Sunday, November 3, 2013
progressive motion. Fanners
of the flame. Resistance is electric
Fred sd, its measurable on every
The wd be stoppers of revolution
are its fossil fuel."
-Amiri Baraka, "'There was Something I Wanted to Tell You' (33) Why?"
Welcome back. Red Herring.
Part of me was always going to love some musicals, my Mom loves and loved them too much for it to be otherwise (everything from Oklahoma to On The Town to Rocky Horror, I saw and heard it growing up) but the gateway drugs for me to love musicals of my own and love them in a way that integrated with my overall love of music and theater and art were Sweeney Todd (the subject matter tailor made for a kid who loved horror fiction most of all) and Rent (as a teenage boy at that time it felt like a holy grail to absorb to seem worldly and hopefully get laid) and most of all Assassins which blew my head wide open in the the way it layered history and absurdity and genre and drenched everything in irony but used the irony to cut through deeper, not as a crutch or a dodge. And for that, I have my old pal Doug Smith to thank.
Red Herring's return to Columbus theater - after a production of Krapp's Last Tape that I sadly didn't get to see because of timing - with the expectations of one of my long time favorites, is an unqualified success and the cap on the best (calendar) year of musicals in this town that I can remember. Go see this. Everything else I'm going to say is filling in boxes.
The production's tagline, "When every kid can grow up to be president, what happens when every kid doesn't?" is driven home again and again with the 9 principal assassins with differing levels of gravitas and motivations that a sane person could follow even though deranged and vile or motivations that seem like nothing so much as a tantrum. This production, in particular, does a phenomenal job of balancing these people, bouncing them off each other and simultaneously hearing everyone out but not trying to inflate the lesser or weaker motivations just to create an even playing field. In some productions, the interstitial non-musical sequences can drag or even feel like a distraction from the potency of the score but John Dranschak's direction here and the finely choreographed motion of the assassins around each other keeps the audience held to their seat.
Kate Lingnofski's Squeaky Fromme and Christopher Storer's John Hinckley are revelations here. Storer (already fantastically good in Evolution's tick, tick... boom earlier this fall) shrinks into the role of Hinckley and is almost unrecognizable, cocooned in insecurity and pain with a perpetual slouch and a voice that goes from mumble to roar at the flip of a switch but never learned the middle ground the rest of the world usually hovers in, his obsession with Jodie Foster and his never learning an adequate coping mechanism is breathtaking in how subtly it's shown. And Lingnofski, quite good in small roles in Falsettos and Merrily We Roll Along, is a supernova here. Charming, even in her lunacy, selling and nailing down her two relationships, as the glinting shiny artifact of a new world for Sarah Jane Moore (Kim Garrison Hopcraft), and the incendiary fuel of the brother-sister (but unmistakably flirty and sexual and damaged) give and take with Hinckley. With maybe the weakest song in a just about perfect score, a riff on the kind of Debby Boone '70s ballads that haven't aged well, "Unworthy of Your Love", a duet ballad sung by Lingnofski and Storer to their unobtainable "beloveds", the total commitment from them sells it. You get the thrall they're in, that would make them do anything for that kind of corny, encompassing love on the radio.
Jay Rittberger as Leon Czolgosz is a marvel of sympathy and disbelief. Moving from a very touching sequence with Danielle Mann's (terrific) Emma Goldman to vacillating between lecturing John Hinckley about not taking things for granted and not understanding the other assassins who see the world as full of opportunity, opportunity he's been denied even the dream of his whole life. And a gold plated voice - near the end of the cubist barber shop quartet "The Gun Song", "A gun kills many men before it's done..." twisting the knife in the collective complacency of America and the audience. His mirror in this ingeniously structured musical is Scott Wilson's Charles Guiteau, the lunacy of really believing you can be anything without regard to luck or skill or consideration of other people.and confusion boiling into rage if you don't get what you want the second you want it, with one of the most gorgeous and blood-curdling solo turns on "The Ballad of Guiteau". As great as Wilson was in Merrily We Roll Along and Falsettos he blooms like an out of control fire in this material.
Todd Covert's Sam Byck has kind of a thankless job - his tape recorded letters/monologues drag (A. said it was the one point in the entire show where her attention wanders) and get a little too Sondheim in jokey
when writing to Leonard Bernstein and a little too elbow-in-the-ribs "Boy were the '70s vapid and terrible" when he's writing to Nixon in a way that he turns around and makes the emotional core of the show but only by the thinnest of margins. But he gets every laugh he needs to in a way that makes his repeated line on "Another National Anthem" - "Where's my prize" even more chilling. In a similar vein, Drew Eberly's Giuseppe Zangara's impotent fury and constant pain and disenfranchisement from society, even the society of the assassins, is one of the most intense things in the show, especially in "How I Saved Roosevelt" where you watch him shoved to the background by the vapid, self-satisfied crowd of "bystanders" with a voice that holds the notes even as you see him crumbling..
Scott Willis' Proprietor stumbles on some of his sung parts but his astonishing announcer voice is the grout in the cracks of the show, the grounding in the real world.
Obviously John Wilkes Booth is the signature role in this show, and Ian Short delivers and even exceeds the expectations he's set in earlier roles. His crumbling, desperate hope and his self-assurance in the rightness of what he's done send sparks any time he's on stage, most of all in his tete a tete with the Balladeer on "The Ballad of Booth", one of the most insinuating hook-laden songs Sondheim's ever written. Through the play we watch him encourage and cajole the other assassins with a mot juste until he settles on Lee Harvey Oswald, his spiritual son and brings every inch of Booth's actor training and focused self-awareness to sell his Brutus narrative, he's found someone at such a similar breaking point in history to his own that he understands how the reverberation will give added resonance to his own action.
And the flip side of that father-son relationship, Nick Lingnofski as both the fresh-faced balladeer and Oswald hits every note he needs to and hits it out of the park. If Booth is the driving force, the balladeer is the viewpoint character and the emotional through line, the "average American" viewpoint who slowly devolves into bullshit platitudes until he sings the line "You can make the lies come true" and the Assassins unite and galvanize and he sells how close the man singing "Damn you, Booth" is to the man falling under the sway of being part of history even through tragedy. It's an explosive performance, with astonishing singing, and some added extra-textual resonance for local theater fans, watching Booth working over Oswald calling to mind their appearance as co-stars in Merrily, Frank and Charley with an even darker tint.
Not only is John Dranschak's direction spot on, Pam Welsh-Huggins musical direction (abetted by a terrific band) and Dave Wallingford's sound direction are exactly what they need to be. This was an astonishing production that I hope portends fantastic things from the resurrected Red Herring.
Sunday, September 15, 2013
Oral history with Robert Rauschenberg, 1965 Dec. 21, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
"Wild were the nights when I was rolling, boy,
No hunger unsatisfied...
Banker, he spares a quarter for my cup,
His troubles deeper than mine.
That way of life? Boy, there ain't gold enough.
I'll trade you money for wine."
-Robbie Fulks, "I'll Trade You Money for Wine"
The Metropolitan Museum of Art's retrospective (assembly? convocation?) of Rauschenberg's Combines in 2006 is easily one of the five most eye-opening, staggering experiences I've had with visual art in my life. Might even be number 2 right after the Nam June Paik show I saw at the (at the time) normally stodgy and stiff Columbus Museum of Art in high school. SITI Company (who originally produced bobrauschenbergamerica) did Room, a tribute to Virginia Woolf, at the Wexner Center while I was in college and it took the top of my head off. So Available Light's production of bobrauschenbergamerica had those towering heights, booby-trapped with razor wire associations, to scale for me. And not only did they clear the hurdles, they soared so far over them that by the end of the show I just sat there slackjawed, waiting for the next burst of fireworks in front of and behind my eyes.
So what I'm saying is go. Go now. Right fucking now. And go often (I'm hoping I can squeeze in a second trip amidst usual autumn schedule craziness). If you've got any love for live theater, whatever stripe of it you love, this will fire up the appropriate pleasure centers. Everything else I'm going to write is just filling in boxes. But I'm going to do it anyway. Because this show - and everyone involved - needs as many search engine aftershocks as it can get.
The structure of the play, befitting the title, is less a montage than a combine. Large not-digested (but not undigested - it doesn't choke on them, it leaves them whole) chunks of Whitman and Burroughs and John Cage and monologues developed through Mee's original workshop and visual jokes/allusions that recall Rauschenberg's frequent motifs - tires, a goat, astroturf, umbrellas, boxes showing America in all its breathtaking grime and fucked-up-ness and showing that beating heart trying to find its rhythm in oblique, contradictory ways that "another damn social realist" couldn't have wrapped his hands around.
Eleni Papaleonardos direction is its usual perfectly calibrated self, even more impressive balancing the play's very specific imagery with the loose and open stage direction. Every vignette feels like it lasts just as long as it needs to and feels like it finds its own rhythm, adding up to the rhythm of the piece, be it a complicated cage match of overlapping dialogue, one of the wondrous monologues, or long wordless sequences carried over by dance. By the end of the 90 minutes I felt like I'd spent many hours with great story tellers, in awe. But in the best way, I never looked at my watch once, or wanted to. This show implies a life outside of its lines (and lives outside of the lines of convention and shame and avarice) more beautifully than anything I've ever seen on a stage.
And the acting? Jesus Christ. Dave Wallingford's rare on-mic turn as an unseen narrator (maybe the artist of the title, maybe a more literal God) opening the proceedings with "What I like to do is... I start with anything, a picture, these colors... I like these colors" going into an aria of creation that in lesser hands might have been too on-the-nose. Acacia Duncan's Susan is a whirlwind of charm and some of the best slap stick I've seen on stage in a long, long time, particularly her pair of pas-de-deux with Ben Sostrom's Becker, the first meeting that's straight out of the best Li'l Abner comic strip and her delirious monologue more serious than most people could manage, hilarious at the same time, and as rhythmically precise as a Thelonious Monk solo... all while messily, feverishly eating cake.
Ben Sostrom's been good when I've seen him before but his turn as Becker, the homeless person who frequently represents the downfall of sailing too far afield, being too far in your own head, is hilarious and terrifying. Newcomer to Available Light, Keith Lamar Nolen, as Carl is a wonder, naivete but not unlearned naivete, and with a monologue from the point of view of a museum curator that knocked the breath right out of my lungs.
Ian Short's marvelous as Phil, in denim and a Harley Davidson vest, not undercutting the immediate tough-guy association there or playing to it self-consciously but slowly showing a range of nuance and color that encompasses the preconceptions you're raised toward and all the rest of a life all the way lived in a way that works as a cipher, works as a chunk of America, and reminds me a lot more of the truckers I grew up around (my Dad managed truckers for a long time) than some cliche in a hat; his monologue about food near the end of the play might be the brightest highlight in a whole show of highlights. And Elena Perantoni's take on Phil's Girl, acted entirely in a red and white polka dot (immediate evoking a Rauschenberg palette) bikini, is a rippling radioactive ball of joy, from her rapid-fire back and forth with Short about shame to an astounding axis/flipped "dance" on a martini slip and slide including catching olives thrown by short in her mouth while sliding backward.
Drew Eberly as Allen and Pam Decker as Bob's Mom are rocks, in mostly less flashy roles - with exceptions, like Eberly's appearance in a towel to lead the stage in a gorgeous read of The Inkspots "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire"; or Decker's dance with Sostrom with emotions cascading into one another on her face near the end of the pay. Both are frequently called upon to do as much plot-heavy-lifting as there is in this show, underlining the theme as in Allen's "The truth is: all any human being can ever observe is the past. You never see the present. And everything you look at is younger than it is right now" and his ferocious, clear-headed monologue about Los Alamos. Similarly summed up in Decker's stories about Bob that always end with "Art was not a part of our lives" especially her heart-breaking story about Bob's Grandmother that sums up the power of transformation and the frustration when transformation is denied, "I would have preferred to smash them against brick walls to see what they might have become." That both of these actors keep from just being a cipher with the most abstract material in the show is a testament to their great talent.
For a show with this many spinning plates, any of the technical elements could have derailed it so badly it never found its way again. But not only did they work, everything worked beautifully. Dave Wallingford's sound design is almost invisible even with all of the sound elements but when it draws attention to itself it's some of the best work he's done. Jarod Wilson's moody lighting made everything shine but kept the undercurrent of shimmering darkness in its mind. Acacia Duncan's choreography - almost always the weakest part of an Available Light show it factors into - was uniformly terrific, whether the cast as a whole was line dancing, people were pairing off into waltzing, or someone in a chicken suit was gyrating on the stage.
If we want to call this the first show of the fall then it's a motherfucking call to arms. The kind of thing that acknowledges the darkness, the grit, the cynicism of modern life and reminds you how goddam beautiful it is anyway. There's stuff coming to town (or I'm going to see on some out of town trips) - Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Young Jean Lee, Pinter, my favorite Sondheim play, the return of Sean Lewis - but the bar's set high for all of those things.
Runs through September 21st. Tickets: http://avltheatre.com/shows/bobrauschenbergamerica/
Tuesday, April 30, 2013
The InBetweens – a trio of Mike Gamble on guitar and electronics, Noah Jarrett on bass and Conor Elmes on drums and percussion - celebrated their 10th anniversary in New York and as a working unit, having formed a bond at the New England Conservatory, last fall by recording their fourth studio album Out on a Limb. As someone who’s followed them pretty much since day one, it’s their strongest artistic statement yet. Out on a Limb picks up on the melodic and harmonic territory they started exploring on their last record, Quantum Cowboy, and runs with it, with even more concise, punchy, catchy songs.
The InBetweens have always been masters at teasing out unexpected grooves and building to a crunching intensity. This quality is still evident, the sometimes bludgeoning impact of the early years lathed and burnished to a shining mace. This is particularly evident on the one/two punch of Noah Jarrett-written pieces midway through the record. “Releasing Posture”, which starts with a riotous bass intro and shifts through a series of firework sculptures, tiny perfectly deployed explosions, bass tumbling into drums, shooting out lines of light from the guitar; the overarching form becoming apparent even as it’s plenty of fun getting lost between the fire and the smoke. That song melts into “Brighter” which is a weighty, righteously grimy mid-tempo rocker that glows with an unlikely, magical symbiosis between players, everything in its right place with tempo shifts never feeling showy or forced, full of drama but never plastic.
Texture, always a consideration, is sharper here too. “Holy Waters” and “Abeyance”, both written by Mike Gamble, have a moody sensuousness, never rushing. Conor Elmes’ drumming, great throughout, particularly shines on the former, muffled kick and tom creating a rocky landscape punctuated by flashes of cymbal – the drums tell the entire story and the guitar and bass adds definition and specificity. The latter is some of the most gorgeous guitar playing I’ve heard from Gamble, less stripped down than sharpened, bringing to bear the devotional music he plays with Brooklyn Qawwali Party and the Thompson and Jansch influences that have been creeping into his playing in the last few years and turning it into something new and fascinating.
This record has been a constant companion the last few weeks since I received the promo and I see it soundtracking my summer and me coming back to it for years on end. To another ten, twenty, thirty years.
Saturday, April 27, 2013
This was always, and remains
a foreign land. And we are
undoubtedly, the slaves.
There is some music, that shd come on now.
With space for human drama, there shd be some memory
that leaves you smiling. That is, night and the way/
Her lovely hand, extended. The Star, the star, all night
We loved it
-Amiri Baraka, “Stellar Nilotic (29)”
As a theater lover, almost nothing’s better than watching a new company blossom, to grow into its powers and do something nobody else in town is doing. I had one of those epiphanous lightning bolts last night with Short North Stage. I was always rooting for them, and their Cabaret I saw at the beginning of the season had a lot of promise but fell just that little bit short of delivering.
I was always rooting for their take on Stew and Heidi Rodewald’s Passing Strange to be amazing and obviously any troupe in town with the balls to take it on gets my support and my ticket dollar. But having seen not only the Spike Lee filmed Broadway version but also the transcendent Balliwick version in Chicago with JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound as narrator and band and a phenomenal cast including Stephen Perkins, Osiris Khepera, and a spell-binding LaNisa Frederick… this had big shoes to fill to even grapple with that memory. And before I get into details, it does. If it doesn’t better the other versions it stands in my memory as 100% worthy and everyone I know who loves theater should go see this now, now, now.
As the board member who introduced the show commented, Passing Strange is an interesting companion piece to the first show of the season, Cabaret. Both are stories about a young American male artist trying to find their artistic voice in Berlin at a time when Berlin’s dirt poor, not incidentally a haven for artists and hangers-on, and about to crack wide open, whether it’s the end of the world or the light streaming through. But while the protagonist in Cabaret gets mired in sex and shock and horror, we see a deeper reckoning in Youth from Passing Strange and it doesn’t leave any doubt the protagonist does make something, something better than the juvenilia we see him, often hilariously, try to get past.
This show requires major versatility from every actor, four of the six person (besides the Narrator) cast play at least three roles who reflect and refract the differing milieus and Youth’s progression to understanding. Zoe Lathan and Rico Parker particularly stand out from one shift of setting to the next. Zoe Lathan’s Sherry and Desi in particular see something good in Youth before anyone else really does and her playing this realization and also the frustration that he’s not there yet and maybe he won’t ever be is heartbreaking. Her featured turn on “Come Down Now” is a time-stopping performance, a highlight in a whole show of highlights. Parker’s hilarious with impeccable comic timing but always shaded with enough pain that you feel like there’s a person there. Even as his characters are the person getting left behind or the person getting displaced by Youth’s innate selfishness masked as ambition or vice versa, they leave an impression; there’s a person here. Even if Youth doesn’t register the loss of Parker’s or Lathan’s characters, they’re given enough impact in the play and in the production that the audience sees the loss. Mia Angelique Fowler is a vision and a ball of incandescent energy, her voice ringing clear and sharp on the Amsterdam numbers.
Michelle Golden has maybe a thankless job as the Mother, appearing at the beginning to represent what the Youth needs to escape from and appearing in phone calls at the end when his stubbornness won’t let him come home and she won’t say why it’s so important. But it’s the most heart-wrenching part in the play and Golden plays it so beautifully it’s hard to imagine her being bettered. Everything not said shows up on her face, in the shrug of her shoulders.
Taylor Moss as Youth, the only character on stage at all times, gives a ferociously physical performance that I initially thought was a little too cartoony but won me over midway through the first act. It rang true to my experience of being that age, wearing every lust, idea, enthusiasm on your face and wondering why you have no mystery at all but trying to invent a mask, a back story, an identity. Anything the show needs at any moment, he’s up for the task and if he plays to the back row a little bit, well, I was in the back row. For a central character who’s being acted upon as much as he acts, Moss gives an indelible performance in outstanding voice and along with Fowler is the best dancer in the show.
This show doesn’t work if the Narrator’s bullshitting. A good friend of mine who’s done a lot of work with theaters in town said, “We’ve talked about doing it but we can’t picture a local Stew…” Well, Short North Stage found the perfect man for the job because Ron Jenkins is a damn star. I’d seen his vocal quartet, Vocal Impact, and I knew the name from his time with Chapmyn Spoken Word and Flow Theater, but I’d never seen any of his theatrical work and I was blown away. His voice is warm and supple and his take is interestingly balanced. It’s not the surging rage and physicality of JC Brooks but his knives are sharpened to a slightly finer point than Stew’s origination of the part. He feels so connected with the audience that the moments of breaking the fourth wall are surprising and fresh even if you see them coming.
Even more than any of the actors, the superstar here is the director, Mark Clayton Southers. An implant from Pittsburgh’s August Wilson Center, he imbues the show with the kind of joyous seriousness of the best of Wilson’s plays. Such a steady hand is evidenced through the entire production, at every moment every actor feels exactly where they should be even if it’s not where the audience was expecting – suddenly emerging stage right or arguing with the band in the pit or on the second level of Robert Kuhn’s astonishing set (his lighting’s also a wonder). The nuance, especially evident in the very subtle choreographic echoes where Youth and the Narrator’s movements are just similar enough to drive the point home, is a wonder.
Of course there’s a caveat – the sound problems I noticed in Cabaret are better but still not all the way fixed. Vocals get muddy and drowned out at times – more of a problem in this show because often the harmonies comment on the lead lines and vice versa. The amazing band music director P. Tim Valentine put together feels strangely quiet and subdued, the rock and roll surges so key to the show don’t have the same punch they should. Often the guitar work is completely drowned out unless it’s a specific tag where the keys drop out at the time (like the surf riff on “We Just Had Sex”). And with legendary Columbus noise/jazz man Larry Marotta on lead, I promise the guitars aren’t too quiet because of the musicians. The PA problems weren’t enough to ruin the show and they aren’t bad enough to stop me from recommending it but they’re annoying because everything thing else is so good.
Well done, Short North Stage. I can’t wait to see what’s next.
Thursday, March 28, 2013
Saturday, March 23, 2013
never fence the silver range.
Stars are out and there is sea
enough beneath the glistening earth
to bear me toward the future
which is not so dark. I see.
-Frank O'Hara, "Digression on Number 1, 1948"
A. said once (after Steve Earle, in case anyone who googles it jumps my shit), "Todd May is the best songwriter in Columbus and I'd stand on Ron House's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say it." And, you know, while the soil here is rich with candidates - House and Jerry Decicca, Marcy Mays and Sue Harshe, Andy Robertson and Lara Yazvac, all five members of Moviola - I'm not sure I could name three songwriters who move me as consistently as May.
Morton Feldman once said of the poet Frank O'Hara that "Secreted in Frank O'Hara's thought is the possibility that we create only as dead men... Death seems the only metaphor distant enough to truly measure our existence... Only the artist who is close to his own life gives us an art that is like death." (found on www.cnvill.net/mfmorgan.htm because I couldn't find my copy of Give My Regards to Eighth St) Frank O'Hara often makes me think of Todd May, or maybe that's the other way around. I've been knocked out by May's songs since I first heard them at 18 - and been knocked out every time, through The Lilybandits and The Plaster Saits and Mooncussers and Fort Shame and a handful of bands he didn't front but were graced with the honor of his guitar playing like Erika Carey and Lydia Loveless - and I've had the honor of calling him a friend for over a decade. But he's hit a new plateau with Rickenbacker Girls, the first record he's put out under his own name.
The title refers to an air base tucked into the south end of Columbus - more of a shell these days, transferred from Strategic Air Command to the National Guard in 1980, but once teeming with thousands of employees and their families - and this title, in conjunction with the airplane over the dark red image of Ohio on the cover speak to a gateway out and the longing of things missed. The songs bear this out - there's a duende soaking through everything here and there's an immense joy in living that doesn't happen without the other.
On "Why Don't You Come Around Lately", buoyed by some of the most subtle rhythm section swing from Steve and Pat McGann and the organ work of Greg Thurman, May addresses the what-ever-happened void in the pit of your stomach when people inevitably peel off from your field of vision, from your childhood, from your college town, singing "Saying that you died / Some Vegas suicide / Don't believe it's true / Nothing I expect from you" and going through "Miss a million, my dearest friend / I really want to see you again / Search the world from end to end" all tied together by the titular line as a hook, repeated and stuttered, lines drop off and the vocal swings back and forth from a croon to a snarl. That highlight's immediately followed by the parking lot dance of "Better Way to Build a Rocket" where the delivery is the kind of seduction that only comes out of truth and humility, a paean to growing up not knowing what the boundaries are wrapped around the image of building a model rocket and wondering what might happen if you never stopped - "Undertake / A glimmer in the radiation / Till the boosters go / Now I'm floating over / The old neighborhood" soars aloft on some of the best, purest guitar work on the record (I'm inclined to say Todd himself with Jamey Ball and Mark Spurgeon playhing those grimy soul chops underneath the solo).
These songs paint the picture of a hard-fought comfort, a joy in settling where you are but not ignoring the pleasure of the rest of the world. This comes clear with "Alphabet City" which rocks like early Steve Earle and the Dukes or the V-Roys or any classic of May's older band The Lilybands - "You're the kind of girl who rides on the hood / Of your cousin's black Camaro in the harvest parade / You're the queen of some vegetable / Bestowed / With a tiara and dress your Mama made" and winking "Nobody's gonna mistake you for Nico / Hell, no one is gonna mistake / Me for John Cale / You and I ain't built for that speed / Or that level of temptation / And that's just as well". And directly following "Alphabet City" is "Better Than You Ever Thought It'd Be" a whip-crack shuffle, sung with a deceptive ease, "Riding out by the station / Make a birthday with my friend / It's a long distance dedication / You're halfway through the end / You're getting old / You're getting old, my friend / Nothing up to now has ever turned out right / Still better than you ever thought it'd be", the specifics of the lyrics are as important but they're reinforced and undercut sometimes simultaneously, by repetition and stopping short, the song sounds like he's smiling all the way through it but with that look in his eyes that what he's saying is important whether you notice or not.
The title track of the record sums up the themes and is the best see-you-around song to come out of Columbus since Tim Easton's "All the Pretty Girls Leave Town" and Watershed's "Anniversary", with a catalogue of fading photographs held up to the older, shabby buildings of the air base - "She flew off to Califonia / Daddy was stationed at the AFB / Transfered out to some Spaniard's beach" or "Took the train out east to live with her Mom / And that sweet one / Was the same rule of thumb" all alternating with the chorus: "That night I did not go home / I drove down to the lock's / The tower splayed the light / Over an MP's watch / So clear, as the sea / Twilight shadow's mocking me".
I think I've given the impression that this is a lyrically focused record and while the lyrics are some of the best he's ever written, the production his voice, handled by Joe Viers who recorded the acclaimed Lydia Loveless record on Bloodshot, gets textures out of his voice that I heard in a million tiny bars here in Columbus but I'd never quite heard on a record before. And everything else, every instrumental voice and color, springs to three dimensional life and plays exactly the part it needs to. Not just the best singer-songwriter record I've heard all year, it's in the running for the soul record to beat. This is the kind of record that makes me pissed off I don't write more and makes me want to call a friend I hadn't seen in a while and say let's get some coffee, that makes me want to be more present in my life and reminds me to love the world more.
Monday, February 25, 2013
At the end of the road there ain’t nothing but fear
Just a big old room with a big old mirror
And the man in the mirror, his hair’s turning grey
And his hands begin to shake in a funny kind of way
He knows everything you bring forth will save your soul
Everything denied will condemn you to the hole
With his hand on his heart, he picks up his pen
And goes searching for the place where the dream begins
-Tom Russell, “Where the Dream Begins”
I not only saw Red on Broadway, it made my top 10 theater productions list that year. It overcame some surface problems to end up squarely hitting as one of the most invigorating, moving productions I saw in 2010 – an amazing year that also included the first plays I saw by Annie Baker and Tarrell Alvin McCraney, and revivals of Ishmael Houston-Jones’ Them and August Wilson’s Fences. So there was a little trepidation at seeing CATCO’s performance of it; would I already be irrevocably tainted by the earlier exposure? Ultimately, I thought to not see this in my home town, both to whet my appetite for the Decisive Decade Rothko retrospective at CMA (an institution which has done more for rekindling my interest in the last three years than the previous 15) and to get a charge and see if the text still holds, would be kind of insulting to me and to a company bringing in something I praised to the skies.
Beyond that, this play is very much in CATCO’s wheelhouse – a two-hander with one set, very naturalistic, very literal. And in a lot of ways, they rise to the expectations. The set design by Michael Brewer’s marvelous, Jarod Wilson’s lighting and Ruth Boyd’s costumes are perfect but not distracting, you never feel like the late ‘50s is underlined but it still grounds you in the time.
Jimmy Bohr’s very kinetic direction seems to take its guidance from the lines in the script about colors pulsing and being held in check. I feel like part of the reason the lines about the forms in the paintings “pulsing” seems highlighted here is because nothing ever seems static in the production. More often than not, this works. Sometimes, it works magnificently – as in the moment where the two characters team up to prime a canvas; the scene where Rothko returns from seeing a pop art presentation and he’s vibrating with rage, circling for a fight; the finale which moves as fast as life, the life-changing sentence getting delivered as though from a moving train. Sometimes it works less well, there are beats that might hit harder if the audience had a few more seconds to meditate on them.
But this kind of play – a little overwritten, a touch obvious, but with a love for its source material and a connection to its emotional heart that overcomes the flaws – lives and dies with its two actors. Tim Simeone, as the fictional assistant, found his rhythm and soared. His character had this wide-eyed sense of wonder, in awe of the boss while trying not to see him as a surrogate father or a teacher. Everything about him is on the surface, an exposed wound playing at being a cynic, and it’s marvelous to watch. Kevin McClatchy was more of a mixed bag. He obviously brought a lot of thought and intensity to the role but ultimately it felt like he was rushing through the lines, he was hammering home the punch lines until it felt flattened. It kind of worked for 1959 – it’s a performance very much in the style of Sid Caesar or Carl Reiner – but that approach frequently became static and left the darker moments, “When I kill myself…” flatter than I felt they needed to be.
So it’s a solid performance well produced by CATCO, but it stays on base; never quite the home run you know is inside of it.