Posts Tagged ‘BAM’

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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Cooper’s London

October 3, 2013

Theatre, Travel





The Young Vic is, I would bet, about to hit a roll. For those of you in New York, the wonderful production of A Doll’s House directed by Carrie cracknellCracknell that they produced last year

and which is now having a very successful season as a transfer in the West End, will be heading for New York to BAM with the West End cast. That’s hattie morahanthe one where the set is actually a blown-up doll’s house, and Hattie Morahan’s portrayal of Nora Helmer has already won her the Critic’s Circle Best Actress award, among others.  I don’t know that she will win a Tony; but I would sure bet heavily that she’ll be nominated.  Be alert and buy the tickets while there are still some left.

Highlights of the upcoming season in London at the Young Vic will now include:

  • A production of the Kander and Ebb musical The Scotsboro Boys directed by Susan Stroman from 18 October 2013
  • A pre-Christmas production of Beauty and the Beast that sounds funky and fascinating and will be in the tiny Maria Theatre, an experimental space
  • Gillian Anderson undertaking the role of Blanche DuBois in a new production of A Streetcar Named Desire to be directed by Benedict Andrews
  • Juliet Stevenson as Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s intense and surreal masterpiece Happy Days
  • peter brookPeter Brook bringing a newly conceived show (The Valley of Astonishment) that, says the preview note, “mixes neurological research and Persian verse”. Well, it is Peter Brook …

If you’re looking for a Christmas present for someone who lives in London and loves the theatre, you might want to get them a season ticket or a subscription.  For the foreseeable future the Young Vic is one of the most consistently exciting, reliable and stimulating places to get your bit of a theatre-night-out.  And the restaurant still does the best hamburgers in London.

To give a gift, or to “friend” the theatre, (includes the perk of priority booking for any or all the above):

On the Road, Part Two: O, Canada!

Who says you can’t go home again? I’ve just spent over a month in my home and native land and I have to tell you that after a couple of weeks exploring banffthe Rockies in Alberta, Jasper, Banff, Edmonton, and Calgary and its stampede, my wife was asking why hadn’t we brought up our kids there instead of England? All that space; all that clean air; so few crowds. Then, after three days in Toronto with my family, she said: Now I know why we stayed in the UK. It takes an ocean between us to dilute some of the intensity!

Still, we enjoyed the whole experience, including my somewhat time-consuming but very loving family. Canadians are, by and large, rather keen on local culture – from totem poles and local food festivals to work for local actors, directors and scenic designers. There were lots of arts events to choose from: fringe plays in Edmonton that were stimulating and in really interesting small spaces; brilliantly performed Fiddler on the Roof and  Shakespeare in Stratford, Ontario; a terrific production of Tom Stoppard’s Utopia in Niagara-on-the-Lake that sold out in about three seconds flat. I’d have recommended them all, but alas, they are all gone with the summer festival season . But the most surprisingly Anything Goes Tourenjoyable show I saw was Anything Goes in Toronto, with the irrepressible and totally compelling Rachel York as Reno Sweeney, worth the pricey tickets even though it was the same production I had seen in London a few years ago. 

So next year, if you’re going to Canada to enjoy the scenic splendour, do also google the festivals in places like Stratford, and Niagara-on-the-Lake and book early, because both are popular and reliably first-rate. I think that I’d actually want to live in Niagara-on-the-Lake, it’s so lovely; or somewhere in Eastern Ontario like Port Hope.

All this, however,  was overshadowed by encounters with bears, chipmunks and elk in the Rockies and family visits and reunions in Toronto. The farmers marketcity was lively and the weather was lovely; the cafés were full and the farmer’s markets dazzling. And I found some wonderful book stores too! I simply basked! In Toronto you want to visit Bloor Street near Brunswick Avenue/Bathurst Street and look, on the south side, for BMV and Book City. Just make sure you have a large, really strong cloth bag with you and lots of time for exploring. You will then be able to enjoy your finds over some of the best coffee in town.  One of the weddings I went over for was a Fiddler on the Roof meets Las Vegas floor show—great entertainment, and too much food as well. My sore legs the next day told me in no uncertain terms that my dancing days were over.

I came away feeling there’s a lot to do in Canada; I’m more eager than ever to get back to revisit the places I’ve been and also, once more, Quebec City, Montreal, ottawaOttawa (the most underrated city beautiful in North America, ed.) and, finally, Vancouver. Next time I may even take the cross-country train. It takes about five days and offers spectacular vistas 24/7.

Cogito: John Branch

June 4, 2013


JB photo-painting by RC 2


If You Build It, They Will Come

Yes, The Master Builder is one of Henrik Ibsen’s great plays, but why? The simplest answer may be this: If you see it, you’ll know. A fine production is running at BAM’s harvey theatreHarvey Theater through June 9. Here’s your chance; as this blog always hopes to be able to say, “Don’t miss it.”

No doubt it helps to have a sensibility that’s attuned to the kind of music an artist’s late style can produce. Beethoven’s final quartets aren’t for everybody, nor are Henry James’s last novels. It also helps to be prepared.

ibsen1Ibsen’s work can be divided into three phases; the Ibsen that’s most often produced is the middle-period author of realistic prose dramas, running roughly from A Doll’s House (1879) through Hedda Gabler (1890). He had been writing for almost 30 years before Nora slammed the door and continued for nearly 10 after Hedda last took up her father’s pistol. Allowing for Ibsen’s long apprenticeship, one can still wish to see some of the wild poetic dramas of the first period, in which God himself can be heard to thunder (in Brand, 1866). He again unleashed his imagination in his third period, in which harps sing in the air, a folktale-like character lures a child into the sea, and the dead speak. These final plays are attempted now and then, but—maybe because of their skipping relations with objective, external reality—not very often, and even less often with success, it seems. Thus I’ve never seen The Master Builder (1892) before.

master builder setOrdinarily, it’s in this play that the harps sing. That’s what Hilde Wangel heard 10 years ago when she watched Halvard Solness climb daringly high up a ladder to hang a wreath atop a church steeple. Because of that, and because of a careless promise he made to her—she’s a mere child (he thought) and won’t remember—she has sought him out now. She puts herself squarely in the middle of Solness’s unhappy home life, which has suffered from his relentless dedication to work, and the unsettled circumstances at his office, where he fears being supplanted by someone younger.

The past hangs heavy over the present (as had been the case in Ibsen’s plays at least since Ghosts); what has already happened is as much a question, while we watch the play unfold, as what is going to happen. Ibsen had already mastered the drama of triangular conflicts and here uses nearly every possible triangle among the seven characters: among others, Solness and Aline (his wife) and Hilde, as well as Solness and Ragnar (his young assistant) and Knut Brovik (Ragnar’s father, whom Solness had forcibly replaced years ago). The word “conflicts” may be too strong where Hilde is concerned, however. With her girlish enthusiasm and her mix of dreams and physical appeal, she’s like the warm light of the Mediterranean magically let into a dour Scandinavian church; she tantalizes and revitalizes Solness, and she seems to open up everyone else in the play, although for the most part she shows them up as well.

I could discuss the characters and the uncanny elements of the drama at more length than I ought to take here. It may suffice to recall that critic Robert Brustein called The Master Builder “a great cathedral of a play, with dark, mystical strains which boom like the chords of an organ.”

At BAM, the first thing you’ll notice, before the play even begins, is Santo Loquasto’s set design masater builder 3doing its part to foreshadow events by placing some elements at an uneasy tilt. In David Edgar’s translation of the text, Hilde’s reference to harps in the air is gone, and the other “mystical strains” are played down, though the play still rises above ordinary notions of reality. And as always it belongs mainly to Solness and Hilde.

The main accomplishment of Andrei Belgrader’s direction is that it allows the apparent simplicity of their drama to stand clear, in the persons of John Turturro and Wrenn Schmidt. The title character is far less at the mercy of events than some of Turturro’s screen roles have been; in a way, Solness is at the mercy of his own desires instead, and as Turturro plays him you’re both afraid of the character and afraid for him. schmidt turturroAs Hilde, Schmidt seems at first almost impossibly girlish but also too obvious in her come-ons, yet she soon won me over and left me absolutely fascinated. (As I confessed on Twitter, the character intruded on my dreams that night, which says something for Schmidt but even more for Ibsen’s potent creation.)

There’s never any better reason for going to the theater than simply to see what’s there. As I said before, such works as The Master Builder aren’t for everybody, but if you go to BAM it’s quite possible that you’ll feel you’ve witnessed something titanic, even mythic.

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Cogito: John Branch

October 8, 2012



Einstein: Beached at BAM

In the 70s and 80s, Einstein on the Beach left people feeling they were on a hypnotic drug, but by the end of its current reincarnation, it left me wanting to do drugs.

Einstein on the Beach might be called an instance of total theater (if you separate that term from the particular use to which Richard Foreman has applied it) or of Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk. It employs text, music, and theater arts, giving equal weight to all of them: minimalist music by Philip Glass, direction and design by Robert Wilson, and minimalist choreography by Lucinda Childs. (All of them worked on the present staging, which is apparently a pretty close recreation of the original; it began a world tour in March that will run into next spring.) The playbill is cagey on the origin of its words, crediting Glass with “music/lyrics” on the first page while later attributing the text to Lucinda Childs, Samuel M. Johnson, and Christopher Knowles and assigning copyright for the libretto to Robert Wilson. Wherever they came from, it does have words in the form of speeches and stories; there’s also a fair amount of the vocalise style that Glass often uses. First performed in 1976, Einstein on the Beach returns now and then to bedazzle or bedevil us, most recently at BAM in September.

The opera evokes elements of Albert Einstein’s life and work. A figure resembling him plays violin and sticks his tongue out. Glass-walled elevators relate to Einstein’s thought experiment regarding a beam of light passing through a moving elevator; one elevator appears to us to be horizontal, including its occupant, and the other appears to be vertical, which relates to Einstein’s dethroning of privileged points in space. (Only in a gravity field or in relation to a given point can one say anything is up, down, or horizontal.) Clocks and watches remind us that there is no absolute measure of time either. Much of the stage movement is slowed down—maybe another suggestion that time and motion are relative.As if it might otherwise be forgotten, which I doubt, the production also reminds us of Einstein’s connection with nuclear weapons. Valiantly upholding the “beach” end of the deal, a single conch shell now and then stands, or rather sits forlornly, on the stage.

But something about this piece of total theater strikes me as totalitarian. It cares little if at all what you think while you watch and listen. The volume level in many sections is high and unvarying. The set sometimes moves around more than the stage performers do. The strange symmetry and stark (often black-and-white) contrasts of the visual elements attract the eye in some fundamental way, as the musical rhythms and repetitions do the ear. Yet it’s easy to ignore because it’s not really about anything. Einstein on the Beach defies reflection, as if trying to one-up Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” essay: interpret this!

It’s easy to see in it certain modernist fascinations: with machines and the mechanical (many of the performers’ movements appear mechanical), with mechanical production or reproduction (all of the sounds, including the human voices, are delivered to us through electro-mechanical means). It achieves a kind of flatness in not representing anything other than itself, and its surfaces and volumes remind us of the discovery of geometry by modernist painters. The whole thing, in fact, resembles some kind of machine of mysterious purpose.

There’s much I haven’t mentioned: the very odd courtroom scene, with its speech about men but not women being equal before the law; the cheap-looking little spaceship that moves on a wire; the lovers-on-a-train scene (which might be vaudevillian fun if it lasted two minutes, but it’s more like 20); the dances (which use some numerical cleverness but aren’t as hypnotic as they used to look, according to my companion); the “space machine” whose back wall reminded me of LED calculator displays; and more. Amid the tedium of its four-hours-plus, there are wonders to some of the stage images.

Einstein on the Beach seems to me an experiment to test the possibility of abstraction in opera. Other representational arts had begun an abstract turn years earlier, so in a way it was high time, even past time, for opera to try. I’d have to be much wiser, and/or bolder, to presume to judge what the experiment showed. But Einstein on the Beach, which once seemed so various, so beautiful, so new, today appears dull, indulgent, and annoying.

Einstein’s twin paradox comes to mind: this opera left and came back to us nearly unaged, but we’re older now. And nowadays there’s never a drug dealer around when you want one.

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Cogito: John Branch

April 7, 2012

‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore:
Too Much Cheek by
Cheek by Jowl

Fate and the gods of theatrical production brought a Jacobean tragedy to BAM recently, and while grumpy traditionalism isn’t a position I want to adopt, a little more tradition would’ve been welcome in its interpretation; the brisk, modernized, and too-busy staging eventually caused the play to lose its balance.

Much can be said about John Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, beginning with the likelihood that it’s not strictly Jacobean. The term applies to the reign of James I of England (1603–25), who succeeded Elizabeth I on the throne; he directed the Bible translation still known by his name, but his rule also shaped the creation of the darkest and bloodiest set of plays we have. (Remember the child with a taste for torture in Shakespeare in Love? He grew up to be John Webster, a leading dramatist of the style). Ford’s play, however, probably dates from the 1630s and the reign of the next king, Charles I (1625–49).

But the term “Caroline” seems little used nowadays by anyone but scholars. Besides, in spirit the play is of a piece with everything we label Jacobean tragedy. Many of the greatest of these plays, which includes ’Tis Pity, have been presented in New York in the last decade or so: The White Devil, performed by Sydney Theatre Company at BAM in 2001; The Revenger’s Tragedy, performed by Red Bull in 2005; and The Duchess of Malfi, performed by Red Bull in 2010. (Incidentally, New York’s Theater for a New Audience performed a less-familiar John Ford play, The Broken Heart, earlier this year; regrettably, I learned about it after the fact.) A key word for these plays is “horrific.” They’re a drama of many D-words—dissolution, debauchery, depravity, decadence; they feature often-Byzantine plots, revenge with a vengeance, corruption high and low, severed limbs and knifed-out organs, countless methods of murder, and at least one case of lycanthropy (i.e., a wolf man). I still relish a sensational death in The White Devil at BAM in which a character was killed by a poisoned fencing helmet: when he removed it, it appeared to be dissolving his head into blood.

The theatrical sensationalism of the Jacobean tragedies accounts for part of their current appeal; it plays to a taste for spectacle and violence just as Hollywood often does. But their moral ambiguity is what has really found them a second home in our time. The fine Australian critic Alison Croggon wrote in a review of one of them that “their dark machineries reflected a godless world in which human passion flamed out and extinguished itself in a materialistic, cynical and bloodily hierarchical society.” Even the verse of these tragedies—which is sometimes exhausted in comparison with Marlowe and Shakespeare—is winning; T. S. Eliot prized it.

Ford’s ’Tis Pity gives passion a special twist. His young couple, in a deliberate echo of Romeo and Juliet, indulge in a love that’s just as doomed as Shakespeare’s, and again it’s for reasons of family—they’re brother and sister. Like the love of Romeo and Juliet, the feelings of Giovanni and Annabella for each other in this play are genuine and deep, not purely a matter of physical attraction, and it’s expressed lyrically in the text.

Readers will be saved from any further historical or critical ventures on my part by the fact that they wouldn’t have much bearing on the staging of ’Tis Pity that the British company Cheek by Jowl brought to BAM for two weeks in March. The production was slimmed down, jazzed up, and sped along enough that I still want to know what it’s like to see Ford’s play.

The performers, including Jack Gordon as Giovanni and Lydia Wilson as Annabella, can’t really be faulted. Gordon and Wilson brought youthful vigor and freshness to their roles and were a joy, especially early on. They and the nine other players achieved some almost musical effects with the rhythms of their verse, although Wilson was usually a few notches too quiet to be fully intelligible. The vivid designs by Nick Ormerod, relying on black, white, and red as the dominant colors, provided dramatic clarity without being schematic.

What troubled me was Declan Donnellan’s direction. He trimmed the text and the character count; without intermission, the show ran just under two hours (certainly shorter than the full play, though I don’t know by how much). He and Ormerod placed a bed at center stage, suggesting, rather reductively, that lust and not love is what drives Giovanni and Arabella (maybe that’s true of the others, but not them). This also limited the staging, though much less than I expected. Donnellan livened things up with music-and-dance moments–even a wedding song–which contributed to the contemporary atmosphere he wanted but seemed daft on one occasion (dancing cardinal?). What really seemed unfair was that the text never got to speak for itself for long. Something had always to be happening. Usually, someone was dressing or undressing—there was a lot of that. Without exactly trampling the lines, Donnellan’s stage business frequently distracted me from what Ford’s characters were saying, despite my best efforts to listen. ’Twas a pity.

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