The A.R.T’s most recent hip New York import is Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage, now running at Oberon. The show opens with three speakers talking in a kind of broken academic cant in something that’s part book talk and part lecture. Their takes on the book are humorously weighed down by their personalities. This is reader response criticism at its highest.
One has a kind of manly fascination with Beowulf, another has an erotic fascination with the titular character, and the third is a classic feminist. It’s this third reading that the show predictably relies the most on. That take is probably fine if you never had to read Beowulf for school or if you’re a feminist who prefers the standard lines of discourse, but I find it kind of boring, reductive, and dismissive–kind of like going around saying Sir Gawain is gay, and why, and leaving it at that.
I was hoping the show might put a little more spin on things and take us beyond the conflict between the matriarchal and the patriarchal, especially since the plot isn’t all that interesting by itself if you know it. Perhaps what’s most interesting about Beowulf is its canonization–but this is taken for granted here. I’ll be fair and say that they do take on Beowulf in old age, but with jokes about how they almost skipped over it after things are wrapped up with Grendel’s mom. I think pulling from the latter part of the book, drawing Beowulf as a kind of aging rock star would have been more interesting than a typical assault on his violent machismo.
While I didn’t keel over laughing at Jason Craig (as Beowulf) gesture at his codpiece, there were some good lines of anachronistic dialog between Beowulf and Grendel (Rick Burkhardt). And Jessica Jelliffe (as Grendel’s Mom) had a cool cabaret vibe going. Much of the show had the qualities of a radio play and I might’ve had more of a soft spot for it had it been on the radio.
Props to the band, which includes a great clarinet player (Mario Maggio), a guitarist who was amazing with a slide and array of effect pedals (Sam Kulik), and a couple trombones that kick out some brass band bass. Multi-instrumentalist Brian McCorkle, who sang a few verses as King Hrothgar, had the most natural stage presence of the troupe. But behind the musicians and ridiculousness, there wasn’t enough of an interesting spin on the text for me.
I don’t think there’s a company in town that’s better equipped to take on Thornton Wilder’s early short plays than Imaginary Beats. Dealing with their brevity and vast range, while maintaining their headiness and sense of comedy isn’t easy to do. These plays jump from the mythological to the spiritual to the philosophical with slapstick and history and music. Keeping all this afloat goes far beyond what’s necessary with any conventional text. But, at the end of the day, you’re left with some very difficult texts written by a budding intellectual–and we all know how hard young intellectual artists like to make their audiences work.
So I can’t say I walked out of Director Matthew Woods’ production feeling as positive about it as I have after his other recent shows. He pulled several of his old aesthetic tricks out of his bag–actors winding string around each other in melancholy choreography and manipulating handheld puppets–but I missed the usual experiential cohesion I get from Imaginary Beasts. With music, lighting, and wonderfully choreographed movement Woods is usually able to construct what feel like eery dreams, but there’s a distinct lack of that experience here.
And maybe that’s just what happens when you put on nine short plays that skip around in subject matter from Mozart to a dying Carolingian soldier. Imaginary Beasts is perfectly able to support the intellectual content of these texts and elevate it with their usual heavily stylized style. The talented and witty company has a few much appreciated additions of dancers and vocalists that provide some great little nuggets of musical performance–combined with Woods’ own classical music soundboard DJing. But this chain of scenes, characters, and experiments in dramatic conventions is dampened by its difficulty and academic significance.
I usually don’t get that excited about new groups appearing on the Boston fringe scene. There’s a part of me that fears too many people (or egos) trying to do their own thing only strains a finite number a resources and pits companies against each other for what is a limited audience. But I walked out of Hub Theatre Company’s production of Lebensraum extraordinarily happy to have encountered this new group.
Now, even with their pay-what-you-can ticket policy and non-traditional digs at Boston’s First Church, I wouldn’t say they’re breaking the mold. Unconventional spaces can be uncomfortable and, when it comes to the “financial barriers” to theater, I’m much happier to just pay than have the arm put on me. (I do pay for tickets often and put my money where my mouth is as much as I can.) On top of that, I think there’s a danger to fringe companies competing towards a zero dollar ticket, when they are putting on good work that’s never free to produce. Anyways, if there’s one financial hindrance in Boston to getting people into shows, it’s probably the BCA box office fee.
What Hub Theatre does have going for itself is a technical savviness that’s too often missing from Boston’s smaller shows. Their Lebensraum was tight and captivating. Of course, the Israel Horovitz’s play is well structured and laden with all sorts of cleverness, but Director John Geoffrion’s production shook out every fragment of satire, comedy, and drama. He and his cast of three kept a pace that would put them in the lead in the Marathon on Monday, never falling into awkward, poorly constructed or redundant sequences. It’s solid structure that makes good, accessible art great; from Middlemarch to episodes of Cheers. Lebensraum has that and, more importantly, Geoffrion gets it.
Horovitz’s plot relishes its details, but in short it imagines a future where a German Chancellor makes a public call to the world for six million Jews to “come home” to Germany. Controversy ensues. German workers fear for their jobs (and daughters). Israeli militants plan an infiltration, believing this international “apology” is only a ruse to begin a second holocaust. Beginning with journalistic narration’s of neo-nazi’s being trampled and rabis being strangled, Horovitz provides a wonderfully descriptive chain of events involving dozens of characters. Slowly, he shifts from these mock-journalistic vignettes as the main characters are teased out, and suddenly, it doesn’t really matter that everything is made up. Bigger issues like retribution, corruption, love, and hope come to bear. While this fictional future revolves around intentionally absurd imagined events, that very real past is explored through well crafted personal stories.
Actors Jamie Carrillo, Lauren Elias, and Kevin Paquette wear a lot of different hats. I’m being literal here. The set isn’t much more than a couple coat racks strewn with arm fulls of prop-costumes to let them shift in and out of Horovitz’s dozens of interconnected characters. Carrillo and Elias are excellent as they become the Romeo & Juliet of this new Germany and Horovitz begins to warp not just politics, but dramatic cliches as the play culminates in a series of very clever contrivances.
I’m looking forward to more from Hub Theatre, particularly a show about Anne Hutchinson in the fall called Goodly Creatures.
A Raisin in the Sun takes on a complex subject matter that’s not easy to discuss, unless you lace your discussion of it with generic, PC statements on race and oppression. I think this is why so much focus is put on the segregation issue that comes up late in the play, when our protagonists, the Younger family, are asked not to move into the house they bought in an all-white Chicago neighborhood. While there’s some historical importance here (most interestingly, how they were priced out of the black neighborhoods), it’s a minor point to the play.
It’s Walter’s–I’m not sure what to call it–that the play rests on. His neurosis, pain, hubris, anger, weakness, and/or discontent. Everything else is tangential to this; the optimistic lecture on the slow progress of change delivered by Joseph Asagai, the African student; the quick dip into residential segregation; and the jokes at the expense of the Black nationalism movement. The segregation issue only comes up to push Walter past morality and sanity, where he’s willing to swallow racism and prejudice for money. And money is not just money here. He’s trying to recoup his father’s life insurance payout…which he lost…by handing it over to a buddy, in cash, so that he could bribe people for a liquor store license…including the portion his mother set aside for his sister’s tuition but gave to him so he would feel more like a man.
Playwright Lorraine Hansberry lets Walter be her hero in the end, but I think that’s just to give the show a happy ending. Pieces of the play do have a sitcom quality. What makes the play worthwhile is the fact that it’s not easy to align oneself with Walter. He lacks the nobility our fiction likes to endow onto the oppressed. He’s both our villain and our protagonist. And his problems are as complex as our relationship to him. And that’s why the character is so powerful, especially in the hands of LeRoy McClain, whose performance at the Huntington is vastly superior to Sidney Poitier’s in the 1961 film (and certainly better than P Diddy’s). McClain sustains so much emotional intensity, one would think he’d pass out during the curtain call.
I think Walter’s anger is of the time of the play’s 1930s setting, but it comes off as being highly relevant. While Walter’s a cynic, it’s not difficult to make the connection between him and the 99%/Occupy movements. Or just that violent lake of magma beneath America’s seemingly sedimentary surface at any given time in the 20th century. This is the real history of racism and greed and economic and social opression in America, where it’s victims are not noble, deserving martyrs, but weak humans.
Clint Ramos has put together one of those massive, rotating sets that are becoming a mannerism of the Huntington and Walter’s anger is mirrored by blaring free jazz interludes. The production opens with a shout out to Chicago geography–a hip hop track with lots of references to streets and corners. Director Liesl Tommy has smartly undercut Walter’s intensity with comic relief from Walter’s sister Beneatha (Keona Welch). Her girlish promise, wisecracks, and back & forth with two suitors provide an endearing foil to Walter’s sad, fated desperation. The character of Ruth (Ashley Younger), Walter’s wife, takes a back seat here. It could be enhanced, but she’s not fully fleshed out in the text to begin with. She’s so forgiving of Walter and almost awkwardly silent at some of the play’s tensest moments that we wonder who she really is.
I don’t make it to the ballet much. I like dance, but for me it usually comes in the form of viral YouTube videos, urban dance troupes at public events, or documentaries about Clown Dancing. I actually have an odd fascination with urban dance and am always awed by its artfulness and craft and how quickly it’s pushed forward with new genres of hip hop and club music. I find a lot of pop culture boring or redundant, but the street culture of dance, now very widely and quickly disseminated with YouTube, lets me see something that actually looks like the future. And I think that speaks to what dance can do.
Ballet culture, I’ve never quite had a handle on. This may be a vague argument, but I’ve always found it strange that there’s really no such thing as a fringe dance scene in Boston like there is for theater, classical music, visual art, and even opera. The occasional performance pops up and Jose Mateo (which I don’t consider fringe) keeps on trucking in Harvard Square, but there’s not a true range, like I see when I move from the Huntington to the Factory Theater. The ballet world appears to revolve around its larger institutions. In Boston, there’s the Boston Ballet with its posh digs at the Opera House. And that’s it. The worlds of theater and music aren’t nearly so defined.
Moreover, the Boston Ballet seems to occupy a uniquely privileged position compared to other arts organization. They’re able to tour widely and sustain a large company. I think the fact that they’re the only arts organization in town that actually charges for admission to its “under 40 club” says something about their position. Everyone else has to pay (with discount tickets and other freebies) for young bodies in the audience. And they run a school!
Anyways, let’s blame the above digression on the fact that dance is extremely difficult to write on. Boston Ballet’s Jiří Kylián program pulled together three pieces that I’m going to refrain from discussing individually. Overall, the program offered modern dance in short, accessible doses, to music selections that ranged from Mozart to improvisations to Philip Glass.
So, like being at a party with someone’s iTunes on shuffle, sometimes you wanted to hit skip. The folksy numbers were the most fun. Pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama brilliantly mashed up Mozart with rhythmic, modernist rushes. Other selections I found less compelling. I’ve always found string arrangements of the Goldberg Variations to lack punch. And, because most of Philip Glass sounds the same, dancing to it sort of locks the choreography into the mode of dance contemporary to Glass’ 1970s hey-days.
The choreography was stunning. Dancers slid around in their socks in Kylián’s seamless blend of classical balletic motions with more pedestrian and/or comic movements–there was lots of kicking and even some wiping. For me, what made everything work, was the prolonged fluid nature of Kylián’s choreography. Steps or bits of action or emotion translated into dance flowed together into prolonged lines of motion across the black & white stage. On the Opera House’s large stage, a suspended tree and a backdrop of Persian rugs provided a spare, but striking aesthetic landscape.
With all the odd gestures, the piano on stilts, animal sounds, and even a little drag, it’s clear Kylián has a sense of humor. There was even a touch of it in the third part of the program; a dance to Stravinsky’s somewhat overwrought Symphony of Psalms. Even though I don’t go, I have been getting the Boston Ballet’s mailers for years and they’ve always struck me as doing an extremely good job with their programming–satisfying audiences that range from families with six-year-old ballerinas to dance buffs. This program fits into that perfectly.
I don’t expect every show I see to knock me over. The best playwrights, actors, and other theater creatives all have duds. And that’s OK. There’s often a great play, or a great performance, or some cool lighting effects there to put a positive spin on any kind of overall weakness or mediocrity, especially in cases where you’re watching a fringe group develop over several seasons. But, to put it bluntly, I can’t stand plays or productions that are too damn long.
And I like long things. I think other people do to. Even though some might argue that our culture is moving from films to video clips, or from albums to mp3s, there are other shifts that point to the opposite. On demand cable and Netflix subscriptions let people consume television at marathon rates. And they often do, watching The Wire, Lost, or Breaking Bad for hours, if not days at a time. Many modern TV shows are, in part, designed to be consumed this way and post-air ratings are now a big part of the numbers that decide whether shows are renewed.
My point is that there’s nothing wrong with long things and that I don’t think 3 hour performances have become obsolete in this age of YouTube and Tweets, but an audience member’s time has to be earned. A 2-3 hour duration should be considered by a playwright or a director (who might be choosing a long work to produce, drawing a play out with musical interludes, or abridging the text) as a narrative tool, not a cultural standard. After all, had a few of history’s great playwrights decided to write differently, the average duration of play might well be 15 minutes long, or 6 hours.
Now, larger houses with subscriber bases and, for Boston, high ticket prices have something of a self-imposed obligation to put on a shows that are at least 2 hours long. If they come in under that, people would complain about not getting their money’s worth, or something like that. And that’s not entirely unreasonable, if they made the drive in from Weston and everything.
The frank truth is that it’s easier for a big budget production to grip even the most enuretic audiences. It’s a much greater challenge for a small theater group, without a massive revolving set, well known actors, and a modern HVAC system. But, possibly in compensation for that, they have the freedom to do almost anything they please. I’d love to see more short plays from the fringe scene. Some of the best nights of theater I’ve had in Boston have been double bills of short plays and I’d much rather climb aboard the 1 bus after a night of taut theater than a show that had me looking at my watch, even if it means an early night.
But, I often see an unwillingness either to produce shorter texts or to cut plays to a length where they would have become much more nimble for performers, directors, and audiences. While a full text Hamlet is powerful, you can cut a lot from it and still do something great without trying your audience.
And this brings me to the most difficult part of this post; the production that led me to write it. BCAP, the “professional extension” of BU’s theater program, is currently running Blood Knot. The show has some strong acting and cool lighting effects, but comes off as if it’s being performed for some kind of academic posterity. This once controversial text by South African playwright Athol Fugard dates back to the sixties and is modern in the 1960s sense of the word. But at 2 1/2 hours, one questions the relevance of this weighty two man meditation race.
This is not to say that social relevancy is a requirement for good theater. I’m all for abstract meta irrelevancy. But this play was written, produced, and subsequently revived in order to be socially relevant–in the sixties and eighties when it was. Time’s erosion of Blood Knot‘s political bedrock, as well as the estrangement of its political message from its homeland, and that message’s packaging in a semi-experimental 1960s script, makes the production come off academic. And, I think, at least here and now, it’s demanding of audiences without offering them much in return.
Cut it down, and I think you’d have something more alive, more interesting, and there less for its own sake. Blood Knot‘s central metaphors don’t require nearly as much development as Fugard gave them and the play, whether you see it as being relevant today or as a piece of the cultural record, would be much stronger in a dose 60-70% of its current size at BCAP.