Arts desire, or how I spent my staycation
Maybe it's true of all botched vacations: There can be a silver lining. To paraphrase Dorothy, sometimes when you're looking for your heart's desire, you may not have to go any further than your own backyard. Which is a good thing because that's how far I got when I had to abandon plans to spend spring break in Chile visiting my brother and reporting on the arts. I ended up staying in the Boston area where the arts chops are pretty sharp these days. And yeah, it's true: I didn't have to go more than four T stops to find my heart's desire.
1. Prometheus Bound directed by Diane Paulus at American Repertory Theater's Club Oberon in Cambridge.
Do you like your revolutions Greek style? Diane Paulus does. Her decision to focus American Repertory Theater's season on classics - as in Aeschylus and Sophocles (add her touring Broadway revival of Hair which, coincidentally, stops in Boston this month) - has turned out to be prescient given the headlines in Africa and the Middle East. Prometheus is another example of Paulus' gift for musical spectacle with gender-social-political-choreographic (did I leave anything out?) commentary glinting from a disco ball. For a show in which the protagonist is chained to a rock for most of the story, there's a lot going on here. There's no escaping the action whether you're with the groundlings - the throngs of fist-pumping youths on the center floor - or seated off to the side in a banquette where a trio of hauntingly pale chorus angels in combat boots might nudge you aside to use your table for a scene. Paulus had a dream team in script and lyrics writer Steven Sater (Spring Awakening) and composer Serj Tankian (System of a Down). The storyline may feel Greek to our ears because of the volume, but the production is rousing - and features the usual lineup of hyper talented performers who seem to give their souls to Paulus' vision of Outsiders Are Powerful. Thank you, Prometheus, for the bright ideas. We have some people in Wisconsin who would have found you very inspiring.
2. The Sun Also Rises by Elevator Repair Service at Arts Emerson's Paramount Theater.
After last year's Gatz, which ranks in the Top Ten Performances I've seen in three decades of theater going, I hoped Elevator Repair Service wasn't going to be a one-trick pony. It isn't. Director John Collins has three important talents: He understands pacing - and isn't afraid to take it slow. He understands humor - and isn't afraid to combine the nuance of the aforementioned pacing with the nonsense of stagecraft. And he loves literature enough to know that a book is one thing and a stage play is quite another and that the two are related but not pathologically. If anything, Collins is a master of the remix. Purists may have walked away saying, "This isn't Hemingway!" Fine. That is fine. But I walked away wondering if I got the cultural wink in the Ferrante & Teicher poster on the wall - and not caring much for the answer because, well, it seemed very Hemingway not to overwork a symbol. In the end - and Collins crafts one of the
best final scenes ever - Sun, like Paulus' adaptation of the Titan fire boy, has contemporary resonance. Retro and relevant. Is our hipster culture the new Lost Generation? Are the spoils of war emasculating in every way, in every era? Do women with sexy haircuts make everyone drink? And just how many ways can you dramatically repurpose a multi-purpose-room folding table in the course of three-and-a-half hours?
3. Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 by the Handel and Haydn Society conducted by Richard Egarr at Symphony Hall in Boston.
H&H claims to be the country's "oldest continuously performing arts organization" since it has been around since (roughly) Haydn. (The organization was founded in 1815; Haydn died in 1809.) I attended to hear Beethoven played in period style. (It was that kind of vacation.) But the glory came in the form of Haydn's Keyboard Concerto No. 11 in D major for which Egarr himself sat at the pianoforte. Egarr isn't built like a pixie but he has an impishness in his eyes, which he flirtatiously turned toward the audience during his performance. It was refreshingly light spirited. And he played as only a person deeply familiar with a piece of music can play: with wit, confidence and mastery. If the 5th was gallopingly athletic and massive in scope, the Haydn was danceful and intimate.
4. 9 Circles by Bill Cain, directed by Eric Engel at the Publick Theatre Boston.
Classics again, kids! This time, the modern story that's old as time is based on a soldier returned from the Iraq war but framed by Dante's nine circles of hell. Treachery, fraud, violence, wrath: the basic formula for atrocity crimes is claustrophobically staged with John Malinowski's stark lighting and set designs. Like Sophocles, whose Ajax was recently at American Rep as part of Paulus' lineup, Cain - a Jesuit priest - doesn't beat the audience over the head with a polemic. He and director Eric Engel ease you toward Hell. Although I would have liked to see racial diversity in this cast (after all, the military is notably diverse), Jimi Stanton, who plays the soldier, is a revelation - and he keeps this story from falling into a warrior-as-pure-evil theme. He makes us feel the enemy's pain - and the soldier's pain. On the other hand, our men and women in uniform don't usually get the death penalty for crimes committed in war; Cain pushes that conclusion a bit too far. Otherwise, every one of Cain's circles has a believable headline attached to it: PTSD, pedophilia in the Catholic Church, rape as a weapon, testifying against other soldiers and a militaristic imperative to kill. "The plan was to kill people, sir" is a quotation from a recent New York Times story on the conviction of Specialist Jeremy Morlock, but it could have just as easily been from Cain's play.
5. Death and the Powers: The Robots' Opera directed by Diane Paulus at Cutler Majestic Theatre.
Diane Paulus is again at the helm of this post-organic story of billionaire entrepreneur Simon Powers who creates the System, a computer environment that will subsume him after death and allow him to be more immortal than the poetry of Yeats. This is a high-tech piece with a chorus of operabots onstage and large triangular panels of strobe lights blinking emotions and imagery at the audience. Powers' wife Evvy even gets it on with a computerized chandelier before she goes Ophelia-style-nuts. In the end, Powers' daughter Miranda has to choose between digital immortality and being a piece of human "meat," filled with misery and passions. The 90-minute show paid imaginative homage to Star Trek, Star Wars, Lost in Space, It's a Wonderful LIfe, The Tempest, Hamlet, WALL-E, the Bible, Sondheim and possibly Jeopardy's Watson. It is also about revolution: digital, societal and personal. Death and the Powers had its world premiere at the Opera de Monte-Carlo last year. The Cutler production was the U.S. premiere, and the disturbing show now moves on to Chicago. In addition to invaluably intelligent contributions by smarties at the MIT Media Lab, the stellar creative lineup besides Paulus is her husband Randy Weiner as writer, poet Robert Pinsky as librettist, Tod Machover as composer and Gil Rose (see below) as conductor.
Special Pre-staycation Shout Out (Full disclosure: Officially I saw this before I stayed home on vacation):
6. Cardillac by Paul Hindemith presented by Opera Boston and conducted by Gil Rose at Cutler Majestic Theatre
Opera Boston made a daring choice in staging this film-noir-ish story about a jeweler so beguiled by his own creations that he murders his clients to get the pieces back. I've known a lot of territorial artists, but Cardillac hits the extreme note of felonistic narcissism. A total Parisian control freak. But a bigger control freak - and thank goodness - is scenic designer Erhard Rom, whose airborne set pieces could teach Spider-Man a thing or two about what belongs aloft (fake dead bodies) and what should stay on the ground (real bodies acting dead). Swaddled corpses hung like cocoons from the ceiling, icy exhibition boxes concealed dead bodies, and Gabriel Berry's futuristic costumes combined Dali and Dancing With the Stars - elegant, haute and comic at the same time. The Cutler provided a vaulting venue for this eerie story - as well as for the tonal drama of the music and warmth of the soloists - particularly Sol Kim Bentley as Cardillac's daughter. This turned out to be one of my favorite creepy opera experiences since seeing Janacek's The Makropoulos Affair a decade ago in New York City. Who, finally, owns a work of art? The artist? The audience? Or the people who give up their vacations in the name of the art?
1. Prometheus Bound at A.R.T. Photo: Marcus Stern
2. The Sun Also Rises by Elevator Repair Service Photo: Mark Barton
3. 9 Circles at Publick Theatre Boston Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo
4. Death and the Powers: The Robot Opera at Cutler Majestic Photo: Paula Aguilera