29 August 2014

Bullets Over 'Bullets Over Broadway'

by Kirk Woodward


[Kirk Woodward, a frequent guest blogger on ROT, has come through with another interesting contribution.  Having caught a performance of Woody Allen’s musical stage adaption of his film Bullets Over Broadway, Kirk provides his assessment of the play and the production and as usual, he uses the performance as a way to discuss something more general (dare I say “universal”?) about musical theater.  Readers of ROT will know by now that that’s a subject about which Kirk knows a little something; he’s written on the genre before: “The Scottsboro Brecht,” 12 February 2011; “Theatrical and Popular Songs,” 2 October 2011; “The Jukebox Musical,” 7 October 2011; “Lady Gaga: Artist for Our Time,” 1 November 2011; and “Lady Gaga and Once,” 5 May 2014.


[Given the subject of this post, readers might also want to turn back to my own article “Movicals,” 20 September 2013, and the republished pieces in “More on Movicals,” 21 February 2014.]


I saw the Broadway musical Bullets Over Broadway the Musical, at the St. James Theatre in Manhattan, on Wednesday, August 7, 2014, and by that time the show, which opened on April 10, 2014, had already posted its closing notice for August 24, 2014, by which date it would have run for 33 previews and 124 performances. This makes it, in financial terms, a flop; it cost a reported $14 million to produce, and it will not have made back any of that investment.


Still, there are flops and flops. The show is bound to have a performance afterlife in university and community theater productions. What’s more, it had an afterlife with me too. I left the theater feeling I’d seen an enjoyable but maybe not terribly memorable show. Memorable, however, is what it turned out to be; I found that the next day I was thinking extensively about it, and I came to realize that I’ve learned something important about musical theater because of it.


Bullets Over Broadway is based on a film written (with Douglas McGrath, who this season is represented on Broadway by the book for the musical Beautiful) and directed by Woody Allen. Obviously Allen is a well-known figure, with so many accomplishments to his name that his biography in the program for Bullets reads, in its entirety, “WOODY ALLEN is a film director, actor and writer. His career spans more than six decades, and he has contributed to nightclubs, concert, television, theatre, literature and music.” Indeed he has. In 1994 the film version of Bullets Over Broadway was nominated for six Academy Awards. In 1996, Allen directed a musical film, Everyone Says I Love You, with a score made up of songs from previous decades. In 2014 he combined the two approaches: Bullets Over Broadway, the stage musical, has a score with songs like “Runnin’ Wild,” “I’ve Found a New Baby,” and Cole Porter’s “Let’s Misbehave,” in addition to some less known blues numbers. 


But films and Broadway musicals are significantly different creatures. It is relatively easy for a director to control the tone of a movie; Allen is a master at it. On the other hand, a Broadway musical is notoriously difficult to control, no matter how smooth the process can seem when the results are successful. A song, a situation, a character can run away with a musical, leaving the rest of it looking lost and forlorn. (A good book on this subject is Second Act Trouble by Steven Suskin, published in 2006.)


Woody Allen has experience as a theater director (with the Atlantic Theatre Company), but considering the complexity of the musical theater form, he was wise to enlist as director and choreographer for Bullets the formidable Susan Stroman, who has done remarkable work with shows such as The Producers, Crazy For You, and the stunning John Kander and Fred Ebb musical The Scottsboro Boys


Stroman has the notable ability to understand her assignment. In the case of Bullets, her task was to make the show “go” with machine-like (I almost said machine gun-like) force, so the audience would be carried through certain complexities.


Because . . . there are complexities in the show. It has levels. The most obvious level, perhaps, is the one that must have made it seem likely that the musical would be a financial success: as its title suggests, it promises theatricality. That was Stroman’s department, and she and her colleagues made the most of it. In addition to the vigorous and satisfying dancing (she was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Choreography), she staged the show like, well, like a bullet, with plenty of fast-paced movement. Stroman knows how to shape a song, a scene, or an act, so its climax occurs at just the right moment.


But speaking of bullets, here’s the next level of complexity: the musical is about gangsters who kill people. It’s not that the subject of killing is off limits in Broadway musicals, going at least as far back as George Balanchine’s “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” ballet in the musical On Your Toes (1936), right up through Sweeney Todd. Certainly the violence in Bullets is cartoon style – there’s no blood. But the gangsters of Bullet’s plot are real gangsters, whose jobs involve killing people rather casually, unlike the gangsters in, say, Kiss Me Kate, Guys and Dolls, and The Drowsy Chaperone, who are basically song and dance men in extra large suits. 


Allen needs a certain amount of realism in his gangsters to set up the contrasts in his story, because the next level of the show is a serious theme, set up in an early discussion along these lines: Suppose you could save either the last copy of Shakespeare’s plays, or the life of a down-and-out bum. Which would you save? The show works this question out in varied ways. The Greenwich Village group we see at the beginning of the first act is art- (and politics-) obsessed, and at least one member of the group thinks the question is no contest – he’d save the art rather than the (allegedly valueless) human being. Later in the show he may rethink his position.


The gangsters, of course, wouldn’t save a life for love or money – quite the contrary - unless ordered to by the Boss. Human life has no value for them. One of Allen’s inspirations in the movie and play is that one of the gangsters becomes so involved in the world of art that he potentially might – not surprisingly, considering his line of work – kill for it. Meanwhile – a fine twist – the people in the show who are dedicated to the arts are willing to sell out their artistic values altogether, just to make a little money in the field.


This theme of value in life and art is not just tossed at the audience. It’s embodied in the story of the play, in ways both obvious and subtle. It is not, however, particularly embodied in the songs interpolated throughout the script, and that may be a weakness in the show. Another weakness is that the play-within-the-play is not particularly interesting. But at any rate Allen is not making easy points about life and art – he’s tackling them in meaningful ways, and expressing them through character.


I will mention one more level of complexity in Bullets (there may be others I haven’t noticed). Allen’s humor adds a level of complexity of its own to the work, because it’s earthy but it’s also sophisticated. This is not the place to rehash the art of Woody Allen’s comedy; volumes, quite literally, have been written about it. The point is that in most Broadway musicals the jokes are so massively structured that it would take a very dull audience member to miss them. There are a few jokes like that in Bullets, but at the performance I saw, the big laughs were few – and the smaller laughs were frequent, as someone here, someone there, caught something clever that Allen had written for a character. “Humor,” Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “is a concealed pair.” In other words, humor –humor that’s well executed – contains real complexity inside itself. Allen knows humor.


What then did I learn about musicals by seeing Bullets Over Broadway? I realized that in any successful musical, the elements are of a piece – not identical to each other, but basically homogenous. Annie Get Your Gun and Pippin are very different shows, but in each the various elements connect closely to each other. In Bullets Woody Allen took the risk – a perfectly sensible one for him to take, considering the nature of his art – that he could combine disparate elements into a musical that “worked.” 


This was not a case of ineptly connecting the parts; it was a worthy, even “artistic” endeavor, but it didn’t entirely succeed. For the most part reviewers did not agree with Allen. Two of the three New York daily papers disliked the show; other reviews were similarly mixed. The reviews didn’t agree with me either – no notice I read indicated that the show had any significance at all. Instead, reviewers were mostly irritated because it wasn’t funnier. Woody Allen has been fighting that very battle for years – “why isn’t he funnier? He used to be funny.” Reviewers often review careers, not plays. That’s Woody Allen’s lot in life.


I should note that Bullets was nominated for six Tony Awards. I already mentioned Stroman’s nomination for Best Choreography, and Allen was nominated for Best Book, a nomination I’d say he certainly deserved. Nick Cordero received a deserved Featured Actor nomination, and he had some fine colleagues on stage: Zach Braff of the TV series Scrubs; Vincent Pastore from The Sopranos once again playing a very believable gangster; and the splendid Marin Mazzie and Karen Ziemba, among other members of the play-within-a-play. There were also nominations for costumes (Ivey Long), sound (Peter Hylenski), and, particularly notably, for Scenic Design (Santo Loquasto) that featured settings whisked up from under the stage while the previous scene was just finishing, and one astonishing set that whirled around the stage at the climax of the play like a Tilt-A-Whirl.


None of those nominated won. They’ll have to be satisfied with the values of art.


[Kirk will be back with more interesting and provocative examinations of topics theatrical and other.  I know some of what he’s got in the works or on his mind, but it’s too soon to preview them.  I can only attest that each idea he’s considering is well worth hearing and I urge ROTters to come back often to catch his contributions to the dialogue.  In the meantime, ROT readers are invited to return to the blog in a few days for an archival report on one of Woody Allen’s self-directed productions, A Second Hand Memory which I saw at the Atlantic Theater Company in 2004.] 


24 August 2014

Teaching What Shakespeare DIDN'T Write


A Dramaturg’s Perspective in the English Classroom
by William Hutchings
University of Alabama at Birmingham

INTRODUCTION
by Robert B. Youngblood
Washington and Lee University

Beginning in the ’90s—if memory serves—and for half a dozen or a few more years, Washington and Lee University hosted an annual symposium on Theater in Academe.  The presentations dealt with a host of interesting questions from teaching plays in literature courses to staging and performing whole or partial plays in university settings.  As teacher of classical and modern German and Italian literature, I derived positive and productive stimulation from a number of the presentations.

One that made a strong impression on me was William Hutchings’s.  He is a teacher of Shakespeare plays and, as I was at W&L at the time, an active dramaturg for performances of drama at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. 

Following William’s presentation, which he produced in response to the call for contributions to the symposium in 2003, I communicated my enthusiasm to him and complimented him for the many practical components of his paper, elements of plays which today’s students are ignorant of and would have their attention productively drawn to by William’s teaching.  (Readers of ROT might remember a contribution I made on the subject of students’ lack of familiarity with performances of serious drama, “The Theater Problem in Education,” 21 November 2011.)  In response to my enthusiasm, he kindly presented me with his manuscript.   I re-read William’s paper annually from his presentation at W&L in 2003 until my retirement in 2005, deriving most useful and continual stimulus from it. 

Reading papers I had stacked for re-reading after my retirement, I had the great pleasure of recently re-encountering William’s paper. So strong had his useful points remained with me that I contacted him, and suggested he present his paper to Rick for publication on ROT.  It is with great pleasure that the paper and its highly useful contents are now being published for the theater-loving community, thanks to ROT

*  *  *  *

Entirely too often, English majors and others who have had little exposure to the process of theatrical production are too content to regard a Shakespearean text solely as literature, to be analyzed in much the same way as a novel, poem, or short story.  Though they readily acknowledge the formal distinctions implicit in the genre (e.g., the dramatis personae, stage directions, set descriptions, dialogue), they have seldom had occasion to consider the practical problems that theatre practitioners can never avoid:  the physical presence of the actor’s body in a defined space, the effects of physical appearance, gesture, and costuming on characterization, and the endless variations in tone and style through which a line can be spoken.  To sensitize students to these issues makes them not only more careful readers of dramatic (and non-dramatic) texts but enables them to think more critically about performances that they see, whether live on stage or in a film.  Having worked as a dramaturg for a variety of modern plays at my university, I now find that classroom discussion cannot adequately proceed without such issues being raised, regardless of the period in which the play being studied was written—but it is especially important in studying the works of Shakespeare, who, as both actor and playwright, must have been particularly attuned to the issues involved.  My junior-level Shakespeare survey focuses on issues of epistemology in Much Ado about Nothing, The Merchant of Venice, Henry IV Part 1, Othello, King Lear, and Hamlet.  Accordingly, the issue of “how do you know what you think you know?” pervades not only our thematic discussion but extends toward how the students themselves “know” that their readings of lines and situations are “correct” ones.  (Short answer:  they don’t.)   Five sample “problems” that have heightened their awareness of these issues and enlivened class discussion are as follows: 

* The actor’s physical presence, especially when “playing a silence.”
* The special problems presented by short or one-word lines.
* Repetition with variation.
* The effects of casting and costuming on characterization.
* The absence of stage directions during certain key scenes.

The pedagogical usefulness of such topics extends well beyond the study of Shakespeare and beyond the walls of the English classroom OR the theatrical space.  

The actor’s physical presence, especially when “playing a silence,” often presents provocative issues that traditional English majors have seldom considered.  Thus, for example, the fact that Shylock is present on stage as Portia delivers her “quality of mercy” oration is easily ignored as that speech is analyzed in detail for its imagery, its political ideology, its religious implications, and so on, as English majors and (especially) their professors are entirely too comfortable in doing.  Accordingly, the conversation came to an abrupt halt in class when I asked, as innocently as I could manage, “What is Shylock doing during this time?”  After an almost Beckettian silence as they stared in vain for an answer on the printed page, one of them answered, “He’s not doing anything”—a suggestion with which her classmates readily agreed.  “Okay,” I replied, “but how do you tell your actor to do that?  He’s physically present, so he has to be doing something, even if he’s only standing there.”   “That’s what he’s doing, then:  he’s just standing there,” another student ventured.  “But standing there how?” I asked, adding “that’s the question.  How should the director tell him to stand there?  Is he listening attentively, or ignoring her entirely?  How does his character seem to change if you have the actor turn his back on her?  Would you have him tilt his head slightly, as if he’s really seriously considering her words, or would you have him hold his chin?   Or would you prefer to have him cross his arms across his chest, with a look of total disgust?  Or should he just look impatient, since this scolding is just holding up the proceedings that he intends to carry forward regardless of whatever she says?”   Once they had become attuned to these issues, the students’ discussion of the various options was extensive and occasionally heated, forcing them to examine anew many of the central issues of Shylock’s characterization—and arguing the different sides of problems for which the text provides no answers.   Discussion spilled over into the hallways after class as well, and suddenly “just standing there”—and textual silences—became far more problematic, far more difficult, and far more important than they had ever seemed before.   

The special problems presented by short or one-word lines also deserve detailed in-class attention for reasons that English majors seldom have had occasion to consider.  Arguments over Shylock’s character re-intensified as the students assessed Shylock’s famous exit line, “I am content.”  Is it said sarcastically? Resignedly?  Ruefully?  Or with contempt?  Or should it, as at a production I once saw at Stratford Ontario’s Shakespeare Festival, signify enlightenment and transformation, literally an on-stage religious affirmation as a celestial light illuminated an opened Christian bible?  Again, Shakespeare provides no clue, but every actor and director must decide “the truth” for their own production. 

Even such a seemingly mundane short line as Macbeth’s reply to his wife’s question about when Duncan will be leaving their castle can in many ways be crucial to characterization in ways that English students may not have considered.  Macbeth’s terse reply, “Tomorrow, as he purposes,” can be played with complete factuality and innocence, but if it is delivered instead with a pause and sense of menace worthy of Harold Pinter, it can also insinuate that Macbeth has other, far more sinister purposes already in mind.  The implications of this actor/director choice determine not only a key part of his character at this point of the play—namely whether, in fact, he has already decided to kill Duncan—but also, necessarily, the extent to which he will be influenced by his wife’s subsequent arguments that “persuade” him to kill Duncan.  

Single-word lines prove no less troublesome when the “preferable” intimation and delivery are scrutinized in class.  Cordelia’s ostensibly simple and direct reply of “Nothing, my lord” when her father requests a public profession of her love for him can in fact be said in a number of ways; opinion was divided over the extent to which she  should be meek and remorseful or bravely resolute and defiant.  Even among students who agreed about her delivery of the line, opinions differed about the tone of Lear’s reply, which repeats the word “Nothing” as a question.  Is he incredulous?  Does he believe he misheard her?  Or is he already angry?  When she then repeats the word “Nothing” in reply, should it be in the same tone as the one before?  If not, how has it changed?  As we charted the possible combinations in the repetition of this single word by the two characters, the number of possible interpretations increased exponentially, whereas the English majors had typically seen only one. 

When a word is repeated several times in the same line, collateral issues are raised.  That “repetition means variation” for some intended effect is one of the few axiomatic principles that govern class discussion throughout the term. Accordingly, when Lear repeats the word “Never” five times in a single line in his final speech of the play, the actor can play it either with increasing volume and anguish, until the final iteration of it is somewhere between a howl and a scream, or it can be progressively diminuendo, implying more and more disillusionment and ever-bleaker despair, the final word barely whispered or almost incoherently sobbed.  Similarly, the intonation of the four-time repetition of “Howl!” as he enters carrying the dead body of Cordelia can rise to a nearly animalistic scream or break into barely audible cries of futility and frailty. After the students have considered these multiple possibilities, it is especially interesting to play video of the scene from various film versions to show the differences in the delivery of just the single line in question. 

Issues of casting and costuming can also lead students to re-examine their presumptions about individual characterizations.  In Henry IV Part 1, in particular, the students’ opinions were sharply divided over what actor they would choose to play Hotspur and why—and how attractive or sinister the character should be.  Some, who had seen Kenneth Branagh's film of Much Ado About Nothing, felt that Keanu Reeves would be a good choice, since he could make Hotspur almost as villainous as that play’s Don John.  Others wanted Ben Affleck, but dressed in black and rather villainous.  They were astonished when I suggested a decidedly un-villainous Matt Damon for the part—appropriate perhaps because Hotspur rather than Prince Hal has many of the qualities traditionally associated with a romantic lead (and has the best love scene), whereas Prince Hal spends much of his time carousing in the tavern.  To my surprise, the latter activity had put him almost permanently out of favor with a number of my more religious students, who also devoutly disapproved of—and saw nothing funny about—Falstaff!  Even those who sided with Henry IV regarding Hal’s un-princely behavior were less than certain about who should play the Prince, though some opted for a young Kenneth Branagh, having perhaps seen him playing the same character in Henry V.  Their preference for (and presumption of) black costuming for Hotspur was also surprisingly consistent—and eventually led them to consider not only their presumptions about the character but the way in which costuming choices could influence an audience’s perceptions and attitudes—a subject about which, again, Shakespeare says nothing, and to which few if any of them had given much thought heretofore. 

At times, the absence of stage directions in certain key scenes increases their ambiguity, perhaps without the playwright’s intention but certainly beyond the notice of many of the play’s readers.  Like many directors and theatre-goers, most students were quite ready to assume that Marcellus and Horatio hear and react to the voice of Hamlet’s father’s ghost when he commands them to “swear”—though in fact there is nothing whatsoever in their spoken lines or in any stage directions (most of which were added by editors long after Shakespeare’s own time) to confirm that they do.  Arguably, their terror is a reaction to Hamlet’s emotional state and his having drawn his sword on them.  Yet many if not most productions have them react to the ghost’s word, seeking where the voice came from and so on.  When played this way, it confirms for the audience that the ghost is “real,” that its voice is heard by others rather than by Hamlet alone.  Yet, equally plausibly (and far more intriguingly, in my view), the scene can be played with the two of them totally undistracted by the ghost’s voice, whether they hear it or not, focusing their attention on their obviously distraught prince and sustaining for the audience many of the play’s central indeterminacies.  In the classroom, as students look in vain for evidence to “prove” that Horatio and Marcellus have heard the ghost, the episode becomes an exercise in “close reading”; in the theatre, it becomes a choice for the director, dramaturg, and actors as they shape their production through deliberate choices. 

Accordingly, this focus on “what Shakespeare didn’t write” has a number of pedagogical advantages for students in the classroom as well as in the theatre attending a performance, whether of a play by Shakespeare, Pinter, Beckett, or any other playwright.  In the classroom, it teaches not only the importance of close reading and critical thinking but also the importance of attention to absence as well as presence in the text.  For those who have had little or no exposure to theatre in performance, it reinforces the importance of the physical presence of the actor as well as the choices that are made.  In the theatre, indeed, it makes students aware that literally EVERY detail of a performance is the result of deliberate choices made by actors, directors, costumers, designers, and everyone else involved with the production—and that every such choice has been made from among numerous other options that could have been chosen and could radically alter the implications or the entire production. With this array of choices suddenly foregrounded as they watch the performance, they see it with a heightened critical awareness, willing to question the choices that were made, to disagree with them or support them for articulable reasons, and to watch the performance before them with a honed critical awareness and newly fresh eyes. They can thus approximate the ideal audience that Lindsay Anderson, the British film and stage director, critic, and polemicist, envisioned over fifty years ago in his essay defining “Vital Theatre”:  audiences “who come . . . to the theater not just to sit, and be ‘absorbed,’ made to laugh or cry by an expert machine, . . . audiences who come not with the expectation of passive ‘entertainment,’ nor just with mouths wide open for another slab of minority culture, but themselves prepared to give something, to work, with minds open and alert, themselves creative.”   

©  Copyright William Hutchings, 2014.  All rights reserved. 

[William Hutchings is a Professor of English at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he teaches a course on Shakespeare’s plays among other theater-oriented classes.  His most recent book is Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot: A Research Guide (Praeger, 2005), and he is also the author and editor of two books about English playwright David Storey.  His academic specialty is 20th-century English drama and fiction, and his articles include studies of such authors as James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Joe Orton, Peter Shaffer, Alan Sillitoe, Woody Allen, and Mae West.  Dr. Hutchings has also worked as a dramaturg in university productions of Equus, The Playboy of the Western World, Arcadia, Dancing at Lughnasa, and The Importance of Being Earnest.  This essay was first presented, in slightly altered form, at the Sixth National Symposium on Theatre in Academe, at Washington and Lee University, in March 2003.]
 

 

19 August 2014

“Smell of the Greasepaint, The Funds of the Crowd”

by Patrick Healy 


[In another article on inside theater, the New York Times reports on innovations in financing commercial productions.  This one started in London (where the laws are different) and is called “crowdfunding,” and it’s on its way to the U.S. and Broadway.  The days of the big, powerful individual producer has been gone for a while, but even the producing conglomerate or consortium may be on its way out, if Patrick Healy’s report is an indication of things to come on the Great White Way.]


LONDON — As an up-and-coming theater producer, Jamie Hendry didn’t have many investors when he started raising money for a musical based on the children’s novel “The Wind in the Willows.”


What his show did have was a famous title and a celebrity script writer, Julian Fellowes, the creator of “Downton Abbey.” And their publicity value came in handy given how Mr. Hendry was trying to raise money for the show here: by appealing to the masses.


He raised about one million pounds ($1.7 million) last winter by selling equity stakes in “Willows” in relatively small units of £1,000, £2,500 and £5,000 through an online campaign. Any British citizen could buy in with a debit card by visiting Mr. Hendry’s website, which included a plainly worded prospectus dotted with images of Toad and Mole, characters from the story. He had the money in three months from 400 people, and he now has a list of 10,000 others who signed up to learn about investing in the future. “Willows” hopes to open in the West End in the fall of 2015.


Call it entrepreneurship or gimmickry, but Mr. Hendry’s strategy was London theater’s most ambitious attempt at crowdfunding — and a method that will soon become an option for New York producers. Proposed changes to United States securities rules, which could take effect by this fall, will make it far easier for Americans to raise money the way Mr. Hendry did. 


“The old-time producers with wealthy investors are a dying breed,” said Mr. Hendry, who is 29 and studied computer science and management in college. “Who’s going to put millions of pounds into a commercial musical when those people are no longer with us? We have to find ways to expand support for theater.”


Under the proposed United States rules, theater artists and producers would be able to publicize and sell equity stakes in plays and musicals online, which is now generally prohibited. The proposed rules would also expand the pool of potential backers.


Current rules make it cumbersome to enlist so-called nonaccredited investors, or people who earn less than $200,000 a year or have a low net worth: those who might be risking their life savings on a play or musical, say, given that 75 percent of Broadway shows flop. The proposed rules would make it easier for them to invest limited sums and allow Broadway and Off Broadway productions to raise up to $1 million a year through crowdfunding websites registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission.


Under the current system, most producers have long made private equity offerings to wealthy associates and friends, many of whom have invested in theater before. Broadway plays regularly cost $3 million to produce, and musicals tend to cost $8 million or more, and investors usually put up at least $25,000 apiece; the amounts are considerably less for Off Broadway. (The equivalent amounts in London are often one-third of Broadway’s numbers.) 


“In American theater, we now have a powerful club of producers who work with wealthy investors to put on shows they like, and younger people don’t have access,” said Crystal Skillman, a New York playwright who has earned strong reviews for Off Off Broadway plays like “Geek!” and “Cut.” “Being able to recruit our own investors online could become revolutionary.”


Ms. Skillman and her husband, the comic book writer Fred Van Lente, are among the thousands of theater artists in the United States and Britain who have increasingly turned to crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo for financing. But people donate though these platforms; they are not purchasing equity in shows. 


Ms. Skillman said that she and Mr. Van Lente planned to look into selling equity in shows once the proposed securities rules take effect. 


Broadway has had only one major attempt at crowdfunding: the 2011 revival of “Godspell,” in which 700 people invested $1,000 or more and made up about 55 percent of the show’s $5 million budget. The “Godspell” strategy was hamstrung, however, by the securities rules: Ken Davenport, the lead producer, said he could not make online sales as Mr. Hendry did, and recruiting nonaccredited investors involved red tape and legal expenses.


“I would crowdfund again, if it was the right show — ‘Godspell’ was about community, and we had a community of investors — and if the rules do become lighter,” said Mr. Davenport, who is going the traditional route of recruiting accredited investors as a lead producer for the Broadway show “It’s Only a Play” this fall. 


“I just find it ridiculous in this country that we prevent people from investing in Broadway if they are not accredited and well connected to producers, and yet anyone can travel within 60 miles of their homes and bet their life savings at a casino,” added Mr. Davenport, who writes a blog called The Producer’s Perspective.


The “Godspell” approach has not caught on, because most Broadway producers look down on crowdfunding, citing the presence of their pools of experienced investors and the administrative headaches that Mr. Davenport had. But “Willows” could emerge as a new model, especially for Off Broadway as well as London. The producers of the current West End revival of “The Pajama Game” raised about $340,000 late last winter from 218 investors through the equity crowdfunding site Seedrs; the money accounted for 15 percent of the show’s capitalization. The limited-run production is scheduled to end in September and will probably close at a loss, although the producers declined to confirm that.


Other British producers are interested in licensing Mr. Hendry’s online platform, he said; he declined to name them. But several London producers said crowdfunding seemed like a tool for producers who needed cash or a stunt to raise the profile of younger ones like Mr. Hendry, who has also been a producer here on the Beatles’ tribute show “Let It Be” and the musical “Legally Blonde.”


“Jamie gave a very posh workshop of the musical at the Savoy Hotel, but it remains to be seen if his approach will work and if the show will indeed open,” said Michael Codron, a producer who has been mounting shows here and on Broadway for more than 50 years.


“When I started out, I had a group of people — agents, other producers, people I got from my accountant — who regularly invested with me, and I was sufficiently autocratic that I didn’t have to listen to their opinions,” said Mr. Codron, who was responsible for major premieres of works by Tom Stoppard, David Hare and Harold Pinter, among others. “Now, I usually take a deep breath and write my own check to get shows on, because there’s too much paperwork with investors today. Crowdfunding sounds like even more bureaucracy.”


Mr. Hendry said he had raised “a significant chunk” of his $11 million show budget, chiefly from traditional investors, including some in the United States. As for his online investors, most of them are affluent or middle-class professionals in their 40s, 50s and 60s from London and surrounding counties, and 91 percent of them had never invested in theater before, according to a survey by Mr. Hendry’s office.


“The game is on in London and New York to find the investors of the future,” he said.


[This article was originally published in “The Arts” section (sec. C) of the New York Times on 28 July 2014.  Patrick Healy has a New York Times reporter since 2005 (when he started reporting on politics) and has been covering theater for the paper since 2008.  His beat extends from news, features, and profiles about Broadway, Off Broadway, elsewhere in New York, and then to the national theater scene.]


                                                                                                                

 

14 August 2014

Theater & Art



CHAMPAGNE LADY

(13 February 1989)

 

[In early July, I watched a cable broadcast of Mae West’s I’m No Angel (1933).  I thought of a play based on West’s career that I’d reviewed years ago—25, it turns out—but didn’t go beyond that brief thought.  Then West, who wrote the script for the film (which co-starred a very young Cary Grant, 29, who also starred in West’s previous movie of the same year, She Done Him Wrong), delivered one of her iconic lines: “When I'm good, I'm very good.  But, when I'm bad . . . I’m better.”  That’s a perfect paraprosdokian, a figure of speech on which I blogged on 12 July 2013, so I posted a short “Comment” on that ROT page with the quotation.  (There was already a line—apparently actually a paraphrase—from another Mae West movie in the posted list of examples: “Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before,” from 1936’s Klondike Annie.) Then I remembered my old review of the Mae West musical, Champagne Lady, and I thought it would be fun to look back at an oldie that predates not only ROT, but even the play reports I started sending some out-of-town friends in 2003.   

 

[This review appeared as half of “Drinking and Driving” in the New York Native on 13 February 1989.  (The second half of the column covered the French Canadian play The Cezanne Syndrome by Normand Canac-Marquis at Soho Rep.)  I’ve revised the review and inserted some information in the version below that didn’t appear in 1989.

 

[Champagne Lady doesn’t seem to have left much of a footprint: there’s nary a mention of it (or the cabaret space where it ran, for that matter) on the Net and even the “Paper of Record,” the New York Times didn’t run a review.  (To be fair, though the Times now covers Off-Broadway pretty extensively, Champagne Lady was more Off-Off than Off.)  The venue was the cabaret room, dubbed the Trocadero Theatre Club, of a Greenwich Village restaurant.  The play’s slugged as “A Bawdy, Intoxicating Musical Comedy Of The Prohibition Era” below the title in the program, and the setting is described as “New York City In The 20’s With Prohibition In Full Swing.”  Directed by Jon-Michael Delon, Champagne Lady was written by Nelson Jewell and Richard Atkins and produced by Jonel, Ltd. (presumably for Jon-Michael + Nelson), at The Trocadero Restaurant, at 368 Bleecker Street, on the corner of Charles.  (There were no set, costume, or lighting credits in the program.) The one-act non-Equity showcase, comprised of eight scenes and 10 musical numbers, opened on 5 January 1989 and ran Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays until 26 February.]

 

In a low-ceilinged room below the Trocadero Restaurant, on a tiny, nearly bare stage, Champagne Lady relates the story of Ruby Lil, who’s “never fully dressed without a man,” and the men who come up and see her sometimes.  Taking its plot from the films of Mae West, it’s the tale of a bad girl who dupes the authorities while outfoxing the men who think they’ll take advantage of her.  This little musical, set in the Prohibition ’20s, is performed in the restaurant’s cabaret, creating the small irony of drinking while watching a play which notes the illegality of that practice. 

 

Irony’s in short supply in Champagne Lady.  Ruby Lil (Tracey Morse) is a straight impression of West, her name taken from Diamond Lil, the title character in West’s own eponymous 1928 Broadway play, the basis for her 1933 film She Done Him Wrong.  The plot elements that librettist Nelson Jewell’s borrowed from West’s films include the jilting of an unwelcome lover (John Combs), who then vindictively hales Ruby Lil into court for bootlegging.  She appears before the judge (Paul Campana), a lecherous drunk who places Ruby Lil under his own protection rather than jail her.  Despite Campana’s weak impersonation and intrusive New York intonations, Judge “Willy” Drakenfeld is supposed to be W. C. Fields (born, famously, near Philadelphia—not anywhere near New York City).  Their relationship is right out of My Little Chickadee (1940), and I waited in vain to hear him ask Ruby Lil if she were trying to show contempt for the court so she could reply, “Ooh, I’m tryin’ very hard not to, Judge.” 

 

The addition of a gigolo (John Patti) tangles the plot, but Ruby Lil unravels it assisted by her black maid, Beulah (Mari Briggs), a character and relationship taken directly from I’m No Angel.  (In that movie, West has the line, “Beulah, peel me a grape.”  In Champagne Lady, Ruby Lil orders some grapes, and Beulah responds, “Shall I peels ’em for ya?”)

 

All this is mildly amusing, even occasionally quite funny.  Morse does a creditable Mae West, and Briggs, despite the stereotyped role, is very comical as squeaky-voiced Beulah (calling to mind Butterfly McQueen’s Prissy in 1939’s Gone with the Wind, whom Briggs may have been channeling).  Morse has a good belt, and, although Patti’s baritone has little personality, he’s the best singer in the cast.  Richard Atkins’s music, though not particularly apt for either the Roaring ’20s or Mae West, is pleasant and Atkins and Jewell’s lyrics are often clever. 

 

The play, however, is neither a spoof in the vein of, say, A Night in the Ukraine (1980-81) nor a clever recreation like Little Mary Sunshine (Off-Broadway, 1959-62), but a vehicle seemingly written for the real West and Fields.  There are no comments on the absurdity of the characters or the blatant racism and sexism.  The producers, whose press release compares Champagne Lady to the Off-Broadway hits A Chorus Line (1975 at the Public Theater), Hair (1967 OB) and The Fantasticks (1960-2002), have hopes for a full two-act version that don’t seem justified.  It’s not campy enough to be a send-up, nor reverent enough to be an homage; however, the availability of drinks and the cabaret atmosphere of Downstairs at Trocadero render Champagne Lady an enjoyable way to pass an hour and ten minutes.   

 

[There were no other published reviews than my own in the Native that I could find 25 years after the fact: as I noted above, the Times didn’t cover Champagne Lady (though the paper did include it in its theater listings), and the other New York dailies didn’t, either.  I didn’t find a notice in the Village Voice or the theater trade paper Show Business, but I did happen upon a column in the other trade weekly, “Bistro Bits” in Back Stage (3 February 1989), in which Bob Harrington wrote about the show because it was part of a trend of putting on theater productions in nightclubs like Downstairs at Trocadero.  It may have been the only thing that passed for a review aside from my own notice.  Characterizing the performance as “as much a backers audition . . . as it is a cabaret revue,” Harrington wrote that “at times, it actually approaches those vintage ’30s films, though the similarities are mostly in derivative imitations.”  In addition, the cabaret columnist felt, “The whole production seems to teeter between a high camp spoof and a legitimate comedy, and it never seems to  fall one way or the other.”  Of Jewell and Atkins’s songs, as well as Morse’s “singing persona,” Harrington observed that they were “more Sophie Tucker than Mae West . . . .  But what do the Tuckerish tunes have to do with the West plot and impersonation . . . ?”  (Morse was a solo singer at clubs like the Duplex and Don’t Tell Mama before treading the boards in Champagne Lady.)  “‘Champagne Lady,’” the Back Stage columnist concluded, “has some fun moments and possibilities as a high camp frolic, but it needs a lot of work.” 

 

[As for Mae West (1893-1980), the ostensible subject of what Harrington dubbed a “mini-musical,” beginning with Sex in 1926, she wrote and starred in her own Broadway plays.  Writing under the pen name Jane Mast (her birth name was Mary Jane West), the star was already famous for her double entendres and distinctive walk (which she attributed to a popular female impersonator on the vaudeville circuit where she got her start).  “Discovered” by the New York Times at 18 in a Broadway revue (which closed after eight shows), West was already 33 when she began her playwriting career—and in 1927, after Sex was raided by city police, West was sentenced to 10 days on Welfare (now Roosevelt) Island for “corrupting the morals of youth.”  (Her morals trial was held at the Jefferson Market Courthouse at 10th Street and 6th Avenue in Greenwich Village—a beautiful red-brick building that’s now my neighborhood library!)  She went on to write The Drag (1927), The Wicked Age (1927), Diamond Lil (1928), Pleasure Man (1928), and The Constant Sinner (1931).  Hollywood called in 1932, when West was already 39.  Despite her age, usually a disadvantage for women in Hollywood, especially a newcomer, West was the definition of “star”—and she controlled her own career, a rarity not just for women but for any actor in the days of the powerful studios and their bosses.  In 1970, West came out of retirement to appear in Myra Breckinridge, and she made her last movie, Sextette, in 1978.  Mae West died in L.A. at the age of 87.

 

[W. C. Fields (1880-1946), whose real name was William Claude Dukenfield and who made scores of comic films from 1915 to 1944, starred opposite West in My Little Chickadee in 1940.  I used to howl with laughter watching his antics in the old flicks on TV when I was in college—Fields was a master of physical comedy of all kinds, but especially juggling, and an expert stick man in pool, doing his own trick shots, a routine he’d perfected in vaudeville, for many of his films.  I’ve always felt a special connection to Fields because he died (at 66) on the very day I was born (a distinction I share with singer Jimmy Buffett).]

 

THE AZTEC EMPIRE

(13 December 2004)

 

[In a recent ROT report on an art exhibit, I made passing mention of an art show I’d seen previously at the same museum.  When I was setting up my report on Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe (20 July), I noted that the last exhibit I’d seen at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum was probably The Aztec Empire in 2004.  I wrote about that show five years before I ever launched ROT, but because it was part of an omnibus report covering several exhibits and performances, it’s very short.  Now, since I’m posting another archival report, I decided it would be interesting to combine the two brief pieces as a look back a decade or two (-and-a-half) at the theater and art scenes in New York City. 

 

[The Aztec Empire, organized in collaboration with the National Council for Culture and Arts and the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico City, ran at the Guggenheim, on 5th Avenue at 89th Street, from 15 October 2004 to 13 February 2005.  The guest curator for Aztec Empire was Felipe Solís Olguín, director of the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, co-curator of the large-scale survey Aztecs at the Royal Academy in London in 2003, and one of the world's foremost authorities on Aztec art and culture.  I’ve reedited this report slightly for posting on the blog.]

 

Both The Aztec Empire show at the Guggenheim, which my mother and I saw on 30 November 2004, and China: Dawn of a Golden Age, 200-750 A.D.at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (12 October 2004-23 January 2005), which we saw later in the holiday weekend, were good shows, but Aztec Empire, an exhibit of more than 440 works, many never before seen outside Mexico, drawn from both public and private collections—the first large-scale survey of Aztec art and culture to be seen in the United States in more than 20 years—was more interesting since we haven’t seen as much of that culture as we have China.  (We did have a Maya exhibit in D.C. this year, Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya at the National Gallery of Art’s East Building from 4 April to 25 July 2004, which was magnificent-—another really huge show, by the way [see my report below]—but China gets a lot of attention all the time here.) 

 

Slugged as “the most comprehensive survey of the art and culture of the Aztecs ever assembled outside Mexico,” the Guggenheim display, covering the 13th to 16th centuries but focusing on the 15th century, roughly the period of the Renaissance in Europe which it resembled in ancient Mexican culture, was more appealing as well as easier to access and traverse.  Riding an elevator to the top of the ramp—though there is also a floor higher we had to walk up to and then return—then taking a leisurely stroll down the spiral is much easier than going from exhibit case to exhibit case and room to room while dodging the other viewers following some other self-defined route.  (Actually, we did have to break the Aztec show part way through to grab a little lunch and then return to the spot where we interrupted our progress.  Couldn’t be helped!) 

 

A highlight of the exhibition are treasures only recently uncovered at the Templo Mayor archaeological site in Mexico City, including two monumental (both are about six feet tall) figures of fired clay, one of an eagle warrior (c. 1440–69), an elite Aztec soldier, and the other of Mictlantecuhtli (c. 1480), god of the dead.  (I’m constantly astounded at shows like Aztec Empire—as well as at, say, American Indian exhibits—how some of the relatively delicate items made of wood or clay or porcelain managed to survive intact or nearly for hundreds, even thousands of years buried underfoot.  Yes, many of the items were in tombs, but some were just buried.  It’s astonishing to imagine.)  The imposing Eagle Warrior depicts a standing man wearing a helmet in the form of an eagle, through whose beak the warrior’s face can be seen.  The warrior’s costume also includes stylized wings with feathers made of stucco and a raptor’s talons.  Portraying one of the two most prestigious Aztec warrior classes (the other wore jaguar costumes), this was one of two statues found flanking the door to a chamber where the eagle warriors met, and is believed to represent the morning sun.  (In Aztec mythology, the eagle was the symbol of the sun, to whom all sacrifices were made.)

 

Mictlantecuhtli (Lord of Mictlan, the Aztec underworld), who craves human blood, is quite a grotesque image.  The statue stands in a darkened corridor of the museum, the ghastly figure of a decomposing corpse, stripped of most of its flesh, its grinning skull cavernous, its hands in the form of huge claws, and its liver dangling from his exposed ribs.

 

Throughout the exhibit is a bestiary of naturalistically observed figures of the biosphere of Mesoamerica featuring wild beasts such as eagles, coyotes, jaguars, monkeys, rabbits, frogs, and snakes; insects like locusts, fleas, and a larger-than-life-size (over 7½ inches long), realistically detailed grasshopper (c. 1500), carved of orange, semi-precious carnelian stone, that looks like it’s ready to jump, as well as domesticated animals such as dogs and turkeys.  As stylized as Eagle Warrior and Mictlantecuhtli are, the Mexican bestiary, even the tiny insects magnified dozens of times actual size, is as lifelike as a zoological study.  (In Aztec mythology, animals play important roles in not only the human sphere, but the spiritual and celestial ones as well.  That’s why so many of the Aztec gods are shown as hybrids of several animals, such as Quetzalcoatl, the famous “feathered serpent”: to emphasize the presence of characteristics of a combination of symbolic powers.)  In addition to animal figures, Aztec Empire also includes images of plants and agricultural products.

 

In the end, the Aztec artifacts were the more interesting to me than the Chinese mostly because I have a thing for that art.  When I visited the Yucatan a dozen years ago, which is the northernmost extremity of the Mayan territory, I couldn’t get enough of their carvings and statuary.  I desperately wanted to find a really nice reproduction of something as my souvenir—but the ones I could afford weren’t nice enough and the ones I liked were just too expensive.  (The Maya simply disappeared—no one really knows why for sure—in about 900 C.E. and the Aztecs, who were centered on what is now Mexico City—Tenochtitlan in Aztec times—far to the north of the Maya, were just rising at that time; nonetheless, there is an iconographic similarity between Mayan art and Aztec, though I don’t know how much actual influence the older culture had on the newer one.)  Chinese art, especially the porcelain works, is beautiful—I brought home a fake Tang horse from China, as it happens (and my folks brought home a real one!)—but the imagery and style of the South and Central American Indians has always knocked me out. 

 

[I have a similar response to the art of the Indians of the Pacific Northwest—Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, Alaska—as my reaction to the Aztec and Maya exhibits.  In my estimation, the northwest Indian art may be the most aesthetically magnificent of all so-called primitive arts.  I didn’t even know about it until I went to Seattle back in 1989, and I just went nuts for it.  I brought back a mask—a piece of signed art by an Indian artist, not a real religious artifact—and half a dozen or so prints that were made up as fancy cards for stationery.  I had intended to give the cards away as gifts, but I only gave away one—plus one I bought specifically as a thank-you gift for someone who had been my host in San Francisco, where I had stopped before going on to Seattle—and have kept all the others because I can’t part with them!  If you read my journal of my trip to Alaska (“The Last Frontier”; 26 March, 5 April, 30 April, and 10 May 2014) you’ll see that I still love that art and that this was part of the reason I went there.]

 

THE COURTLY ART OF THE ANCIENT MAYA

(11-13 May 2004)

 

[Since I made so much in my report on The Aztec Empire of the Maya show at NGA that same year, I think it’s worth adding the earlier short report I wrote on that exhibit as well.  The coincidence of seeing the art of these two cultures within about seven months is enough to make the experience remarkable, but the fact that both shows so impressed me made the phenomenon all the more notable. 

 

[As I recorded above, The Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya ran at the East Building of the National Gallery from 4 April to 25 July 2004.  My mother and I caught it while I was visiting her in Washington that April for her 81st birthday; I’ve revised this report, written about a month later, some for ROT.  Kathleen Berrin, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, curator of the art of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, and Mary Miller, Vincent J. Scully Professor of the History of Art at Yale University, were the curators for Courtly Art.]

 

The Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya is a huge show, 156 works of art from about 30 public and private collections in Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Chile, the U.S., Switzerland, the U.K., and Australia.  The exhibit, organized with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, focuses on the art of the various Mayan kings and queens and their courts from 600-800 C.E., a 200-year stretch during which they transformed Mayan art, “achieving a peak of dramatic expression and naturalism unmatched in the ancient New World,” according to the museum’s publicity.  (The Mayan civilization, which extended from what is now southern  Mexico into northern Central American—present-day Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—existed from about 2000 B.C.E. until after the arrival of the Spanish, but its classical period extended from about 250 to 900 C.E., after which, for reasons historians don’t understand, it went into a steep decline.  By about 1000 C.E., the grandeur of the Mayan civilization had ended.)  Like The Aztec Empire at the Guggenheim and exhibits of Native American art at the National Museum of the American Indian (as well as exhibits at the National Museum of African Art), the Maya exhibit’s focus is the artistic appeal of the items, not their anthropological value.  The works in The Courtly Art aren’t folk art, but highly refined works by well-trained professionals in a Mayan court which made stars of its artists. 

                                                            

A second aspect of this show is also interesting, in addition to the aesthetic focus: much of the Mayan culture is under reinterpretation because their hieroglyphics have only recently begun to be deciphered.  (It has been observed that the Mayan hieroglyphics took decades to decipher because there was no Rosetta Stone for them, which is true, of course.  I recall, however, that the code was first broken at just about the time my folks and I went to Yucatan back in ’92.  It had defied interpretation for centuries, leading to a massive misunderstanding of the Mayan culture.)  I think the repercussions of the first approach is self-evident, but the second, the reinterpretation of what we know about this people, meant that even artifacts that have been on view for decades have come to reveal or exemplify truths only recently understood. 

 

The most prominent of these reassessments is that the Maya, whom we used to believe were basically a peaceful people interested in the arts and astronomy, were warlike and bloody in the extreme.  The Maya of The Courtly Art not only loved blood, but pain.  This is borne out in the art on display at NGA, most clearly in the magnificent full-size modern reproduction of wall murals from Bonampak showing a king and court presiding over mutilated captives in “The Court at War” section of the exhibit.  Among the many “courtly” activities depicted in the mural are prisoners being scourged and killed—some having their fingernails pulled out or their fingers sliced off, some pleading for mercy, and others awaiting further mutilation and death—as well as other gruesome scenes.  (The mural is reminiscent of the work of a Mesoamerican Hieronymus Bosch, except that Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, for instance, portrays a grotesque fantasy world while the Bonampak fresco putatively represents a real one.)  In an earlier part of The Courtly Art, a pair of relief carvings show individual captives with their arms tied behind their backs—one seemingly stunned, another crying, a third staring up in wild-eyed panic.  In yet another carving, a limestone relief depicts the wife of a powerful ruler called Shield Jaguar pulling a thorn-studded rope through her tongue, the blood spattering on paper in a basket at Lady Xok’s feet.  (In terms of the Maya, ‘courtly’ doesn’t equate with the common usage in the world of European chivalry.  It refers to “the sanguinary horrors of Mayan imperial rites,” as the Washington Post said in an editorial review by Mark Jenkins.) 

 

But the one thing that hasn’t changed—except in our own appreciation of it—is that the Maya made incredibly beautiful art.  In that same relief of Lady Xok, the details of Mayan textile work is carved into the limestone in exquisite detail, showing the intricate weaving and delicate embroidery of the lady’s robes and Shield Jaguar’s form-fitting armor, replete with ornamental tassels, fringes, and elaborate edgings.  In Life at the Maya Court,” the first gallery of the show, the Portrait Head of Pakal, a 7th-century ruler from Palenque, is stunning in its beauty.  (Beauty in Mayan culture was associated with the divine, in particular, with the Maize God.)  A stucco carving with an elaborate feathered headdress, the sculpture depicts a handsome young man (Pakal ruled from 615 C.E., when he was12, until he died at 80 in 683—a Methuselean span in his day) with classic Mayan looks: an elongated head and prominent nose, full lips, and piercing eyes. 

 

The Yucatan is the northernmost reach of the Maya territory, which is centered in southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize.  The sites we saw near Cancun (Tulum, Coba, and Chichen-Itza) were smaller and poorer—outposts really of the major city-states to the south—and even the carvings and sculptures we saw there were magnificent.  [As I explained in the Aztec Empire report above, I tried in vain to find something I could afford—a replica, obviously, or a modern work that drew on the Mayan imagery—to bring home as my souvenir.]  Along with the Northwest Indian art, the Mayan stuff is the most striking of any indigenous culture I have seen.  The Courtly Art show, which has pieces small and large, even monumental—organized into six sections: “Life at the Maya Court,”The Divine Model of Courtly Life,”Women at Court,”Word and Image in the Maya Court,”The Court at War,” and “Palenque: An Exemplary Maya Court”—was breathtaking.  And exhausting. 

 

I was left with the question [which I reiterated recently in my report on Italian Futurism, 15 July 2014] of how to appreciate the aesthetic beauty of this art, which is undeniable, and not overlook the innate cruelty and brutality of the violence-loving, bloodthirsty culture that created it.  Paul Richard, the Washington Post  art reviewer, described Mayan art as “curiously unsettling, fabulous yet fearsome, opulent yet painful.”  (The New York Times tellingly titled art writer Holland Carter’s review “A Mystique of Blood and Beauty.”)  I haven’t reconciled this dichotomy for myself, so I can’t provide any guidance for anyone else.  The remoteness in time is certainly part of the calculus; after all, the Dark Ages in Europe were hardly a benign era in human history, particularly in terms of humankind’s treatment of its fellow creatures, yet we can admire the art of that time (or there’d be no point in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s magnificent Cloisters).  On the other hand, the Mayan art we see in The Courtly Art is not only the product of a brutal culture, but it openly celebrates that brutality and bloodlust.  Whatever the answer is—if, indeed, there is one—The Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya is an astonishing experience, the impressions from which will doubtlessly remain with me for a long time.  Of course, as I’ve already admitted: I’m a sucker for this art anyway, so maybe I’m no gauge.

 

[It was only in the middle of the last century that museums, galleries, and the viewing public began to consider objects from the diverse cultures of Africa and the Americas as aesthetic items rather than sociological and anthropological ones.  Some Western artists appreciated the beauty of African art and were even influenced by it in their own work as early as the 1890s and the 1920s, but most art from Africa and ancient North, Central, and South America was shown not in art museums in the West but in museums of ethnography.  Big museums like NMAI and NMAA, opened in 2004 and 1986, respectively, were both originally small, private museums trying to break new ground in the world-art museum scene.  The eventual acceptance of this perspective allowed the establishment of institutions like NMAI and NMAA and exhibits like The Aztec Empire and The Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya.]