Saturday, June 30, 2012

Rapture, Blister, Burn: Emphasis on the Burn

A play driven by feminist theory should be something of interest to me but Rapture, Blister, Burn was more concerned with the themes, theories and rhetoric than character or plot development. And even those themes and theories lost steam by the end of this disappointing play.

Fantastic artwork for the show.
Written by Gina Gionfriddo (finalist for 2009 Pulizer Prize for Becky Shaw) and directed by Peter DuBois, Rapture, Blister, Burn explores questions of female friendship, relationships and feminism.  Leading an uneven ensemble is Amy Brenneman as Catherine, a nationally-recognized scholar, writer and career woman, who envies her grad school friend Gwen's (Kellie Overbey) stay-at-home life with her kids and her husband Don (Lee Tergesen) who was also Catherine's boyfriend in grad school.   Catherine comes home to take care of her mother Alice (Beth Dixon) who recently had a heart attack and ends up teaching a class at Don's university.  The two students who sign up for Catherine's class are Gwen and Avery (Virginia Kull).  The classes take place in Alice's livingroom with martinis at 5pm.  Catherine, of course, makes a play for Don and tensions between the old friends rise.

The play ends up centered around Catherine's attempts to lure Don away from Gwen and the lectures Catherine gives to her two students.  The lectures and feminist theory seem like a veiled attempt to get out the semi-obvious subtext in the relationships of the characters.  But the play is actually not as smart as it pretends to be.  By using the lectures as a crutch for the sub-text, the play fails to give true space to the characters to live out their lives and the characters end up one dimensional as a result.  We hear them talk about the theory as applied to their lives or like a fad diet their ridiculous attempts to live the theory to get what they want out of their lives. Shocking no one, the results aren't quite as neat and tidy as academic theory would have you believe. 

For all the academic double-speak, this slight story never really gels into a play.  Lots of thematic "stuff" is thrown into the mix but without clarity or strength it just ends up as academic window-dressing over a somewhat pedestrian story of unhappy women not getting what they want out of life.  Yay.  I'd have been fine with that story if there had been any emotional investment whatsoever but emotions took a back seat here.  Amy Brenneman came across as a little too dead in the eyes for me.  Her character is needy, whiny, and infantile, so my sympathy for her and her situation was quite limited.

Having recently seen the film Young Adult I see some parallels between the works--having a main character who is not terribly sympathetic whose goal on some level is to break up a marriage to "rescue" the miserable man and bring pleasure to herself. Trying to recapture a lost love that now seems like the relationship she needs.  But at least Young Adult offered an array of sympathetic side characters and plot-wise went for the jugular with that character and her fantasy implosion.  Here, I found all the characters slightly despicable and the plot grounded in a muted emotional reality.  The female friendships on display include the mother and daughter who are co-dependent and possibly alcoholics, the toxic grad student friends who are competitive with one another and continue to compete over the same man 20 years later, and eventually a sweet inter-generational friendship between Avery and Catherine which might be a temporary salve for both their wounds.

Virginia Kull was the saving grace of this production for me.  I was pretty soft on her in Assistance but here she articulates the voice of her generation clearer and with more heart and sincerity than the other characters.   She also seemed like the one character who was even in touch with reality.  Beth Dixon was doing the best Frances Sternhagen by someone who is not Frances Sternhagen.  So nice work there.  Kellie Overbey was appropriately irritating but her character never really gets to get out of the stereotype ghetto she was written into.

In the end, it seemed that Gionfriddo was trying to tell us we don't all fit neatly into the gender roles that the modern world offers us--mother, wife, career-woman (even if we continue to irrationally and possibly subconsciously crave them).  I guess one can also take away from this play that feminists can be terrible people too.  So that's something. We've come a long way baby.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Mr. Burns, A Post Electric Play: Homage to Storytelling

I took a History of Photography class in college where my professor would often carry on conversations with Baudelaire in class.  He's dead by the way.  But she and Bau would chat--or so it seemed (I only heard her side of things).  Peppered into her lectures were mentions of Madame Blavatsky and her ape.  What any of this had to do with the history of photography...well I can't really say but she made it all make sense in her own wacky way.  It was a batshit crazy class and I loved every minute of it.

One of the things that has always stayed with me from that class was my professor's thesis on why photography took off when it did and the cultural need photography served.  Discussing Baron Haussmann's efforts to tear down Parisian neighborhoods and build a new city by structured plan, she raised the issue of nostalgia.  Generations of Parisians had never seen their personal environment change.  Suddenly, Haussmann was changing the entire look of the city, neighborhoods were destroyed, and people suddenly felt this loss of something they would never see again.  Her claim was that photography became more popular and prevalent as a way to "preserve" the memories of the city and its citizens. Suddenly it had a purpose that people came to understand. 

Nostalgia Board at Woolly Mammoth
As I was watching Anne Washburn's new play (a work commissioned by The Civilians and directed by Steven Cosson), I thought about how we as a society have that compulsion or need to preserve memories.  Maybe it comes as a reaction to tectonic shifts that are out of our control, but it seems like it is human nature to hold onto what has passed (I still hold it against a certain person that she killed my hamster in 7th grade--grudges and nostalgia go hand in hand right?).

This play takes a penetrating look at themes of nostalgia, memory, preservation, and loss.

Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play undertakes to show how after a major trauma a group of people are propelled into becoming documentarians of their past through live theater (reflecting aspects of The Civilians' own mandate to create works using journalism and art).  Rather than creating new works these survivors are re-creating their memories of entertainment from their lives "before." 

Broken into three Acts, the work begins immediately following a disaster (which involved nuclear power plants and a plume).  Intentionally vague, the details of the disaster are too hard for these few survivors to talk about.  As these strangers sit around a campfire, they try to comfort or distract each other by trying to remember the episode Cape Feare of The Simpsons.  Leading the storytelling is Matt (Steve Rosen), with Jenny (Kimberly Gilbert) and Maria (Jenna Sokolowski) chiming in.  They are obsessing over lines they cannot recall and plot twists that confound them.*  Suddenly, a new stranger comes out of the woods, Gibson (Chris Genebach).  After he is searched for weapons, they begin a ritual.  Each takes out a notebook and they each get to ask the whereabouts, if known, of ten people they care about.  Each person maintains a list of people they've been told survived.  A new stranger means access to a new book of information and maybe he will know something of their loved ones.  In a world with no electrical power (the power plant meltdown had to do with the power grids failing), these notebooks are their best effort to spread information which they have gathered (On my way to the theater I noticed the "Missing Soldier's Office" which was just around the corner.  Seems like there is a historical precedent for this kind of effort and it was a lovely parallel to that piece of local history.)  The notebook ritual was a beautiful symbol of how we make order in disorder.  We civilize ourselves even when it seems civilization has been lost. 

Act Two takes place 7 years after the scene in the woods.  The strangers from the campsite have somehow stayed together become a roving band of theatrical players strutting and fretting their Simpsons-based half-hours upon the stage.  Their "dramatic" repertoire is performing live episodes of the Simpsons with their own live commercials in between (a hilarious off-stage bath scene with steam and everything was a nice touch).  Their efforts to recreate these episodes are strongly based in being authentic to the original. 

Act Three takes place 75 years in the future and the "preserved" work of the Simpsons episodes has disappeared into a musical theater pastiche loosely connected to the original Cape Fear or Simpson's Cape Feare.  The entertainment needs have changed 75 years later and the work has lost its "authenticity" but serves now as an allegorical history play with musical references pulled from various aspects of past pop culture. Heavy on dramatic masks, footlights, and Brechtian detachment, it feels like an entirely different universe 75 years into the future.**

Much like the recent Title and Deed, Mr. Burns spends time focused on how we steady ourselves when we are adrift in the world--and in particular how our stories feed us.  What was impressive to me was that Washburn, Cosson and the talented performers found a way to make pastiche mean something.  Our culture recycles itself a lot (and the remake cycle does seem to be getting shorter).  Call it homage, satire, parody or stealing, some artists are better at it than others.  But what's happening here is that Mr. Burns takes the familiar and reuses it because these characters need it: reconstruction as healing.  Stitching together pieces of our potentially lost culture are what keep these people going. It's that usage that makes this a truly exciting and unique work.  The pastiche is not just for comic juxtaposition.  And don't get me wrong, for a play about the Apocalypse it is full of bright and funny moments.  The pleasure of the characters remembering bits of the Simpsons makes for scenes of pure joy for the characters and the audience.  And the excitement and seriousness the traveling theatre troupe has for it's mission is wonderful to behold.  It's not a bunch of kids putting on a show for fun.  It's a noble and reverential activity that they are engaging in to rebuild their world.

There are of course darker themes at work (which I love).  The corruption and tensions underlying Act Two show the fissures in civilization and how we can forget our humanity.   I found the exploration of how we cope in the aftermath of tragedy and how people react differently to be similar in spirit to the work done in Decade.

You know I think Steve Rosen is a very talented comedic performer and I'm continuing to make good on my "see everything he does" pledge.***  Here, he's a great Simpsons mimic nailing the voices to several characters.  But he's also got the dramatic chops to handle his character's darker moments.  His frenetic energy in telling the Simpsons episode scene by scene is masking a deeper pain.  Chris Genebach and James Sugg also offer very convincing portrayals of Simpsons characters which they turn on quite suddenly and effectively.  The play does not give a lot of background to each of the characters but all the actors gave their characters color and shading.  Kimberly Gilbert was a stand-out to me in both Acts One and Two. The ensemble handled the shifts from straight play, to play with music, to musical theater adeptly. 

The gap in time between Act Two and Act Three was (intentionally) jarring. The characters who I had actually invested in in Acts One and Two were gone in Act Three--I felt a loss as time moved on.  But that seemed to be keeping with the theme of loss and mirroring the characters own experiences.  But as academically profound as that was the emotional resonance was lost in the process.  Again, it seemed to be an intentional choice and it's a brave choice to end with a potentially alienating finale where emotion takes a back seat.  The entertainment ante is upped in Act Three with the lively music of Michael Friedman.  The style as I mentioned is elaborate, grotesque and frankly a little creepy.  This might sound weird but it felt a little Wagnerian (based on my only reference point for Wagner which is, of course, the Bugs Bunny episode "What's Opera, Doc?"). So not really Wagner but Wagner as read through Looney Tunes (as Looney Tunes was doing homages long before the Simpsons this reference seems spot on for this show).  The music might be upbeat but the message is dark and seemed a little on the nose (but what allegory isn't a bit of a sledgehammer in its "message"). It did not wholly work for me.  But I was willing to go to the strange place the troupe was taking me.  I did not have fun in that strange place but that did not really seem to be the point. 

I hope this work continues to evolve (I have bought the play and I have heard it has already changed a lot in this staging).  I was surprised and delighted by many aspects of the play and even Act Three challenged me in a way that not all theater does.  It's a risky work and I'm glad they took those risks.    It closes July 1.  Hurry to DC!

*There was a man sitting in the front row writhing in his seat because he clearly knew every line of the episode and wanted to shout them out to the actors. Should the world end and he survives, I hope he finds his way to the right campfire.

**I wish I had studied any Japanese theater but the use of masks and the distancing effects employed in Act Three seemed Kabuki or Noh-like.  I'm not sure which and I feel like just using Wikipedia to figure this out would be even worse.  You tell me.

***Ok this is not some sort of weird blood oath or anything. I just kinda thought that this "adopt-a-performer" approach might get me out of my traditional theater comfort zone.  I would never have gotten down to DC or visited the lovely Woolly Mammoth Theatre were it not for my strict adherence to my pledge. And I was really interested in seeing more work by The Civilians and Steven Cosson.  So it was win-win-win for me.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Cuba: Visual Arts and Architecture

Because my trip to Cuba was organized by MoMA the focus was on visual art and artists.  We had the great fortune to meet a number of up and coming artists.  Many of the artists are associated with the Ludwig Foundation.  The Ludwig Foundation is an approved NGO operating in Cuba.  They offer space and opportunities for young artists.

Ariamna Contino
We met a collective of artists, Adrián Fernández, Alex Hernandez, Maria Cienfuegos and Frank Mujica, who share a studio/gallery space called 7 y 60 Visual Arts.  I really loved Fernandez's work and how he moved from photographing public and private space to fashion style photographs of artificial fruit.

One of the most exciting artists we met was Ariamna Contino.  She had several works on display at Ludwig and later we went to the studio/gallery space where she showed us additional ones.  Her recent work has been paper cuts that depict celebrities.

We visited the permanent collection at the National Art Museum.

This was my favorite at the National Museum. It is called Secret Serenade for an Analog Heart by Icaro Zorbar. It reminded me of Daniel Kitson.

We visited several sites where works were being shown for the Havana Bienal.  These two were in the Teatro Nacional. We could hear the flamenco dancers rehearsing in one of the rooms off the main entryway.  But ladies guarding the room would not let us peek in there.

We visited artist studios including José Toirac's.  Toirac is a well-established and well-known Cuban artist.  He spoke to us about the work he's been doing some of which the government prevented from being shown in Cuba.  He did a series on the First Ladies of Cuba and the Presidents of Cuba.  Included in these series were the "good" next to the "bad," U.S. President William Taft, and an empty nail for the next President after Raul Castro.  For these three reasons the work could not be shown.

Work of José Toirac.  Using the idea of politicians kissing babies he depicts the former leaders of Cuba with their children and grandchildren.

Work of José Toirac
We met  brothers Ivan and Yoan Capote who do conceptual sculpture.  They own their own building ( a novelty in a country only recently permitting some people to become property owners).  They renovated a space to become a modern, hip and air-conditioned studio space.

Work of Yoan Capote. Actual teeth.

Work of Yoan Capote.
Work of Yoan Capote.  This is made of fishhooks.

Work of Yoan Capote. Close-up of fishhooks.

Work of Ivan Capote.

I believe this is Yoan Capote's work
This was a Bienal installation called Circus Trieste.  It was an installation of an entire circus tent and made to appear that it was left to rot.

Circus Trieste.

Circus Trieste.

Circus Trieste.
We visited the Wilfredo Lam Center.  On display for the Bienal was the work of Carlos Garaicoa.  He created rugs that appeared to look like the tile entry-ways that used to advertise shops all around Havana.

Carlos Garaicoa Work

The shadows are part of the carpet except for the one on the right.  That's me taking the photo.
We visited the storied art school Superior Institute of Art (ISA). I think most of the young artists we met had graduated from ISA and many were now professors there.

The printmaking department had these old stone tablets used to make labels for cigar boxes.

I ended up buying a linocut from this artist, Osmeivy Ortega Pacheco.  He was a student at ISA and now a teacher there.

Work by Osmeivy Ortega Pacheco
 Painting studio at ISA.

Painting in Bienal

 Sculpture Studio at ISA.
Someone call AMPAS

ISA has a famous campus.  It was originally the golf course for the Havana elite before the Revolution.  Allegedly Fidel Castro and Che Guevera were walking the grounds after the Revolution and decided they should build an art school in this location.  They hired Cuban architect Ricardo Porro.  He designed the campus to resemble--and I'm not kidding--the female body, reproductive organs and all.  The Domes of the building were meant to represent breasts.  The walkways were the fallopian tubes.  And there was a Vagina Plaza.

No trip to Cuba is complete without wandering the streets and capturing the incredible architecture that reflects a variety of styles.  From Beaux Arts to Art Nouveau to Art Deco to Modernist, the architecture is a real treat.

Wandering through the less-touristed neighborhoods we also encountered some locals.  Some even eager to pose for the cameras.

This woman was doing her best super-model strut and insisted I take a picture.

Scattered among the incredible buildings are some photo based street art by French artist Jr.  Along with an artist named Jose Parla who works in chalk alongside Jr. we located 8 of the 18 works from the series called "Wrinkles of the City."

We spotted this one inside the shell of an old Ford factory.  The fellas working their let us come in to photograph it.

I loved this one on the basketball hoop.

Jose Parla chalk work

Jr and Jose Parla

I love that I managed to capture this little boy bouncing his ball under the photo.

Showing the large scale nature of the photos.  These were on the outside of an old Ford factory.