacifist from an early age, a homosexual in an era when it was illegal to be “gay”, a socialist in many of his beliefs, a person interested in community and small-town life more than in the glories and opportunities of a large metropolis. The subtexts of his operas, church parables and song cycles take on extra layers of meaning and purpose as you read Kildea’s analyses. 

The author shows Britten as a troubled man who had to navigate between his Scylla of a conscience and his sexuality, both potentially offensive to the society in which he lived (that could have had him rejected as a pariah); and the Charybdis of the magnetic pull of an Establishment that was desperate for a new, great British talent in music after World War II. This book is well-written and well-researched; its portraits of people important to Britten come vividly to life:  the composer Frank Bridge; Peter Pears; W. H. Auden; the Mayer family in Amityville during Britten and Pears’s sojourn in the USA; Rostropovich, Janet Baker; and even Gypsy Rose Lee sevenmiddaghstreet(with whom Britten and others shared a house in Brooklyn for a time in 1940)*. All are convincing and make the case for their influence on Britten. But rather than quote the anecdotes, I’d prefer to allow you the pleasure of discovery! 

I found Benjamin Britten completely captivating and inhabited its pages with pleasure. When I reluctantly turned the last page, I wanted to return to the music as well as to my history books about the low, dishonest twentieth century.  A good case in point is the Big Controversy raging at this moment around this very biography: Kildea claims there is evidence that Britten’s heart condition didn’t come from his childhood bout of pneumonia but was a result of an undiagnosed and untreated syphilis that he probably picked up from Pears during their time in the States. The jury is still out on that one as rebuttals and counter-claims fly back and forth; but it in no way diminishes the impact, intelligence or usefulness of this bernsteinbook. Leonard Bernstein once said of Britten: “He had dark gears grinding away in the background, not really meshing. On the surface everything in his life and in his music seemed cool and balanced but underneath he was at odds with the world. He was often difficult and lonely.” Bernstein thought that was the key to the man and to his art; and Kildea’s book certainly convinces one of  how well it fits. 

More Brittening

With the hundredth anniversary of Big Ben this year have come (along with Kildea’s book), some major recordingsre-releases that are as good a place as any to start if you actually want to familiarize yourself with the sounds of his music: three box sets that have come my way are especially recommended. 

Britten-peras-287x300Of course, you could do worse than simply going back to the old Decca recordings featuring Britten himself, so Decca has transferred to DVD some historic performances from BBC television.  Peter Grimes was a TV studio production done in 1969 in glorious colour, with Peter Pears playing the role that had been written for him 25 years before for the very last time.  It celebrates the great breakthrough that Britten was felt to inspire in England after WWII. It’s a strong, evocative performance with the inimitable Heather Harper as Ellen Orford and Bryan Drake as a convincing and sympathetic Captain Balstrode. 

Here, Britten is conducting, and one can argue that this is the most authentic performance you can see. Certainly it’s one to get to know for comparison with all the performances on stage and TV since then. Equally historic is the 1966 legendary BBC film of Billy Budd set in a fully rigged warship that was recreated in a TV studio. It was probably the most ambitious television opera production up to that time and is conducted superbly by the brilliant Charles Mackerras who, despite falling out with the composer, had a great feeling for this music. Again, Pears is playing a role written for him by BrittenCaptain Vere; Billy Budd is portrayed by Peter Glossop, and Michael Langdon is a sinister, Dickensian Claggart, with John Shirley-Quirk as Mr. Redburn. 

These are legendary names in British opera for those of us of a certain age, and one cannot deny the nostalgia of the performances for the Baby Boomer generation, as well as the validity of the sublime acting and singing.  And there’s more: the original TV broadcast of Britten’s only opera written for television beggar's opera(Owen Wingrave, with Janet Baker, Benjamin Luxon, Nigel Douglas, Sylvia Fisher, and Heather Harper, all creating their roles for the first time, and Britten conducting again), and Britten’s hugely successful recreation of John Gay’sThe Beggar’s Opera.

Decca has also released Britten conducting Mozart’s Idomeneo. These are  important historical documents and also illuminating productions of the pieces in question.  But for me the best and most capitivating DVD is the one featuring tenor Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten (as one of the most sensitive and accomplished pianist/accompanists of his era) performing Schubert’s Winterreise and Britten’s own folk-song arrangements. These men did both English song and German lieder to a turn, and though Pears is past his finest vocal hour, the sensitivity, intelligence and sheer musicality of all that he and Britten achieve in these performances make them valuable. Indeed Britten, like his friend Leonard Bernstein, was a triple threat: a composer, a conductor and an accompanist for the ages. These are available as a 7-DVD box set on Decca 074 3366, or can be bought individually. They are a “must-own” for everyone who loves or even just admires Britten.

The Essential Benjamin Britten, released on Warner Classics is another interesting box. With its acquisition of EMI, Warners has now been able to put together some Britten_Penelope_0927490102amazing performances in this 10-CD and 4-DVD box set. Among the highlights: the violin concertos played by Daniel Hope; the War Requiem with Kurt Masur conducting the New York Philharmonic; Janet Baker’s definitive recording of the 1943 work The Rescue of Penelope; and a fine Billy Budd with Thomas Hampson as Billy, conducted by Kent Nagano

The greatest attraction of this box is the DVD selection. Peter Grimes is from the Royal Opera House stage with Sir Colin Davis conducting the great Jon Vickers in one of his iconic roles, and with Norman Bailey as Captain Balstrode, Heather Harper (once again) as Ellen, and John Tomlinson and Forbes Robinson among the other singers.  The Elijah Moshinsky production is deservedly celebrated, and Vickers makes Peter Grimes into a tragic figure as heroic, tormented, and pitiable as his Otello. If you can only ever see one Peter Grimes, this is the one.  

Also from the ROH, the ballet of The Prince of the princePagodas with the brilliant Darcey Bussell as Princess Rose and Anthony Dowell as the Emperor leading a very strong cast in a very strong production. Glyndebourne come the definitive Peter Hall productions, conducted by Bernard Haitink with total charm and sensitivity, of Albert Herring and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. If you’re at all interested either in Britten or in strong opera productions of a generation ago, and you think of the  10 CDs as a kind of bonus, it’s worth acquiring this celebratory Benjamin Britten budget set for those four wonderful productions now preserved on DVD alone. 

The Essential Benjamin Britten
10 CD + 4 DVD   Warner Classics 2564 64756

Meantime, the EMI label has released three box sets gathering together some of the finest Britten performances in their archive.  My favourite is the Choral Works and Opera for Children, which make a great supplement and compliment to the Warner’s box mentioned above. The War Requiem is conducted by Simon Rattle with dazzling insight. His soloists are Elisabeth Söderström, Robert Tear and Thomas Allen. The Spring Symphony by Andre Previn;  and a wonderful collection of hymns, carols, and lesser-known early works as well as The LittleSweep and the delicious Noyes Fludde (the one which used strung coffee cups as a xylophone!)[] are all performances worth having. In fact, there isn’t a duffer  in the lot, and it’s a very English Britten who emerges; a man devoted to small forces and community work, as well as the contentious Britten, the pacifist of the War Requiem. This is a Britten and a Britain well worth getting to know.

Benjamin Britten: Choral Works and Opera for Children
EMI 7 CDs  0 15156 2

Cogito: John Branch

November 20, 2013


 JB photo-painting by RC 2



New Tricks for an Old Dog

One evening in early November, the BAM Harvey Theater resounded to an electric guitar, a few American pop-rock songs including Bowie’s “Changes,” the splat of paint-filled balloons hurled against the walls of the set, and the words of an incendiary political text published recently in France. For a while, voices from the audience were heard as well, challenging one of the characters on stage or supporting another. There was even a trained dog, though she wasn’t the one with the new tricks. It may sound like a crazy anarchist circus or even a rally for the Occupy movement—and in a way it works as either or both. But the occasion was a performance by Berlin’s Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz of a 131-year-old play by Henrik Ibsen: An Enemy of the People.

ibsenIbsen’s original tells of a doctor in a spa town, Thomas Stockmann, who discovers a pollution problem with the water supply feeding the baths. Determined to announce this as a prelude to getting it cleaned up, Stockmann finds and then loses backing in one quarter after another—from the mayor to the opposition press—and he ends as a radical idealist, refusing to compromise with anyone, dismissing virtually the entire town as corrupt enemies of truth. Apart from an ironic shadow in the final moment, Ibsen’s Enemy of the People shows the playwright at his most intemperate. (He wrote it as a heated response to the hostile reception of Ghosts.)

Having been thoroughly renovated by company dramaturg Florian Borchmeyer (credited with preparing this new version) and the Schaubuhne’s artistic director ostermeierThomas Ostermeier, the play is now performed in modern dress, is garlanded with comic bits, and feels quite contemporary. The doctor, his wife, and one of their newspaper friends launch into a band rehearsal at one point, which the wife soon interrupts for a spat with Stockmann; a couple of laptops appear in another scene. The play now hits a different target, too. Instead of attacking conventional morality, it decries the ills of modern democratic capitalism.

Florian_Borchmeyer_u_ber_Jodorowsky_101675966_thumbnailBorchmeyer hasn’t merely modernized Ibsen’s text; he has rewritten much of it, eliminating minor characters and a lot of secondary discussion, and even rejiggered the plot. Anyone who knows the original—which is indeed something of a dog—will be repeatedly surprised by the Schaubühne’s version, and yet in retrospect it’s much the same, simply displaying some new and pretty stunning tricks. (The company is no longer in in the U.S., but for anyone yet to see it in another country, the rest of my text contains spoilers. It will be performed in five more cities on the company’s current international tour.)

Ibsen’s Stockmann convenes a public meeting to reveal his discovery but is pretty quickly voted off his own stage; after some further maneuvering, the play ends with his ringing declaration that “The strongest man in the world is the man who stands alone.” He’s surrounded by his family at the time, thus hardly alone—the ironic shadow I mentioned. The new Stockmann never says anything of the kind, and at his meeting he speaks at length, moving from a bit of Ibsen’s text to a series of sometimes abstract, sometimes trenchant remarks that Borchmeyer has borrowed from The Coming Insurrection, published in France in 2007. The line that most struck home when I attended was “The economy is not in crisis; the economy is the crisis.” Soon after we hear that, suddenly and very smoothly, another surprise develops: the meeting is thrown open to comments and questions from the audience, with prompts and replies, even provocations, from the characters—all in English, whereas the play itself is presented in German with English supertitles.

The speech and the discussion are potent moments, wvolksfeind02hile they last, though they raised a suspicion for me: this isn’t the same as being given a greater voice in the affairs of the land. But the evening isn’t over yet. The scripted play resumes its course and shows us two things. One, in the current order of things, we, along with the new Stockmann, will face endless temptation, like Jesus in the desert.  Two, our resistance may call for consultative, group action. Interpretations will vary, but the latter is how I read the final moments. There, we see Stockmann weighing the next move with his wife, whereas he had always made decisions on his own before.

Stefan Stern plays Stockmann with the air of a man who keeps getting knocked down and keeps getting back up. He’s not the kind of guy who does well in a fight—he’s reckless, not very observant, and even trips over himself at one point—but he refuses to stay down and is somehow invigorated by opposition. The rest of the seven-person cast is equally excellent. There are no star turns here, not even in that long speech. Everything is focused; nothing is overstated. This is vital and purposeful theater;  the Schaubühne’s Enemy of the People is a perfect example of its kind.

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Apollo’s Girl

November 19, 2013

Theatre, Film, Music, Art




Midsummer Night’s Magic

Still trying to figure out why Ben Brantley seemed to be MIDSUMMER-art-websitereviewing Spiderman, Turn Off the Dark when the assignment was actually Midsummer Night’s Dream. And, if the initial impulse was to open with remembrance of things past, why not focus on Julie Taymor’s history with Theatre for a New Audience? Dream is, in fact, her fifth collaboration with the company (not counting a 60-minute version of the play she did for TFANA in 1984). Or, another option: TFANA’s stunning new home of its own, a stone’s throw from BAM, all glass and steel, designed by H3 Hardy Collaboration, adding style and substance to Brooklyn’s tfana1new Downtown Cultural District. It’s got a park, a lobby café, and a book kiosk, and nine (count ’em) subway lines within a block or two of the building. And there are neighborhood blocks and restaurants to discover….

But I digress. This Midsummer Night’s Dream is magic, full of Taymor’s tricks and talents oberon and titaniathat reimagine Shakespeare’s potion-crazed quartet of lovers, his Shadow King and Fairy Queen, his rude mechanicals, and especially that saucy jester Puck, into creatures who exist comfortably at the turn of the 17th century but also in our own, awash with potent subtext. Hint: it’s not just about those three weddings.

Let’s take another look at Puck. When first encountered, he (don’t be too sure) appears in whiteface and bowler hat, the 19th-century attire of a London busker. He bows and smiles ingratiatingly, but soon sprawls on a bed to sleep hunteras a vast sheet extends from the mattress, carrying it and Puck to the ceiling, where bed and busker disappear into thin air. So it’s Puck’s dream that we will share.

Dressed in costumes that reference Elizabethan England (as well as Punk America), and often flying, tumbling, and leaping, the entire cast has mastered Taymor’s theatrical language as well as the playwright’s. It’s a heady combination. In particular, David Harewood’s brooding Oberon and Tina Benko’s sultry Titania are well and truly matched. Max Casella is irresistible as Nick Bottom (both with, and without his donkey’s head), and a cadre of faerie children will steal your heartespecially when they enter playing didjeridus as big as they are. There is a fair amount of airborne taymoraction, and that sheet (used in cunning and constantly imaginative ways) deserves a Tony of its own. There are also stunning projections of the natural world, including huge hi-def flowers that open and bloom in brilliant colors Mother Nature can only hope to imitate. But always, whether front and center, dangling from a cable, or whisking about the stage in an invented body language all her own, Kathryn Hunter’s Puck is an original creation that only she, and Taymor, could conjure up.

TFANA has chosen the perfect work and production to inaugurate its new home. So get thee to Brooklyn for the play and the playhouse! Dream will run until January 12; for tickets and information on the season: go to.


afterrmathThere are those who feel strongly that to fictionalize the Holocaust is to drain it of its real and terrible meaning; only documents (and documentaries) can reveal the truth. And there are those who feel equally strongly that shaping its history with the knife of artifice will reveal a more powerful truth, likely to summon emotions that will remain indelible memories.

Aftermath is a combination of both, in that its essential story of two brothers and a forgotten Polish village is actually a weaving together of several true stories shaped into a single semi-fictional narrative. Whatever your convictions on the subject, Aftermath cannot be forgotten; not for its story, not for its direction or camerawork, not for its cast, and especially not for the its lean,wrenchingly gritty (but beautifully filmed) production.

Constructed like a thriller, the film slowly reveals the long-kept secret of what happened to the Jews of the town during World War II and (with clues that challenge the audience to solve the puzzle as evidence is painstakingly uncovered by the two brothers), who was responsible for the crime. The cast is small and brilliant; the focus is tight and tighter as tension mounts. The brothers Jozek (Maciej Stuhr) and Franek (Ireneusz Cop) circle one another as they confront the villagers, who aftermath2increasingly oppose their efforts, and their own family history.

In case you feel that there’s little reason to dredge it all up again, or that you’ve seen it all before, there is, and you haven’t. To discover just how truthful Aftermath is, you have only to go on line and read some of the comments from outraged viewers (I did, out of curiosity). They are both deeply shocking and depressing, proving only that the issues are very much alive, and stillafter almost seven decades—able to generate venom. Trailer: here The film is currently in limited release. To locate theaters: see

Baden-Baden 1927

The City Opera may be gone, but the Gotham Chamber Opera is now in its 12th season of presenting challenging new and (sometimes very) baden baden 2old works, pushng the temporal envelope in both directions. This year, promising to “reimagine and reinterpret this historic performance,” it opened with a revivala legendary event from long ago and far away: July 17, 1927, in Baden-Baden.

Once a Roman spa, repeatedly forgotten and rediscovered, Baden-Baden became the site of the Festival of New Music (overflowing with a contemporary Who’s-Who of the cutting edge) that year and presented four one-act operas in one evening: Weill’s Mahagonny mahagonnySongspiel; Hindemith’s Hin und zurück; Milhaud’s L‘enlèvement d’Europe; and Toch’s Die Prinzessin auf der Erbse.

In selecting these composers and works, Gotham has continued its commitment to eclectic programming that can shock, compel, and seduce, but always provoke thought. Although Mahagonny is still familiar, the other three works are seldom performed. In particular, baden badenToch’s Princessin (better-known as The Princess and the Pea) was a real delight; Scandinavian folk-tale as reality TV. Enjoying this historic quartet reimagined (like Midsummer Night’s Dream) and freshly directed, played, and sung by a cast whose sparkle matches the paintings of Georg Baselitz and the sets and costumes of Court Watson, allows audiences to imagine 1927, and to take away some of the surprise and delight of its original impact.

Gotham has compiled a strong track record in recent years (especially for its premiere of Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters; its revival of Mozart’s Il sogno di Scipione; and Catán’s Rappaccini’s Daughter). It has been building partnerships with venues around the cityoften at the Gerald W. Lynch Theatre, but also at the New Victory Theatre, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the Museum of Natural History, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The challenge of creating opera in these diverse settings is exactly what defines Gotham. But perhaps it might be time to consider settling down? If there is an heir apparent to NYCO, Gotham has earned its place at the top of the list. Let’s think about it… For now, to enjoy the remainder of the season, explore

Mahout to the Elephant in the Room

metronomesYou can hear the Refusal of Time before you can see it in its quarters at the Metropolitan Museum; the huge ticking metronomes, layered sound track, and Philip Miller’s chorus and brass band promise a new William Kentridge experience. Like most of them, it does not disappoint. Instead, as you take a seat near the back of the room, you are mesmerized refusal3twice: once by the huge breathing machine (a.k.a. The Elephant) that remains in perpetual motion, and once by the collage of images, still and filmed, current and archival, that march across five adjacent screens to the different drummer who is their ringmaster nonpareil.

In 2010, Kentridge took New York by storm. A retrospective of his work was mounted by MoMA; the Metropolitan Opera offered his production of Shostakovich’s The Nose (direction and design of sets and videos—it’s currently on-stage and in HD this season); and NYPL Live featured 90 minutes of the artist talking. It left you desperately wanting more.

Kentridge’s fertile imagination is driven as much by his mind and its concerns as by his exceptional technical skills, enriched by his gift for language and the pleasure he takes in explaining his work to all who will listen. For a real treat, browse YouTube for the kentridge3dozens of videos that reveal his work and his persona. He’s a consummate showman, physically agile and emotionally direct, articulate and often unabashedly funny. Yet his work is anchored by serious political and social ideas. He is to multi-media what Einstein is to simple math, towering over the narcissism that pervades so much of it and, instead, running away with a potent mixture  of humanism, history, theory, and craft that delivers his message without dumbing it  down.

refusal 3The Met has mounted a complementary exhibition nearbyIn Praise of Shadowsof Kentridge’s works on paper (reminding you of his extraordinary draftsmanship). Many artists can draw; few can give their drawings essential life in a new medium. Best viewed as a prelude to Refusal of Time, Shadows clarifies Kentridge’s process, making tangible the transformation of the drawings into elements of his multi-media, and offering clues as to the logic of their placement. On view until February 2, 2014 (Gallery 914). This is one double bill that is not only worth the trip, but repeated viewings, too.

The Refusal of Time can be enjoyed at the Met until May 11 (Gallery 919). After that, it will go west; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is the exhibition’s co-commissionerand has planned a long run to coincide with completion of the museum’s expansion project in 2016. After that, the joint stewardship of the Met and SFMOMA will ensure Refusal the unique bi-coastal immortality it deserves; its own refusal of time.

Page 3: Bart Teush

November 12, 2013




How To Prepare, Drink, and Fully Appreciate
a Root Beer Float


The Root Beer Float, properly made, has not only the layers of complexity of any great culinary invention, wine or spirit, but is one of the few recipes that is more complicated in its consumption than its preparation—that is, if you want to experience the full pleasure of this masterpiece of simplicity.

root beerFirst, the root beer has to have intense flavor (Stewart’s is good). The ice cream? Only vanilla—the higher the butterfat the better. (Häagen-Dazs will do, but try for even richer and more vanilla.) However, a float will fulfill expectations with any ice cream that isn’t so beaten in with air that it immediately decomposes.This is important, because the pleasure of the float is in the pace and sequencethe eating and the drinking.

Suffice it to say, the better the ice cream vanilla_ice_cream430x300and the root beer, the more long-lasting it is—and the more fine distinctions you can enjoy, down to that final half-inch at the bottom of the glass.

But before I map the route, I have to emphasize that this is a “Float,” not a soda or a shake. The perfection of the Float depends on the developing relationships between the Root Beer, which I’ll call the Fill, and the ice cream, which I’ll call the Ice Cream.

ice cream spoonA few other ground rules: the glass should be tallish, empty mugthe spoon longish, not too big, not too small a bowl; a teaspoon, not a soupspoon.

Now, the Root Beer Float, the developing relationships, the experience:

First, The Fill.

The Ice Cream, one medium-to-small scoop of vanilla, must be anchored, in part, to the edge of the glass so it appears to float, just kissing the surface of the Fill, which should be equal to, say, one bottle of ice-cold Root Beer. This creates the first step on the ladder of pleasure for the Float Drinker: the Foam

The Foam: This is the subtle overture to the symphony to follow; it contains all of the flavors, but in their airy, evanescent incarnation (unlike other foams which are intense reductions of flavor).

Start off eating just the Foam with the spoon; here you introduce yourself to the flavor of the Fill and The Cream and begin to establish your pace and rhythm. This pace and rhythm are as important as the ingredients. You cannot pause in consuming a Root Beer Float. This does not mean shoveling it in, not at all. But it is not a stop-and-start experience. Once you start, you keep going until it’s gone. Steady on.

After a few spoonfuls of The Foam, start eating the Foam and the Ice Cream—again, in small tastes—actually the nature of the float will prohibit anything but small tastes, because you can’t go chasing the Ice Cream around the Fill. You can’t stab it or sink it or, under any circumstance, stir it; you have to keep it floating. This restraint pays off in creating The Cream (but more of that later).

So, it’s a gradual advance you make through the layers of texture and flavor. After a few spoonfuls of the Foam and the Ice Cream, start adding in the Fill; this will be your first full taste of the Root Beer. This combination of Foam, Fill, and Ice Cream will take you some distance down the glass. Good Ice Cream will stay afloat and keep its shape until you’ve consumed as much as half the glass, certainly a good third.

The magic, though, happens while you take these first careful steps. All the while youre tasting the small spoonsful of The Foam, The Fill, and the Ice Cream, there is a covert infusion of Ice Cream in the Root Beer, which creates the opportunity for sipping the supernal Cream, that Root Beer-infused ambrosia.

A few notes: Please use only a semi-wide straw straws(you can’t savor a Root Beer Float through a water main), which allows the Fill to remain cold and Root Beer-y at the end; The Cream should be exceedingly velvety and rich; and your thirst will, I promise, be quenched in your final, uninterruptedly pleasurable, uptake of The Float.

A few more notes: The Float is not to be accompanied by anything but thirst. I repeat: the pace must be steady at whatever modest speed works, but you can’t stop. And don’t be rough with the ingredients, at first or through the final sipping of the Cream. Don’t poke and push and prod the Ice Cream around and, above all, don’t—don’t ever—stir; the beauty of this drink is how it evolves without any interference other than consuming it.

If you make any mistakes, you lose distinctions—the distinctions of flavor, temperature, texture—the distinctions, which are everything.

root-beer-float-federico-arceNow you see that drinking a Root Beer float is a patient, careful process; not diamond- cutting, but definitely not just a sloppy chow down.  As in undertaking any discipline, your care, restraint, and concentration will guarantee the payoff.


Cooper’s London

November 5, 2013





Illuminating Richard

greg doran 2Greg Doran has turned to illuminated manuscripts and mediaeval images to dress his new production of Richard II within a modern, clean design so that the visual imagery of the evening matches text and creates context. He has, as always, richard II posterturned his group of actors into an ensemble working with and off each other within a beautifully poised and controlled production. And, as always with Doran, the language is delivered impeccablyanyone can understand what is being said even if they are usually terrified of listening to Shakespeare. Last (but definitely not least) he has devised marvellous stage business to point up and clarify the text at every step.

The opening scene, for instance, is played literally over the dead body of the Duke of Gloucester. The old Duchess enters even before the play starts, led by a page, and she kneels over the bier to mourn and pray while an angelic choir of three maidens sings mediaeval-inspired hymns. When the tale of the Duke’s recent murder and the allegations and counter-allegations about who was responsible are told, this whole strand about the fight between Bolingbroke and Mowbray that implicates Richard himself, and is the catalyst of Richard’s ultimate downfall, is urgent and lucid, conveyed to the audience with complete transparency. This is merely one detail in a production where the layers of visual and verbal presentation continuously act together to integrate and propel the story.

At the centre of this production is the tennant4startlingly edgy portrayal of Richard II in his last year by David Tennant. Starting as an effeminate, self-centered, and waspish man (who turns up for a funeral in white robes), concerned to be stylish, somewhat foppish, a bit of a show-off fascinated by his own ability to play-act for his favorites, Richard is surrounded by courtiers, with whom he’s constantly conferring in whispers and giggles, from whom he seems to tennant5need to take his decisions. The audience wathes as he mistakenly and almost casually over-reaches his authority, betrays his family and his people, and then turns, step-by-step into a genuine Christian martyr. Efectively, Doran is emphasizing the intrpretation of Richard II as a Passion Play. The flowing hair of the fop in the firts scene turns into the long hair of the Christ-figure that we see in many mediaeval portraits of Jesus.

The production provokes a complexity of feelings for Richard: horror at his silliness early on, great pathos and strong sympathy as he learns what he has done and cannot undo, who he is, and how much he was loved for his position and not his real self. The imagery of royalty and the imagery of the martyrdom adhere to him throughout.

And as his power declines and finally falls away from him, this Richard grows constantly in stature and becomes a frail, brave and heroically open-eyed figure. But this is not the whole story or point of the evening. Even when Richard is not onstage, we are completely riveted by what is happening to the other characters, while we wait for him to reappear. (This production presents the play complete.)

lapotaireThe play is strongly cast throughout, with Jane Lapotaire memorable as the touching and troubling Duchess of Gloucester in the first scene; Michael Pennington as a compelling John of Gaunt. The Queen, played by Emma Hamilton, and her ladies, are present, as they would have been, even in scenes where they are relegated to silence. It makes the meeting between Richard and his wife at the end all the more touching. And in the last moments for Richard, Elliot Barnes-Worrell is striking as the groom.

Nigel Lindsay as a threatening, self-aware 468px-Shakespeare-390x500and powerful Bolingbroke conveys a shrewd sense of knowing how far he can push his followers and  which of them he can actually trust. Oliver Ford Davies is the conflicted and suffering Duke of York, Marty Cruickshank is York’s son-protecting wife, and Oliver Rix stands out as a vividly impressive Aumerle, who’s interpreted, in this production, as turning into a Judas figure under the pressures of events. He even is given the Judas kiss by Richard, though if you are seeing this production for the first time, you won’t understand the point of this kiss, perhaps, until the final curtain.

There are some fascinating readings richard IIof the text; all the set pieces and poetry are delivered with insight and as if newly devised, everything comes across as fresh.  The readings are consistent with the characterizations yet as brilliantly theatrical as they would be in a court where image and self-presentation are so important. But there is a surprise at the end for those who know the text: Sir Piers Exton’s part, that of the actual historic murderer of Richard, is replaced by Aumerle. This is a debatable but fascinating gloss highlighting an important aspect of the story.

Ultimately, during the curtain calls, while richard II musicthe actors are enthusiastically cheered by the audience along with the musicians (who, throughout, provide wonderful support to the action with the score by Paul Englishby), this is another triumph for Gregory Doran. The lyricism, the poetry, and the tragedy are all conveyed with great precision; the play is paced perfectly; and the production brings out the wit and humour of some parts of the text that are often forgotten, especially in Richard’s early posturings and self-satisfaction and in the scene between the York family and Bolingbroke about Aumerle’s potential treason. Doran manages to elicit from his company the balance between sheer theatricality of a high order and a truly intellectual response to the text.

This is the RSC at its finest, giving a compelling and totally fascinating reading to a text by Shakespeare that, as you watch it, is always completely convincing and thought-provoking.

Doran is following Richard II next spring with his new productions of Henry IV, Parts I and II. He plans to build and present the entire cycle of the Shakespeare history plays of the Hundred Years War over the next few years. Like Wagner’s mighty and eternal Ring, definitely worth waiting for.

Richard II plays in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon- Avon in the UK until 16 November. It then transfers to the Barbican Theatre in London from 9 December to 25 January, returning the RSC to their old London home for the first time in years,. The play will be broadcast worldwide in cinemas (in HD) on 13 November.

Cogito: John Branch

November 2, 2013

Film, Books

JB photo-painting by RC 2



A Text to Rally the Troops

In the 2012 film This Is 40, a woman approaching middle age who has two bickering children 40already and whose household finances are none too secure discovers that she’s pregnant. No one asks whether she should have the child. (If that’s married life at 40, I’m glad I missed it.) A few other films, I think, have taken the same stance: pregnancy is unquestioned, while contraception, adoption, and especially abortion, are unmentionable.

Those issues are heatedly discussed elsewhere in our cultue, just as gun violence is. Yet firearms aren’t kept out of movies for fear of troubling the audience. Is someone trying to keep the A-word off the screen?

notorious lifeThe word itself doesn’t turn up very often if at all in My Notorious Life, a historical novel by Kate Manning (published in September by Scribner in the U.S.; in June by Bloomsbury in the U.K.). That’s only because its first-person narrator, telling her tale from around the end of the 19th century, doesn’t share our direct way of naming such things. The book grapples wholeheartedly with abortion and a group of related issues—when they arise in the course of its story. And they often do.

The narrator is Anne Muldoon, the oldest of three children of Irish immigrants in New York, called Axie by her mother “because I was forever axing so many questions.” The life she recounts ranges from New York tammanyhallCity to a prairie settlement in Illinois and back, from 1860 to 1880, and from a destitute existence on the streets to a mansion on Fifth Avenue, as its narrator grows from untutored adolescence to settled adulthood. Her account is bedecked with lost lingo, little history lessons, and reminders of times past—in the first three pages, victoria carriages and omnibuses and Tammany Hall.

Axie’s life is a coming-of-age story, and it’s also a genuine rags-to-riches tale surprisingly like those spun by Horatio Alger except that it’s written for adults. There’s even a villain, whom Axie calls “my enemy”: Anthony Comstock, a moral crusader who’s a real historical figure.

kate manningManning uses a flash-forward opening chapter to let us know the crisis toward which the plot will build, and she introduces the character of Comstock 79 pages in, though he doesn’t enter the plot until later. Nearly everything in the book, in fact, leads to or supports the central issues. The action, characters, situations, and themes have been woven into a kind of spider’s web: touch it almost anywhere and the vibration registers elsewhere. The world of impoverished immigrants, for instance, in which the story begins, includes many children who are orphaned, abandoned, or can’t be cared for (Axie is one); those children partly explain the concern, on the part of Axie and others later, with preventing or controlling pregnancy. Axie’s discovery of the physical and emotional lure of sex also figures into that concern, as do the rigors and risks of childbirth.

The heart of her tale is her career. Having been taken in by a women’s doctor, Axie learns to make and dispense medicines that “regulate” a woman’s cycle and relieve “blockage”; these must be early-stage abortifacients. When she’s married and needing extra income, she sets up a business purveying these medicines, and later she becomes a midwife as well, which, along with the medicine and advice she dispenses, earns her a surprising amount of money. Eventually, she sometimes does the dangerous work of terminating a later-stage pregnancy, which sounds like what we now call a D&C except without anesthesia. This aspect of My Notorious Life—the nature of Axie’s work, why she does it, why there’s a need for it, why some people oppose it—arouses the strongest feelings, and it’s why the book could become a text for the troops to rally around. (I hope the troops include a lot of men.) Katha Pollitt gives a great account of it from this angle here .

As a novel, it could be called unsubtle, but that’s not a criticism when its effects are achieved so carefully. And as an argument, Manning’s book is the most subtle and convincing kind: one that views moral and legal questions in the light of human desires, feelings, and experience.

Axie is a strong female character and was considered as such in an October 30 event at New York’s Center for Fiction. Part of her story is true, too, including her unlikely-seeming financial success; Axie is derived in part from a real person, Ann Trow Lohman, also known as Madame Restell. How much these things matter will vary from reader to reader, though.

Whatever it means to be strong (capable? madamerestellarrestedbulldog-persistent? courageous?), Axie goes beyond it. She’s funny, she’s compassionate, she’s got native smarts, she remains determined to reunite her scattered siblings (though she’s endlessly thwarted,) she has trouble trusting men, and she’s burdened by the weight of losses already endured and the fear of others that may come. What’s more, the story gets at some conflicts and home truths in 19th-century American life—some of them still current—that don’t depend on Axie’s real-life model: science versus superstition in medicine; materialism versus Protestant and Puritan theology; the near impossibility of a woman finding anything to do other than work in service or marry; the rule of men over virtually every realm of life…

Still, in Kate Manning’s seamless stitching together of fact and fiction, part of the thrill of the tale is knowing that this—or something like it—really happened.
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