Saturday, December 31, 2011

Shows of the Year, 2011

Great year for live music, with only having to travel for work for a few isolated weeks instead of months at a time I saw 125 shows and honestly very few of them were weak.  But these were the 20 that fought for themselves in my memory, that I wanted all my friends to be there seeing and was glad for whatever friends of mine were there, whether it was 100 or 2.  As with the other posts, everything in in Columbus unless otherwise stated.

1.  Tyondai Braxton and the Wordless Music Orchestra, 03/07/11 (Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center; Manhattan) – The sound of the world cracking open and being born.  Playing a record I’d already been in love with but hearing it in a great-sounding room with all the woodwinds and strings and a four-person vocals/kazoo section was eye opening to say the least.  Colors bleeding into each other and exploding in the back of my head and this raw, perfect joy.  Just joy.

2.  JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound, 12/02/11 (The Basement) – JC Brooks also appeared on my theater list this year but the first time they came to Columbus doing their set – they were the backing band for my top-rated Numero Group show at the Lincoln Theater a few years ago – reaffirmed their status as the best live band working today.  A new lineup with no horns, stripped down and ready for action, with those same great songs that embrace everything from James Brown to the Delfonics to Johnny Thunders to Sonic Youth as dance music.  Even with a sadly small crowd – probably 50 people – Brooks didn’t for one second phone it in, a sweat-drenched, perfectly sung performance that had everyone in the palm of his hand, and the band was right there behind him.  Music like this is what’s keeping soul alive.

3.  Liminanas/Gaz Gaz, 08/19/11 (The Summit) – A band, Liminanas, that comes to the US for the first time (at least for a full tour) and really come out with something to prove.  They and Gaz Gaz teamed up to do both sets as a barbed wire wall of 7-piece sound.  Great, catchy songs sung in a manner just disaffected enough - caring/not caring blurring into one another.  A mix of elements that’s not new – a dash of Velvet Underground pulse instead of beat, ‘60s girl group vocals and drums, Ramones drive, clean and dirty guitars switching prominence between verse and chorus, and a tambourine player who looks like he’s having the time of his life – but all played with such fire and charm that it sounded brand new.  The whiskey was sweeter, the smiles grew bigger and by the time we all stumbled into the night slick with sweat we felt washed clean.

4.  Budos Band, 02/26/11 (Outland on Liberty) – For all my bitching about poor Columbus crowds, once in a while my city really does me proud and this time they did it again with Budos Band.  The last of three shows A. and I made it to that night (and not a stinker in the bunch, I should say, Rodney Crowell acoustic and the Bill Frisell/Greg Leisz tribute to Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant were both top notch also) and it was a scorcher.  Promoting their great third record, III, as the sax player said, “It’s the one on the merch table with the fuckin’ cobra”, bari sax melting over the crowd, trumpet raining knives, bass twitching like a raw nerve and walls of percussion and guitar undulating in time.  These last three shows on the list, I danced more than I did at any other show.

5.  Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society and Dan Zezelj, Brooklyn Babylon,  11/09/11 (Brooklyn Academy of Music; Brooklyn) – I was really torn whether to put this in the “theatre” list or the “shows” list, but as good as Zezelj’s images and animation were – and they were very good – this was all about the music for me.  Everything perfectly balanced, big, brassy, cinematic music that harkened back to classic Basie and Jones/Lewis but also full of modern riffs and touches including electronics and the whole band playing percussion, no boundaries but always within the realm of the narrative, nothing showy.  I was so enraptured I didn’t want this to end; barring a DVD, I’d love a CD of this music.

6.  Robbie Fulks, 05/23/11 (The Hideout; Chicago) – Fulks’ Monday residency at the Hideout is a treat everyone who can get to Chicago should experience as often as possible.  The joy of seeing Fulks as a player and a songwriter not hemmed in by budget or travel or the third booked night in a row where he’s lucky to get gas money has really brought a flowering of the artist he’s always been.  His ad hoc recurring band the night A. and I were in Chicago, The Scavengers, had Robbie Gjersoe on guitar, KC McDonough on bass and organ, and Gerald Dowd on drums and everyone singing.  As purely fun a night of music as I had, full of wacky surprises – bebop and funk instrumentals played as perfectly as anyone right now, covers of Jon Hartford and Bobbie Gentry and Bill Fox, some new Fulks originals that were heartbreaking and wry as always, everything good about the last 40 years of pop music in a tiny room played out of love.

7.  Hell Shovel and Day Creeper, 10/05/11  (Ace of Cups) – Anyone  who’s ever seen one of these lists knows I love Demon’s Claws, but even I was unprepared for Jeff Clarke’s new band.  The Riders of the Purple Sage on mushrooms, Old 97s with a taste for meth instead of whiskey, whatever comparisons you want to make the material and playing is more than strong enough to stand up to it.  Songs that split the difference between Carl Perkins and Johnny Thunders but with a deep Suicide love of drone; my happiest musical surprise all year.

8.  Black Swans, 12/30/11 (house concert) – The Black Swans ending a pretty great year that also had them releasing their best album so far and touring like mad, with the wrap-up at this recorded house concert for an invited crowd.  They rolled through 15 songs including new stuff – that sounded fantastic, particularly “Fickle and Faded” – and most of their records, played with characteristic warmth and practiced telepathy.  Songs of loneliness and love bringing a community together.

9.  Josef Van Wissem with Che Chen and Robbie Lee and Paul Metzger and Mike Shiflet, 06/18/11 (Skylab) – van Wissem’s lute playing’s always extraordinary and this set had him, for lack of a better word, more rock and roll style with a deep Keith Richards rhythm but without ever dumbing down.  The flurries of notes all felt perfectly inevitable, and the backing with Che Chen on tapes, percussion and violin and Robbie Lee on a homemade bass clarinet was a wall of sound that cracked my rib cage and left me trying to explain this to people I knew wouldn’t care and not giving a damn.  Mike Shiflet’s opening set was transcendent and Paul Metzger’s set after them of bowed extra-string banjo (I wrote down 12 but thinking about it, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was 18) was the perfect thing to send us all back into the night.  The kind of thing Skylab does better than anywhere else in town that makes Columbus lucky to have them. 

10.  Puffy Areolas and Unholy 2, 04/02/11 (Cafe Bourbon Street) – For a while, the Puffys have been leading Ohio’s charge of joyful, anarchic, greasy rock.  Damon taking up lead vocals as well as guitar started the concentration and adding Bim Thomas (of legendary Bassholes, Obnox, anything worth playing on fame) turned the flame bright blue.  As strong a sweaty, beer-drenched show as I saw all year, the room all leaning in, huddled close as one and dancing simultaneously – that’s right, we were defying motherfucking physics.  The Unholy 2 set afterward that turned into an improbably rocking all star jam was also damn fine.

11. Signal Ensemble and Third Coast Percussion, 03/13/11 (Le Poisson Rouge; Manhattan) – Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians at LPR played flawlessly, with rhythms that sank all the way into your skin and made the molecules of the room vibrate in countless different directions at once.  The capper on one of the best New York trips I’ve ever had, and after it was over, the four of us took a cab to my favorite bar and toasted the night without words.

12. Orgone, 07/14/11 (Ravari Room) and Gang Gang Dance, 07/12/11 (Double Happiness) – Two shows in the same week that were very different but equally invigorating takes on rhythm.  Gang Gang Dance, in one of my favorite new bars of the year almost uncomfortable packed, which makes that kind of music even better.  The waves of people mean you can’t not dance and the long neon taffy synthesizer lines and percussion like a dozen heartbeats in a sack put everyone over the top.  Orgone, sadly playing to maybe ten people at Ravari Room, where I’ve seen a number of great shows, giving their 100% and swirling their psychedelia through vintage Roy Ayers style smooth funk, occasionally throwing us with a hard break.  Bliss.

13. V-Roys, 12/27/11 (Southgate House; Newport, KY) – The Southgate House was one of my favorite venues in Ohio (yeah, I know it’s Kentucky, but it’s the greater Cincinnati area and it doesn’t occur to me in the same breath as venues in Louisville or wherever) which is closing after the 31st.  This show did justice to every  great memory I had there.  Mic Harrison and Scott Miller’s solo projects are fantastic with great songs but there’s a special magic with those two voices and guitars bouncing off each other, which is in no way meant to slight the swinging, driving, supple rhythm section of Paxton Sellers and Jeff Bills.  Still nailing everything from slowly blooming explosions of heartbreak and rage like Miller’s “Lie I Believe”, “Goodnight Loser” and “Sorry Sue” and grimy, ragged power-pop like Harrison’s “Amy 88”, “Sooner or Later”, and Miller’s “Guess I Know I’m Right.” Sure, maybe this went on a little too long and had too many midtempo songs but when someone hasn’t been around in 12 years and they just came back for a few drinks and some sweet memories before they vanish back into the ether, indulgence isn’t a sin it’s a blessing.

14. Group Doueh, Chicha Libra, and Mucca Pazza, 06/25/11 (Cleveland Museum of Art; Cleveland) – Every museum fundraiser should be this good, in all senses.  Well run, plenty of places to get a drink, lines are managed and the music is perfectly curated, never an afterthought.  Group Doueh’s blistering guitar over synth and gospel vocals in twisting mobius strips took my breath away.  Chicha Libre’s Peruvian pop takes on everything from classic French ballads to the theme from the Simpsons worked just as well in the midwest under a warm, cloudy sky as in a tiny Brooklyn club.  Mucca Pazza worked better in these circumstances than I’d ever seen them.

17. Paradoxical Frog, 11/10/11 (Cornelia Street Cafe; Manhattan) – I saw Tyshawn Sorey twice this year, both in sax/piano/drum contexts;  along with being blown away by his playing even more than usual, Paradoxical Frog stunned me with their compositional rigor and ultimate dedication to sound.  Kris Davis’ piano sounds better every time I see her and she was a massive gravitational force with Ingrid Laubrock’s tenor swooping in and pulling out, weaving through Sorey’s upside down lightning storms.  A band all about tone and feeling but still steering clear of any clichéd way to think about those concepts. 

16.  Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba, 11/18/11 (Wexner Center for the Arts) – The kind of thing the Wexner does better than anyone in town.  An invigorating  show where the main instrumental voices were ngoni of different sizes (may  be called something different, like the difference between a mandolin and a mandocello) ringing out in different ranges with different resonance, under gorgeous not quite gospel vocals, waves of groove and melody melting in and washing over each other and the audience. 

17. Six Organs of Admittance and Black Swans, o8/08/11 (Skully’s)  – I don’t get a lot of joy out of ragging on promoters or venues but the way this show was handled was a fucking travesty.  An act that hadn’t been here in a while, that had always drawn in the realm of 100 people played to 12 by my count not including the opening band, and I can almost guarantee won’t be here again for a long, long time if ever.  But beyond that ass-chapping lack of promotion, this was a beautiful, meditative thing with Six Organs (in solo acoustic mode like the first time I saw him) soothing silence and reflection in paintings of his own blood on a rainy Tuesday right as some chill was puncturing the end of summer.

18. Guitar Wolf and Cheap Time, Bottom Lounge, 05/19/11 (Chicago) – Chicago might be my favorite place to see a straight up, do shots and bounce into people rock show as well as boasting some of my favorite people to see that kind of show with.  Cheap Time came out and got us all moving with what Ken Hite dubbed “The Pretenders recreated as a Replacements tribute band”, Brit-inflected Pop songs with a rust belt sensibility (and a male vocalist really reviving Hynde’s clipped vocal style and range) played by three people bashing through their instruments at the very edge of their ability like it’s the only thing that matters.  And Guitar Wolf came out and destroyed like always, Ramones songs played twice as fast and three times as hard, with stage presence that harkened back to KISS and the Kinks. 

19. Doveman, Nadia Sirota and Owen Pallett, 03/09/11 (Merkin Hall; Manhattan) – Let’s have some love shown to Judd Greenstein’s work with the Ecstatic Music Festival, I’m bummed I can’t make the 2012 iteration (just can’t pull off a trip up there till April this year) but it’s always packed with stuff that I’m drooling over.  This example from last year was perfect.  It started with Owen Pallett doing a number of songs from his mesmerizing Heartland and reaching back to his earlier work under the name Final Fantasy, really reaching into his lungs and playing with his abilities as a singer, enjoying not having to set up loops, really taking advantage of having the string quartet with him.  Then Nadia Sirota played some gorgeous viola pieces, slowly reassembling the quartet behind her, including a new piece Pallett wrote for her.  And Doveman with his charming banter and intoxicating piano and vocals, backed by everyone who’d been on stage that night playing much of his last record and brand new work with new arrangements.

20. Plastic Crimewave Sound and Psychedelic Horseshit, 01/28/11 (Skylab) – The first time I saw Psychedelic Horseshit’s new material live with Matt Whitehurst and Ryan Jewell building taffy sculptures of JG Ballard cityscapes, layer on layer of synth and guitar and percussion both organic and synthesized.  Then Plastic Crimewave came out and did their patented art-rock, Stooges through Hawkwind through earlier Crimson, with those great songs and guitars turned up just loud enough in that little room to pry your third eye open.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Art Exhibits of 2011

The second of the posts about stuff that turned me on and left me breathless this year.  Every year I get a little more into visual art, with the ravenous hunger of someone trying to catch up because he wasn’t on it enough in his teens (like music or theater).   I’m still a total dilettante, and these are always through untrained eyes but I’m hoping they get trained a little more every year.  I saw some of the best stuff I’ve ever seen this year, all over.  I felt bad I didn’t make it to any new cities – or back to St. Louis, Pittsburgh, etc – but I saw plenty of stuff that sparked me emotionally or got me writing or even made me want to be a better person.

As with the other three, unless stated otherwise it was seen in Columbus, Ohio.

1.  Glenn Ligon, America (Whitney Museum; NYC) –I remember pretty clearly the first time I saw Ligon’s work (depressingly recently) at the Wexner Center here in Columbus and how stunned I was.  His work still stuns me, both what I’ve seen before and what’s new to me, the potency of the narrative and the politics suffusing the aesthetic but never losing sight of the purely aesthetic pleasures.  No narrative, no history, no theory is left unquestioned in Ligon’s work and the drugs all come to you through needles in your eyes.

2.  Willem de Kooning, de Kooning: A Retrospective (Museum of Modern Art; NYC) – I was already a de Kooning fan but this retrospective was perfect.  This is a textbook case of how to do a blockbuster exhibition that’s earned its bonafides and even has things around some corners for the true fans/geeks to surprise and awe.  For me, this was more about the pastels and sketches and the final room of his late Alzheimer's paintings, all sharper lines and eye-scorching color, but if you didn’t know anything this would show you all you need to know and if you know everything this would be gorging yourself on your favorite chocolates.

3.  Josephine Halvorson, What Looks Back (Sikkema Jenkins & Co. Gallery; NYC) – The most stunning new set of paintings I’ve seen in a long time, the kind of work that makes your hair stand up.  Generally inert objects: a door starting to rot, a set of channel locks, masonry coming apart, in one of the most arresting moments a splayed rib cage, all in uncomfortable/disorienting closeup.  They’re painted very realistically, except for inhuman perspectives, and tiny expressionistic touches – a hole that’s one blob of color – that add to the overall mystique.  The color palette is muted and warm but also a little drab, shutting down the sensual eroticism as it starts to rise up.  Like a Raymond Carver poem or a Gary Braunbeck short story, the straightforwardness belies other metaphors, the whiff of mortality gets overpowering at times, but even things starting to go still hum with life. 

4.  Nathalie Djurberg, Human Behavior (Wexner Center for the Arts) – The blockbuster of the Wexner Center’s spring exhibitions was the very fine Louise Bourgeois/Hans Bellmer exhibit but the Djurberg was what I kept going back to and kept stunning me.  Her videos – with music by Hans Berg – got chuckles for their vintage claymation format, “the darkest Davey and Goliath episode ever” and it uses that childlike sense to drop the hammer.  Sexual abuse, racial violence, the grinding under the wheels of avarice keep pounding at you but there’s such a strong understanding of psychology and the nuance of the medium that it never gets didactic.  The audience is engaged while they’re repulsed.

5.  David Wojnarowicz, Spirituality 1974-1990 (PPOW Gallery, NYC) – On a slightly smaller, more focused scale than the De Kooning, this was a blistering retrospective with a knife in the eye at every corner.  This is a scalpel into the dark, crusted-over cynicism in the heart of belief. Bursting with arresting images – ants climbing over classical art, a crucifix, a gun, a conquistador; the iconic “Silence = Death” with the lips sewn shut; collages with homeless children and headlines and babies and luchadores – that led to the hope inside of all defiance and the defiance inside of all hope.  I walked out of this practically in tears.

6.  Alexis Rockman, A Fable for Tomorrow (Wexner Center for the Arts) – An environmental cri de coeur, full of acrylic paintings of nature gone wrong.  Genetically altered animals ready for slaughter, actual trash between the painting and the surface, but kept from being an airbrushed van or a Heavy Metal cover with the intellectual rigor and deep reality under everything.  There’s a playfulness that underscores the horror and a rigorous classicism in the compositions.  Every time I saw these there was always more to see.

7.  Various Artists, The Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven (Canzani Center at Columbus College of Art and Design) – James Voorhies blew me away with his curation of this group exhibit at the local private art school.  The Love and Rockets-based title was a feint, attaching the show to a more obvious nostalgia and lulling you into false comfort before the more rigorous look at the detritus of post-modernism.  Highlights included: Mark Leckey’s and Alejandro Vidal’s homoerotic, hypnotic videos, Lara Kohl’s stunning ice sculpture of a remembered fairy tale inside an unadorned old freezer, Mary Lum’s photograph and painting hybrids that re-energized things that might go unseen or unnoticed.

8.  Various Artists, Nulla Dies Sine Linea (Instituto Cervantes; Chicago) – A fantastic look at contemporary Spanish drawing.  Breathtaking comic strips, Santiago Talavera’s empty but overstuffed with endorsements golf island.  Sure, with the 23 artists represented there was going to be some chaff but what was good left me chattering like an idiot and there was a massive bounty of riches here.

9.  Frances Stark, My Best Thing (PS1; NYC) – An episodic video of Stark’s online sex chat transcripts “acted” out by what looked like digital Playmobil figures in their underwear with subtitles and read by a text reader.  I didn’t expect much either, but this piece was entrancing.  Suddenly three chapters later I look around and not only am I still there, four people who were in when I came into the gallery are still there too.  A look at what we talk about when we’re trying to get laid and how much deeper that intimacy leads us into everything else we talk about.  This was a perfect refocusing after the interesting-but-flawed September 11 exhibit upstairs and a work that gave me a lot to chew on for the trip back to Manhattan.

10. Mark Grotjahn, Three to Five Faces (Shane Campbell Gallery; Chicago) – Grotjahn’s rhythmic, tribal abstractions, layers of paint like stalagmites forming on cave walls was exactly what I wanted to see on a sunny Chicago afternoon right off the Blue line.  The kind of ego-obliterating, meditative show I love and don’t see that often. 

11. Frank Stella, Irregular Polygons (Toledo Museum of Art; Toledo) – A. was right.  She damn near always is.  The Toledo Museum took my breath away on a weekend visiting the spots where my better half grew up.  And while the main collection was awesome, and the Botero exhibit was a hoot, this reassembling of these Frank Stella canvases blew my hair back and gave me a new appreciation for Stella overall.  Bright colors in shapes that created the impression of three dimensions in a way I’d never seen before. 

12. Richard Serra, Junction/Cycle (Gagosian Gallery; NYC) – A labyrinth of rusting metal almost reddish-brown, twice as tall as any person and curving in and back so the hallways it created suddenly narrowed.  The sculpture puts you back inside your body and suddenly you’re more aware of your own mumbling through the echoes, and every step needs planned out, navigated.  It almost begs to be experienced with a stillness but the closeness compels you to move on.  I had dinner with one of my dearest friends on that trip and this was the one thing we were both tripping over ourselves to tell the other about.

13. Laurel Nakadate, Only the Lonely (PS1; NYC) – This piece threw me for a loop – 365 “snapshots” of the artist crying, in different circumstances, with different backdrops.  It was almost daring the viewer to come up with a story, a unifying narrative for what made her cry every day.  And then the other component consisted of videos where Nakadate got college girls to strip while saying in an even voice, “You’re so beautiful.  You know, you’re the prettiest one.”  Throwing a wrench in assumptions and inherited gender roles even if intellectually you’ve already discarded most of them.  Thought provoking and deeply visceral.

14. Tara Donovan, Drawings (Pins)/Untitled (Mylar) (Pace Gallery; NYC) – These two Tara Donovan pieces spread over two branches of the Pace Gallery made my mouth dry and left me stammering.  Untitled was Mylar folded into overlapping orbs with the folds visible inside like cauliflower turned inside out.  The orbs are asymmetrically lined up so it’s an enormous mass, looking like it’s tumbling over itself or growing like mold, but the way the folds are used – and the combination of skylight and artificial light at Pace – gives the impression that she sculpted with the light, the Mylar’s just there to trap it.  It looked like the birth of the universe.  Drawings was pins of different sizes and angled different stuck in canvas to give the illusion of shading, a slower burn but incredibly complex and incredibly effective, and again, light’s the subject and the medium, metal and canvas are just the conduit for transference.

15.  Uta Barth, untitled (Tanya Bonakdar Gallery; NYC) – Like the Donovan, this was also all about light.  Photos of a shower curtain which were laid out sequentially so the river of light through the center made a horizon.  There’s no attempt to hide the materials or the contrivance, the large format digital photos had some serious artifacting in places and a human hand – the photographer or an assistant – appears in a few pictures, clearly turning the curtain for better effects.  But ultimately, it’s just the drama in light shockingly breaking up our everyday that made my heart sing.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Theater and Dance of the Year, 2011

This is the first of four blog posts recapping what really turned my crank this year.  Nothing’s comprehensive, obviously everything’s hemmed in by what I managed to see/hear (I got better at cataloging the books I read, but not better enough; hopefully next year will include a fave books and a return of fave movies), which is in turn hemmed in by money/a desire to keep my job, time, and sanity.
My year in theater didn’t have the best batting average – sometimes the radar goes wonky.  So I only have 10 things that came to mind for the best of the year; I might have had some reservations, but if anyone asked me if they should see any of these things, it was an unequivocal yes.  There were a number of things with GREAT, astonishing parts – Laurie Metcalf’s performance and Joe Mantello’s direction in The Other Place; Lily Rabe and Alan Rickman’s work and Sam Gold’s direction in Seminar; the dance sequences to Underworld’s music in Beautiful Burnout; the performances and singing in Falsettos; Acacia Duncan in Hum; big chunks of Thomas Browning’s Burning I’m still processing.  But all of those had some unsatisfying element, usually the material.  These are ten shows (for lack of a better word, I included opera and dance) I can stand behind… you know, if anyone asked.
1Satyagraha by Philip Glass and Constance DeJong (Metropolitan Opera, NYC) – The first Glass opera I’d ever seen live though I’d been a fan for a long time, and I was stunned.  An orchestra of organ, woodwinds and strings, no brass or percussion, a small cast, a set of headlines and corrugated metal all added up to one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen on a stage.  Waves of diamond, glittering sound subsuming you and tossing you up, and Richard Croft’s Gandhi was an injection of pure light in his phrasing and singing, a tenor you’re lucky to see once.  I was in tears a few times, and the climax of the second act was an image that I think will always stick with me.
2.  Passing Strange by Stew and Heidi Rodewald (Balliwick, Chicago) – The first midwestern production of Passing Strange worked like a charm, partly thanks to JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound in the place of Stew and his band.  The band was smaller and tighter and Brooks sank his teeth into the material coming up with a different take: angrier, more physically present, that was electrifying.  And the rest of the cast was pitch-perfect, especially Steven Perkins as Youth and LaNisa Renee Frederick as his mother.  As with last year’s Merrily We Roll Along this is the rare revival that made me wish so badly there was a recording (any bootleggers, get at me) and when I listen to my original cast recording these are the faces I see.
3.  Skyscrapers of the Midwest by Matt Slaybaugh, adapted from Joshua Cotter (Available Light) - A meditation on growing up, with its intertwined braids of sex, pain, and death.  The way the town you grow up in can hem you in and suffocate you but always takes you back.  With dinosaurs and robot heroes!  As pure a jolt of fizzy adrenaline, mainlined sugar with just enough sour to keep its edge, as anything I’ve ever seen.  And a great middle finger to anyone who says comic books don’t make good theater.
4.  A Short History of Crying by Sanja Mitrovic (La MaMa ETC, NYC) - Sanja Mitrovic’s one woman show at La Mama (as part of a Croatian theater festival in New York) was the most physical, immediate thing I saw all year.  If she’d grabbed me by the collar and performed the work right into my face it wouldn’t have been more striking.  Different narratives that all illuminate the different reasons for/meanings of crying  through epic political tragedy and folk songs.  The different ways to be broken are dealt out, seemingly at random, until the mosaic she was building all along is clear.  This is hobbled by its last 5 minutes (in this case, celebrity impressions), but everything up to that is so good it can charge that to the game.
5.  L’Effet de Serge by Philip Quesne (Vivarium Studios, Wexner Center for the Arts) – This is exactly the kind of thing that makes the Wexner Center invaluable to Columbus.  A French play that left me walking out the door (and the couple miles home) skating on air.  A gorgeous ars poetica that puts the common every day and simple, childlike play at the very core of art.  Which we should all do well to remember, whatever our individual art is.
6.  The Rehearsal: Playing the Dane adapted from William Shakespeare (Pan Pan, Wexner Center for the Arts) – I wasn’t the biggest fan of Pan Pan’s punk rock Oedipus that came through town a couple of years ago that felt to me like more sizzle than steak, but this made up for that big.  A deconstructed Hamlet with the requisite in-jokes (a great dane that maybe is only there because he’s a great dane, but cute dogs are almost never wrong on stage).  However, the look at different interpretations in the first act turning into a really moving, condensed take on Hamlet and the acid trails of interpretations that could have been in the second was satisfying as a riff on Shakespeare, satisfying as a riff on theatrical history, and satisfying as a piece of theatre in its own right (though I wouldn’t recommend seeing it unless you already know Hamlet a little bit).
7.  Southern Bound Comfort by Gregory Maqoma and Sid Larbi Cherakoui (Wexner Center for the Arts) - One of the best examples I’ve seen of the way dance can subvert and transcend the body even while making the rest of us more aware that we’re living in our own skin.  The noose tree and the noose baby were provocative, powerful images but the way they were arrived at and then worked with was so fresh and the movements so subtle they were even more shocking in the aftermath of the dance.
8.   Just Kids by Sean Lewis (Available Light) - Everything I see Sean Lewis in trumps the last thing which already hit me so hard my teeth rattled.  And this take on his father through different stages of his life is a damn tour de force.  His portrayal of “Rick” is searing but with a deep empathy and massive amounts of charm, and the way tape is incorporated is better than anything this side of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape.  The writing crackles like everything he does but there’s a much stronger use of space and silence this time, the pauses make everything feel lived in and Matt Slaybaugh’s direction balances that without letting the audience catch our breath.
9.  How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe by Jennifer Fawcett and Matt Slaybaugh, adapted from Charles Yu (Available Light) - Available Light’s second comic book adaptation in a 12 month period (different seasons) and it’s also a home run.  Elena Perantoni-Fehr’s a wonder as always and her work as the computer who is almost as emotionally stunted as the protagonist is funny, flirty, and very moving.  Ian Short’s perfect as the nerd forced into becoming an active participant in his own life, a grippingly physical performance.  Jennifer Fawcett and Matt Slaybaugh’s adaptation is just about flawless, Dave Wallingford’s technical cues went off seamlessly (except when showing the seams made it more immediate).  The work pulls its punches with an easy moral and too much explaining in the last few minutes, but everything up till then is a great Dr. Who episode written by Samuel Beckett.  Your inner child is sadder than you remember.
10. House/Divided by James Gibbs, Moe Angeleos, and Marianne Weems (Builders’ Association, Wexner Center for the Arts) - I already wrote at length about this show, but Builders Association attempt to draw connections between the dustbowl (via Grapes of Wrath) and the digital dust bowl the country’s facing now was mostly a worldbeater.  The contemporary stuff had some flaws in the specifics but the Steinbeck was perfectly realized and the technology was magnificent.  Giant spectacle that was always underpinned by a crushing sadness, the scope only intensified the pain and desperation.  Muddy water takin’ back the land.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Monster needs profit, it cannot stay the same size. House/Divided, Wexner Center, 10/08/11

“Those days like one drawn-out song, monotonously
promising.  The quick step, the watchful march march,
All were leading here, to this room, where memory
stifles the present.  And the future, my man, is long
time gone.”
--Amiri Baraka, “Letter to E. Franklin Frazier”

The Builders Association has a long, fruitful relationship with the Wexner Center, and a dedication to making art that’s deeply tied to the moment.  Sometimes that timeliness works beautifully, sometimes the headlines aren’t digested enough into the art – for what it’s worth, I loved Alladeen  and mostly liked Super Vision, and I think I’ve  written here about my disappointment with their most recent work to play Columbus, Continuous City.

It took me a while to write about House/Divided, partly because I don’t blog about work, I don’t intend to blog about work, and I’d need to get HR clearance if I wanted to blog about work.  But I work for a large bank in mortgage servicing.  And I’ve had family members and close friends foreclosed on and/or given loans they didn’t have any chance of paying back in the first place.  So maybe I had an extra layer of personal resonance with the subject matter, but I think I can review this without saying anything about my work instead of theirs.

 House/Divided was developed with the Wexner Center and particularly looking at foreclosures around the Weinland Park neighborhood, just South and East of the OSU Campus.  If people out of town know that neighborhood for anything, it’s where the Short North Posse, familiar to readers of F.E.D.S. magazine or Vickie Stringer books, were based.  That’s also the neighborhood where Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, recently gave a speech at a newly remodeled elementary school.

Three mostly distinct strands are braided in House/Divided – Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, the foreclosure of a specific house in Weinland Park, and the overall state of the financial meltdown (at first symbolized by a handful of cogs in a bundling/mutual fund bullpen and loan originators and then through Alan Greenspan).  Obviously, not all of these strands are equal, and they’re not all quite as well-developed, but the effort’s worth a hell of a lot and when they do work together it’s the most moving thing I’ve seen all year.

Grapes of Wrath is the spine of the piece and it’s handled incredibly well, pared down to the perfect moments to show the characters are distinct people but also as representative of conflicted hope and desperation and what happens when hope rots in your throat.  Also, it’s good that they knew what of Steinbeck’s structure to not use.  They didn’t go through Tom Joad’s killing a man, or that famous speech, which would’ve been incredibly distracting and I had a pang they were going there when they followed it so closely, through Rose of Sharon’s stillbirth.

The set is perfect – a house built in four rotating sections with elements of an actual foreclosed house inside, a bathtub, a wall that’s been stripped (for copper? for wire?), some piles of clothes and rubble, on top and some older furniture on the bottom, and screens that can come down over it for the purpose of video, with a bank of computers over to the side for the contemporary call center/bullpen sections. 

In the Grapes of Wrath section, the video is good, the music is very good, and the use of these very specifically minimalist sets is perfect.  The beginning of the drive, what many of us remember from the book and almost certainly sticks out from the John Ford movie, is handled with the staircase as the car, perfectly simple and understated but still giving the impression of isolated, cramped, people on top of each other for miles.  As well, the moment when Ma Joad tries to haggle with the company store and the representative’s face is projected right above them, bigger than the entire bottom half where the physical action is occurring, and watching his face change as Joad fixes herself in his mind as an individual, watching him soften, is one of the most stunning in the entire piece.

Neither of the modern strands is quite as successful but suggesting the dramaturge/writers with TBA aren’t as strong as Steinbeck seems a little like an unfair comparison to expect.  That said, the big picture stuff is mostly excellent.  The Lehman Brothers “conference call” could’ve been taken from an actual transcript from one of those conference calls – I’ve no way of knowing if it actually was – and the disposition of Alan Greenspan that ends the piece, which I’m pretty sure is taken from transcripts, where, again, you see his face struggling to maintain composure and explain the comforting aspects of ideology even in the face of such an epic repudiation of his own – “I put too much faith in the bank’s interest in self-preservation” is dead on. 

The Weinland Park stuff is okay but feels rushed and more like ciphers than characters.  There’s a sequence where a customer is arguing with a “mortgage assistance” call center worker who is trying to tell him that his mortgage is a pool loan that feels incredibly false and in sharp contrast to the incredible wordless dismantling of the house set occurring concurrently on stage.  That was my complaint with Continuous City, there were no people to grip onto in the spectacle.  There are people here but the modern people aren’t quite thought through enough, it’s closer, but the Steinbeck props it up a lot. 

That said, those are minor gripes compared to the way my chin dropped into my lap at the set changes, the company store scene, the images of everything practically drowning in a stock market crawl during the Lehman Brothers meltdown, and especially those closing moments with Alan Greenspan intercut with sound and video of a flood coming.  It’s a vital, moving piece I encourage anyone reading this to see if it comes to your town.

Monday, September 19, 2011

I Want it All; Falsettos, Available Light, 09/15/11

After a righteous reading of Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformations, Available Light’s season started in earnest this weekend with Falsettos, the Tony winning 1992 Broadway stitching-together of two earlier Off-Broadway one acts, March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland, with music and lyrics by William Finn and book by James Lapine.

This production will look very familiar to anyone who saw last year’s triumphant take on Merrily We Roll Along including at least five of the six cast members, director John Dranschak, and a similarly minimal evocative set.  But that’s far from a bad thing, all of those elements are a little more at ease in their roles, a little more fine-tuned, a little more layered and mature. 

I had almost no familiarity with this show at all before coming in – I knew of it but I definitely didn’t know it.  It’s a jewel-box, a chamber operetta and each part gets to glimmer darkly. The beautiful part of this is the contrast between the small moments, one voice or two coiling around each other, and those seconds where the whole mosaic reveals itself, the greater patterns that vanish into the ether as soon as they pass.  The structure upends what you think of for musicals, beginning with all voices in concert and slowly unraveling over the course of the act so each act ends with one voice, not a big, dramatic close. 

Falsettos is the story of Marvin, a grim cipher who leaves his wife and child to take up with a man, Whizzer, while still trying to keep everything “normal” in the conception of that he had growing up.  The first act set in 1979 and the second 1981, he seems impacted by the changes underway but not so much concerned until Whizzer gets sick in the second act. 

Scott Johnson as Marvin is an absolute wonder.  It takes a steady hand to make a contemporary audience care about that guy in a play that seems most dated in its dealing with relationships.  We see him hit his wife, be indifferent to his son at best (there’s a sequence at a baseball game one song after he complains about only getting his son on the weekends where all he can do is bitch about how much he hates baseball and “Oh, there’s the guy I used to fuck”), it’s stated that he gave his wife syphilis, and he comes off as a raging hypocrite.  But it's all handled perfectly; Wilson gets exactly the understated tone he needs to shoot for and his singing is the best in the show.  He manages to keep us engaged in this dark star that all the action and other characters swirl around.  It’s as good a performance as I’ve seen all year and his shrug in the opening of the second act as he sings “It’s time to grow up, don’t you think?” is something that will stick with me for a long, long time.

Kim Garrison Hopcraft as Trina has kind of a strange, underwritten role, almost there to show the effects that Marvin has on other people, but she wrings every bit of potency and power 0ut of it.  Her rage and her joy always bubble through even when the character threatens to be as shadowy as Marvin himself.  Even in the more complicated melodies and emotional territory you always feel the character is grounded in something real, something behind everything.  Adam Crawford as Jason, their son, is quite good, nailing his songs, especially on his heart-rending part of “Father and Son”. 

Chistopher Storer as Whizzer has kind of a thankless role, he gets laughs and appears as contrast to Marvin more than a developed person of his own.  But it’s played wonderfully and sung even better, with the strongest sense of timing in the entire piece.  Nick Lingnofski has the showiest, most broadly comic part in the show and he destroys with it, it’s a dash of classic musical theater showmanship in the middle of a dark piece but he reins it in just enough that he doesn’t feel out of place among everything else.  Danielle Mann and Kate Gersing as Marvin’s neighbors/lesbians who own a catering company in the second act are both very fine, I wish they had a little more to do but it’s nice having different, leavening voices thrown into the mix after the hermetic first act.

The only concern I have with the production is it seems to overplay the dated aspects. With a set as minimal as this – one semi-opaque wall dotted with mirrors, picture frames (for the characters to comment during)  and really nicely done nods to Allan McCollum’s “Substitute Paintings”; a few sections of a late ‘70s couch, a kitchen table, a hospital bed, and lights – everything seems to carry a little more importance and everything very specifically grounds the play in the dynamics of its time.  Other than that, everything good in the play is great and everything not as good is moved past quickly, it’s a production that really moves and really gets this audience member focused on the gorgeous construction of the songs and the wit on the lyrics.  Something anyone interested in theatre should be seeing.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Craig Taborn, Avenging Angel

“I learned to write
I learned to write
what might be read
on nights like this
by one like me”
-Leonard Cohen, “The only poem”

The Cohen above has been a motto and a signpost for me since I first discovered it my Freshman year of high school and it was the first thing that came to mind while listening to the new Craig Taborn solo record on ECM, Avenging Angel.  It’s a blistering July day where even walking home from lunch will drain and drench you.  I sat down to do some writing and listen to Avenging Angel, and after a draft of a poem what I really want to do is tell somebody how gorgeous this record is.  My real life friends thank you for your indulgence because it’s sparing them – or at least buying them a short reprieve.

In a way I associate with most ECM records but ever so slightly askew, this record is a crisp, clear recording of a beautiful haze.  The first track, “The Broad Day King”, strings melodic cells together along a rhythm that acquires depth and brings volume to the tune through a combination of a strong left hand and deep spaces.   It’s a tune that feels like a day very much like this one. 

Much of the record is very modern pastorals.  “Broad Day King”, which we discussed in the last paragraph.  “Diamond Turning Dream” with its jagged mirror-shard melody.  “A Difficult Thing Said Simply”, maybe my favorite song on the record, with a remarkably apt title; a clear melody that stops and stretches the notes out, this Merce Cunningham dance over and among tall pikes, and then slumps into a meditative state, a glowing repetition.

The other tracks – and this is a wild oversimplification – feel like an abstraction of older jazz tradition, a Willem De Kooning or Franz Kline take on technique that’s such a part of the genre of a solo piano record that in most cases seems rarely questioned, only used or not used.  The one-two punch of “Spirit Hard Knock” followed by “Neither-Nor”  illustrates this, with the first sounding like a Cecil Taylor piece laid over a Bud Powell, that swinging intensity belied by the fact that its swinging in multiple directions and on different axes all at the same time, and the second Art Tatum with a roll of quarters in his fist when you’re not looking.  “Gift Horse – Over the Water” plays with Meredith Monk and Jaki Byard with those seemingly off-kilter rhythms that both add up to a whole that makes sense and makes the tune even catchier and even more swinging.  The closing track, “Forgetful”, feels like a take on film noir cocktail piano, the kind of thing Sinatra could’ve sung over but it never would’ve occurred to him.

I was already a Taborn fan, going back to college when I heard him on Tim Berne’s Shell Game, Bill Laswell’s Dub Chamber, and a couple of James Carter records (it took me a while to realize the same guy was on these wildly different records I loved for such different reasons), but this gave me such a new appreciation for what he does as a composer and an improviser.  There’s so much music here I’ll be digging into it for a long, long time.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Black Swans, Don’t Blame the Stars

have been nights, admit it, when
you’ve thought you heard your name in the air,
your name being sung, a recognition
that you’re a part of the star-resplendent sky
and the musty vapors of earth – they
know who you are, you owe them for this special focus.”
-Albert Goldbarth, “Voices”

This is a record I had to have so badly I bought the MP3s on Amazon even though we’d already preordered the vinyl (should be here any day, but the turntable isn’t working).

The Black Swans are one of the few Columbus bands – at least who put out more than one record – who’ve never made a bad album.  From the lovely sparseness of Who Will Walk in the Darkness in 2004 (and their live shows even earlier) through compilation tracks, another two albums and an EP, up to the new record, every song feels like  it needed to come out of singer-songwriter Jerry Decicca’s voice.  Beyond that, every song (with few enough exceptions I can count them on one hand and have fingers left over) was exactly what I needed to hear when it came out and is still what I need to hear. 

Change! and Darkness were a cartography of every shadow-niche and scar on a specific human heart.  Sex Brain was a look at the id without lapsing into rock cliché.  Words Are Stupid, besides being a great record full of great songs, feels like an exorcism, “here’s what we’re doing with what you left us, friend;” it feels like it’s at a right angle from the rest of the catalogue.

Don’t Blame the Stars, released last Tuesday, was the last Black Swans record recorded while Noel Sayre – the only other permanent member alongside Decicca since the band’s founding in 1999 – was still alive, and even if it didn’t have that weight on it, it’d still be one of the best records anyone’s going to put out in this year or most years.  This is Decicca’s, as a songwriter, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, his Blonde on Blonde, his For the Roses.  Not just a breakthrough in the quality of the songs though there are melodies on here you’ll be humming for days, but also a record that’s about the world more than the writer.  That moment when the perfectly-crafted self-portraits crack open and become universal but also when all the influences are in service to what’s being said, not defining what’s going to be said or how. 

The way silence and space are used on Don’t Blame the Stars includes similar high-wire tension to the earlier records, most noticeably on “Boo Hoo” which feels like a summing up of the previous albums and a thesis statement for the new one, all vibrato and delicacy and moving from “When the world is upside down / And you get buggered by a clown…” to “There’s no way of telling / The world is crying, or if it’s yelling / So raise up your arms / And dance with me”; and “My Brother” where the voice is accompanied only by a fingerpicked acoustic, bass, and a string quartet (and not incidentally, the most beautiful vocal) with pauses between lines especially on the chorus that, as someone said about Count Basie, “You could shave between the beats.”

“Joe Tex”, the tribute to the great R&B singer of the same name, manages to pull off a tribute song that sounds like the subject but doesn’t feel like an ape, with the perfect interplay of Sayre’s violin and Jon Beard’s organ while the chopping guitar leads and guides the groove.  Again, space is key, even on a concise 4 minute song, as in the line break inserted into the middle of Tex’s line “The love you save / Might be your own” and that little pause before the last of the chorus, “The fields we plow are gray.”  “Blue Bayou” also addresses the joyful possibility of music – roots music in a couple of senses, as Prince and Gregory Isaacs get name checked in something that could drift into cheese but it never does.  The violin is particularly strong on this, these minimal cells of melody that rise up and change just before the listener gets a grip on them then showing up again, like memory, like chiaroscuro around the soul vocal and guitar. 

There was a Borges essay where he talked about making abstract details specific, that “a rose red city half as old as time” is so much stronger than “old as time”, and Decicca’s lyrics get that.  Any clichéd sentiment is punctured and subtly reshaped with concrete detail, as on the gorgeous title track where, after setting up the theme with “With the good comes the bad”, etc, he addresses it, “Listen, my friend / My former girlfriend” and that jolts the listener awake.  “So, so tired / I’ve got rocks in my head” on “Mean Medicine” gets that juice from immediately followed by “I never exercise / I just pace in my bed”. 

This has been a spring/summer full of records that show great Columbus bands in a new light or at least a clearer light – Times New Viking, Psychedelic Horseshit, Blueprint – and so far this is the best of the lot.  A record for a  long drunken night after the party’s split and a walk on a sunny day and I bet it’ll be a record when the leaves are down or the first snow’s making the air wet.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The World is Always Ending and Being Born: Two Chicago Revivals

“So sign all your yearbooks, give a last glance
We’ve all missed the prom but you’re used to this dance
Soon a figureless shadow will drown out the sun
Hey baby, it’s the end of the world
I hope you had fun”
-Slobberbone, “Meltdown”

Chicago trip this time was full of the usual suspects of music and dancing and old bars and old friends but had a hard time getting theater into our scheduled.  But the two shows we saw, both revivals, were fucking doozies.

Balliwick Chicago held the Midwest premier of Passing Strange, Stew (with assistance from Heidi Rodewald)’s roman a clef about feeling suffocated growing up in LA and trying to find himself through Amsterdam and Berlin while he grows up the way most of us do,  he realizes that hypocrisy goes both ways and everything can let you down, most of all yourself, but that’s how you find something that looks like glory.

As Stew held the role of Narrator himself in the original New York productions, backed by his band,  this is a show that lives and dies by the narrator more than any of the other actors.  The Narrator has to be (as Harry Chapin sang) “Observer or participant or huckster of belief” all at various points and he has to anticipate and cue the emotional tone of the play as it changes.  Balliwick Chicago outdid themselves with Jayson “JC” Brooks, leader of the always-stunning rock and soul band The Uptown Sound (who also appear with a guest guitarist/cellist and a different keyboard player).  Brooks is the coiled-spring in the mousetrap; the character’s aware of his own benefit of omniscience and is a sarcastic, needling presence trying to get the protagonist “Youth” out of his own head and to engage with the world.  There’s a rage in Brooks’ performance and a physicality that makes for one of the most electrifying things I’ve seen on a stage in a long time. 

Brooks’ singing, as I think should go without saying given my previous gushing (he made my favorite live shows list both the last two years) is perfect.  He sings hooks with such a layered emotional and rhythmic palette that the one hook that really matters, the one line that shows up in several songs and is the axis of the play’s gravity, “Just when it was starting to feel real”, takes a few repetitions before it hits the audience like a fist in the stomach.  Like any great soul singer he knows exactly what to hold back.

Steven Perkins plays Youth with a charm that lights up any scene he’s in (all of them), enough youthful impudence and that about-to-burst feeling of wanting to make art but not being quite sure how to do it or what that entails.  The three pieces – one in each setting – of his art the play shows us work on a couple of levels, beyond being among the funniest sequences in the theater, they show the character moving through phases and maturing in ambition and they also give  a sense of the art created around him in the three different settings of the play.  There’s a beautiful self-awareness in the performance and not in the character that in seeking revelation the real risk isn’t getting hurt or even hurting others, it’s looking ridiculous.  Being derivative, pretension, over-earnestness are all chrysalises that need emerged from, and you always come out a little rawer while you grow your next skin.  

The other actors are all great and really bring something to the table.  Special notice should be paid to Laura Renee Frederick who plays Mother.  She has a stunning duet with Brooks and a palpable frustration and love that means she’s a presence suffusing everything that happens even after she’s off stage for most of the Berlin and Amsterdam sequences, and with maybe the best holy-shit-did-I-just-hear-that voice of the entire cast.  Also notice to Osiris Khepera who plays a pair of not-quite-ridiculous characters but does them with such warmth and reality that they’re unforgettable, specific people, including the Reverend’s son/music director who smokes Youth up and shows him another world even as he admits he hasn’t seen it.  Khepera in this sequence says the line that really cracks the situation open for Youth and the audience, “Slaves have options.  They can revolt… or die.  Slaves have options.  Cowards only have consequences.”

Lili-Anne Brown’s direction is stunning.  She understands the sense of stillness in a production where so much is thrown at the audience, where power chords ring and decay and are echoed by the bodies on stage, but she also keeps the grimy diy space energy this kind of theatre needs.

The other play I saw couldn’t have been more different on a surface level, 13 actors playing 15 speaking parts from a writer with canonical status, Lanford Wilson, and written in a post-Eugene O’Neill stylized realism.  At the same time, there’s a sense that the Hot L Baltimore can be taken as the other side of the coin, where ambition goes when luck and skill aren’t there to back it up. 

The title is obviously a sign, an old hotel with one letter burned out, in what’s implied to be the start of a very hot summer, and the levels packed into that are indicative of the play as a whole.  Also key is it being set on Memorial Day, because the fallen – and the falling – are everywhere.  The play’s extremely ‘70s in its throbbing on-the-nose-while-still-using-sleight-of-hand arguments that are all really about America even while they’re about the noise down the hall or bad sex or being unable to sleep or or snooping neighbors or a ghost with a sweet voice or  a father who never came back and in its layer of beautiful grime over some very solid storytelling even Aristotle could nod approvingly at.  Most arcs are resolved as much as they could be without betraying a basic reality but as in most plays, the joy of the verbal jousting and the physical passion is the meat of what to watch.

With this much dense, overlapping dialogue, obviously the actors need to be on point and Steppenwolf never lets me down on that score.  Particular standouts are Kate Arrington – so recently seen in The Parallelogram as a crumbling statue of a woman unstuck in time – as Suzy and de’Andre Aziza as April (from Passing Strange on Broadway), two old friends and prostitutes; Jon Michael Hill as the too-studious new night clerk/manager (it’s never quite made clear), James Vincent Meredith as the older manager who seems a little glad to be almost done with all of this, and Mollie Regan as Millie, and endless source of strength wrapped up in fragile lattice work. 

MVP is director Tina Landau, who keeps all the balls in the air in this piece and then some, any nuance the play has is highlighted enough that if you’re looking you can catch it but submerged enough that if you don’t see it, the fabric still has that sense of loss, is still colored by that action.  It’s a bravura, astonishing feat of soul-gymnastics.  Attention should also be paid to James Schuette, Scenic Design, who made the kind of two-story carved out set you can almost smell, and Deb Styer as Stage Manager (with Rose Marie Packer, Assistant Stage Manager). 

I love Columbus and I love bragging about our homegrown art but there’s something very satisfying about getting out of town and seeing how other people do it, with casts full of people you don’t have any preconceived feelings about one way or the other.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Skyscrapers of the Midwest, Available Light, 04/15/11

“Whether she is writing about what she thinks could, should, or might someday exist or might have once existed, or whether he is dallying with some future fantasia so far away all subjunctive connection with the here and now is severed or is writing about the most nitty-gritty of recognizable landscapes, the writer has still become entranced with and dedicated her- or himself to the realization of what is not.  And all the “socially beneficial functions of art” are minimal before this aesthetic one:  it allows the present meaning:  it allows the future to exist.”
-Samuel R. Delany, “Thickening the Plot”

AVL’s been on a streak through their 2010-2011 season, and Skyscrapers of the Midwest was another ball knocked out of the park.  Adapted from the comic book of the same name by Joshua W. Cotter, which I haven’t read, this turns around the standard wisdom that comics don’t work for the stage (anyone remember Violent Cases?).  Beyond that, it knocked me back and took the breath out of my lungs with that raw sense of wonder that only theater has for me. 

What this production gets brilliantly right about childhood is that, if you’re aware enough and imaginative enough, everything is magnified and while fantasy is a way of coping with things you don’t understand logically yet that fantasy, reality’s also a vehicle for fantasy.  The two lives seem almost as large in your head and anything sad or funny is imbued with that same magical light and other things that resonate with that real event also resonate with the fantastic aura, for years sometimes.  There are images in this play of death and evil and transformation that are drawn so sharply and shown so plainly that there’s nothing I could do but go, “That’s an amazing way of thinking about X.”  I don’t want to give them away, they were so crisp and gorgeously bracing in the moment.  Anything with a typical antecedent is twisted just so.

Those fantasy elements are perfectly established and grounded in the sparse set and costume design by – yeah, sorry, I handed my program back to be recycled like an idiot, but whoever it is did a fantastic job – both realistic enough but also just exaggerated enough, clearly products of memory, not representing the here and now.   Brant Jones’ video work  provides some of the biggest laughs in the production and scores some of the deepest cuts.  Dave Wallingford’s sound work (including some voice parts) and Michelle Whited’s cueing of some of the effects is placed right on stage as it should be, clearly a large piece of the overall reality, and Carrie Cox’s lighting is crystalline and haunting. 

Unsurprisingly for an Available Light show, the acting’s uniformly solid.  Acacia Duncan as young Josh Cotter is perfect, as good as I’ve ever seen her and that’s incredibly good.  Drew Eberly is a name you’ll be saying for a long time, I was blown the hell away.  Some of the most perfect comic timing I’ve ever seen on a stage, the minute he appears you’re on his side and he takes you across a landscape of emotions, keeping you riveted the entire time.   Ian Short is typically good as the grown Joshua Cotter, strong enough that you understand how he got out of that little town and insecure enough without being cloying or drifting into cliché. 

But my picks for on-stage MVPs of the show are Jordan Fehr and Elena Perantoni.  Over the two hours of the play, they go from the voices of an abusive, toxic relationship (from microphones at the corners of the stage, the visual element played out in Cotter’s comic panels on the screen behind the stage) to, respectively, a tracksuit-wearing dinosaur pal of Cotter’s younger brother and a cheerleader object of Cotter’s affection/obsession/the supervillainess equivalent of same, to the silent manifestations of death and internalized trauma, frequently with only seconds between.  Theirs are the kind of performances that sneak up on you and, if you’re anything like me, all you can talk about afterwards.

There are some weak spots, but it’s hard to swing this hard for the fences and not miss a couple.  As good as Ian Short is, the adult Joshua Cotter feels really overused.  It’s nice to put the story into some context of an overall life and show that art goes on beyond the memoir and life goes on beyond childhood but there are moments where his appearance distracts from the heart of the story instead of complicating it.  And the story with the abusive couple is heart-wrenching, but doesn’t quite seem to cohere with the rest of the show, I kept expecting one more scene that either firmly placed it among the other characters/setting or made it echo emotionally with everything else. 

Those qualms aside, most of this production is gold and if you’ve got any love for theater or music, go see this.  Get your picture taken with a dinosaur.  There’s no better way you could spend a couple of your hours this weekend.  Through April 23.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

“Hum” by Sebastian Hawkes Orr, Available Light Theatre, 02/13/11

"I’ve felt so singular,
so importantly sorry for myself,
or so exquisitely stilled, attuned,
that I knew there were night truths
unavailable to lovers or the loved
thought I might be close to them,
and have put off sleep because sleep
is social, intrusive…
-Stephen Dunn, “Night Truths”

“Hum” is the first theatre of the years to move me to tears more than once.  I don’t normally talk about marketing here – at least in part because I don’t know anything about marketing – but this had one of the smartest, most intriguing marketing campaigns in recent memory.  Websites appeared to have gone dark, video clips, tiny excerpts of dialogue, all incredibly well-chosen and really got me excited to see the play without telling me what it was going to be about.  So I’m going to try to live up to that and not give much away, there isn’t a lot of plot in this but the revelations are big, or want to be.

First off, Eleni Papaleonardos’ direction is sharp and manages to pull off an incredibly difficult balancing act. With four characters on a small set consisting of three chairs, a chalk board, and one table, where each character has long stretches just shifting in position, in the shadows and not interacting with the others at all, she keeps our attention, frequently keeps us riveted. The play uses the other movement just enough to keep us on the person speaking at the time but we never feel like they’re accenting the speaker, it doesn’t feel obvious.

And the acting is perfect. Tim Browning, who I haven’t seen since he played Macbeth a few years ago in Schiller Park, comes across almost as an homage to the late musician Peter Christopherson but that works beautifully with his character’s growing self-awareness and rambling gravity-weighted monologue about infidelity and a creature that shows up in dreams.  Elena Perantoni is hilariously unhinged and keeps peeling away the layers of personality even while getting more laughs than anyone else, as a woman struck by a horrifying image on her way to work who visits the Ohio Caverns and her father. 

Jordan Fehr hits the ball out of the park with a role that’s the weakest of the lot, a self-obsessed bookstore clerk who gets a letter from his ex-girlfriend that doesn’t really provoke self-reflection but he thinks it does.  Acacia Duncan really shines in this, with her character Calan who gives basic math lectures that veer into discussions of proofs of God and the prisoner’s dilemma and finally the key to the whole piece; hilarious and intense, and among the performances that made those tears spring to my eyes (the other was Tim Browning). 

The play has some speeches that are breathtaking, and the overall message of dead people returning to tell us to change our ways and think outside of ourselves is inherently spooky (credit to A. for that line) and a great framework to hang this kind of idea play on.  The trouble is, it’s way, way too long.  At least a third too long.  It uses repetition in this sort of post-Mamet way that turns irritating well before the play thinks it does.  Also, being structured as four looks at how people deal – or don’t deal – with the void and including almost no physical action robs the audience of the joy of watching people interact on stage. 

With that length, I started looking for logic where I don’t think it’s meant to be, there were a lot of conversations with my faithful companion after that went “Wait, so what about this?  Did that make sense?”  or “Do you understand what this was doing there?”  When that much is thrown at the audience, even when what’s considered important is bolded and underlined,  it’s easy to get lost in the swarm of ideas. 

It’s a great effort that almost completely overcomes the weaknesses in the material.  In five years I want to see a new draft of this play that I'd lay odds is going to kick my ass.  Until then, thanks to Available Light for taking a chance on developing work even if it didn’t completely work for me.

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Saturday, February 5, 2011

‘L’effet de Serge by Phillipe Quesne, Wexner Center, 02/03/11

“… And what poet ever sat down
in front of a Titian, pulled out
his versifying tablet and began
to drone?  Don’t complain, my dear,
You do what I can only name.
-Frank O’Hara, “To Larry Rivers”

L’effet de Serge unfolds more gracefully than a clockwork rose and the fine tuning is so precise that even in surface randomness it feels like a fire-born distillation of the audience’s life.  Better, of course, but purer and while in the vein of the mumblecore filmmakers – Swanberg, Katz, Bujalski – it reaches for emotions they’ve only barely begun to work with, and hits and hits again.

Phillipe Quesne and Vivarium Studios with one set – the living room of an apartment, with glass patio doors and a door on the side, a ping pong table half covered in amateur special effect, magic tricks, and other detritus – conjure a rich inner life and what seems like a pretty thriving social life, and draw a map that show how the two feed each other.  The principal actor Gaetan Voruc’h enters dressed as what a child thinks an astronaut looks like, a thin suit of gray and an enormous fishbowl helmet that looks like Pac Man with a light in it, and addresses the audience directly, “Each play ends with a preview of the next.  In the last play there were five astronauts, of which I was one,” but also seemingly indifferent, laying the ground rules for the play while roaming the set like some lost alien architecture. 

What unfolds is a combination of the physical lovable-cipher comedy of Jacques Tati and a little Samuel Beckett (almost an alternate history Krapp’s Last Tape that shows the character a way out) and a meditation on art that’s not quite like anything I’ve seen before.  Every Sunday, Serge’s friends come over and he presents a carefully conceptualized very low budge performance – choreographing a (borrowed) car’s lights and exhaust to Wagner; a remote control car moving behind the audience members to Handel; setting off two bright red flashpots through a complicated balancing act – and says thank you, graciously but a little uncomfortably accepts their compliments, and then says a quiet “You can finish your drink” and leads them out of the house.  Even the ritual of bringing them in and finding seats is carefully considered, only certain doors can be used, and handled very politely but also with this quiet reserve. 

Between the performances we see him working with the gadgets, coming up with new shows, playing with what he has until an idea strikes -  a flying helicopter that’s more metaphor sitting on the table and pure joy when it flies; a hilarious, gorgeous dance with glowsticks done as glasses and a rope set to a melancholy cover of “Billie Jean” – and engaging in the rote physical activity to distract the brain when ideas don’t come that anyone who’s tried to create something is familiar with, in this case playing ping pong by himself. 

The way the process and the product and unformed play all feed each other is the perfectly groomed frosting on this piece, and the spongy cake is the way art connects you to people but also keeps you at a distance.  People show up more than once, and clearly like Serge very much, but there’s more small talk amongst themselves than there is with him, and while the effect of the title is bringing people together and into his orbit, even the woman clearly sticking around wanting to know him is led out of the apartment and the world of the play before it’s over.  Also key in this piece is the indescribability of art – I’m deeply conscious that the descriptions of Serge’s little shows above doesn’t sound like much, I was conscious of it at a party as I was gushing last night – and you see the audience try to articulate what made their heart sing because it never really works out. 

At best, the talk intrigues you enough to see something for yourself.  It doesn’t ever replace seeing it or reading it or hearing it.  And I hope if anyone reads this, people take another look and see if the schedule can fit a performance of L’Effet de Serge into their weekend (runs through Sunday) because it’s that pure, pure, un-stepped-on theater shit.  It’s right in your veins and keeps you up at night and makes you love the world a little more.

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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Burglar, Skully’s, 01/29/11

I’m not a big one for shit-used-to-be-so-much better.  Because in most ways, it didn’t, every year has its own pleasures and disappointments, but one of the things I was talking about with some pals at work I really do think has change: in the ‘90s people cared enough to say so if something sucked.  I only write about things in this blog that flip that switch in my head, and I don’t intend for that to change, but I figure I’ve got to start walking the walk instead of just ranting to my girlfriend for an hour after a show and leaving my blog with a Pollyanna glow.
I’d been wanting to check out the band Burglar for a while, I’m a major sucker for ‘30 cabaret-style music and Tom Waits, and really want to cheer for a band that’s doing something even a little off the beaten path.  So A. and I left the Treehouse after a blistering, joyous set from the Media Whores, a bar full of our friends to go to Skully’s and finally check Burglar out on the night of their CD release show.
We arrived in time to see a large chunk of the Phantods set that sounded great; while I’m on the record as being a little turned off by the Mr. Bungle/cut up quality of their work, it had been over a year since I’d seen them and the edges got smoothed out just enough so all the focus is on the songs.  Less showy and full of little knives, I can’t want to see them again.
Burglar did some very quick setting up, aided by the soundman, then left the stage again.  Whoever was DJing between sets did an amazing job – Marty Robbins’ “The Story of My Life”, The Supremes’ “Baby Love”, great old doo-wop – to the extent that I joked the band better bring it or we’d see a real life enactment of the Onion article “Band Upstaged by Recording”.  And then they didn’t come out for well over 30 minutes.  At one point, Zachariah Baird – a name now burned in my memory because he organized this show –came out and said it would be another 10 minutes.
After that little announcement, most of the lights went down and what I assume was intended as “intro music”, moody exotica-styled instrumentals, was played by the DJ.  At long last, the band came on, looking like they stepped out of a training wheels version of the Nick Cave GQ article, all dark suits, dark shirts, a good look but nothing snappy except the keyboard player’s fluorescent inserts in his jacket, the women a little more decked out, the mellophone player in a lovely red dress and the singer in a foam-green dress with a Maria Callas neck line and a classic-Cher hemline… and stood there and chatted. 
I chalk this up to a young band mistake, it’s easy to think withholding is going to increase the mystery of your band, make the audience think you’re a big deal. Unfortunately, when you’re playing a club all it does it both irritate the audience that wants to like you (and could be having a drink and flirting somewhere with no cover charge and not paying club prices) and create a harsher light for you to be judged in.  And after that, you need to come out and kick us right in the face.  If you’re going to play the I’m-ready-for-the-enormodome card, you need to back it up by walking on stage and jumping straight into a great song.
They finally start playing and it’s a slow burn, kind of nice, with a sudden rhythmic shift to add some forced drama, but the sound was muddy, not swampy, and the drummer was sloppy, not loose.  It’s a fine distinction but the minute you hear it you know.  The next five songs all went in the same mode, with the same dynamics.  The biggest problem with the songs is no one besides the Mellophone player (who was the highlight of the show) has a sense of space or silence, all the drama is created by sudden tempo shifts which created a career for Ha Ha Tonka but I find cheap and a little annoying.
The singer has a pleasant voice, but it doesn’t have grit, the kind of ugliness that makes it stick in your head.  The playing is all okay – again, except for the terrific Mellophone player – but not spectacular.  The bassist played an electric upright, but he didn’t use it for any of the sounds you want that kind of instrument for, no arco work, none of the way the woody thunk of an upright slips between the shining silver of an electric, none of the glittering melodic stuff that kind of bass can open up in a band.  It could have just as easily been a P Bass and no one would’ve noticed.  The guitar player and keyboard player need to learn what makes a solo good – there was a particularly painful keys solo about three songs in, that came out of nowhere, circled around the drain for a few painful bars, and then just sort of stopped – and also decide which of them is going to be the lead instrumental voice because right now, neither of them are doing it, their instruments blur into one mass of indistinct sound and not in good way.
Separate from how the players play, but in another way, not separate from it at all, is charisma.  The lead singer is lovely and works her ass off, but she has to do too much of that work and it leads to her trying way too hard.  Several times she tried to engage the guitar player in some flirty interplay but he could barely be bothered to look up from his hands.  After the band’s been playing for a year, that’s an egregious mistake; if being stoic is his point of focus, he needs to keep staring at the audience, really intrigue us.  If he’s going to be her one foil, he needs to Keith Richards it up and really be there for her.  Otherwise, she might want to look into switching up who she wanders over and dances with because it’s drawing attention to the guitarist he isn’t interesting enough to keep in a way that might not be so obvious if he wasn’t the only one that’s happening to.  The keyboard player and, to a lesser extent, the bassist had the same problem, too much staring at their hands and not enough looking at the audience or each other.  This kind of music shouldn’t look so damn serious, or if it’s going to be that serious it needs to back that up with songs that kick our asses instead of just being okay.
I wouldn’t avoid them in the future if they were on a bill I wanted to see – they’re close to kicking my ass, but no part of the package is there yet.  Keep fighting the good fight, kids, we’re all rooting for you.
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Sunday, January 16, 2011

“Sundays, too, my Father got up early…”; Just Kids by Sean Lewis, Available Light, January 16

Writer/performer Sean Lewis has this stunning symbiosis with director Matt Slaybaugh, and it hits new levels of fire and catharsis with their new collaboration Just Kids which is having its world premier at Available Light (in the CPAC for this show). 

In a little over an hour, through few props and body language and an added knife in the back of “tapes” of characters who are embodied by Sean and who are not, he draws disparate voices and shows the similarities between them but (and this is every bit as important) he also doesn’t overplay the similarities.  Seamlessly, and with seconds separating them, he goes from his father Rick, to a series of children in a school that’s “one step up from juvenile detention or a mental institution” he taught at for three months as part of the William Inge fellowship in Kansas, and always back to himself, shifting between observer and participant, his voice always the spine of the piece.

What differentiated this work from his previous, also moving and very physical, piece Killadelphia for me was the wider range of rhythm.  It has a very similar tone, death-seriousness with flashes of riotous humor that don’t balance the other so much as throw them into relief, but there’s more space in Just Kids.  He lets the characters and the discrete scenes breath just a little more, and the pace of the characters’ speech is more varied.  The father isn’t just described as a drinker and a charmer and a man who knew money and love and power and lost it, it’s made incredibly clear through the two versions shown.  First up, and directly addressing the audience, is the Rick of Sean’s Youth, half-remembered and invented partly from hearsay but impossibly large with a quick wit, confident gestures and barely repressed rage.  Then there’s the Rick of the final scenes, caved in on himself, still echoing the earlier voice that resonates through almost every second he’s not on the stage but smaller, humbled, hitting in-character false notes in a performance that doesn’t hit any.

And the voices of the children Sean works with, observing their day-to-day struggles and his reactions to them, are stunning.  Sharply understood and also baffled, slowly realizing their scars aren’t like his, and grasping what made that turn where he was in a very similar place come into the light for him and many of these kids won’t.  That he does all of this without being heavy-handed, without yoking it to a tired redemption story, and still ends with hope – and, in the best showcase for Dave Wallingford’s mostly-invisible-in-the-best-way sound design, a King Lear thunderstorm – is a marvel.  I laughed harder than I have in a long time and shed not a few tears at this. 

Running through January 22.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

To Each Their Darkness by Gary Braunbeck, Sinister Resonance by David Toop

“We must read their intentions in the puddle of light on the kitchen tiles
understand their presence in our home while the neighbors harass them with greetings

There are two of them like the eyebrows on one face
two guardians of the tide who
knock on our walls at every equinox
and make our mother and the pomegranate tree bleed”
-Venus Khoury-Ghata, translated by Marilyn Hacker, “Interments”

A look at two books that came out within the last year that I loved – unfortunately I misplaced the Toop for a few months so it took me longer than usual to finish– that approach their author’s primary subject (music for Toop, horror for Braunbeck) through oblique strategies that make the lesson hit harder and the journey more fascinating. 

In the prelude, Toop talks about trying to hear, reaching forward or backward to an “unverifyable past”,  and reading that sent a shock through me.  I know that feeling, that slow shudder that something happened here and wondering what about the air that’s suffused with that joy or that loss.  Looking at the way the light hits the brick, but also feeling ears stuffed with thick, slow air, memories trapped like the old SF classic “Slow Glass”.  I had a great poetry workshop once upon a time where we had a week’s assignment that required us to focus on one sense, and what I turned in was too literal – it actually name-checked John Cage, for chrissake – but that exercise stuck with me and in the next few months I wrote probably 20 poems using that as a jumping off point, and it surprised me how many of them touched on nostalgia or ghosts.  This book put that together so it hit me like a lightning bolt, of course, things you can barely hear are going to trigger womb-memories and also seem ghostly, film sound designers exploit that and so do many musicians whether consciously or not.

Through the book, Toop connects that thesis with the way sound was depicted before recordings and broadcasts – the writing of Virginia Woolf, the paintings of Teniers and Lucas Cranach and Rembrandt– and he delves into how sound is vitally important to certain wholly visual works of art.  The sound of the water flowing in the background helps us understand the reclining nymph and the way we naturally combine those senses even when evidence isn’t there for it is very similar to the way we see new colors that aren’t on the canvas in Seurat or Olafur Eliasson’s color wheel, and there’s a discussion on Seurat making that process explicit, throwing the unspoken rule that there are things the painting can’t directly show right in the audience’s face.

Braunbeck’s To Each Their Darkness is also a hybrid form touching on a wide range of sources, parts gorgeous, heart-breaking memoir and parts showing how the sausage is made, the grinding gears behind narrative storytelling, delving into choices that go into his fiction and the fiction of others, and what each does to inform the other.   For my money, Gary Braunbeck is one of the greatest short story writers of the last 30 years (I don’t mean to discount his novels, but his short stories are what stab me in the lungs over and over) and there isn’t a single argument he makes in this book that can be easily shrugged off. 

Braunbeck takes horror fiction, as most of his work is categorized, and draws a series of threads, going back to Carson McCullers and John Cheever and through The Who (there’s a fantastic elucidation of Quadrophenia, particularly “The Rock”) and the films of Jim Sheridan and Sam Peckinpah, among many others.  He puts the names the reader expects in a book about horror: Brian Keene, Peter Straub, Jack Ketchum, etc, but he puts them in this broader context of literature and culture.  The horror writers exist in that bigger continuum which keeps the wonkier writing about writing from feeling too hermetic, too sealed in.

If there are weaknesses in the Braunbeck, it can get a little defensive.  It’s to its credit that it avoids the fanboy reflex – the tendency to point at things like Future Shock or Frankenstein or One Hundred Years of Solitude and shout, “That’s genre work too!  You do like genre work, asshole!” – but the writing at times takes on the air of a trapped man, someone as defensive about indiscriminate genre fans as well as ivory tower snobs, in playing both ends occasionally it overreacts a little.  Also, there’s some juvenilia in here, especially the reprinted Eldritch Tales columns about Stephen King movies that not only isn’t as good as everything else in the book (which is to be expected), but comes off as way too much ammunition getting unloaded on some movies that weren’t very good in the first place.

Those qualms aside, I came out of To Each Their Darkness and Sinister Resonance with a thousand new ideas swimming in my head.  Things to argue about at the bar, and work into my own writing, and things to watch for as I walk down the street or listen for in those rare moments alone.  Both are very much worth your checking out.