Archive for March, 2014

Cogito: John Branch

March 11, 2014


 JB photo-painting by RC 2


 Open Door to
Open House.

o'neillWhat to do about the American family? Depending on where you stand, the poor thing needs to be either preserved in its traditional form or extensively modernized. And what about the American family drama? Admittedly a less pressing concern, it too is defended from one side and decried from another. At least one critic I could name millerfeels the family drama was okay for Eugene O’Neill, began to wear out its welcome with Arthur Miller, and was completed, perfected, and finished off in Sam Shepard’s Buried shepardChild (1978), only to return as a theatrical version of the undead.

The solution, for both family and family drama, may be to get rid of them. That’s essentially what Will Eno does in an anarchic and deliciously clever play called The Open House, currently at the Signature Theatre. As it begins, we see what looks like a family, embroiled in will enowhat seems to be a drama, but those impressions change. The show can be read as a comic reversal of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which the pod people come first and are gradually replaced. The five family members we meet at the outset are creatures of habit and genetics, stuck in their ways. The father either dominates by sniping at everyone else or withdraws into silence; his wife tries to be supportive and conciliatory, etc. Dad is literally stuck—he’s confined to a wheelchair—and the other four remain nearly as frozen in place as he is.

In a way, they’re soulless or dehumanized. None of them refers to one another by name; even the pooch who runs off at the beginning is mentioned only as “the dog.” Nor is the location identified. Although you might, by the end, see a resemblance to the estate in The Cherry Orchard, it’s basically an Everytown USA, as universally American as Grover’s Corners in Our Town.

The original quintet also lacks shoes; Dad’s in slippers, the kids are in their socks, etc. This may be a nod by Eno oliver_butleror by the show’s director, Oliver Butler, to a recent fad in Brooklyn (where Eno lives) but is probably just one of the few signs that these people actually feel at home and at ease.

It’s hard to decide how much to say about The Open House. When there’s pleasure to be had in any work of art or entertainment, part of it usually comes from discovering how the experience unfolds. That’s especially true for this play, which is why I’ve avoided being very specific. If you think I’m being cryptic, you should see what Signature says about it in the overview on its website.

Here’s an example of the show’s humor. When Dad’s brother declares, “They said I was a fool to study Latin, but where are they now?,” he’s promptly quashed by Dad’s answer—“Probably at work.” That’s a snappy comeback, but it carries a little jolt of pain.

Eno is working with the comedy of discomfort, which at any given moment—and probably from one performance to the next—can be awful, hilarious, or an open houseuneasy mix of the two. Maintaining a flexible tone and pace that allow for all these responses is the challenge that faces the five players, Hannah Bos, Michael Countryman, Peter Friedman, Danny McCarthy, and Carolyn McCormick. Under Butler’s guidance, they bring it off masterfully. If the typical family were so smoothly functional, or the typical family drama were this imaginativebut that’s like saying, “If pigs had wings…”

(Signature Theatre, through March 30)

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Cooper’s London

March 9, 2014

Theatre, Music




Oh, What a Loverly War!

Recently Michael Gove, the Ministeruntitled for Education in England’s coalition government, lambasted and insulted history teachers and the BBC for misrepresenting World War I and the heroism of its soldiers and leaders, and for using the TV show Blackadder and the musical play Oh, What a Lovely War! as teaching aids when talking about the history of World War I. What Mr. Gove proves is that the head of education of the UK has no idea of the difference between history and satire in the first instance; and in the second, that he has no idea about genuine popular art.

For the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of WWI, and the 50th of Joan Littlewood’s creative musical entertainment, the adventurous Theatre Royal Stratford East in London has put on oh what a lovelya new production of the show, sticking to the original script and music as put together by Littlewood, Gerry Raffles, Charles Chilton and all the members of the original cast. Murray Melvin, who was also in the original production of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, is now working as the archivist and historian in residence at the TRSE, and he confirms what I felt when I saw this showthat everything in it comes from meticulous research into the period. Everything on that stage happened;every song was sung in the context in which it is presented, and all the statistics displayed are accurate. Far oh what a lovely 4from denigrating the soldiers or their heroism, (though it has some questions about the “donkeys” who led the war and imposed the strategies), Oh, What a Lovely War shows a huge amount of heroism among the ordinary soldiers in the trenches, and also displays the early war fever and the growing weariness with the war with accuracy. In fact, I would argue that Oh What a Lovely War is one of the best ways to introduce the topic to schoolchildren or anyone else and to get them interested in this bit of history.

posterThe show is a presented as a review, a vaudeville, a musical hall production; it’s truly Brechtian; it’s Theatre of Alienation. Its techniques are eclectic and its impact is dazzling. It works on several levels at the same time; and this production is true to its original intention. (The film that was made of it is not bad, but it is, I feel, far more sentimentalized.) It’s also a tough and touching experience for the audience.

Full credit to the strong, ensemble cast and the way they work together. Everyone stands out at one moment or another, and then blends seamlessly back into the company, so it would be invidious to mention any one turn. Full marks also to Terry Johnson for his direction, Lez Brotherston for his design, Mike Dixon for his musical supervision; to all in the band, and yes, to every single actor. This is one of the most seriously exciting pieces of theatre on in London at the momentjust as sheer theatreand it’s a real history lesson at the same time.

Michael Gove couldn’t be more wrong or misguided. Maybe he’s just misinformed by his friends? But now he has a chance to learn a thing or two; the show is right there for him to see. And I wouldn’t be theatre royalsurprised if it transfers to the West End (as it did in 1964)! Meantime, it’s playing at the TRSEwhose cozy Victorian intimacy is a perfect foil for the material—until 15 March. Don’t miss it!

Book tickets at:

Yes, Yes to Iestyn, and a Cheer for Christopher!

After hearing about the success of Philipp Jaroussky’s recent Metropolitan Museum concert , instead of patting myself on the back and revelling in the joy of saying “I told you so,” I’d prefer to nobly daviessuggest you watch out for an opportunity to hear another counter-tenor, Iestyn Davies. Too many counter tenors? Never mind! It’s a golden age for them, so keep your ears open and note that name!

Last night I was able to get to the new production at the English National Opera in London of Handel’s Rodelinda, and though everyone in the cast was very fine especially Rebecca Evans of evansthe clean and golden vocal chords in the title role the standout of the evening was hearing live (for the first time) Iestyn Davies in the role of Bertarido, a deposed king trying to regain wife, life and crown. He’s attractive, he can act convincingly even in a preposterous baroque opera, he has a strong stage personality; and above all he’s able to make some of the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard in the counter-tenor range. His soft singing was ravishing; the control over his dynamics and phrasing was sublime.

But there’s more! The other counter-tenor rsz_christopher_ainsliecredit_sarah_nankin(new to me), South-African Christopher Ainslie, was just as captivating and convincing in the role of Unulfo, the ultimate loyal servant. Both men understood the arbitrary, cartoonish quality of the libretto and found a balance between real emotional display and tongues firmly in cheek. Both sang with ease of expression and modulation, with dramatic intensity and with strikingly lovely timbre, as well as total commitment to their roles Rodelinda-Christopher-Ainslie-Iestyn-Davies-c-Clive-Barda-620x376and to Handel. I have some quibbles with the new production by Richard Jones, but the hell with thatit works, and it’s a musical treat for anyone with the slightest interest in Handel. Conductor Christian Cumyn is another talent to watch out for.

Christopher Ainslie has more work coming up at the English National Opera soon, and a Wigmore Hall Recital. Davis will be singing at Glyndebourne and the Royal Opera House this summer. He’s also the recipient of the 2013 Critics’ Circle Award for Exceptional Young Talent (Singer).

Page 3: Bart Teush

March 4, 2014

Architecture, Style, History (Part Two)




 3. The Nasty

The epitome of Nasty architecture, the unpleasant step-child of Brutalism, dominates the corner of 14th Street and 5th Avenue, arguably a gateway to Greenwich Village. There stands a building so outré in its refusal to fit in that I question the motives of its architect, Roger Duffy (ironically, like Gordon Bunschaft, also a partner at Skidmore Owings and Merrill partner). It strains credulity to think that this building was drawn–-figuratively speaking — on the same SOM drafting tables where Bunshaft created The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library fifty years ago. 

brutal1This wound on a major site in New York City marks fifty years since A&A and Beinecke were built, and makes a fit comparison. It, too, is an academic commission (by The New School for Social Research) and, like the Yale buildings, clearly intended to assert its own importance as a University Center.

Duffy’s 370,000 square foot Leviathan arises in the midst of a mix of post-war white brick apartment houses, masonry masterpieces from the 30’s, and a new, quite elegant low-rise building just across 13th Street that serves as a counterpoint to the University Center as a reminder of restraint, discipline and simplicity. 

Many buildings have a signature, usually a dominant design element, to which they are reduced: Johnson’s Lipstick and Chippendale buildings, Norman Foster’s Gherkin, or Saarinen’s Whale. This might be called Duffy’s Gash. 

There are actually two major design elements, which are, in a way, contradictory. First, the brass “clapboards” and ribbon windows refer politely to Joseph Urban’s original old new school1936 New School for Social Research building nearby on West 11th Street. Duffy makes a gesture to context by quoting Urban’s brick treatment but then mutilates the homage with the easy and outrageous gouge of glass streaking across the West and South façades, new school brutalrepresentingif nothing elsean outsized portion of the building’s construction budget. This grotesque stroke is meant to do what, exactly? 

Its apparent function is to expose the stairways of the building so we can watch students, faculty and administrators walk from floor to floor. Yes, walking from floor to floor is a fundamental part of academic life, but does it deserve such prominent display? Maybe. After all, it reveals the users of the building in a transition from level to level, certainly a synecdoche of the whole academic enterprise. Could that be how Roger Duffy pitched the Nasty image to his clients while they sat with open checkbooks at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill?

There’s no need to guess. SOM’s Web site pitch spills the beans:

“The University Center is intended to become the “heart” of The New School. The LEED Gold building will provide space for all aspects of a traditional campus, with 200,000 square feet of academic space on the first seven floors and 150,000 square feet for a 600-bed dormitory on the levels above. 

“Interactive spaces are dispersed vertically throughout the section to activate all levels of the building. fire stairsTying them all together are three iconic fire stairs that are unraveled to weave their way through the building, providing ample opportunities to chance encounters and unstructured conversation. This structure creates hives of activity that are traced along the façade with large glass windows. The result is an architecture whose identity is completely intertwined with the University’s identity, making the two indistinguishable.” 

Blah. Blah. Blah. Whoa: “Three iconic fire stairs”? The phrase pokes through the archi-babble like the gash itself. How and why does a stairway get bumped up to “iconic”? Iconic, after all, means “executed according to a convention or tradition” and implies an elevation to memorial or even reverential status. How do fire stairs merit such veneration? Their function as routes for emergency evacuation is something I would call to the attention of tenants and pedestrians only if I were being . . . Nasty.

And besides, with all the other spaces in the breathlessly multi-use building intended for dorms, offices, lounges, restaurantshow does a stairway become a “hive of activity?” Yes, it shows constant motion, but all the action is elsewhere.

The ultimate irony is the architect’s indisputable achievement: the building’s Gold energy efficiency rating (read environmental conscientiousness).  Ironic because there is a larger environment, which you’d think any major addition to the campus would consider.

After all, The New School is, like Greenwich Village, an environment, with an identity that arises in a quite specific history. During the 30s and 40s it was bauhausa safe haven for countless émigré academics in flight from the Nazis. These émigrés were European in their formality, rigor and clarity. Think Bauhaus, think Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss. To make Roger Duffy’s porridge of postmodernism a nominal center of the New School and its diffuse campus flies in the face of the intellectual and esthetic foundations of the school. And despite the LEED rating certifying the building as non-polluting and energy-efficient, it brazenly intrudes on the neighborhood.

night shotDuffy’s intrusion is a form of pollution. His glaring, (albeit energy-efficient) illumination is also pollution (trust me, at night you’ll expect to hear the chords of Close Encounters echoing down 14th Street). As is the uninflected size of the building, as is the Gash, which pollutes the façade and spoils the architect’s less-than-enthusiastic homage to Joseph Urban.

Perhaps that’s itthe best and most succinct definition of the Nasty: pollution; pollution of the streets–careless, self-promoting, self-satisfied pollution, making a space less appealing than it was. 

I don’t welcome the transition, cultural, political, architectural, and psychological from Brutal to Nasty. But I make the distinction to mark the New Year on the assumption that once aware of it we can begin to avoid it like the plague it already is.

(See Part One: The Brutal and the Nasty, February 14.)

Apollo’s Girl

March 2, 2014



History Repeats Itself…

After a year of screenings for the New York Film Festival, the Jewish Film Festival, Dance on Camera, Rendez-vous with French Cinema, and with New Directors/New Films about to launch, there is much to recommend. But since the Red Carpet is imminent, I must do my annual Oscar whine about the chasm between how good films really are and whether or not they win, or even become contenders.

king's speechIt’s all a little like the work of the Philosopher’s Stone – done behind closed doors, often by closed minds, but in reverse, when gold can be turned into dross. I waxed somewhat apoplectic about this two years ago, when The King’s Speech won out over The Social Network. The Social Network was that rarest of rarae aves – a perfect film. King’s Speech, on the other hand, social netorkalthough blessed with a compelling story and an ultra-A-list cast also had a nudge-nudge wink-wink aesthetic, a script overflowing with cliches, flaccid editing, and awkward directing that worked against the story and the cast. Why did it win out over The Social Network? I don’t know!

Well, history repeats itself a little. Althoughinside Inside Llewyn Davis has been nominated for, and has won, many awards ( for a complete list), for the Academy Awards it has been nominated only for Cinematography and Sound Mixing. Its obvious rival is American american hustleHustle, which would have left The King’s Speech in the dust. Yes, it’s good. Very good. With a large and accomplished cast, apparently devoid (especially in Christian Bale’s case) of personal vanity.

Before you push me off my soapbox, I have a few concluding remarks: as always, it’s all about tone and rhythm. The tone and rhythm of Hustle are fun for a long time, but its hyper-cartoonish style eventually wears a little thin. Whereas Inside Llewyn Davis, with its brilliant editing and mournful, affectionate tone (it’s the Coen brothers, after all) keeps all its balls in the air right up to the very end. And a delicious end it is, too.

tim's vermeerAnd there’s one more: Tim’s Vermeer has not been included in Oscar’s Best Documentary nominee list. Maybe it’s too smart, too original, or just too good?

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