Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Sondheim Mini-Festival in Atlanta

Just this past weekend, it was possible to see three Sondheim musicals in the Atlanta area.  Atlanta Lyric Theatre produced GYPSY, his 1959 collaboration with composer Jule Styne and book writer Arthur Laurents.   Georgia State University's music department presented their summer opera workshop production of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (1973), with Sondheim's music and lyrics and with book by Hugh Wheeler.  A suburban theatre group called Next Theatre presented ASSASSINS (1990), book by John Weidman.  I haven't seen GYPSY yet, but I saw the other two shows, and I have a couple of reviews.

Night Music:  Better Heard, Not Seen
First, NIGHT MUSIC worked so long as the director trusted the material.  The young performers' voices were strong and supple, blending well on the ensemble numbers.   (See my review of the Broadway revival.)

The standout performer on the night that I saw it was John Tibbetts. In the role of Carl-Magnus, an outsized and cartoonish character, Tibbetts had the outsized voice, but also a presence that made us believe that he believed every outrageously chauvinistic and egocentric thing he voiced.

Members of UGA's opera workshop production of Night Music:
John Tibbetts (Carl-Magnus), Erin McDaniel (Desiree) and Ryan Glover (Henrik)
photo: from facebook
To make the bare recital stage into the world of the story, director Copeland Woodruff started with a great idea.  The stage was dressed to be a backstage dressing room, where we watched the young actors at make-up tables, adding age to their faces and hair.  Scenery was derived from dressing-tables, trunks, folding screen, cloth.  

But then the director strained for laughs that killed the atmosphere that the show's creators tried to create -- "whipped cream with knives" original director Harold Prince called it, with music that aimed to be "perfume."   The Liebeslieder quintet, fine young singers, were made to shuffle and squint as though enacting a singalong at some nursing home.  The idea got some laughs at the start, but became a distraction when the quintet moved scenery at a shuffle's pace.    The high-comedy banter of the dinner party scene was marred by low-comedy mugging, the characters squeezed onto a small picnic blanket like clowns in a tiny car.   At the climax, Henrik's smashing of his wine-glass was turned into a slow-mo special effect with strobe lights. 

Evidently believing that songs need motion to be interesting, the director cued entrances for other characters during solos and duets.  For example, when characters Fredrik and Carl-Magnus confronted each about their lover Desiree, she entered upstage and slunk downstage center between the two men and lay at their feet while they toyed with her body -- detracting from the song, and also detracting from her character.  

The last words of the script are Madame Armfeldt's.  For all her experience with love as "a pleasurable means / to a measurable end," Madame Armfeldt has learned during the course of this evening's events what she has missed in life.  This night, she has seen her daughter fight to recover the one true love of her life, and to begin a new family.  Telling her granddaughter that it's now time for the summer night to "smile" for "the old, who know too much,"  she lets go of life, and Sondheim's lovely "Night Waltz" soars.   It's a delicate, bittersweet moment.

In this production, she collapses dramatically, is unceremoniously shrouded with the picnic blanket, and left in a heap while the actors tip toe away, dabbing at their eyes with handkerchiefs.  So much for delicate and bittersweet!

The voices were glorious, the dialogue well-delivered, the astonishing "perfume" of Sondheim's accompaniment all realized by a single overworked pianist (Christy Lee).  I just wish I'd closed my eyes.

Assassins: On Target
Also operating on a low budget, with a low ceiling on a wide shallow stage, director Rob Roy Hardie used nothing more than bar stools and barrels in the foreground, a seedy carnival shooting gallery upstage.  It was flanked by projection screens where photos of the assassins and their victims appeared at appropriate moments.

This show may be fool-proof.  I've seen it four times, including the Tony-Winning Broadway production in 2004.  Some actors sang better than others, some stages were more impressive, some sound systems were better balanced, but the effect has been the same:  We're drawn into the world of the assassins.  They mingle at the carnival, at the bar, in the park, always cantankerous, always endearingly loopy.  We learn their stories, one by one.  By the time they sing "Another National Anthem," we're on their side, and the fresh-faced "Balladeer" sounds pretty foolish when he tells these angry losers to be patient and "you can make the lies come true."  Even now, the fourth time I've seen it, I felt a pang when suddenly we're in Dallas with Lee Harvey Oswald, and the whole cohort tempt him to pull the trigger.  "Without you, we're just footnotes -- vainglorious actor, disgruntled office-seeker -- but with you, we're a force of history!"  The woman in front of me began to cry as soon as she realized where we were.

Sondheim and playwright Weidman added a number for the 1992 London production, and for me it's the linchpin of the piece.  After Oswald pulls the trigger, and we see a montage of video images from that event, the ensemble enters to sing in roles of ordinary men and women remembering the moment they heard the news, "The President's been shot!"   Their characters span 100 years of history, social groups and geography, but the clutching sense that "Something Just Broke" hits all of them -- and us, too.  The agony expressed so directly in this song restores us to balance.  When those assassins reprise their toe-tapping number "Everybody's Got the Right," they're goofy as ever, but not endearing any more.

While the director interrupted a couple of climactic moments with odd silent gun play between characters that I didn't get, this production was no less effective than others.   Danielle Girardeau stood out as "Squeaky Fromme," a foul-mouthed flower child, Paul Gourdeau commanded our attention in his two long tirades as Samuel Byck, and Zip Rampy managed to play Charles Guiteau as if all his cheerful bravado were just a blink away from abject despair.  The small band overpowered the singers, but not after the first couple of numbers. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

All My Sons: Actors as Acrobats

(reflection on a performance of Arthur Miller's play ALL MY SONS at The Walker School, Marietta, GA, on October 27, 2011)

The day after the performance of ALL MY SONS by high school students at the independent school where I teach, I heard a fellow teacher tell a cast member, "I don't 'enjoy' an Arthur Miller play, but I can appreciate it."   I know what he means, but I take issue with it.

Written in 1947, the play shows us men and women in the aftermath of the war, dealing with loss, and guilt.  There's Kate Keller (Rachel Novak), grieving over her son Larry, grasping at hopes that he might still be alive.  There's Chris (Justin Kasian), the young officer who lived to see most of his men sacrifice their own lives in their efforts to save each other, who now finds routine life to be a betrayal of that kind of generosity.  His father Joe (Kyle Rehl) owned a business that manufactured crucial equipment for fighting planes.  Now retired, he was tainted by a scandal when defective parts resulted in US planes crashing; his partner went to jail for knowingly approving the shipment.  That partner's son is George (Patrick McPherson), ashamed of his father's fall. 

The catalyst for the action is a visit to the Keller home by Ann (Olivia Breton), George's sister and the late brother's fiancee.   Why is she visiting?   Does Chris love his older brother's fiancee?   The mother, clinging to the idea that her son still lives, will not tolerate that thought. Can she be made to see reality?  

The enjoyment of the evening comes from watching actors tip-toe on a fragile bridge of light dialogue over dangerous water.  Undercurrents are close to the surface of polite conversation, and tension grows with our awareness of what's concealed in the depths.    My favorite moment this way may have been the split-second when the mother steps out onto the porch, interrupting a confrontation among the other characters.   George has been on the verge of attack, revealing a fact that will change everything; but, face still flushed with anger, he turns a polite smile to the mother and to answer small talk with small talk, while the other characters watch with trepidation, and follow his lead.

When the actors are so focused on character as these young actors were, it's not depressing; it's exhilarating, like watching acrobats at Cirque du Soleil!

This was my second time with ALL MY SONS, and I came away feeling about the script as I had the first time (a production at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival over a decade ago):  It's one of the best plays I've ever seen, until the last thirty minutes, when the characters become mouthpieces for a bitter Marxist critique of America.   
Still, the good will generated by the actors in Miller's dialogue for the first couple hours carries the day.

The Cast:  Kyle Rehl (Joe), Rachel Novak (Kate), Justin Kasian (Chris), Olivia Breton (Ann), Patrick McPherson (George), Myles Haslam (Jim), Casey Schreiner (Sue), Coleman Hedden (Frank), Liane Houde (Lydia), Sam Lowry (Bert).  Directed by Katie Arjona.  See a student-produced trailer.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Half Way with LBJ

(reflections on THE PASSAGE TO POWER by Robert A. Caro, fifth in his multi-volume work THE YEARS OF LYNDON JOHNSON, Knopf 2012.)

Half way through this volume, I feel oddly reassured to know that the leaders who loomed large in my early childhood were no more grown up, thoughtful, talented or courageous than anyone I meet or read about today.   Sensitive to criticism, paralyzed by the fear of failure, prone to miscommunication, careless of facts that don't go with our preconceptions: that's all of us, even Presidents, Vice-Presidents, and Cabinet officials.   This is good to remember when we're tempted to apply superlatives to the current crop of leaders, whether best, worst, most or least.

Caro starts when Lyndon Johnson was close to 50 years old, Senate leader, second most powerful man in America, and, for once, indecisive.  As Caro tells it, Johnson's life was governed by his determination to rise above the locally famous story of his father's precipitous fall from prosperous leader to pauper and town joke.  We read how Johnson begged, wormed, and bullied his way into ever more influential positions.  As Senate leader, he belittled staffers and physically intimidated legislators, kicking future speaker Jim Wright in the shin, for example, and pulling other men's faces close to his.   With all that background, we appreciate the frustration of his supporters and hangers-on when Johnson inexplicably turns down their help to start organizing for the presidential race coming up in 1960. while the Kennedy clan was promoting JFK throughout the country.   When he finally made up his mind to run, it was too late.  His campaign staffers had to redesign buttons "All the Way with LBJ" because democrats in the western states didn't know what LBJ meant.

Caro reminds us how vice-presidents have been the butts of jokes from Adams on, but it's still hard to believe how pathetic LBJ appears in the office.   The offer to be Vice-President is a matter of debate, and Caro devotes a dozen pages to answering the questions, "Did JFK offer the VP job only as a pro-forma courtesy?" When Bobby Kennedy ran down to LBJ's suite from the Kennedy suite two, three, or four times to talk LBJ out of accepting the position, was he representing Jack, or conniving against a man whom he had hated viscerally for years, or was he misreading his brother through the filter of his hatred?

LBJ serves his one purpose by getting JFK the electoral votes of three southern states.   LBJ's home state of Texas went nearly 50% Republican, and at one event, Republicans jostled LBJ and Lady Bird, carrying signs that accused him of selling out to the "communists."  The vote was close in Texas, and Caro goes into great detail about the ways that Democrats (probably) cheated.  They used elaborate specifications for "proper" paper ballots to disqualify paper ballots in largely Republican districts outside of the big cities, and custom allowed ranchers to herd their Spanish-speaking workers into polling places to vote as a bloc.

Approaching the Vice-Presidency, LBJ boasts how "power is where power goes," how he'll turn this office into one of influence.  Then he is politely but decisively rebuffed on all sides: Mike Mansfield and LBJ's former flock in the Senate do not allow him to chair their caucus meetings (LBJ quips that a cactus differs from a caucus because "the pricks are on the outside"), and JFK ignores a letter (compared to Seward's co-presidency memo to Lincoln) except to write that he expects Johnson to "review" policies.   Used to 56 staffers and an office dubbed "the Taj Mahal" in the Senate, LBJ was allowed 18 in a corner of the Executive Office Building, and a visitor remarked that, during his hour there, the phone didn't ring once.   No one needed LBJ for anything.  By 1963, even the staffer charged with "keeping Lyndon happy" had forgotten about him.  LBJ and Lady Bird were left off party lists.  Yet LBJ went through a pathetic routine to appear relevant, having his limo park beside the White House, entering a side door through secretary Evelyn Lincoln's office past the Oval Office and out through the Rose Garden, so that it would appear to anyone watching that he was "checking up" on things in the White House before he resumed his lonely perch in the building across the street.

Caro's book has focused so far on personal politics, saying next to nothing about the principles and policies of the national kind.   It's more about personalities and "manners," along the lines of who sits near the President at the conference table, and who gets to barge into the President's office (Bobby, not LBJ, in both cases).   LBJ appears manipulative, extremely insecure, self-deluded and crude.  So far, Bobby comes across as morose, rude, "ruthless," unprincipled, and petulant. 

JFK seems to sit above the rest.  Caro gives us the background for LBJ's disdain for Senator Kennedy, whom he addressed as "Sonny Boy" or "Johnny" when patronizing him in the Senate.  JFK's lifelong struggles with undiagnosed abdominal pains and back trouble are detailed.  His physical courage to save men when a Japanese ship splintered his PT boat are detailed.  His playboy image is supported, not least by a couple of parenthetical tidbits that this or that woman was a mistress.  His lack of interest in Senate work and absenteeism are detailed.  But he was charming because he was confident in his ability to win anybody over to his side, with persuasion and a smile.  We see it happen when he sways a pro-LBJ delegation of Texans with a combination of gracious praise for their favorite son and a little twist on LBJ's rhetoric.   We see how he seems to be clear and calm about choosing LBJ while Bobby and two suites full of aides are hand-wringing, sobbing, and threatening to come to blows.   We see it when he quickly and definitively takes full responsibility for the mistake of approving the poorly-planned Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.  He takes the hit and moves on.

I've reached the part of the story where the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 has just ended.  Here, LBJ at least gets to sit at the table, though transcripts show that he contributed little while military and civilian councilors advised JFK to strike Cuba's missile silos and Cuba, too.  Bobby shifts the discussion by comparing the event to Pearl Harbor, with the USA as the bad guy bombing another country out of the blue.   When JFK and Bobby are absent from the room, LBJ speaks up on the tape recording of the council, objecting that the US looked "weak" because of the President's approach of "quarantine" and waiting to strike back at challenges to the quarantine (and the shooting down of a U2 spy plane).   JFK finds his own way, disregarding the pressure from the rest of the room, and it works in both the short and long term.

Now Caro has to rehabilitate Bobby, who has looked so bad through the rest of the book.   Now, at least, we find that he has a tearful, fearless, life-long identification with the underdogs in society, and a warm regard for children.

(I completed the book.  Read my reflection, "Power Perfected in Weakness: LBJ's Finest Hours")

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Eternal Zappiness: Screwtape and Safety Not Guaranteed

(reflections on C. S. Lewis's THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS, adapted and directed for the stage by Jeffrey Fiske and Max Mclean, starring Max McLean; presented by The Fellowship for the Perofrming Arts at Woodruff Arts Center in Saturday June 16; and SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED, a movie directed by Colin Trevorrow, starring Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass.)

Zap! In a flash of white light, a soul is saved, leaving behind strife, inner conflict, and ordinary existence. Two times this past weekend, I saw disparate works with this same effect: a staging of C. S. Lewis's SCREWTAPE LETTERS and a new movie SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED. The first is explicitly Christian; the other is geared to the "ironic post-college twentysomethings" who mock Christianity  (self-description of a reviewer of this Screwtape from NYTheatre.com) . In one, the soul escapes to heaven; in the other, the characters hope that time travel will take away the regrets and losses in their lives. This is very satisfying to watch. Don't we all wish that we could seriously believe that the day we quit this ordinary life is the day when we'll cross over to a new, eternally better one? But neither of these works wants us to take "happily ever after the zap" seriously.

SCREWTAPE is a satire. The title character is a mid-level martinet in the ranks of Hell, a military-industrical bureaucracy where the "intelligence department" has been working on the question "What is God really up to?" (since it's inconceivable that He really loves His creatures) and the Research Division has failed to develop even one pleasure -- so all the devils can do is to turn pleasure to sin through selfish obsession.

Other laughs come from the devils' insights. So, their "patient" has adopted Christianity, and has had an unselfish thought. "Have you made him aware of that fact?" Screwtape asks the novice tempter. "Make him proud of his humility." That got the biggest laugh of the evening, except for an exposition of what has constituted "sexy" in different eras, from regal reserve to silly fawning, to "girls who look like boys" and Screwtape's imitation of Madonna's strutting.

The premise of the entire novel / play is one great joke, variations of one overstatement. War, we're told, is of minor importance for the devil, and a wise devil won't enjoy it too much. But battles of cosmic consequence are over little things: a piece of toast, a little chuckle at someone else's expense, the distaste one may feel for the church usher with the oily smile.

For all of the witty little lessons along the way, and the dramatic apotheosis at the end, Lewis's great gift to us in this work is the insight that salvation is a transformation of ordinary things. Little may change in the routines of work and living, but everything changes in the seeing, as Charles Wesley's hymn says, "We walk by faith and not by sight." The danger to our salvation is in letting those daily failures, discomforts, and resentments transform us. Naturally, Lewis had to zap his man at the end, or the story would have dragged on, like real life, through middle age and the nursing home -- where Screwtape tells us the devils have the best chance of winning the battle!

SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED delights, first, because of the actors who embody the characters. Aubrey Plaza plays Darius, a twentysomething intern whose face expresses "whatever" by default. Mark Duplass plays Stephen, a twentysomething loner who advertises for a companion to travel in time, "safety not guaranteed." Jake Johnson plays Jeff, a reporter at Seattle Magazine who sells his editor on the idea of investigating the whacko who placed that ad. Jeff takes a couple of interns, "the lesbian" (Darius) and "the geek" Arnau, played by Karan Soni.

That's the set up. What follows, really, is as old as As You Like It and Midsummer Night's Dream. Our band of mismatched reporters arrive in the boonies, and each finds love (at varying depths) and himself or herself.

When Stephen and Darius share their reasons for wanting to go back in time, we hit on a religious theme. Both carry the burden of deep regrets and guilt. For sci-fi buffs, it's obvious what to do about that: Go back in time to prevent the bad thing from happening. Each character is endearingly guarded and needy, and we root for them to get together, and to succeed in their quest.

Jeff, the sleazy reporter, has an ulterior motive for this trip. While the interns do the investigation, he is looking up a high school girlfriend. An online critic pointed out that this, too, is a form of time travel. Jeff is disappointed in her at first (time has put "s--- all over her face" he says, one of many crass statements), but it's not long before he's sharing dinner with her, and chores, too -- out feeding her chickens. After a setback, he turns his attention to Arnau, coaching him through a night of "seizing the day" with some local girls.

It's not in the time travel, not in the chorus of angels, not in the zap of light, but in those everyday things -- buttering the toast, feeding the chickens, seeing the beauty and honoring the dignity in others -- that salvation begins and grows. It's a message in both SCREWTAPE and SAFETY, not loud, but clear.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Invention of Stoppard

Reflections on Tom Stoppard's play THE INVENTION OF LOVE (Grove Press 1998).

A.E.Housman advises his younger self in THE INVENTION OF LOVE on Broadway, 2001. Photo from Playbill.com
The moment of greatest emotional impact in Tom Stoppard's play THE INVENTION OF LOVE  occurs four-fifths of the way through the script.   It follows debate concerning the value of knowledge for knowledge's sake, art for art's sake, choices for editing ancient Latin texts, and the ambivalence of Victorian English gentlemen to the Greek vice (referred to in this script as "spooniness," if not "beastliness").  Settings change from rivers (Styx, Charwell) to games (croquet, billiards, track and field), but never stem the flow of words.   So it is ironic that the most important line is left unspoken.  It comes in the brief silence between two monosyllables: "Why?  Oh!"

The immediate context is a question from the speaker's roommate and longtime best friend, A. E. Housman, best known today as author of the poems collected in A Shropshire Lad.  Housman has just asked his roommate, Moses Jackson, "Will you mind if I go to live somewhere but close by?"

Jackson asks "Why?" as in, "Why would you go to live somewhere else?  Why should I mind if you live close by?"    Then Jackson makes the leap:  Housman has been evading a direct response to the suggestion, made by Jackson's fiancee, that he's "sweet on" Jackson.  Housman has skipped past confession straight to sentencing, exile.  In a flash, Jackson understands why Housman sacrificed a promising career in academia to take a clerical job in Jackson's office; why Housman, uninterested in sports, cheered Jackson at track competitions for years; and why Housman, a classics scholar, made so much of Theseus and his friend who "loved each other, as men loved each other in the heroic age, in virtue."  All of that goes into the syllable, "Oh!"

After Jackson recovers somewhat from the shock, he behaves decently.  "It's terrible, but it's not your fault. ... We'll be just like before."  Jackson offers his hand and says, "All right?  Shake on it?"  But here the playwright inserts a blackout on the scene, leaving a spotlight on the actor playing Housman, who recites verse that summarizes the scene, and the rest of the poet's own life:
He would not stay for me; and who can wonder?
He would not stay for me to stand and gaze.
I shook his hand and tore my heart in sunder
And went with half my life about my ways. 
This scene, the emotional core of Stoppard's play, was not enough to save THE INVENTION OF LOVE for me when I saw it on Broadway in the spring of 2001. All I recall from the production is the stage itself, black and reflective as patent leather, suggesting the surface of water for many episodes on rivers.

Nonetheless, since I studied Stoppard at Duke, I've wanted to write at least one play in his manner. That means, as Stoppard once explained to critic Kenneth Tynan (in Tynan's book Show People), thinking of a play as a shattered ashtray. Stoppard finds a central image or idea, and rummages around for fragments to fit with it. The pieces often relate, not to the characters or story, but to a tangent suggested by a word or allusion. The scenes (some, mere blackout sketches) run a course of seemingly free association, zig-zagging from present to past, from serious to silly, from serious disputation to gags. Like discourse among clever friends, a Stoppard play may not lead to a clear destination, but it covers a lot of ground in convivial company.

Arcadia is the exceptional Stoppard play: delightful,  thought-provoking, but also moving and memorable.  It is no less discursive than Invention, skipping around through topics of British gardening, chaos theory, fractiles, contemporary academic writing, and the life of Shelley.  When I first saw it at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre, I was amused but unmoved.  I saw it again in a more intimate theatre at the Alabama's Shakespeare Festival, and was moved and elated.  (So moved was I that I cast thrift to the wind and booked a second vacation that year, to catch Arcadia's final performance.)

Other plays of Stoppard that I've seen -- Invention, Rosencrantz..., The Real Thing, Travesties, and Jumpers -- did not delight so much in the theatre as when I was reading and marking the scripts.  Were the productions at fault?  Was I expecting too much?  Or do Stoppard's worst critics have it right, that his cleverness overlays the script and smothers the drama?  Tynan wrote, more gently, that, in Stoppard, "simplicity of idea often underlies complexity of style."   A favorable reviewer of Invention on Broadway advised viewers to enjoy the story and to ignore all the intellectual stuff that Stoppard threw in just to meet critics' expectations.
Incisive critic John Simon, writing in New York magazine about the production of Invention that I saw, wishes that he had read the play first:  
[The Invention of Love] is remarkable but not really a play, if by play we mean something that can be followed by an audience with a standard education and average intelligence. By followed, I do not mean getting the general drift, but catching at least a good part of the allusions, quotations, parodistic references, wordplay, and other fine points, for fine points are Stoppard's stock-in-trade. Plot and characterization are not completely lacking but are minimal in importance.  ("Stoppard Un-stoppered")
Yet Stoppard does not fail to tell his story with feeling.  Not five pages into the script, we have a foreshadowing of the emotional climax:  the shade of old Housman, in a boat with Charon crossing the Styx, encounters his younger self during a boat ride with Oxford friends Pollard and Moses "Mo" Jackson, with a dog.  Dumbstruck, the elder Housman utters just one syllable: "Mo!"  The young men's banter explicitly recalls Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog).  As they glide off,  Housman speaks words that could be his epitaph, "I had only to stretch out my hand! -- ripae ulterioris amore!  (cries out) Oh, Mo! Mo! I would have died for you but never had the luck!"  Later, after several variations on this same scene, we understand that it was in that boat on that afternoon that young Housman made his pivotal choice to abandon the academic course laid out for him, to devote himself -- platonically -- to Jackson.   
In between that early scene and that handshake, we get scenes that develop the drama in a more or less conventional way, making clear how difficult and ruinous it would have been for Housman to "stretch out his hand" to Jackson.   Much is made of Housman's contemporary Oscar Wilde who displayed what Jackson repressed, and of the new law that would ruin Wilde -- imprisoned "for the color of his hair," Housman's coded reference to an inborn trait.   More than once, Jackson blithely expresses disdain for Wilde and his ilk, while Housman keeps uncomfortably silent.   
But Stoppard steps on the story with long speeches, lectures even, about the value of "useless" knowledge.   Perhaps it could be made more clear what connection there is between Housman's vigorous lifelong devotion to recovering the exact original phrasing (down to the commas!) of ancient authors, and his other lifelong devotion.   Is it that both passions were "futile," and thus heroic, like the 150 soldier-couples alluded to a few times, who died in futile defense of their homeland?  

And what do we do with the one topic that Stoppard's characters barely mention, A Shropshire Lad?  In the fifth part of the script, Oscar Wilde joins Housman in Charon's boat, and says, just before his exit, "You didn't mention your poems.  How can you be unhappy when you know you wrote them?  They are all that will still matter."   Moments later, Old Housman teaches his younger self about Gallus, the first to write love elegies, though only one line of his remains of all his poems.  His younger self is struck by the sadness of it: "Only one line for his monument."  The older Housman replies, after Virgil, "How much immortality does a man need? -- his own poetry, all but a line, as if he had never been, but his memory alive in a garden in the northernmost province of an empire that disappeared fifteen hundred years ago.  To do as much for a friend would be no small thing."

These topics are interesting.  I underlined my script and wrote "Ha!" and "Ah!" many times in the margins.  Yet the fact remains, as a student once said to me about a New Yorker cartoon, "I understand it, but I don't get it."

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit: Sermon by Fr. Kirk Lee

I was not the only parishioner at St. James' this morning struck by Father Kirk Lee's sermon.   Responding to Mark 3:20 ff., he first gave us parallel texts from the synoptic gospels all telling us that "blasphemy against the Holy Spirit" cannot be forgiven.  But, what constitutes blasphemy against the Holy Spirit?

He provides context from Mark.  At the point of this statement, authorities and family both have asked if Jesus is not demon-possessed,  as he has broken taboos, regulations, and laws of Scripture and laws of nature.  

In other words, they were attributing to Satan the work of the Holy Spirit through Jesus.  That, he concluded, is blasphemy against the spirit. 

That makes sense to me in a way that other glosses on the passage never have done.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Staging Philip Glass: Kepler at Spoleto

No story, no dialogue, no characters -- no problem.  For Philip Glass's opera Kepler, director Sam Helfrich found dramatic shape in snippets of Kepler's writings and poetry of Kepler's era.  He told the story by working with just a few staging ideas.

In this, he mirrored the composer, whose musical vocabulary consists of certain musical gestures so familiar by now as to be fairly trademarked.  Glass fans can listen to Kepler and say, "Ah! There's the chug-chugging bass line under rapidly ascending four-note scales; there's the castinet rhythm he's used since the mid-90s; there are the whirling flutes from Satyagraha ;  there's his signature sound, deedle-deedle played under deedledy-deedledy...."  New pieces by Glass are thus instantly recognizable as his, but that doesn't take away the inherent pleasure raised by the perpetual motion, the ominous undercurrents, and the scintillating sounds from the upper registers.  The pleasures are at least doubled by the element of virtuosity when an orchestra plays the music live.   After hearing the orchestra sustain concentration for two hours of roiling patterns and sudden stops,  the enthusiastic audience last Thursday saved its standing ovation for them and their conductor John Kennedy.

Director Helfrich's staging was compatible with Glass's approach, mixing and matching just a few visual and dramatic elements.   Over the fast-paced pulsing of the music, the drama moved very slowly three times through a simple cycle:   Kepler presents an idea about planetary motions;  the idea is resisted, questioned, and ultimately accepted by a cohort of scholars (an ensemble of six soloists, three men and three women); a chorus receives the idea and responds.   Twice, the response is prayer and heartfelt praise of God;  in the climax to Act One, the response is violent repression.

None of this is more than suggested in the text.   One time Kepler mentions how horrible the times are with their martial drums and "terrible trombones," at which point Glass indulged a little musical joke, giving the trombones a little slide to play.  Soldiers' chanting "Vanity of vanities" is all the explanation we get for their shoving Kepler and the cohort below stage to a dungeon.  The responses of the scholars are made clear simply by the fine acting of the performers, each one distinguishing his or her character through body language and occasional solos.  As Kepler, baritone John Hancock conveyed dignity, self-doubt, courage to put his own ideas to the test, courage to face opposition.  In one humorous aria, Kepler names his many enemies, and Hancock seemed to have a nuanced feeling about each name.

Two non-singing, non-speaking actors are present throughout the drama, a little boy and a woman.  Are they Kepler in his childhood, with his mother?  Are they Kepler's wife and child?  The only time that a child is mentioned, it's Kepler's figuring the minute of his conception and retro-testing the validity of his horoscope (e.g., that the child conceived at that moment would be a boy, curious and bothersome "like a dog").   First seen looking through a telescope, and often revealed watching Kepler from the sidelines, they could be either, or merely a representation of nascent curiosity and its nurturing. 

Helfrich's design team kept the scenery simple: a floor-to-ceiling wall, curved to suggest the elliptical shape of planetary orbits, Kepler's great discovery. On a screen embedded in that wall, we saw only animated abstract shapes, such as the horizontal beam of light that rose slowly throughout the opening number.  Three times, the wall stage left separates into four segments to suggest a giant crucifix, at times when the chorus sings praise to the deity.  Kepler sings that his discoveries clarify God's creation, complementing the Bible which, he says, should be read "not as a scientific text."

Mom seemed bemused when I described the opera Kepler.  "Kepler was an astronomer in the 1620s.  There's no dialogue in the show."  So, what happens?  "He begins with certain ideas about the orbits of the planets, and then he changes his mind."  Mom looked doubtful.  "One time, soldiers come in and there's a fight."  Mom just shook her head.

Well, now that I've seen it, I can testify that it was good.

[Note:  The director Sam Helfrich saw this post and added this helpful note: 
I wanted to share one thing: when Kepler was 8 years old, his mother took him to the top of a mountain to watch Halley's Comet. This fact inspired me a great deal: the idea of a curious young boy watching the night sky and later becoming one of the world's great astrophysicists! I didn't feel the audience needed the back story, as long as they understood that the child's love of the sky could inspire greatness in the adult, but I knew I wanted to include the image.
My friend Susan and I "got it!"]

(Reflections on KEPLER, an opera by composer Philip Glass, libretto by Martina Winkel.  Produced at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC.  Directed by Sam Helfrich. Performance May 30.)