Sunday, February 27, 2011

Wooster & Tennessee

The Wooster Group's Vieux Carré is currently playing at the Baryshnikov Arts Center (inconveniently located just west of Times Square). The space is undergoing serious reconstruction -- the elevator only sometimes works, the floor of the main lobby contains about a hundred broken-down cardboard boxes -- and you will feel either like you're walking into a construction zone, or a performance art piece tricked out to resemble a construction zone.

I rarely walk out of a theater work with an unclear reaction to what was going on, but last night left me feeling a little confused. The piece is an adaptation of Tennessee Williams's Vieux Carré, not Williams's best or most interesting play. Add to that the fact that it's already pretty difficult in the present day to present Tennessee Williams unironically anyway. But that appears to have been precisely what the Wooster Group was after. Williams's language is oh so of a moment in history (squalid and poor as hell 1930s New Orleans artistic/gay underworld) and thus can only feel irredeemably stuck in that period, like a string of floating epigrams that stick in the throats of the actors struggling with them. The Wooster Group takes this already existing fact about the play and makes it more so -- the text floats around in chunky bits, a dialogue for lost souls who are hardly hearing one another, or hardly hearing themselves. At best, the result is a delicate quality of tragic self-alienation that makes recourse to a bygone, indirect communication because direct communication just isn't adequate to conveying the complex misery of life. At worst, it's simply parodic. The black maid who drifts in and out of scenes is made to speak in a terrible California Valley girl accent that clashes with Williams's dialect. Like, duh: he done fell down those stairs again, Miss!

Which isn't to say the emotional import of the language is entirely lost from the Wooster play. The characterizations sometimes border on caricature (as with the maid) but all of the roles are so brilliantly acted that even amid the distracting, post-apocalyptic, signature Wooster stage mess, their portrayals seem forced not because of what divides 2012 New York from 1930 New Orleans but for reasons that have to do with self-denial, with the closeted and schizophrenic alienation of these characters from themselves. Add to this the fact that each of the main characters plays multiple characters and is thus in a sense literally schizophrenic. The jerk carnival barker also plays the flamboyant, consumptive queen; the half-blind old mistress of the house is also the not so young anymore Blanche Dubois type living on the second floor. The production and the performers who move it along are all very impressive: the TVs flickering, costumes flying, and entrances and exits timed within a fraction of a second to sound and light cues, voiceovers and projections... But in this case, while it was easy to admire the facility of the operations involved in mounting the show, I'm still not sure what the show underlying all the technical wizardry was actually about. Which is to say, while I'm quite sure I saw a technological masterpiece, I'm not sure what message--however fraught or unstable--that masterpiece was designed to serve. And if there wasn't one, then it was a beautifully wrought frame with absolutely nothing in the center of it.

Which isn't to say there's anything wrong with this. My companion last night, Alexander Overington, is someone who unlike me fully appreciated the technical gadgetry at work and we stuck around post-show to chat up the three men at the rear of the stage sitting at a high table outfitted with Macbooks enough to run the mainframe of the Matrix. From what little I understood of their conversation, which was Greek to me ("...which is where my outboard is connected to Ted's inboard...and he's running the old version of OS9XLS...yeah, exactly, the rear-mounted widescreen feedback loop is wired into the smallscreen mounted on the rear projector...."), their contribution to the show was nothing short of dazzling.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Sheer Genius

Can someone help me find this man? Thanks to a tip from my little bro, I am on a mission to commission Reggie Watts to write an opera for me. The world will be a better place with a Reggie Watts opera in it.

Help. Me. Find. Him.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

ICE at Alice Tully

The International Contemporary Ensemble, which I've often bragged about, did a number on Alice Tully Hall last night. I myself score appallingly low on the new music aficionado spectrum (I only recently learned how to pronounce Rzewski) so I had a considerably puffed up attitude last night when I discovered I actually knew all the composers on the program, which were:
Morton Feldman (1926-1987): The King of Denmark (1964) for solo percussion
Anton Webern (1883-1945): Konzert op.24 (1934) for nine instruments
Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001): Jalons (1986) for chamber orchestra
John Cage (1912-1992): Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951) for 24 performers and 12 radios
Feldman: For Samuel Beckett (1987) for chamber orchestra
The obvious crowd-pleaser in the group is the Cage piece, which I imagine made most of last night's audience feel nostalgic, but which will never go out of style, because doing low-brow things in high-brow spaces will always be funny. Think of the Marx Brothers. The Cage piece makes high art out of channel surfing. Any number of pairs of musicians stand on stage, and each pair shares a little ham radio (last night there were about 10). One musician is in charge of the channel dial, and the other the volume dial. The fun part is that all of this randomness (the fact that you can never know whether your radio is about to blare out Third Eye Blind or Verdi) is exactingly controlled by the prescribed length of time allotted for each outburst (we hear exactly one and a half bars of "Stairway to Heaven" followed by one beat of deafening silence). So it's at once a fancy, serious new music piece ... and it's also pretty goofy.

Speaking of music and goofy, some degree of ink has been spilled in musicology over the question of what constitutes humor in music and why we find music funny at all, when we do. The age old example is Haydn's "Joke" quartet, where the composer endears the audience by toying with the impulse to clap at the end of a piece. He stops. And we start to clap. And then he starts again. It's funny because Haydn calls our bluff. "The rests get progressively longer, giving the impression that the piece is over many times in a row, making for an amusing ending." Um, thanks, Wikipedia!

But then come Xenakis's Jalons, during which I several times last night had to smother my own laughter with a laugh-cough (which is definitely not a laugh, but only a cough that briefly -- whoops! -- sounds like a laugh). Xenakis is a genius of the musical joke and Jalons a litany of every possibility for extracting humor out of variations in volume, rhythm, and audience expectation.

Favorite moment on the program: Steve Schick's extremely sexy rendition of Feldman's King of Denmark. If you thought Feldman wasn't sexy, think again.