Sunday, February 28, 2010

The crack that runs all the way down the stone statue. Hughie and Krapp’s Last Tape, Goodman Theater, Chicago, 02/20/10

“The drunken truth at midnight
Proves false before the dawn
When you wonder where she is tonight
And what dress she might have on.
Don’t try driving by her house, son,
You’ll find her bedroom light still on.
They say, ‘Man, does it hurt?’
‘No, it don’t faze me.’
Lying is the mother tongue
On the other side of crazy.”
-Tom Russell, “The Other Side of Crazy”

Once in a while you see someone who feels like they were born to interpret a particular writer’s work; William H. Macy doing Mamet comes to mind.  I saw that with Brian Dennehy in Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie at the Goodman Theatre.  The play has every criticism you could levy at O’Neill – ponderous, preachy, a little too on-the-nose, and it’s basically a monologue (a two-hander but the other person, the night clerk in a New York hotel, maybe has 20 lines in the hour he and Dennehy are on the stage) - without the punch in the gut delivered by O’Neill’s best work like The Iceman Cometh or Long Day’s Journey Into Night (which Dennehy won a Tony for).  And it needed a better audience, the crowd laughed like they were seeing Caddyshack through about half of it, but that’s no fault of the performance.

Dennehy understood that the classic needed someone who brings that late-‘40s gravitas to it, he needs to read O’Neill like he’s doing Shakespeare or Jonson.  Trying to interpret those words and especially those rhythms in what an audience member (by which I mean, as in everything else I write, me) would read as more naturalistic or “realistic” acting, has been the downfall of many a very fine performer, as with Jena Malone and Joseph Cross in last year’s Mourning Becomes Electra (for what it’s worth, I really enjoyed Lili Taylor in that but how much of that is the crush I’ve had on Taylor since I was 16 I’d rather not think about). 

He hits just the right balance of self-assurance and self-awareness, deep down he knows he’s a failure tripping from one disappointment to the next relying on the easy love drunks have for strangers to keep his soul propped up.  Always in a bluster, always on the verge of storming up to bed in a rage, but always finding a reason to stay and keep talking.  By turns conciliatory, ingratiating, and prodding, he oozes through every interaction, and when he finds a weakness, he exploits it, but still loses more than you’d think.  Direction, set design and especially the costume, a seersucker suit that as A. said “Mentally I was sure I could smell that jacket,” all worked, and any shortcomings in the play got swept away by watching a perfect performance by one of the true virtuosos of the theater.

After a 15 minute break Brian Dennehy came out to do Beckett’s masterpiece Krapp’s Last Tape, and he looked like he’d shrunk six inches and caved in on himself in the intervening moments.  Mumbling to himself, alone, on his 69th birthday, listening to a tape of himself at 39 already talking about watching love slip away, needing to curb his drinking, and the confounding state of his bowels, along with everything else.  He laughs bitterly along to the tape; reminiscing on a book he sold 17 copies of to overseas libraries.  And no kind of plot description makes this sound as amazing as it is but he nails it, and the moment where he stops cold and starts singing “Now the day is over,” is one of the most chilling, heartbreaking things I’ve ever seen on a stage.  I can’t imagine a better version of this play, if you get a chance, please, please take a minute and go to this.

The Romantic in shards, modernism slouching toward Bethlehem; Peter Brotzmann: Wood and Water, Corbett V. Dempsey, Troy Richards – The Perfect View, Thomas Robertello

“The day it snowed on the statues and the light
whispered of coming to grips with the problem, of a thaw
when the sun lit the mounts, the sky grew blue as its
burden fell in drops and over my shoulder a new atmosphere
of comprehension, of desire, of yearning…”
-Barbara Guest, “Biography: Two”

Made it to two gallery shows in Chicago this past weekend (as well as the MCA, which will be its own post if my thoughts start about that start to cohere). 

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Punch Brothers, Lincoln Theater, 02/13/10

“I wanted to salvage
something from my life, to fix
some truth beyond all change, the way
photographers of war, miles from the front,
lift print after print into the light,
each one further cropped and amplified,
pruning whatever baffles or obscures,
until the small figures are restored
as young men sleeping.”
-Ellen Bryant Voight, “The Last Class”

Steve Earle said once, while explaining his decision to make a bluegrass album (The Mountain) that he was looking for immortality, because so few new bluegrass songs were written compared to the number of bands that good material got picked up and replayed ad nauseum.  But – and someone correct me if I’m wrong – I don’t hear other bands picking up and running with the great songs on that, “Texas Eagle” or “Carrie Brown” or “The Graveyard Shift”.  Too personal, maybe, or too idiosyncratic? 

I think Chris Thile’s in the same boat except he’s actually expanding the melodic and harmonic vocabulary of bluegrass and I’ll bet you in a generation or two everyone in the genre will know all his songs, but right now I don’t think fans or other bands are seeing past the different rhythms to process what he’s doing.  There was a very clear divide at the concert we saw on Saturday night where probably 60% of the crowd was loving almost everything he and his crack band did, another 20% kept shouting for songs from his previous band, jam-grass crossover stars Nickel Creek, and another 20% only applauded when it hewed closest to more traditional motifs/structures/solos/harmonies including the Stanley Brothers “Lonesome River”, a few of his solo songs, and a cover of the White Stripes’ “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” from his first post-Nickel Creek record under his own name. 

This shift/fissure came most apparent during a new instrumental when a sizable portion of the crowd tried to clap along and made it through about a third of the tune, with dropped beats and barely-perceptible time signature shifts, the lightbulb moment of the show both for that and because it affirmed what a monster the bass player is, his arco work on about half the set gave everything a darker string quartet feeling and even his standard pizzicato plucking sometimes sounded like a thunderstorm on a hot day.  But everyone was, of course, excellent from the violinist to the rock-solid guitar player to the banjo player who filled the piano role in the more chamber-music numbers the quintet did, to Thile who obviously knows his Monroe and his McCoury and his Louvin and his Bush but played the mandolin like Eric Dolphy played the tenor sax: turning what you thought it could do inside out, playing it like a drum, playing it like a radio tuned between two stations.

A third of the set was dedicated to newly recorded songs for an upcoming record, which had the virtuosic rave-ups and heartbreak narratives you’d expect but they showed a more assured grasp of tone in the lyrics, the comingling of barroom-weepy and ironic-awareness less jarring and the hooks stronger and clearer but not veering towards radio-friendly, lines like “You’re only as good as your last goodbye” ringing in my head for hours. 

The connection between the covers and the history and what they’re doing now seemed more evident but no less surprising in the new material, with the violinist’s use of extremely quiet playing and dissonance learned for a Radiohead cover showing up as the intro to one of the thornier newer songs, and the interesting klezmer and flamenco touches that showed up in the newer material.  This’d be better if my dumb ass had remembered to bring a pen and jot down the titles of the newer songs but rest assured if you like this kind of thing at all and they’re playing near you?  See them.  And I’m willing to bet right now on their next record rocking me.

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Merce Cunningham Company Legacy Tour, Wexner Center, 02/12/10

“If I kiss you please
Remember with your shoes off
You’re so beautiful like
A lifted umbrella orange
And white we may never
Discover the blue over-
Coat maybe never never O blind
With this (love) let’s walk
Into the first
Rivers of morning as you are seen
To be bathed in a light white light
Come on”
-Kenneth Koch, “Spring”

Hoping the Koch works as an incantation to bring an early thaw as the snow turns to grey back pain and temporary depression.  Plus, one of my favorite love poems and I’m typing this on Valentine’s Day while A. is – sort of, almost – sleeping.  Love you, baby.  The connection to the actual subject of the post might be a little more tenuous, but the feelings I get from Koch or Ashbery mirror very closely what I get from Merce Cunningham’s dances and, for that matter, the music of Nancarrow and some of Cage, this wild, delighted surprise.

In one of the best-thought-out decisions (in a long line of well thought out things), Cunningham came up with a legacy plan before his death last year which included a two-year world tour before the disbanding of the company.  I’d only seen the company once in the early 2000s on one of my first trips to New York, so there wasn’t a chance of my missing this (probably) last chance to see it.  That said, if I get the chance to see this in another place, you can bet I’m going to; they’re doing a total of 16 pieces, including things as well-spoken of as “Quartet” and “Ocean”.

We got to Mershon in enough time for the latter half of the pre-concert talk which included two OSU professors, one of whom had danced with the company in the early ‘80s and the other had been the lighting director in the early ‘90s.  What came through most strongly in the talk was the collaborative spirit, Cunningham chose people for sets/costumes/light/music and worked up the dance completely independently, rehearsing the company in silence.  To have that kind of belief in the people you’ve chosen is a lesson we should all take to heart, and that it comes off so seamlessly is a testament to the choices he and everyone involved made.

The show opened with “Crises” from 1960 with single-color body suits designed by Robert Rauschenberg and several of Conlon Nancarrow’s studies for player piano as the music, with the decor being long curtains and light pouring from the side of the stage, like mid-day Manhattan windows.  One man and a variety of five women in different colored suits, the women sometimes danced in space with each other, but when the man entered, he always had a female partner. 

A. thought that he was an ominous figure but I got this very sexual energy, this bliss and fun from the women dancing together but almost an S&M playful control – I”m on top, now you, now I hold you down, now you, to me, now I grab you by the shoulders, swing you around a full 360 degrees, then lay you down – sometimes so perfectly in sync with the music it was hard to believe they didn’t rehearse to it and sometimes just separate enough that the music was overlaying a rhythmic bed or a mist of melancholy that colored the movement without forcing it one direction or another.  This was the piece that destroyed me of the two.

The second piece was Splitsides, with music by Sigur Ros and Radiohead, and in the most Cagean move of the night, it opened with five dice rolls to determine the order of the sets, the costumes, the sections of choreography, the music bed, and the lighting cues.  So the dancers have rehearsed multiple ways and they don’t have anything to lean against or bounce off of, not the emotional content of the music, not a certain cue of light, only their body and their training, which is more than enough.  While I preferred certain elements – the first set, the Radiohead piece, the black and white costumes, the second set of lighting cues – obviously the dancing in both was marvelous and again, seeing how it fit together against all odds was as much fun as watching the very virtuosic, very personal movements, there were more group pieces in this, fewer pas de deux, more about how the body relates to society, to the group. 

One of those nights you come out grinning and glad to be alive.  Thanks as always to the Wexner Center for bringing this.