28 January 2013

“A Guinea Pig’s Night at the Theater”

by Dave Itzkoff

[On 5 December 2009, I published an article on ROT entitled “Theater and Computers.”  It was a bit of the history of computers in theater and a speculation on where that might someday lead.  A little less than three years later, Dave Itzkoff, a culture reporter for the New York Times, ran an article in “The Arts” section of the paper that described the use of computers in a performance in a warehouse in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood.  Published on 23 May 2012, “A Guinea Pig’s Night at the Theater” was a sort of review of this unusual presentation.  I think it makes a useful continuation of the exploration of new technology in live stage performance.]

Even when it is not executed perfectly, theater can stir a range of feelings, from boundless elation to existential despair. On rare occasions, it can even impart blinding pain, as an overly tight mask presses your glasses into your face, setting off sensitive nerve endings you did not know you possessed.

I learned this on Thursday night as I wandered the corridors of “Sleep No More,” the site-specific theater event presented in a labyrinthine Chelsea warehouse. Created by the British company Punchdrunk, “Sleep No More” lets masked attendees follow, with eyes, ears, hands and feet, an open-ended tale that mashes up “Macbeth” with elements of Hitchcock films like “Rebecca” and “Vertigo.”

At the invitation of Punchdrunk, I was taking part in an experiment to see, primarily, if this immersive experience could be technologically tweaked to yield a new narrative-within-the-master-narrative for select participants. (I imagine that the secondary, unstated goal of this field trial was to test my exceedingly minimal threshold for discomfort.)

Working with the very nice and talented students and faculty members from the MIT Media Lab (and financed by a partnership of British arts and innovation organizations), Punchdrunk had revisited the smoke-filled and dimly lighted chambers of “Sleep No More” to add digital enhancements that — if I discovered them — would be activated only with the help of a special mask that was outfitted with sensors, though not necessarily built for corrective lenses.

By adding state-of-the-art gadgetry (including 8,000 more feet of cable and another 100 or so strategically placed Bluetooth and RFID sensors) to some already nontraditional storytelling, Punchdrunk’s ambition was to deliver something like a living video game. But for now, this emerging art form is still in its rudimentary, Atari 2600 phase.

The test run began with a pep talk from Punchdrunk’s Pete Higgin, whose title, enrichment director, already says something about the nonconformist company employing him. But he did not want to tell too much about my coming adventure.

“If it all works, then great,” Mr. Higgin said on the phone before the performance. Sensing, perhaps, that I wanted a bit more encouragement, he told me, “Do get excited.” But he added, “There could be glitches.”

This was my first time at “Sleep No More,” at a West 27th Street space that Punchdrunk calls the McKittrick Hotel, and while I tried to keep an open mind, even its customary, unenhanced experience can be polarizing. For some, it is thrilling to be in a scrum with dozens of sweaty people chasing its characters from room to room to room. For others, it feels like a firetrap designed by David Lynch. (It is left to the reader to determine which camp I fell into.)

For the nonclaustrophobic sorts who brave “Sleep No More” on a given night, there are already several story lines to be witnessed en masse. But I was supposed to be getting a narrative that was new and unique and, above all, exclusive to me. I was the 1 percent.

After donning my special mask — Is it supposed to be this tight? It is? O.K. — I was brought by myself to a room where an actress playing a psychic invited me to communicate with a spirit using a Ouija board. When I accepted her entreaty to help the troubled ghost, she said the ghost and I were now bound together and put her finger to my temple — and, to my surprise, the mask began to vibrate. This was cool.

But my further explorations of the “Sleep No More” environs — a creepy hospital, a ballroom, a maze — had to be aborted because of mask-induced facial paralysis and imminent loss of consciousness.

After several adjustments to my gear by the Punchdrunk team, I was restarted, by myself, in a lawyer’s office where the keys of a typewriter began clacking away by themselves. (Again, points awarded for the atmospherics.) A printed message told me to seek a woman in red, and when I exited the room, an actress dressed in a flowing crimson gown awaited.

The woman — who I later learned is Hecate, the lead witch in “Sleep No More” — then entered a nightclub where other audience members and I watched her perform a garish lip-sync of “Is That All There Is?”

But when Hecate left this room, I was unsure where to go next. I wandered through more of the public scenes — a card game that turns into a brutal fight — until a “Sleep No More” delegate physically escorted me to a woman’s bedroom and left me alone.

With no warning, Hecate emerged from a wardrobe, delivering a genuine shock as effective as it was low-tech. She removed my mask, rubbed a vial along my face as if collecting my tears and made clear I was now in her service. This was the end of my story.

On Friday afternoon, when the show was dark, I returned to the McKittrick, where the Punchdrunk crew walked me back through some of the spaces that my enhanced experience should have led me to. (Yes, they made me wear the mask again. Yes, it still hurt.)

I had missed, for example, a library where a book was supposed to jump off its shelf and point me to a kitchen pantry where a radio was to play me a secret message. In fact, an entire story line, about a love potion, a broken contract and a terrible revenge enacted by Hecate on the woman who breached it, had eluded me.

Most crucially, I did not know that I’d been traveling on Thursday night with a companion of sorts: a second experiment participant at a remote computer who was playing a text-based game on an Internet browser that occasionally intersected with my live “Sleep No More” experience. This person had been writing messages to me on the seemingly self-propelled typewriter and could even see me on a webcam in discrete moments when I hope I was behaving myself.

Tod Machover, an M.I.T. professor who is director of the institute’s media lab’s Opera of the Future group, told me that one of the experiment’s goals was to see if “you can take a live experience, whether it’s a concert or a theater show or hanging out with people you care about, and experience that somewhere else” — not only observe it, but feel as if you’re participating in it as well.

(Incidentally, Mr. Machover was telling me this by phone from Singapore, where, he said, “I’ve been texting my daughters all day with photos — they probably think I’m nuts.”)

These kinds of investigations, Mr. Machover believes, could have long-term implications for programs like the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD series, which brings real-time broadcasts of its operas to theaters around the world. But for now, he said, “we’d have to decide how important it is for two people to be paired. It’s a hard thing to do.”

Felix Barrett, the artistic director of Punchdrunk, said from London that he too had encountered “goblins and gremlins” when he did his own trial run a few days before mine. (The only way he can give his actors notes, he said, is to run the gantlet himself.)

“This was our week of ironing,” he said. “It would be amazing now to have a week, once it’s ironed, to work out how to fold it so it’s the right shape.” All that is planned so far, he said, is for his group and the MIT Media Lab to reconvene in June and decide what to do next.

It is not my place to tell Punchdrunk how this experiment should be fine-tuned. But at the risk of influencing its decision-making process, I will say that after an arduous and wearying Thursday night at “Sleep No More,” I crawled into bed and dreamed that I was staying in a hotel with my own personal 7-Eleven built into my room. I woke up Friday morning feeling a kind of happiness I didn’t know I was capable of.


23 January 2013

Dispatches from Israel 1

by Helen Kaye

[I’ve published several reports and reviews by Helen Kaye, a friend and former actress who lives in Tel Aviv, before on ROT.  I knew Helen here in New York City, starting when I directed her in a production of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan; then she moved to Israel where she became a writer and, later, reviewer for the Jerusalem Post and started directing local productions in English, both musicals and straight plays, classics, standards, and originals.  Over the years since then, Helen’s covered the cultural beat for JP and done a fair amount of traveling for her own purposes, including two years teaching English at a provincial university in China.  Now and then she sends me things about the cultural and theater scene in Israel, including the recent Acre (Acco) Festival (see Helen’s reviews posted on ROT on 9 November 2012), as well as other experiences she’s had (“Help! It's August: Kid-Friendly Summer Festivals in Israel,” 12 September 2010) and spot productions she’s reviewed (Harper Regan in Tel Aviv, attached to my own report of 20 October 2012 as a comment dated 28 October).  Earlier this month, Helen sent me first her review of an adaptation/interpretation of Euripides’ The Trojan Women directed by Yukio Ninagawa, the Japanese experimental theater artist.  Later she sent me a copy of her review of a new Israeli play at the Acre Theater Centre (where the Acre Festival took place), The Tired Hero by Eldar Galor.  A few days later, she also sent me an old review of a show she saw in Tel Aviv that’s now playing here in New York City, Not by Bread Alone by Nalagaat.  I’m posting them on ROT out of interest in what’s going on theatrically in other parts of this country and the world.  ~Rick]

The Trojan Women
By Euripides
Directed by Yukio Ninagawa
Hebrew translation by Shimon Buzaglo
Japanese translation by Harue Yamagata
Arabic translation by Amin Salaam
Cameri/Tokyo Metropolitan Theaters
29/12/12 at the Cameri
Sound designer Masahiro Inoue and composer Umitaro Abe take the honors in this daring, ambitious Israeli/Japanese co-production of The Trojan Women. A choir wails, entreats, mourns and whispers. Bells, gongs and crashing percussion intensify the drama as they signal its unfolding and behind it all the endless crash of waves upon the shore.

For we are on the Trojan shore from whence the victorious Greek fleet will soon set sail for home, laden with rich plunder from the conquered city. The Trojan women of the title, and the play's Chorus, are their noble captives destined for humiliation and slavery, apportioned like cookies among the victors.

The Chorus of Greek tragedy is there to narrate the big picture, to offer comment and generally move the action along. Director Ninagawa has used Euripides classical 15, five each Japanese, Israeli and Israeli Arab, each speaking their own language in order to highlight their several cultures.

The leads too are divided so that one character may be speaking Japanese while another speaks Hebrew or Arabic.

Chief among these is distinguished Japanese actress Kayoko Shiraishi, who plays Hecuba, Queen of Troy and widow of the slaughtered Priam. Her daughter Cassandra, Apollo's virgin priestess and cursed prophet is Israel's Ola Shur Selektar), Israeli Arab Rawda plays great Hector's widow, Andromache and so further.

Written during the Peloponnesian Wars (431-404 BCE), Trojan Women demonstrates how war debases, how victor and vanquished both lose, how women in particular bear its brunt, no matter where. This Trojan Women calls up echoes from World Wars I and II, and, most shockingly, 9/11 how not?

Classical Greek drama lends itself to the equally classical forms and conventions of Japan's Noh and Kabuki traditions that Ninagawa employs to underpin this Trojan Women.

But above all Greek drama is text, and if the actors cannot plumb that text, the production plummets. Unhappily that is mostly the case here.

The cast is not entirely to blame. Since the English and Hebrew translations are pedestrian to put it politely, one can only surmise that the Japanese and Arabic translations are similar.

Nonetheless, despite a clunky text, its repetitions by each chorus quintet does not work, not only because they impede the action, but because most of the Chorus don't seem to have a clue about what they are saying or how to say it physically and vocally. Clad disastrously in a kind of white diaper, Poseidon (Ashraf Barhom) suffers this same impediment, as do Athena (Shiri Gadni) and Shur-Selektar.

Happily there are exceptions. Moti Katz as an overdressed, over-jewelled, blue-clad Menelaos, brings him to precise and comic life as a sleazy politician (wonder where he got that from?). The lovely Yoka Wao delivers a sultry and mysterious Helen. Mahmud Abu-Jazi is sturdy and decent as reluctant Greek herald Talthybius and Rawda makes Andromache very real.

'Pity and terror' truly describe the moving scenes between her and Hecuba, but it has to be said that Shiraishi's bereft queen too often slips over into garrulous harridan.

While visually impressive, the actual drama of this Trojan Women has buckled under its multicultural weight.

[Because this production and collaboration is so curious, I think it’s worth republishing the Cameri’s explanation of how and why this joint project happened.  Written by the dramaturg Dr. Varda Fish, who also initiated the production, “The Cameri Theatre Production of The Trojan Women by Euripides” was  published on the theater’s website (https://www.cameri.co.il/index.php?page_id=2533):

[Yukio Ninagawa, one of the greatest directors of modern theatre, will direct The Trojan Women by Greek tragedian Euripides in a coproduction of the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv and the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre, Tokyo's biggest theatre. The production will be performed in three languages, Japanese, Hebrew, and Arabic, with a cast comprising actors from all three cultures. The play has been translated from Ancient Greek especially for this production: by Shimon Bouzaglo into Hebrew, by Harue Yamagata into Japanese, and by Egyptian translator Amin Salaam into Arabic. The production was initiated by Dr. Varda Fish in conjunction with the Cameri Theatre. It will premiere in Tokyo and Tel Aviv in December 2012, and will be one of the main events marking sixty years of diplomatic relations between Israel and Japan.

[Yukio Ninagawa One of the greatest Japanese directors, Yukio Ninagawa has for many years been a source of inspiration and influence for modern theatre all over the world. His unique visual style is captivating in its beauty, it is extremely sensual and intellectual, traditional and avant-garde, and draws from traditional Japanese theatre, namely Kabuki and Noh, and from them he creates a new language that touches upon contemporary life.

[Ninagawa began his theatrical career in 1955 as an actor. His first directing work was in 1969 when he directed the production of a Japanese play by Kunio Shimizu. Over the years he founded two theatre companies that work in two Tokyo theatres: Theatre Cocoon and Saitama Theatre. In 2006 he founded the Saitama Gold Theatre for people over fifty-five years of age.

[The diverse repertoire of plays Ninagawa has directed includes contemporary and classic Japanese drama, including plays by renowned playwrights Chikamatsu and Junichiro Tanizaki, Shakespeare, Greek tragedies, Chekhov, and modern European drama. He frequently goes back to directing plays with a new interpretation, and his productions are performed on some of the world's leading stages. The production of Titus Andronicus he directed was invited to participate in the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company Complete Works Festival (2006-2007), his production of Coriolanus was performed in the Barbican Theatre in 2007, and his Kabuki-style production of Twelfth Night was performed there in 2009.

[Many of his productions have been performed at the Lincoln Center in New York, and the Kennedy Center in Washington. Ninagawa has won numerous awards for his work all over the world, and last year he received the prestigious Order of Culture presented by the Emperor of Japan for his contribution to culture.

[The Trojan Women by Euripides One of the greatest political dramas of all time, and perhaps the best known anti-war play, is being staged in Israeli theatre for the first time in Euripides' original version, which was first performed in Ancient Greece in 415 BCE. The adaptation of The Trojan Women by Jean-Paul Sartre, who turned it into an anti-colonial play during the Algerian War, has been performed in Israeli theatre several times. The most well-known adaptation in Israel was staged in 1983 in the wake of the First Lebanon War, which was directed by German director Holk Freytag for Habima National Theatre. A year later, the Cameri Theatre staged Hanoch Levin's adaptation, The Lost Women of Troy, an anti-war play that also alludes to the dangers inherent in democracy. Ninagawa's choice of Euripides' play expresses not only his commitment to peace, but also his desire to expose by means of his remarkable visual theatre language, a profound emotional world shared by all three cultures: Hebrew, Arabic, and Japanese.

[Synopsis After a ten-year siege, the Greeks finally enter the city of Troy by means of the wooden horse conceived by the goddess Athena. They destroy the city, kill all the men, and now mean to return to their homeland taking the women with them as slaves and concubines. The war broke out when Paris, King of Troy, abducted Helen, the beautiful Spartan wife of Greek general Menelaus, and absconded with her back to his homeland. Now Menelaus returns to Greece with his wife, vowing to kill her. Hecuba, the dethroned Queen of Troy, is to be taken by Odysseus, her daughter Cassandra is to become Agamemnon's concubine, and Andromache, wife of Hector son of Hecuba who was killed in the war, is to be taken by Neoptolemus, brother of Achilles who was killed in the war as well. Her baby son, Hecuba's grandson, is to be thrown from the battlements by the Greeks who fear that the boy will grow up to avenge the destruction of the city and rebuild it.

[The play is based on a series of myths about wars and passions, and is Euripides' reaction to a long series of conquests and acts of slaughter, abuse of prisoners, especially women and children, that took place in his time. The most infamous war during his lifetime was the Twenty-Seven Year War between Athens, Sparta, and their allies. This was also the period when the Sophists and the art of rhetoric flourished, which was manifested in Athens in public debates in favor of war and against it.

[In The Trojan Women Euripides created a play that is a tragedy about victors being defeated, about challenging the status of the hero, and about the boundaries of power. In this play Euripides examines the sparring by means of the sword and the word, and at the same time shows their limitations. In this respect The Trojan Women is a radical and revolutionary play, but above all it is one of the most human plays to be written in its time. It touches upon the ambivalent, universal conditions of the human soul. The Trojan Women shifts between hate and love of the country where they are destined to live a life of exile and humiliation. Andromache does not know whether to open her heart to her new husband or remain faithful to her dead one. Cassandra both wants and does not want to become Agamemnon's concubine, and Talthybius, the Greek herald who is compelled to carry out his orders, is torn apart by pity for the Trojan women.]

*  *  *  *
[Of her next review, Helen wrote me: “Titled The Tired Hero, [the] play was a confused polemic on how this country bears, raises and grooms its sons to become, willy nilly, cannon fodder.”  She sent me that message on 5 January, three days after having seen the performance, but the review didn’t appear in JP until 13 January because Helen also told me she had to “figure out what to write.”  (The Acre Theater Centre, Helen informs me, is “a fringe house sited in the old Crusader fortress – the site also of the Acre Festival.)]

The Tired Hero
By Eldar Galor
Directed by Avi Gibson Barel
Acre Theater Centre

The Tired Hero is billed as a requiem for an unborn child. We conceive, bear and bring up our sons to become cannon fodder, says this angry, anguished polemic. On a stage by Pancho Edelberg that resembles a desert after a battle with photos of loved ones ground into its sands, four mothers, two of whom are played by men, strain to give birth. The hero emerges clad in khaki and with a caul around his head.

The tradition has it that a child born with a caul is destined for greatness. The savage irony of this caul is that the hero is destined for an early grave, where annual commemorations to his memory will elevate him to the greatness he might have achieved.

As he grows, each of the four mothers exhorts the boy through the several myths each holds as a truth. One mother is a Holocaust survivor, disciple of the “never again” ethos. Another has already lost two sons and is resigned to the loss of this third.

The third is a patriotic kibbutznik wedded to the collective, and the fourth, already clad in black, prepares the hero to give his all for the Homeland.

But the IDF itself has changed, says the play. It has lost its ideals, has become the oppressor, has internalized the trappings of might.

“Values change,” says the woman in black.

“Nobody prepared us for this kind of war,” cries the Soldier, “we’re no longer the good guys. . . . Mother, tell me I’m a hero.”

The actors are not listed by character but all are effective, especially the one playing the mother with two sons already dead.

The players are Dor Aloni, Ido Yona Yimin, Adva Levi-Goshen, Tehiya Suliman and Motti Tamam.

This is not an easy play to watch, mainly because it makes its point too shrilly. Sometimes speaking quietly shouts loudest.

*  *  *  *
[Helen wrote me on 17 January about a performance that had just opened here in New York but which she had seen four-and-a-half years ago in Tel Aviv.  “I was very moved when I saw it four years ago,” she told me of Nalagaat's Not by Bread Alone. “This is a theater company comprised of deaf/blind/deaf and blind people.”  She sent me her JP review and strongly recommended I catch it while it was here.  (A feature on the company, Nalagaat, and the performance ran in the New York Times on 16 January, the day the production opened here.  “2 Senses Missing, 3 Others Step Up” by Isabel Kershner is really a review of a Tel Aviv performance with a little extra commentary threaded through.)  I plan to try to get to the show, which is at NYU, just a few blocks south of my apartment, and I’ll certainly write something about it myself if I do.]

Not by Bread Alone
Directed by Adina Tal
Nalagaat Theater

This is theater at its most pure, the kind of theater that may have happened before man became verbal, before artifice became art, before it accreted ritual or the "willing suspension of disbelief".

During the kneading, shaping, rising and baking of bread, the 11 deaf and blind actors of Nalagaat play their pain, dreams and fantasies for the audience they cannot see or hear, and whose applause they sense because their guides/translators pat their shoulders. Some speak, some do not, but all are eloquent because all speak the truth of their hearts. They move assuredly about the stage, they are comfortable with their actions, they communicate with the audience, they perform. They are professional. They are also infinitely moving because they so infinitely believe.

Each of the cast offers unique moments, but among them Batsheva Rabanseri's graceful body-language and Mark Yaroski's clowning stand out.

[According to the company’s website, the Nalagaat Deaf-Blind Acting Ensemble was founded to integrate deaf and blind people into the community, promote their needs and aspirations, and provide them with the opportunity to express themselves and exercise one of the most basic rights: to contribute to society. 

[By performing on the stage, the actors of the Nalagaat Theater Deaf-Blind Acting Ensemble are given an opportunity to express themselves creatively and give their audience a meaningful experience.  The show enhances public awareness to the fact that deaf and blind people need to be accepted as equal citizens and promotes universal values of solidarity, mutual respect, tolerance, and coexistence.

[The first production of the Deaf-Blind Acting Ensemble, Light is Heard in Zig Zag, was performed throughout Israel and abroad with great success, receiving rave press reviews.  Its second production, Not by Bread Alone, began on stage at the “Nalaga’at” Center at the Jaffa port.

[The Nalagaat Theater (the name is Hebrew for “Please Do Touch”) offers its audience an artistic and human experience and seeks to change people’s perceptions and views.  It aims at interconnecting social groups and communities through art and emotion, regardless of faith, races, or cultural background.  The general public is invited to meet quite an unusual group of deaf and blind people who are creative, self-sufficient, and joyful, and who wish to present their audience with a wonderful gift: the gift of art.

[The Deaf-Blind Acting Ensemble of the Nalagaat Theater is composed of 11 actors.  Some of them are totally deaf and blind, others have remains of sight and hearing abilities.  Each Nalagaat actor is accompanied at rehearsals and on stage by a personal interpreter. Most of the actors suffer from Usher Syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes deafness and a gradual vision loss associated with the eye disease retinitis pigmentosa. This illness develops during adolescence or later and causes sight loss and ultimately complete blindness.  Being engaged at the theater on a permanent basis is crucial for increasing the actors’ self-confidence and for improving interpersonal communication skills.  It also helps to reduce their solitude and social isolation by meeting audiences of people who can see and hear or people with other types of disabilities.

[Most deaf-blind people are capable of communicating only with a person who knows ‘tactile sign-language.’  At Nalagaat, we developed various methods of communication through the years and the group members communicate in many different ways determined by the nature of their condition.  For example, Itzik uses the hand-palm alphabet—which is tapped on his hand (each joint on the hand being a Hebrew letter); however, when Yuri wants to communicate with Itzik, he taps in Braille.  Yuri, Igor, and Mark use Russian sign language interpreted to them by Tikva.  In addition, she interprets Genia’s spoken Russian into Hebrew and into Israeli sign-language.  Nahch’e speaks in a loud voice near Shoshana’s and Genia’s ears since they both have remains of audition, and Miki, a deaf interpreter, observes another tactile sign language interpreter and passes it on to another member of the group.]


18 January 2013

'Seven Guitars' (2006)

[On 14 December 2012, I published my performance report on the Signature Theatre revival of August Wilson’s Piano Lesson, one of the most excellent theater experiences I’ve ever had.  I noted in passing in that report that I had seen Wilson’s Seven Guitars, directed by the same artist, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, at that theater in 2006.  (STC devoted its 2006-07 season to the works of Wilson, who had died in October 2005, as the company and the writer were planning the retrospective.)  Though that season predates the launching of ROT, I was writing play reports for a select audience at the time, so  I thought it would be an interesting exercise to reach back into my archive and publish the old report on Seven Guitars, the play in Wilson’s American Century Cycle that covers the 1940s. Written in 1995, it’s the play that immediately follows The Piano Lesson in the cycle’s sequence and is the only play Wilson wrote in the series that’s directly connected to another one: 1999’s King Hedley II, which revisits some of the same characters in 1985.]

Well, Diana Multare, my subscription partner, and I managed to get to see August Wilson’s Seven Guitars Friday evening, 13 October, at the Peter Norton Space—but it was touch-and-go for a moment.  We just seem to have bad luck with that show!  Our originally-scheduled performance last month was canceled at the last minute—we had actually gotten to the theater before we learned—because a member of the cast got sick and Signature Theatre doesn’t use understudies.  Friday night, an actor had an accident on stage (or just off stage—I’m not sure where it happened exactly) and apparently gave himself a small cut just above his right eye.  They had to stop the scene—one early in the show—so he could exit and have it attended to backstage.  Then they returned about 15 minutes later, rewound a few beats, and picked up again.  Since I haven’t seen any other performances, I don’t have the basis for a real judgment, but as far as I could tell, the work was as strong as it probably would have been if they hadn’t had the mishap and the interruption.

I suppose that’s the big “news” for this show—the acting (and the directing) was superb.  This was one of the best ensemble casts I’ve seen in a very long time—everyone was solid, alive, and in touch with one another; no one seemed to be overshadowing anyone else, and they were all in the same play.  I’ll single out two performers, but mostly because of their characters—though, of course, it’s important to add that the actors communicated those characters exceptionally.  First, Kevin T. Carroll, who plays Canewell, just seemed to be in a  kind of special spotlight (not literally, of course).  I can’t really say why his performance stood out for me—he was just real, though so were his comrades, and at the same time, special.  I’m going to take a wild-ass guess here, but what it felt like to me was that Carroll wasn’t doing straight Stanislavsky, with all that inside work.  It seemed as if he was working from some portion of the British method, which is more technical.  Not exclusively—he didn’t come off as technical.  You can often tell when one actor in a cast is working externally while the rest are working internally.  No, what I felt was that he somehow blended the two techniques so that he enhanced the Stanislavskian verisimilitude so that his Canewell was more sharply etched.  I don’t even know if that makes any sense.  (This is the role for which Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the director of this revival, got his supporting-actor Tony.)

The other actor who stood out was Charles Weldon who plays Hedley.  The character is a little contrived—Wilson makes him slightly nuts so that he can get away with being oversized and outrageous—but Weldon pulls it off marvelously.  (I will cavil that his accent was a little confusing.  At first I thought the character was West Indian—I saw this play back when it was on Broadway in ’96, but I don’t recall this aspect of the role—but I realized from the lines that he’s from Louisiana, and it’s Cajun-spiced speech—bayou English, I guess (as opposed to Louis Armstrong “Southern Brooklyn.”  It wasn’t a significant problem.)  Hedley, of course, is the character that connects to the ‘80s play in the series (Seven Guitars is set in 1948), King Hedley II.  (One of the women in Seven Guitars is pregnant, and even though Hedley—whose actual first name is King—isn’t the father, the woman says she’ll name the child after him; that would make the child ”King Hedley II.”)

By the way, there’s a cop series on now, The Wire on Showtime cable.  The actor who plays Floyd Barton, the focal character of Seven Guitars, is Lance Reddick who plays Lt.—now Capt.—Daniels in that show.  (He’s the actor who had the accident at the start of the performance.)

Seven Guitars is really a study in Wilson’s work.  He writes terrific characters—characters that actors can just devour—and he captures a milieu, both a moment in time and a place in the world, that sparkles and shines.  Santiago-Hudson and the actors nailed this just about perfectly, I’d say—with tremendous assistance from Richard Hoover’s set.  (I remember complaining about an Arena production of Awake and Sing! a while back that the cast didn’t seem to be living in the play's world.  That was decidedly not true of this troupe.)  Wilson also writes soaring dialogue that is absolutely vernacular prose poetry.  It sounds both natural and extraordinary at the same time.  And he conjures wonderful scenes, little moments of truth and life that are simply magic on stage.  But his plots are rudimentary and meandering.  He doesn’t tell stories—which is certainly his right as a dramatist; he shoots word-photographs, snapshots of a certain world.  It can get a little frustrating watching as he lets his plays go off on little side trips or stay put for a little extra while.  (Wilson’s plays aren’t short.  He’s also not an editor.)  And even when his plot does come to fruition, it’s not necessarily a surprise or a particularly significant event.  The journey, not the destination, is his focus.  But that can be hard on the spectator, I think.  (I remember saying to my companion after seeing Fences with James Earle Jones that if it weren’t for Jones’s performance, the play wouldn’t be very interesting because so little actually happens.  I can’t prove it’s related, but shortly after Jones was replaced by Billie Dee Williams on 2 February 1988, the play closed—26 June.)

One costume question, however:  When did seamless stockings arrive on the market?  In one scene, one of the women strikes a deliberately provocative pose and asks, “Are my stockings straight?”  But they were seamless, so how could anyone really tell?  In 1948, wouldn’t women still have been wearing stockings with seams?  Small point.

In the end, though, I’m very glad I managed to see the production.  It takes an exceptional production to overcome Wilson’s dramaturgical problems, and this one qualifies, no question. 

The next Wilson at the Signature, which I’m not seeing until December, is Two Trains Running, which I also saw on Broadway (with Laurence Fishburn).  I’ve heard that the regular run was sold out within a few days of opening the sales to the public (since Diana and I subscribe, we get advanced notice to book our seats), the run was extended, and the extension is sold out.  (The regular runs are all $15 seats this season due a subsidy the Signature got.  The extensions, however, go for $55 a pop.)   King Hedley II is the third play in the season, and I haven’t seen that one before.  (Actually, I’ve been expecting some theater to announce a presentation of Wilson’s complete cycle since his death, but so far no one I’ve heard about has done so.  My mom told me, though, that the Kennedy Center has announced a series of staged readings of all the plays next year.)
[When I wrote this report, which  I sent out on 22 October 2006, I hadn’t established the format I try to use now, which includes, among other elements, a précis of the play’s production history and a survey of the press response.  So here’s a little of what’s left out above:

[Seven Guitars premiered on 21 January 1995, at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and then opened at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston on 15 September. The play débuted on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre on 28 March 1996 under the direction of Lloyd Richards.  It ran for a total of 188 performances, closing on 8 September, winning the 1996 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play and garnering nominations for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the 1996 Drama Desk Award for Best Play, and the 1996 Tony Award for Best Play.  Seven Guitars was revived at STC in the above-reported staging, which started in previews on 31 July 2006 and ran from 24 August to 7 October.  The production won a 2007 Obie Award for Roslyn Ruff, who played Berniece in The Piano Lesson, for her performance as Vera.

[In the New York Times, Ben Brantley wrote that the “rich, music-drenched drama” was revived “with the intimacy and warmth of a fraternal embrace” by director Santiago-Hudson and a cast of “seven ensemble members whose characters you come to know as if you had been seeing them every day for years.”  Brantley summed up his assessment by saying that “this production could scarcely be bettered as a reminder of the life force that courses through every word.”  Joe Dziemianowicz called the revival “superb” in New York’s Daily News, staged “with assurance” by Santiago-Hudson and Frank Scheck of the New York Post wrote that Santiago-Hudson “provided a perfectly pitched production” for the play’s “diffuse narrative [which] is rambling and unfocused” but “features rich dialogue and characterizations, and displays a texture and authenticity rarely seen.”  Michael Feingold of the Village Voice reported that Santiago-Hudson “directed this revival with colloquial ease and speed, steering carefully past the temptation, ever present in Wilson's scripts, to turn oratorical.”  In Variety, David Rooney asserted that “while Santiago-Hudson has a firm hold on the language and an elegant sense of stage composition, his weaker narrative and thematic grasp point up the play's flaws.”  Time Out New York’s David Cote declared that “Santiago-Hudson’s magisterial but exuberant production revels in bone-deep, heartfelt performance and the infectious, stirring musicality” but in New York magazine, Jeremy McCarter demurred that STC’s Seven Guitars was only “a sometimes gratifying new revival” because, he pronounced, “a really satisfying revival needs something close to perfection—closer than this, anyway.”

[The STC August Wilson Season went on to present Two Trains Running (7 November 2006-28 January 2007), the 1991 play that’s set in 1969, and King Hedley II (20 February-22 April 2007).  I have reports on both of those performances as well, of course, and I may post them on ROT at some future point as it seems appropriate or interesting.  As Fats Waller famously used to say: “One never knows, do one?”] 

13 January 2013

“‘Not Everyone Gets, Or Deserves, A Gold Star’”

by Dwight Garner

[The following article was originally published in the New York Times Magazine on 15 August 2012.  Because I’ve been a reviewer for theater and have written about reviewing and criticism on ROT (“On Reviewing,” 22 March 2009; “The Power of the Reviewer—Myth or Fact?” 23 and 26 January 2011; “Reviewing The Situation: Spider-Man & the Press,” 20 March 2011), where I’ve also posted other articles and comments about the subject (most notably by my friend Kirk Woodward: The Art of Writing Reviews by Kirk Woodward,” 4, 8, 11, and 14 November 2009; “Bernard Shaw, Pop Culture Critic,” 5 September 2012), I thought Dwight Garner’s remarks were both apt and informative—not to mention amusing (always an asset).  This commentary is specifically about literary criticism, but many of the observations hold true for all kinds of critical writing, regardless of field and irrespective of whether the writing is criticism as Kirk and I define it (viewing “works within a larger cultural context . . . primarily in order to expand awareness of the art, or even of life”) or reviewing (looking “at works as single objects in themselves . . .to tell people whether or not it’s worth their while to see”).  I believe it goes without saying (which always means someone’s going to say it anyway) that criticism and reviewing are endeavors endlessly worth . . . well, reviewing.  ~Rick]

In the spring of 1983, Esquire convened what it called a revenge symposium. The editors asked a group of well-known writers to “let go unbridled comments” on their harshest and least favorite critics. The results were spectacular.

Jim Harrison called his detractors “tweed fops” and “snack-food artists.” Roy Blount Jr. declared about Larry McMurtry, who panned one of his books: “I hear he is absurdly, egregiously — especially in a cowboy hat — short.” Erica Jong recalled that Paul Theroux, while reviewing her novel “Fear of Flying,” referred to her as a “mammoth pudenda.” (Actually he was referring to the novel’s main character.) She replied: “Since Mr. Theroux has no personal acquaintance with the organ in question, I cannot help but wonder whether some anxieties about his own anatomy were at the root (as it were) of his review.”

It hurts to be criticized, and there is exhilaration in firing back, sometimes literally. The novelist Richard Ford, after a dismissive review from Alice Hoffman in The New York Times Book Review in 1986, shot bullets through one of her novels and mailed the mutilated thing to her. “My wife shot it first,” he reportedly said. Years later he spat in public upon the novelist Colson Whitehead, who had harshly reviewed another of his books. Afterward Whitehead commented, “This wasn’t the first time some old coot had drooled on me, and it probably won’t be the last.”

Ford is old-school. Most of us, when confronted with painful words, can’t resort to firearms or loogies, as much as we’d enjoy it. Instead we stew. We struggle to be as chipper as the novelist Kingsley Amis, who commented that a bad review could ruin breakfast but should not ruin lunch. It probably helped that Amis drank at lunch.

We can learn from writers’ responses to unvarnished opinions. Above all we don’t wish to follow the example of May Sarton. When one of her novels was panned in The New York Times Book Review in the late 1970s, she essentially curled up into a fetal ball for months. She detailed this experience in an abysmal book titled, “Recovering: A Journal” (1980).

"I felt,” Sarton wrote, “like a deer shot down by hunters.” Paul Fussell, the historian and critic, pounced on this comment. “The deer does not,” he reminded her, “emerge from the privacy and silence of the woods, come to the edge, wag its antlers at the hunters and invite them to take some shots.”

I’m a professional book critic, someone who is paid, week in and week out, to take some of those shots. It’s a job that mostly suits my temperament. I like people — artists and civilians — who aren’t rude or censorious but who aren’t mush-mouthed either. Since childhood I’ve been a loather of America’s feel-good, everyone-on-tiptoes culture. Give me some straight talk. Give me a little humor. Give me something real. Above all, give me an argument.

My parents are lovely, polite and religious people who raised me to, if I had nothing nice to say, say nothing at all. But I secretly, I think, longed to be the febrile child of a couple like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” left to grow like a weed between gin-soaked couches. I wanted brewing drama. I wanted to be where the words and cocktail glasses were flying.

Working as a critic, you learn to duck incoming words and shards of shattered cocktail glasses. I’ve developed pretty thick skin. Critics take a beating, especially in popular culture. Jean Sibelius’s observation — “No statue has ever been erected to a critic” — seems to be cited somewhere weekly. As well-known quotations go, this one strikes me as especially banal. It implies something disheartening about our culture.

The best work of Alfred Kazin, George Orwell, Lionel Trilling, Pauline Kael and Dwight Macdonald (to name just a few of the past century’s most perceptive critics) is more valuable — and more stimulating — than all but the most first-rate novels. That Brooklyn lacks an Alfred Kazin statue is almost enough to make a bookish type want to move to Oxford, England — or at least to Oxford, Miss.

One case against critics was made, plaintively and memorably, by Dave Eggers, in a 2000 interview in The Harvard Advocate. Here’s a bit of what he said:

Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic, and I wish I could take it all back, because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them. It is a [expletive] of work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but Christ, this is what matters. What matters is saying yes.

I’m a terrific admirer of Eggers’s (who several years ago, I should note, contributed the introduction to a short book of mine), and part of me loves this speech. It’s rousing. It’s like something from the end of a version of “Rudy,” set in an indie bookstore. I can imagine it on a T-shirt.

At risk of ambushing him for something he said more than a decade ago, however, most of me deplores it. Eggers is arguing in uplifting tones for mass intellectual suicide. When a work of art makes you feel or think things, he suggests, keep those things to yourself. He is proposing a zombie nation, where wit and disputation go to die. A place no thinking person above the age of 7 would want to spend an afternoon. Everyone would, on the up side, get a gelato.

The sad truth about the book world is that it doesn’t need more yes-saying novelists and certainly no more yes-saying critics. We are drowning in them. What we need more of, now that newspaper book sections are shrinking and vanishing like glaciers, are excellent and authoritative and punishing critics — perceptive enough to single out the voices that matter for legitimate praise, abusive enough to remind us that not everyone gets, or deserves, a gold star.

The novelist Reynolds Price, who died last year, paused to note the sorry status of book sections in his 2009 memoir, “Ardent Spirits.” When he was starting out in the 1950s, he wrote, a first novel in America received about 90 individual reviews; now a decent first novel is lucky to get 20. Most of those will be amiable squirts of plot description topped, like a lemon slice on a Diet Coke, with the dread weasel-word “compelling.”

If I’ve developed a tough hide in my professional life, away from my laptop I’m as sensitive as anyone else. More so, perhaps. I brood over slights. I possess greatest-hits collection of wounds on my psyche from cutting comments. I can call them up with a mental click, like YouTube clips.

No one likes to be criticized. The sound grates on our ears; it can appear to threaten our status, at work and at home. John Adams said it beautifully: “The desire of the esteem of others is as real a want of nature as hunger, and the neglect and contempt of the world as severe a pain as the gout or stone.” If you have ever had a bit of gout, you will appreciate the keenness of that observation.

I think about literary and cultural criticism all the time. But some days, when my wife and I are letting fly at each other, or when I’m blowing it by being too stern with my children — who was it that said all fathers are Republicans, while all mothers are Democrats? — or when I’m on the receiving end of criticism from my editors, I think I know nothing about words and their power to sting or inform at all.

What is criticism? Karl Marx had a pretty good idea. On a perfect day in a perfect world, he wrote, a happy citizen might “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening” and, finally and best of all, “criticize after dinner,” perhaps with a bottle of wine on the table.

Marx understood that criticism doesn’t mean delivering petty, ill-tempered Simon Cowell-like put-downs. It doesn’t necessarily mean heaping scorn. It means making fine distinctions. It means talking about ideas, aesthetics and morality as if these things matter (and they do). It’s at base an act of love. Our critical faculties are what make us human.

When hard words do come your way, there are many ways to react. Magazines and self-help books are full of advice about smiling through it and saving your defense for later. About giving yourself 48 hours to sulk. About not focusing on the messenger. About, as the Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields song has it, picking yourself up and dusting yourself off.

To writers, Edna St. Vincent Millay offered the wisest counsel. It rings down the decades. “A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down,” she said. “If it is a good book, nothing can hurt him. If it is a bad book, nothing can help him.” In so many words, she was saying, “Believe in yourself.” It’s a message we all need to hear.

It’s an interesting time to be a critic. There aren’t so many of us left, and we’re being squeezed from all sides at the exact same moment that new mediums like Twitter and Yelp have become all opinion, all the time, with little in their digitized streams of yak that a critic might recognize as real criticism.

I’m a fan of Twitter, and I love Jonah Peretti’s funny/mean comparison of it to the homelier Facebook. “Twitter is a simple service used by smart people,” Peretti wrote. “Facebook is a smart service used by simple people.” But Twitter defangs its smart people. On it, negative words have the same effect as a bat flying into a bridal shower.

In a smart article in Slate earlier this month, “Against Enthusiasm,” Jacob Silverman nailed the way that Twitter, at least for writers, has become a “mutual-admiration society” and thus is filled with peril for literary culture.

“If you spend time in the literary Twitter- or blogospheres,” Silverman wrote, “you’ll be positively besieged by amiability, by a relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing that all new books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer’s biggest fan.”

This isn’t just shallow, he added, it’s untrue. And the constant fake fraternizing has made genuine, honest opinion feel unduly harsh, a buzz kill from the gods. “Reviewers shouldn’t be recommendation machines,” Silverman added, “yet we have settled for that role, in part because the solicitous communalism of Twitter encourages it.”

Bravo, young Silverman! (Please retweet.)

Until you work up the nerve to say what you think and stand behind it, young critics and fellow amiable tweeters, there’s always the advice the critic George Seldes gave in the title of his 1953 memoir: “Tell the Truth and Run.”