27 July 2013

'Landscape of the Body' (2006)

[On 27 June, I published my report on John Guare’s latest work, 3 Kinds of Exile.  In it, I noted that the playwright had written original songs for one of the pieces in the trilogy, “Funiage,” mentioning that Guare had earlier written songs for Landscape of the Body in 1977.  I saw a Signature Theatre Company revival of Landscape (16 April-28 May  2006 at the Peter Norton Space), so I thought I’d make a spot to publish this pre-ROT report on the blog, just for the curiosity value—and for the sake of completeness.  As you’ll read, this was one of the rare occasions when I wasn’t pleased with STC’s script selection.  ~Rick]

I saw the revival of John Guare’s 1977 Landscape of the Body at the Signature Rep here on 18 April [2006] and it was, to put it simplistically, a disappointment.  Ben Brantley gave it a rave in the Times a day or so before I saw the performance, especially singling out the two female leads.  (The review appears on line at http://theater.nytimes.com/2006/04/17/theater/reviews/17body.html.)  I went into the show expecting to like it, even wanting to, if you know what I mean.  I’ve had serious problems with Brantley’s criticism since he became the Times’ main theater reviewer, and I have mostly come to discount his judgment and just read him for description and whatever objective information he provides.  We have differed so often, in both directions, that I have concluded he and I don’t see the same shows.  (I may have once explained that I think Brantley, who doesn’t associate with anyone in the New York theater scene, experiences things, including plays, in his own imagination, not in the same reality in which the rest of us experience things.)  Nevertheless, because Landscape wasn’t a new play but a “known quantity,” if you will, and because I generally like Guare, I was prepared to like the play despite the dichotomy of my responses with Brantley’s.  Even a stopped clock, as a friend used to like to say, is right twice a day.  I shoulda gone with my instincts.

I wanted to like Landscape so much, it took several scenes before I realized that it’s a confused, and possibly self-indulgent, mess.  I tried at first to see if the production was to blame, but it wasn’t.  Brantley had praised the stagework heavily, comparing it favorably to the previous Signature show, the wonderful revival of Horton Foote’s Trip to Bountiful.  [I posted my old report on this terrific production on ROT on 25 May.]  He asserted that that was the definitive revival of the Foote play—an opinion I actually won’t argue with (except to caution that “definitive” in live theater is a dubious claim, no matter how good something is)—and that this staging of Landscape would do for Guare’s 1977 play what the earlier one did for Foote’s 1957 masterpiece.  Uh-uh—no way.  It’s not that the acting or directing was lacking, but that the play just isn’t for Guare what Bountiful is for Foote.  The Foote’s a wonderful evocation of a world which the playwright created and populated, then revisited—with us along for the rides—on many subsequent occasions.  His characters are lovingly-created human beings with personalities, foibles, quirks, failings, and strengths.  They ebb and flow, just like those in real people (except to more dramatic consequence, of course).  The plays seem slight—because the slice of the Foote world he lets us see each time is small, but not inconsequential—but they’re not.  None of this was in evidence in Landscape. 

Allowing that Guare doesn’t deal in the realities that Foote does, it’s not entirely fair to compare the two in all aspects, but when Guare goes off into his Dadaistic world, like in House of Blue Leaves or the one-act Day for Surprises, you go along with him, accepting the absurdities and nonsequiturs as parts of that world.  Landscape is just incredible—in the sense of ‘not credible.’  The coincidences are too silly to be world-shaking, the characters are all too eccentric to be anything but that—eccentric (as opposed to somehow following the dictates of a parallel reality).  There are too many of them thrown into the situation, as if Guare had all these queer folk left over from past scripts and decided to use them all up in one fell swoop.  And too many of the main quirks assigned to each character seemed irrelevant, as if they were just selected to make us ask, ‘What’s going on here?’ but without ever answering the question.  The (male) travel agent boss, Raulito (Bernard White), wears a gold lamé evening gown . . . because when he was growing up in Cuba, he thought that’s how all rich Americans dressed (ooookaaaay).  But what’s the dramatic point of that?  So he can get shot in an apparent bank robbery wearing the dress?  Why?  The nutsy southern (and why does he have to be southern—because they’re all nutsy somehow?) suitor, Durwood Peach (Jonathan Fried), is allowed to leave the protection of his clinic and grand estate back home to come up to woo Betty, with the blessing of both his mother and . . . his wife.  Why?  Because the only way to get Betty out of his system is to let him make the trip—alone, with thousands of bucks in cash.  And of course, Betty (Lili Taylor) goes back south with him.  Why?  Just so she can leave her 14-year-old son, Bert (Stephen Scott Scarpulla—and what’s with all these three-part names nowadays, anyway?), home alone so the plot can happen the way Guare wants it to.  That’s basically all it amounts to—a way to get the plot on track.  All the craziness of the suitor doesn’t accomplish much else, except provide some hoops for the actor to jump through (rather well, I must say, in this case).

The big theatrical coup of Landscape is that the characters sing.  It’s not a musical in the conventional sense, but the main characters all come down front several times and sing.  Rosalie (Sherie Rene Scott), the dead sister (yeah, that’s right) was a nightclub chanteuse wannabe, so she hovers around in a white satin gown, à la Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blonds, and sings her torch songs; Betty contributes several ballads; and Bert does a big rock number that Brantley thought was the bomb.  (Poor Scarpulla, his raspy voice, obviously still in the throes of the change, was almost too painful to listen to.  I wanted to reach for a cough drop just out of sympathy.)  Guare wrote the lyrics and music, and I guess that’s an accomplishment in itself, but I never felt the singing really did anything for the play either theatrically or dramatically.  It was a gimmick, as far as I was concerned.  (Everybody’s gotta have one, you know.)  Reminded me of the bit about the dog who reads the newspaper: It’s not a matter of how well he does it, but the fact that he does it at all.  So, it didn’t matter how effective the songs are, but that Guare wrote them and inserted them into his play.  Harrumph!

I never really figured out what Guare was on about in Landscape.  I was a little embarrassed when a small group of spectators seated next to my friend Diana and me—Diana having gone off to the convenience—turned to me after discussing their confusion among themselves and asked what I thought the play was about.  I couldn’t answer.  (I actually thought briefly of lying and making up an answer.  I had been a grad student in theater, for Pete’s sake—I could certainly come up with some bullshit or other.  I decided on a sheepish grimace of shared confusion and left it at that.  Brave soul that I am.)  Brantley says things like “‘Landscape’ identifies the human condition as an almost unbearable wistfulness,” that it “locat[es] the loneliness in the celebrity-besotted American culture of the late 20th century” and “identifies the unbearable wistfulness of being.”  What does any of that MEAN? 

As directed by Michael Greif, according to Brantley, Guare is illustrating the “obsession with fabulous fame and conspicuous wealth, qualities perceived as infinitely desirable and equally unobtainable” in America, “a lyrical and sordid world where tabloid prurience has become a religion.”  Okay, maybe he is—but that seems a slight and well-worn point that can’t really bear up under the weight of so much contrivance, I don’t think.  I didn’t see the play in ’77, but I remember when it played at Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival and I remember feeling that it wasn’t anything I wanted to see.  I probably should have remembered that feeling.


22 July 2013


by Helen Eleasari

[Helen’s been a friend for a great number of years now, as readers of ROT will already know.  A few weeks ago, she wrote me that she and her daughter had just gotten back from a five-day visit to Berlin between Sunday, 16 June, and Friday, 21 June.  She commented off-handedly, “I remember your telling me that you were stationed in Berlin – isn't that right?”  It is, in fact—also as ROTters might recall (I’ve written about some of my experiences there often enough!).  I spent 2½ years between 1971 and 1974 in West Berlin—it was a divided city then—as a U.S. Army intelligence officer.  Needless to say, Cold War Berlin was vastly different from the 21st-century reunified city Helen and her daughter saw.  (For a comparison of “my” city with the one Helen and Rava visited, see “The Berlin Wall,” 29 November 2009, and “Berlin Station,” 19 and 22 July 2009.) 

[Helen originally composed this journal in note form after her return to Tel Aviv, with truncated syntax and abbreviations which she asked me to expand and adjust.  (I checked with her whenever I had questions, so her intent was never altered.)  I also took the opportunity now and then to insert remarks for clarification, translation (both to and from German as well as Helen’s British usage), or just personal asides.  Those insertions are all enclosed in brackets so readers can distinguish my prose from Helen’s own.  (The dates in the headings below are when Helen composed each section of her journal.)  ~Rick]

*  *  *  *
Berlin today is 'just a big city' that tries not to be burdened by its past, a remark that might well be hindsight, because while we were in Berlin, My daughter Rava and I were too busy soaking up impressions and looking at things. We neither of us spoke to a single echt [it means ‘real’ ~Rick] Berliner. We neither of us spoke more than 3½ words of German . . . and I don't know why. Nor did anybody speak to us.

There are thousands of Israelis living and working in Berlin. We didn't meet a one of them, or any Israeli tourists, except for one time in a subway station poring over a map, and then, strange coincidence, the same family appeared at Corroborree in Sony Center. I said nothing to Rava, who'd not noticed.

Our hotel was in a Muslim area, or apparently a largely Muslim area. Whether these were descendants of former gastarbeiter [‘guest workers’—immigrant laborers] or not, I couldn't say because they all spoke German.

By the way – at no time was public transportation crowded, nor were the streets traffic-clogged, not even at rush-hour. Alex explained to us that a lot of people had already gone on vacation – once the kids were out of school, the families take off. Out in the country, like on the way to Treptow and Potsdam, we saw enclaves of little vacation homes, each with its own patch of garden to which families come for a 'pastoral' summer. [These are sometimes called Grünstücke, “patches of green,” and often contain little more than a hut or lean-to surrounded by a large vegetable or flower garden where Germans spend a sunny afternoon or warm evening with a snack and a glass of tea, beer, or wine while they garden or just relax.  Some more substantial Grünstücke include houses in which the owners can spend a weekend or longer. ~Rick]


Here I am, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed after the best night’s sleep I’ve had since we left for Berlin last Sunday [16 June].

Naturally (for me), I did not sleep a wink before leaving for airport at 0245 [that’s 2:45 a.m. in American—what we’d have called “oh dark thirty” in the army ~Rick]. Rava, who can sleep anywhere, immediately dove into a deep sleep on the plane for a couple of hours, so that by the time we got to our hotel I was quite literally reeling with exhaustion.

The Pension Galerie is on Hedemannstrasse, a quiet street . . . if you type in “pension galerie berlin” in a search engine, you’ll get to the site . . . then go to pix 58 & 59 on the photo gallery and you’ll see our room.

It was on the ground floor in the back of the building overlooking a courtyard into which the sun never penetrated. Given that it was blisteringly hot every day we were there – this was a very good deal as the room stayed cool and comfortable. Indeed, we were snug there and enough drawer space for five times as much luggage as we brought. Rava and I travel light.

Anyway, on arrival we were offered breakfast which we gratefully accepted . . . and then both of us fell into bed. I managed to sleep for a couple of hours, and then it was off exploring. We didn’t do much that first day – walked up to the Potsdamer Platz, a huge space dominated by the glass cupola of the Sony Center.

Deciding that a cup of coffee and a piece of cake were called for we trotted over the Artscafe down the block where sitting in a window alcove with delicious coffee and a piece of rhubarb (sorry!) streuselkuche [crumb cake in American] we looked down (or up) the Pariser Platz toward the Brandenburger Tor [the Brandenburg Gate] – Berlin’s indisputable signature landmark – gleaming goldenly in the sunlight.

We didn’t actually get there. I was too tired, and beside we had The Marriage of Figaro at the Komische Oper in the evening. We went back to the hotel, rested, then Rava went out in search of food, coming back with crispy duck, rice and Thai rolls.

Then off to the opera, a modern conception of Figaro with an incredibly inventive and saucily irreverent direction – Mozart would probably have loved it, but I found it a bit cluttered. The second half wasn’t quite so busy. The set was dominated by a huge square pillar which rose to reveal at least a cwt. of apples [that’s a hundredweight, equivalent to 112 lbs.]. Yes. Real ones. Why??? Original temptation of Eve??? And nobody related to them, except Susannah in passing. Never mind. All the really lovely bel canto arias are in the second half anyway so we just sat there and melted even more because musically and vocally it had sparkled from the first notes of the overture.

I woke up with a headache because of the down pillow – later changed to fiberfill – but it quickly cleared. Then off to the Berlin landmarks – the gate, the lovely Marienkirche [St. Mary’s Church] that miraculously escaped the World War II bombing that flattened most of Berlin, the Nikolaiviertel [Nicholas Quarter] which is now the only remnant of medieval Berlin – though most houses were 18th-and 19th-century.

Speaking of destruction, what characterizes Berlin is construction. Everywhere, but everywhere those huge cranes loom like a swarm of mantises – do they swarm? The whole center of the famed Unter den Linden is fenced off while they do something with the subway system.

From the Brandenburger Tor we walked to the Holocaust Memorial, but I didn't remember that until I looked at our pictures. That happened after I'd written this “Berlin diary.” I saw the series of shots I took, and realized I'd blocked it from memory.  The Holocaust Memorial is overwhelming, huge, obtrusive, ugly and shocking as it's meant to be. A huge oblong of nameless concrete 'tombstones' of different heights and thickness. You notice the first one of 2 cm. [a little over ¾ of an inch] thick, laid in the pavement, by chance. The narrow, uneven alleyways between the stones are claustrophobic. The associations come thick and fast, of ghettos, of the paths to the gas chambers, of depersonalization, of despoiled cemeteries, of despair, oppression. Not many people were there. We noticed young people dancing on top of one of the tombs. Children play on them, and that too is intentional.

Rava said, “Imagine all the people in those fancy apartments looking out of their windows at this. Bet they didn't anticipate the memorial when they bought them.”

No. But I couldn't feel for them.

In the afternoon Alex, a colleague of Rava’s who lives in Berlin, picked us up in his car and off we went to the Russian War Memorial at Treptow, the site of the former chancellery of the “1000-Year Reich” and other places most tourists don’t get to. He also fed us all kinds of info, for instance that while Berlin has a central mayor, the city is actually divided into several small towns, each with its own council and mayor!

Of all the things I saw in Berlin that memorial was the most moving. it’s a place of pilgrimage for Russians on May 9 [Victory Day in Russia and the former Soviet republics, celebrating the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945] to this day.

It’s huge, little h, an epic place where in four mass graves in the center of an immense green lawn are buried the 7,000 Russian soldiers who fell in the battle for Berlin [called the Berlin Strategic Offensive Operation by the Soviet Union, 16 April-2 May 1945]. It’s anchored at each end by an immense and very fine granite statue: a grieving Mother Russia at one end and her son at the other – about a kilometer [a little over 1000 yards] away at the opposite end of the lawn.

The entrance is two immense triangular cenotaphs [an empty tomb, a monument in honor of people whose remains lie somewhere else], each with its own grieving soldier. There’s nothing abstract here, just naked sorrow and – as I saw it – the sculptor also snuck in reverence.

The red marble cladding (is that proper name for it?) on the cenotaphs was taken from the ruins of Hitler’s chancellery (according to rumor) – the site of which Alex also took us to. Today it’s an apartment house and where the Führerbunker stood is a parking lot. There’s a diagram of the bunker at the site. The Soviets filled the place with concrete so nothing grows there and nothing can be built. It’s small, shabby, insignificant . . . so marvelously ignominious.

After the memorial we drove to the river bank for a beer on a barge – Rava loves beer and she drank it every day with our main meal!!! It was so pretty there. The Spree River meandering beneath us, the forest of Treptow Park at our backs.

We finished the evening with liver, apples and onions [for the culinarily challenged, this is known as Leber und Zwiebel Berliner art—“liver and onions Berlin style” ~Rick] at a ‘typical’ Berlin resto/bar.

Must say though that Rava did her usual thing with maps and got us unerringly where we wanted to be. She loves it. A typical Rava pose on vacation is her poring over the map which, by the end of the holiday, is falling apart!!


Day 3 was Museum Island [Museumsinsel] where we visited the Neues and Pergamon Museums for, respectively, In Light the of Amarna:100 Years of the Nefertiti Discovery and Uruk: 5000 Years of the Megacity.

The Neues houses the busts of Nefertiti and Akhnaton. Of course, there’s no way of knowing whether the busts on view are the originals, but seeing the actual Nefertiti in the flesh, as it were, was glorious. The Amarna exhibition itself was a disappointment, being a record of 100 years of excavations at the Amarna site where Nefertiti was discovered. The only thing that really stuck in the mind were the wall paintings on the tombs.

At the Pergamon – named for the Altar of Pergamon in Asia Minor [now part of Bergama, Turkey] – we were gobstruck by the 2nd-century BCE altar. The main hall of the Pergamon is a kind of reconstruction of the altar with the frieze running around the side and a huge flight of steps. The gates of Ishtar from ancient Babylon are also there. These latter were shipped to Germany in pieces in 4000 crates prior to WWI – and then, after the war, reassembled. They are beautiful.

The Uruk exhibition was as similarly disappointing as Amarna – we both had the feeling that it wasn’t really geared to the lay public.

Our tenderest memory of the Pergamon (Philistines that we are!) is the piece of mango and blackcurrant torte we shared in the cafe.

We’d already visited Checkpoint Charlie [the official crossing point, located in the former American Sector of the occupied city, between West (Allied-occupied) and East (Soviet-controlled) Berlin during the Cold War era] to take the inevitable pix by the noticeboard – “You are leaving the American Sector” – and sandbags of the little guard post. But that evening we went to the Checkpoint Charlie Museum which was the life work of human rights activist Dr. Rainer Hildebrandt . . . everything I’m telling you about is extensively documented on the web, of course!!! My point is – we were there.

In a way, the Wall defines Berlin, a huge scar. There’s bits and pieces of it all through the city. Alex took us to the longest still-standing section of it, about 1.6 km. [just under a mile] running alongside one of the broad boulevards the Soviets built. There’s more of it at a place called The Museum of Terror, which we didn’t get to, and which documents the activities of the Third Reich’s infamous Gestapo and SS [on the former site of whose headquarters the Topographie des Terrors is located,]. Western artists were invited to paint panels of it and there are four painted Wall panels on a sidewalk, one by an American artist. It’s just one more instance of how the Wall remains part of Berlin consciousness.. These stand on (I think) Alexanderplatz . . . .  [There is also an exhibition of 105 paintings on Wall panels by artists from all over the world, painted in 1990 on the east side of the Berlin Wall, at the East Side Gallery located on Mühlenstrasse in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg. ~Rick]

Anyway – the museum that provides pictures, records, videos, artifacts, etc., of everything and anything to do with the Wall from the fall of Berlin in 1945 to the fall of the Wall in 1989. We spent a couple of hours there and tottered out, heads reeling. TMI. Oh, but fascinating in every way – especially the methods of escape. One daring chap actually constructed a kind of helicopter from all sorts of cannibalized parts. Took real courage. Close to 1000 people were killed trying to escape from East Berlin. There were Wall Helpers, brave souls who organized escapes and assisted people to escape . . . and so on.

The following morning after breakfast – we were bumped from “our” table for a more favored guest – we went to a market. This was Wednesday [19 June] and the market was ⅞ empty with very few stalls. Oh well. One of them was selling hand-painted pottery from Poland. I bought a wee dish – I have a weakness for ceramics and china – which I ended up giving as a gift to my upstairs neighbor who’d faithfully watered my plants while we were away and whom I’d forgotten to buy a present for.

Another stall sold Italian pastries. There we bought a hefty slice of almond bread to have with coffee later. 

A bonus was the Catholic church nearby that had splendid contemporary black, white and shades thereof stained glass windows. Beautiful. Naturally we had to walk all the way around it to find the entrance – our feet certainly had a workout in Berlin!!

The largest store in the city is KaDeWe. Like Macy’s in New York, it occupies an entire city block and is considered a tourist Must See. [It’s more like Bloomingdale’s than Macy’s in my opinion. ~Rick] So we went. We wanted to get Yoav, Rava’s son and my grandson, a gift and possibly some clothes for Rava, but German women are not built in Rava’s size, so no joy there. The entire 6th floor is the Deli.

“I’m going to the bathroom,” says my daughter, and disappears. After more than 20 minutes I have been to the bathroom twice – no Rava – and am getting frantic, envisioning disaster. I am just about to summon the cavalry when she hoves into sight.

“Where were you?” I almost shriek at her.

“Wandering around,” she says. “Figured you would, too, and that we’d run into each other!”

“No!!!” I retort. “I’ve been waiting right here.”

Oh well.

So she takes me around, especially to the pastry counters . . . and we consume a slice of raspberry torte [Himbeertorte] with our coffee, harmony well-restored.

The guidebook we took with us told us that there are 1800 types of cheese on offer, 1400 breads and 2000 cold cuts. If I’m going to be facetious, and why not, you could eat every day for 4 years or so and never buy the same thing twice.

Wednesday and Thursday [19 and 20 June] were contemporary art days and they’re for part III


You ask whether we ate food other than pastries. Certainly we did. Berlin these days is multi-ethnic foodwise. There are dozens of Italian, Chinese, certainly Turkish eateries everywhere. Remember, I mentioned Thai food before the opera and liver and onions after our sojourn with Alex?

As for the other days . . . Berlin was at the tail end of the asparagus [Spargel] season, the fat, white asparagus that is so delicious on its own, but which gets served in a myriad ways by inventive German chefs, two varieties of which we ate Wednesday and Thursday, as you’ll read.

One detail I didn't mention is that it was HOT! as in 36º C [about 97º F, very hot for Berlin, which is farther north than Fargo, N.D., and Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada ~Rick] on the Thursday, and because Germany, as the UK, isn't geared to expect heat, public transportation, restaurants, etc., aren't air-conditioned. The big KaDeWe (acronym for Kaufhaus des Westens [“the department store of the West”]) thankfully was, and so was the theater, but in the main we sweltered. Mind you, the Berliners, after the worst winter on record for some 60 years, were reveling. All the outside tables of the cafes were packed, packed, packed.

Another little nugget is the day we visited the Brandenburg Gate, workers were erecting a vast outdoor stadium which we learned later was for Obama [who addressed the city from there on Wednesday, 19 June], so it was lucky we went on the Monday [17 June]. The next morning at breakfast one of our hostesses told us that the center of Berlin was in security lockdown, so that there’d be all kinds of traffic jams, as indeed there were, but we managed to avoid them traveling underground.


Back to Wednesday afternoon and the Hamburger Bahnhof, a former subway station now converted to a contemporary art museum. An amazing place! Its central hall featured sculptures and installations, one of which was a bag lady whom I swore was a living statue and which Rava equally swore was a sculpture.

“I saw her blink,” said I. “It’s the one reflex you can’t control.” 

“No way,” said Rava. You imagined it.”

And when we left a couple of hours later, there she still was. I still say she was a living person!!

Another piece that made an impression was a reclining woman made of wax into which the sculptor had placed candles, so that she was gradually melting.

The museum is huge but we managed to see most of the temporary exhibits. The Central hall was one exhibit – entitled Body Pressure: Sculptures Since the 1960s.

Have you ever heard of Martin Kippenberger [1953-97]? I hadn’t. The man was a genius who put out an extraordinary body of work including paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, collaborations, books, pamphlets – you name it. He died at 44 of liver cancer.

The museum is by the river, so we garnered a table outside in the shade and ate asparagus with grilled salmon and a big mixed salad. Delicious. 

Rava took of her shoes and wiggled her toes to the breeze while the river rolled by beneath us.


Made a mistake. It was the Wednesday evening we went to the Checkpoint Charlie Museum.

Thursday we skipped breakfast in order to get an early start for Potsdam, about an hour away from Berlin by subway, train and bus. We had to wait for quite a while for the bus and for some reason, many of the bus-stops have no benches, so if you have to wait, it gets tiring. The bus finally came and we were off to Sanssouci, Frederick the Great’s summer palace.

What they didn’t tell us when we bought tickets – tickets to museums, etc., are costly – was that if we wanted to see the art collection, the kitchens and so on, it cost extra. So we saw only the palace, which is a wee one as palaces go. It’s built like a railroad car, with only 10 rooms. The audio guide told us that guests had to enter their rooms via the French windows. We got an excellent explanation for each room. Frederick, like so many of his contemporaries, was into Chinoiserie, so two of the bedrooms were decorated in an oriental motif. One was like an orchard with fruit, flowers and birds, especially parrots all around the walls and on the ceiling.

He’d built ruins, too, and a Chinese pagoda but we went to neither as it would have meant climbing hills  – not in that heat, thank you. If the palace was small, the grounds made up for it – some 400, or maybe it was 4000, acres of parklands, woods, avenues, fountains, pavilions and so forth.

There’s a resto there, in the park, called the Drachenhaus [Dragon House], to which we went for lunch.

We were lucky. Got there ahead of a huge expected party, so found a table in the shade and ordered carrot mousse wrapped in bacon and a mango asparagus pancake with arugula and ginger cream. Both yummy.

Then back to the hotel for a shower and a rest, and off to the New National Gallery [Neue Nationalgalerie] for cutting-edge contemporary art . . . lots of really huge, arresting canvases, many of which pack a powerful and visceral punch. I was grateful for the chance to see this work. 

Our last meal in Berlin was prosaic fish and chips at the Corroborree Australian resto in the Sony center.

And the next morning it was up at 6, breakfast, and off to the airport for our flight home – well pleased with our Berlin sojourn.

[I’ve known Helen since I directed her in an Off-Off-Broadway production of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan back in the ‘70s.  Born in Britain, she lived in the States for many years before she moved to Tel Aviv, and we keep in touch regularly.  Helen directs English-language plays and musicals in Israel and writes reviews and cultural features for the Jerusalem Post.  Over the years, she’s not only covered the culture beat for JP but she’s done a fair amount of traveling for her own purposes, including two years teaching English at a provincial university in China.  Now and then, Helen sends me articles about the cultural and theater scene in Israel, including the 2012 Acre (Acco) Festival (see her 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, such as Harper Regan in Tel Aviv (attached to my own report of 20 October 2012 as a comment dated 28 October).  Her reviews of an adaptation/interpretation of Euripides’ The Trojan Women directed by Yukio Ninagawa, the Japanese experimental theater artist; a new Israeli play, The Tired Hero by Eldar Galor; and an old review of a show she saw in Tel Aviv that also played in New York City, Not By Bread Alone by Nalagaat, are posted on ROT as “Dispatches from Israel 1” (23 January 2013).]

17 July 2013

Three Ionesco Plays (2004)

[Last 2 July, I published Kirk Woodward’s “Eugene Ionesco,” a consideration of the Absurdist playwright that’s based on Kirk's notes from a lecture given by the writer in 1988.  In the profile, Kirk mentions that I had previously posted a report on a performance of Ionesco’s best-known play, Rhinoceros, on ROT (15 October 2012).  Among my pre-ROT archives, I also have reports on three of his better-known one-acts, icons of the Theater of the absurd.  Two of the plays, The Bald Soprano (Ionesco’s first play, 1950) and The Lesson (1951), were presented on a single bill by the Atlantic Theater Company in Chelsea from 19 September to 17 October 2004.  The third, The Chairs (1952), was staged as part of the 2004 Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in Fort Greene between 1 and 4 December 2004.  As you’ll read, the two productions, which I happened to see six weeks apart during the fall of 2004, differed greatly in success in my estimation.  ~Rick]
The Bald Soprano & The Lesson
Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater
4 October 2004

Diana Multare, my frequent theater partner, and I decided to subscribe this year to the Atlantic Theater Company (which is in Chelsea only a few blocks from my apartment) and their first production is a two-play bill of Ionesco one-acts, The Bald Soprano and The Lesson.  The texts are a new translation by playwright Tina Howe (Painting Churches, Coastal Disturbances, Pride’s Crossing) and the director was Carl Forsman, the artistic director of an Off-Off-Broadway company called the Keen Company.  (I saw a production of their revival of P. G. Wodehouse’s 1927 comedy, Good Morning, Bill, which Forsman directed also.  It was an amusing bit of fluff—fun but meaningless.  Well enough done, though.)  [I’ve subsequently seen two shows directed by Forsman, both for the Keen Company at the Harold Clurman Theatre and both reported on ROT: Heroes by Gérald Sibleyras (26 March 2009) and Tina Howe’s Painting Churches (14 April 2012).]

Overall, this is probably the best Ionesco production I’ve seen [until the Rhinoceros noted above], and certainly the best work of the Atlantic Theater I’ve seen over the several years I’ve gone there on and off.  Ionesco’s not for everyone—or, maybe, not even most people—so the plays may not appeal to one and all, but the presentation is excellent.  (The Lesson is particularly grim.  I think Ionesco does call it a comedy—but that doesn’t keep it from being grim.)  The acting is top-notch all around, but the ensemble work of Soprano and the individual performance of Steven Skybell as the Professor in The Lesson are really examples for acting students.  I imagine that sounds a bit hyperbolic, but the work is that good here.  Clean, clear, solid—all the things that make good lessons for students while at the same time being wonderful experiences for an audience.  It’s like a painting that’s a perfect example of a particular style and at the same time is stunning, moving, and evocative piece of art.  (The nice thing here for a class is that there’s a wonderful example of an ensemble working together to produce delightful group work and another of a single performance that stands out without being selfish.)

(One of the Soprano ensemble is Michael Countryman, who plays Mr. Smith.  I’ve seen him many times over the years, and he’s a character actor who always does excellent work.  He’s one of those actors who works all the time and is always good, but has never gotten famous outside the business—though he used to do many, many commercials at one point several years ago.  Whatever he’s done, I’ve noticed him.  Mrs. Smith is Jan Maxwell, the wife of a long-time actor friend of mine, Rob Lunney—formerly Rob Emmet.  She’s done quite a lot of high-profile work, including Broadway and TV, but Rob was in my productions of both The Gift—he was John Wilkes Booth—and Comes the Happy Hour!—he was the lead, the young patient.  Rob also acted with me in two shows at the Process Studio: Macbeth and Much Ado.  I always felt he deserved a better career.)

The ensemble work in Soprano is rendered even better when you consider how hard it must be to maintain the kind of connection this cast manages with dialogue that is so completely absurd.  I’m sure most theater people know the text of Soprano at least a little—haven’t we all read it at one time or another?—so they probably remember that most lines are non-sequiturs, and even the ones that aren’t are nearly illogical outside the world of the play.  Plus, the characters’ relationships keep shifting unpredictably, so the actors not only have to remember cues pretty much technically, but they have to reestablish their connections to one another every few lines without ever showing that they’ve shifted gears.  I’d guess that the cast, regardless of how they were trained, must all have to do this play entirely technically, but they make it seem as if they are living in a real world.  Not the same as our real world, but real in their diegetic existence.  (It starts, of course, with the famous 17 clock chimes to which Mrs. Smith responds by saying, quite matter-of-factly, “Oh, it’s nine o’clock.”  Doesn’t everyone’s clock chime 17 times for 9 o’clock?)  When the Martins (Robert Stanton and Seana Kofoed) arrive, and the relationship not only between the two couples (and even between Mr. and Mrs. Martin) but with the constantly shifting “facts” of the scene (they’ve eaten, they haven’t eaten; they know one another, they don’t know one another) careers from one set of truths to another, the quality of the ensemble acting really starts to show.  I think this was a preview performance—there was still an occasional tentativeness with some lines—and I kept waiting for it all to break down, even if only for a second.  But it never did.  Of course, a great deal of this feat is down to the director—first of all, for casting these actors to start with.

The set (by Loy Arcenas, who designed both sets) for Soprano was particularly . . . well, absurd, I guess.  It was, of course, the Smiths’ living room, but the wallpaper was flowered, the rug was flowered, and the upholstery was flowered.  But all different flower patterns.  It was like the Queer Eye guys went a little nuts!

I must also compliment Tina Howe on her translations—they were clear and direct without being either stiff or false to the originals.  She had a little insert in the program in which she writes about the difficulties with translation and I skimmed it, but I already know that translating plays, especially French plays for some reason, is always a holding action.  You have a choice of staying true to the original’s language and vocabulary, or trying to judge the author’s intent and being freer with the English to get there.  The first gets stiff and artificial, better for reading off the page than acting on the stage; the second strays from the original’s feel and style and can sound too colloquial and idiomatic.  Howe seemed to have managed to tread a line here, making the text sound both conversational in English (that’s probably not the best word for this dynamic) and artificial, in the sense that Ionesco was deliberately writing artificial French.  (This is esp. true in Soprano because his inspiration was the French and English of a phrase book.)  Samuel Beckett didn’t have this problem so much because he not only did his own translations from French to English, but he pretty much rewrote his plays for the English versions.  They were really two originals—one French and one English; Waiting for Godot, for instance, is a different play from En attendant Godot and there are things in one version that aren’t in the other.  (I compared them once.)  Howe only very occasionally writes a line that sounds a little too much like 21st-century American, and when she does, it sticks out a bit—but it’s not often enough to be harmful.

After the universal disappointments of the 2003-04 theater season in New York City, this was a terrific season-starter.  I was seriously beginning to fear that I had become one of those theatergoers who never likes anything—that maybe the season wasn’t so bad last year, that it was just me.  I hope this proves it isn’t. 

I’ll note here that New York Times critic Charles Isherwood had complaints about both Howe’s texts and the production’s acting.  [Isherwood’s notice is on-line at http://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/20/theater/reviews/20bald.html.]  He felt the translations were a little too contemporary, but I only felt that in passing once or twice, and only because of a word or expression now and then.  The reviewer also felt, particularly in Soprano, that the actors had gotten too psychologically embedded in their roles and situations, too much like Stanislavsky Realism.  I don’t agree, however; I think he was wrong (or had seen an earlier preview or something).

*  *  *  *
The Chairs
Pick Up Performance Company (David Gordon)
Harvey Theater, BAM
13 December 2004
[The report on The Chairs below was part of a longer one that also covered the performance of Woody Allen’s A Second Hand Memory at ATC (22 November 2004-23 January 2005).  For this publication on ROT, I’ve excised the discussion of the other production, though some references still remain.]

I saw two shows over the past two weeks, and I have confirmed two things from the experiences—one bad and one . . . well, interesting.

First, the bad:  The 2004-05 season, after a promising start with the two Ionescos at the Atlantic [coincidentally, published above], has gone downhill precipitously.  The John Jesurun FAUST/How I Rose (Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater, 16-20 November 2004) may have been the low point, but nothing has been very good even by contrast.  (The German Nora, the Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz Berlin’s adaptation of Ibsen’s Doll House at the Harvey, 9-13 November, was, at least, interesting, but there were a lot of serious problems with that, too.)  If the criterion is whether or not I would have been sorry not to have seen the play, then none of the performances since the Ionescos has measured up. 

The second thing I’ve discovered is that Charles Isherwood has been consistently writing reviews of the plays I’ve seen that almost exactly express my opinion.  (His reviews, that is, not the plays.)  If I’ve disagreed with his review of a show now and then at all, it’s been over a minor point (as in this last show) or over his harshness or generosity in stating his opinion on one point or another.  What I mean by this latter is that he and I may agree on some aspect of the performance, but he’ll say it more or less forcefully than I would have.  I’m beginning to find this very strange.  Like I said in a recent message, maybe I ought to give up writing my own reports and just copy Isherwood’s reviews—maybe with a few choice comments.  [Veteran ROTters will know that this hasn’t continued to hold true quite so consistently in more recent seasons.]

With respect to this last remark, I really ought to just download Isherwood’s review of The Chairs I saw at BAM Friday two weeks ago [posted on the New York Times’ website at http://www.nytimes.com/2004/12/03/theater/reviews/03chai.html].  Like the Jesurun, I have no idea what this performance was all about.  Like Jesurun’s FAUST, it wasn’t just a translation of Ionesco and a straightforward attempt to stage his play (if ‘straightforward’ is even a concept you can use vis à vis Ionesco—but leave that aside).  It was another personal take, an idiosyncratic adaptation.  David Gordon—of whom I’d never heard before, but who is apparently known—is primarily a choreographer and he has a thing for chairs, especially metal folding chairs.  Several of his dance and movement pieces have featured chairs as the principal—even only—prop and set piece.  I can’t begin to tell you why Gordon has this obsession or what it means in terms of his performances—film of bits of several of which were featured as a sort of prologue to The Chairs—but I suppose it explains in part why he glommed onto this play.  What he thinks Ionesco’s play means, or what he tried to make it mean, was undecipherable to me.  This is the second play I’ve seen this season which I can’t even begin to interpret—the other being Jesurun’s FAUST—which makes it hard to report on them. 

I can sum up my experience with this performance—ironically by quoting Isherwood: it was “self-indulgent and largely ineffective.”  I missed the Théâtre de Complicité’s recent production here (John Golden Theatre, 1 April-13 June 1998) which was so well received, and Isherwood compares it to Gordon’s version to the detriment of the latter.  I can’t tell you what Gordon was up to, but I can tell you that he removed all the darkness and bleakness as he almost giddily careened around the stage moving the chairs from one configuration to another, carrying them, climbing on them, balancing on the back of one, ramming them into one another, shoving them in whole rows about the stage, as he rambled versions of Ionesco’s words almost gleefully at times.  (By the second half of the performance, Gordon was handed pages of the “script” from which he “read” his lines— Isherwood thought he was really reading and hadn’t learned the lines, but I’m not convinced that was so—and then tossed the pages on the stage, which ended up littered with pieces of paper.  I don’t know what this meant.)  I had trouble focusing on what was going on a lot of the time, so I fazed in and out of attention, but to the best of my perception, Gordon had no Orator (there were several assistants who functioned like stage attendants, moving the rolling door frames—the only other set pieces aside from the chairs—from one location to another as if the entrances to the “room” were unfixed in space) and he and his wife, his principal dancer and actress who played the Old Woman, never jumped out of the window at the end (as far as I could interpret what they were doing—though there was no window for them to jump from anyway, so I guess I can say this with some assurance).  Whatever else Gordon may have done, this sort of takes the guts out of Ionesco’s play, doesn’t it?  Without the deaf-mute Orator who is supposed to pass on the Old Man’s wisdom and without their defenestration, the futility of communication, of life itself—Ionesco’s main point, I believe—is entirely lost.  Turning the bleak and pessimistic dynamic of Ionesco into an antic rant (or a rantic ant) is further counterproductive.  (Gordon even sang bits of “You Are My Sunshine” and “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” just to further subvert the darkness of Ionesco’s play.)

I don’t know what else to tell you—and, like my Jesurun “report,” this seems terribly inadequate.  Those two productions also make me question the perspicacity of the BAM producers in selecting them for presentation—a sense I had after the Nora, too.

[Both these performance accounts, which predate my more formal play reports, were originally e-mails to a friend and didn’t include many of the elements that I later included in the versions I created for my out-of-town friends after 2005 and then, more recently and conscientiously, for ROT.  I’ve edited these slightly to amend my off-hand mentions of events and people the intended recipient would have recognized or which refer to details from earlier messages.  I’ve made an effort to fill in the names of the artists I didn’t identify originally, but for things like the press response to these productions, I’ll let curious readers look up the reviews themselves this time.]