Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Recently seen…


  Seen at Rialto Theater, Sebastopol, Mar. 1, 2015
A Lie of the Mind, by Sam Shepard
  Seen at The Magic Theatre, San Francisco, Feb. 20
San Francisco Dance Festival
  Seen in the City Hall Rotunda, San Francisco, Feb. 20
The Nile Project
  Seen at Zellerbach Theater, Berkeley, Feb. 19
  Seen at , Walnut Creek, Feb. 13
The Mill and the Cross
  Seen via DVD
Indian Ink, by Tom Stoppard
  Seen at ACT, San Francisco, Jan. 15
Eastside Road, March 2, 2015—
Dancers set up in San Francisco City Hall Rotunda

INFREQUENT BLOGGING, as you may have noticed, partly because of unusual activity away from the desk. Last time I was here I told you about Rossini's Zelmira and Offenbach's Contes d'Hoffmann, two operas with very satisfactory performances — one by chamber forces, unstaged, but live; the other over-produced, lavish, but seen on a big screen.

There have been other recent theatrical entertainments of various kinds. Over a month ago we saw Tom Stoppard's play Indian Ink in what should have been a definitive production if one were possible: the director, Carey Perloff — also the Artistic Director of the company — encouraged Stoppard to rewrite the play a bit, particularly, apparently, its close. The characteristic Stoppard intelligence is in this play, but the issues are less cosmic, more purely character-based than seems to me usually to be the case. The idea of two parallel narratives, a couple of generations apart, pulling yes in fact the larger issues of colonialism, feminism, and free love into the romantic comedy of an Englishwoman poet in India during the Raj and an American academic who, fifty years later, tries to sleuth out the true story of her involvement with a native Indian painter — that idea is quintessentially Stoppard. But the Indian context of the play, the stifling heat it portrays, and the wide, shallow visual production at ACT all conspired to put a lid on the theatrics. The show was muffled, stifled. We saw it in preview, and the lines weren't all there yet. Two or three characters were memorably played — the leads, fortunately — but the balance hadn't yet been struck. Were I more serious, more responsible — to whom, though, ultimately? — I might have gone back later in the run to see how it had matured.
A FEW DAYS AGO we saw Sam Shepard's play A Lie of the Mind, also presumably a production with the author's approval, since Magic Theater has had an ongoing association with the playwright for just about his entire career. We saw his Buried Child here, for example, in September, 2013. I thought the production and its performance well worth the evening. A Lie of the Mind is, like Indian Ink, a play about the collision of two worlds, alternatingly holding the stage in an intrinsically dramatic manner depending on successfully resolved theatrics: and I thought Magic accomplished this more persuasively than ACT, perhaps partly owing to the greater intimacy of the house.

There's no doubt Shepard's story is intense, dramatic, powerful, even to an extent elemental; he is in a way our contemporary version of Eugene O'Neil. But how many Sam Shepard plays will we ultimately need to see? We saw A Fool for Love twice in May 2012, partly for the beguiling intensity of Brent Lindsay's performance in the lead; we saw Buried Child a year and a half ago. Now, with A Lie of the Mind, we've perhaps seen enough for a few seasons.
ONE MORE DRAMA, this one per musica: Voltaire's Candide, as turned into an operetta by Leonard Bernstein with the literary help of Lillian Hellman, James Agee, Hugh Wheeler, Richard Wilbur, John Laouche, Dorothy Parker, Stephen Sondheim, John Mauceri, and John Wells; and orchestrations by Maurice Peress and Hershy Kay (I take this information from Wikipedia).

Lillian Hellman wrote the libretto for the original version of the piece, but her book, thought to be too serious for Bernstein's view, was completely replaced by Hugh Wheeler's for subsequent versions — which, as you can imagine from the catalogue of names in my previous paragraph, are many and confusing and, I would bet, confused. The production we saw was of the 1994 "RNT" version produced by Trevor Nunn at the Royal National Theatre, with a new, third libretto by John Caird, replacing Wheeler's, by then thought too light-hearted and slimmed-down.

The production was by the San Francisco-based Gilbert-and-Sullivan specialists The Lamplighters. In costume as Voltaire, Baker Peeples conducted a small but flexible and apt orchestra on the stage, turning to narrate the action to the audience; the fine cast, also costumed in this semi-staged production, responded easily to his accompaniments.

I'd gone to see it because, oddly, I'd never seen Candide, and knew it only by its sparkling overture. Bernstein managed a small miracle in that overture, a compendium of the Mendelssohn of A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Prokofiev of the Classical Symphony. It's too bad the current state, good as it apparently is, fails to remedy the essentially overworked nature of the rest of the piece. I'm glad I've seen it; I won't have to see it again. (Read the book!)
ANOTHER MUSICAL EVENING:The Nile Project at UC Berkeley a couple of weeks ago. On paper this looked very interesting: musicians from many of the East African nations through which the Nile River flows, gathered in a traveling troupe to bring attention to (among other things) the various ecological problems attendant on political decisions regarding water use. The indigenous music of these nations uses different tuning systems and is played on different kinds of instruments; it ranges from Arabic-flavored music in the north, in Egypt, to quite different sounds from Kenya to the south.

If I'd thought about it, I'd have realized the model was — as the program made clear — Yo Yo Ma's "Silk Road Project," and that the result might be a little more commercial than I'd hoped for. I'd also have reflected on the nature of the University's Zellerbach Auditorium, which is huge and acoustically compromised. We left in the middle of the second of the two sets (impelled by a dinner reservation), when the show seemed to be loosening up and coming to terms with its setting.

Much of the music was compelling, both the singing and the instrumental performances — marvelous oud and end-blown flute performances, and an alto saxophone solo that brought the extended one in EInstein on the Beach to mind. The costumes were of course rich and colorful. I'd love to see the group again in a smaller hall and with better sound treatment.
ETHNIC DANCE AND MUSIC from elsewhere marked the opening of the San Francisco Dance Festival the next day, with Gamelan Sekar Jaya setting up in the resonant rotunda of City Hall to accompany two Balinese dances: Bebonangan a processional, and Peneta traditional Balinese offering dance, with choreography by Emiko Saraswati Susilo and music by I Made Arnawa. I have no business writing about dance; I know nothing about it; but these dancers seemed incredibly graceful to me, both individually and as an ensemble. One can't help wondering the extent to which such choreography, even though highly evolved in a court setting, must originally have been spontaneous, as natural as the courtship rituals of birds, or the play of wind on forest trees or sea-waves.

I realize gamelan evolved out of doors, but this gamelan suited the resonance of the rotunda perfectly. A few years ago we heard a gamelan performance in the dome of the observatory on Mt. Hamilton, a similar acoustic. You are brought completely within the music in such a setting.

The event closed with a set of traditional Swedish dances, performed by a group from Sweden directed by Margareta and Leif Virtanen; accompanied by "folk" violinists Chris Gruber and Peter Michaelsen, who stood in the doorway, backlit by brilliant noonday sunshine. (The photo above silhouettes Leif Virtanen, warming up; it was taken well before the performances.)

The dancers entered to a Mazurka-like processional, then performed a number of contradances in four couples before opening the floor to audience members who wanted to join. As in the Balinese dance, the gracefulness and sobriety seemed to conceal a subliminal note of courtship; the dance represented — to me — a socially organized containment of individual and especially couple-expressive energies.

The Margaret Jenkins Dance Company had performed between the two "ethnic" sets, with excerpts from two dances: Times Bones and The Gate of Winds, music by Paul Dresher. Much of the performance was gripping, with brilliant solo dancing and effective ensemble choreography and performance — on an unforgiving polished stone floor!. I think this contemporary high-art form of dance does not suffer from its contrast with traditional dance from other cultures: on the contrary, its significance seems informed by it. The San Francisco Dance Festival will continue with other similar performances, the next one at noon, Friday March 20, featuring the Minoan Dancers.
FINALLY, TWO FILMS: We saw Lech Majewski's visually fascinating The Mill and the Cross a few days ago, rented from Netflix. The film, which opened in 2011, is based on — no: brings to life — the painting The Procession to Calvary (1564) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The transitions from Breughel's painting to the live action is unbelievably smooth, and the portrayal of medieval peasant Flemish life seems perfectly authentic. In spite of the primitive rustic settings the visualization is often beautiful, sumptuous even, profiting from fine color and lighting.

My own prejudices kept me from enjoying the Christian element of the film, which grows to center on the Crucifixion. But even here the film is persuasive, suggesting the inevitability of unsophisticated reliance on allegory and theology to explain the sudden cruelties of everyday life — there's a lesson for our own time here. And as an explication of painting, The Mill and the Cross is utterly convincing; even Breughel himself steps into the film to show us what he's after and how he accomplishes it.

Then, last Sunday, we finally got to a screening of Citizenfour Laura Poitras's documentary on the meetings between Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald (with Ewen MacAskill) in Hong Kong, June 2013. I think Citizenfour is an outstanding film, well deserving its many awards, on three levels:

First, of course, the subject it documents — the pervasive spying conducted by the federal government in its anti-terror mode — and the fascinating and intricate procedures by which Snowden communicated his evidence to Greenwald and MacAskill in an anodyne Hong Kong hotel room. Poitras, and her cinematographers and editor, weave this material into a suspensful, detailed, unfolding account which I find utterly persuasive — though of course I'm a liberal.

Second, the portraits here are intriguing and sympathetic. Snowden's intelligence, wry humor, and apparent nobility of purpose grow on the viewer. Greenwald's domestic life (in Rio de Janeiro), his fluency in Brazilian Portuguese, his drive to quick deadlines, all make him a very sympathetic character to this retired journalist. Even without considering the subject on which these men are focussing, the quality of their purpose and the discipline and directedness with which they approach it are extremely well captured in the film.

Third, and to me in a way most important, Citizenfour is truly a work of art. In terms of pacing, structure, rhythm, visual detail and contrast, subliminal reinforcements through both sight and sound, Poitras has achieved a thing of major beauty. I want to see this film again; I think it is a film to own.

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