Sunday, October 03, 2010

Epic, Comic, Lyric: Mark Morris in Berkeley; Molière in San Francisco

WHAT AN INTERESTING, classically absorbing evening of dance the other night in Zellerbach Auditorium, UC Berkeley. Mark Morris presented three big pieces neatly triangulating his view of the human condition: a formal, geometric, abstract suite of dances in total silence called Behemoth; a funny, inventive, dashing suite to Kyle Gann's Studies for Disklavier called Looky; a moving, descriptive, lyrical three-movement dance setting of Erik Satie's Socrate.

It was a carefully thought-out triangulation, even though the bookends are twenty years apart in their composition. Behemoth (1990), which seemed to run a good three quarters of an hour, breaks the fifteen-dancer ensemble into three fives much of the time, running them — sometimes literally — through the repertory of Morris steps and freezes, punctuated occasionally by slaps, claps, or stampings but otherwise perfectly silent, demanding a similar silence and thus attentiveness from the audience.

And this year's Socrates returns to the triple quintets, sometimes but not consistently assigning them to unison portrayals of the philosopher or one or another of his student-friends (Alcibiades in the first movement, Phaedrus in the second, Phaedo in the third), again in symmetrical groupings moving either squarely or diagonally to the stage.

Looky, on the other hand, is all comedy and grace. Gann's score is mechanical piano gone crazy, always firmly rooted in classic piano repertoire, from Schumann and Chopin through Liszt and Gottschalk to Shostakovich and Art Tatum. The piano, bereft of human performer, stands upstage right; the dancers enter by ones, twos, and larger groups in what looks sometimes like party clothes, sometimes evening pajamas, silently miming conversation, arguments, puzzlement, joking, often dancing in response to the crazy waltz or boogie or incipient tango that ultimately dissolves in roulades of high-speed mechanical virtuosity.

I liked Gann's music very much; enough in fact to want to get a copy and listen to it again and again. But Satie's Socrate — now there's a timeless masterpiece, in more ways than one. It's so artless, understated, beautifully balanced and scaled; so moving in its modest self-abnegation to the pathos of its subject, that it overwhelms me to think about it. There wasn't even that much Mark Morris could do, other than move gracefully, repetitively, submissively to the meter and cadences. The costumes were lovely; the dancing itself superb.
WE DON'T LIKE TO MISS a production of a Molière play if we can avoid it, so even though it isn't considered one of his best, we drove down to see Scapin at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre yesterday. We had very fond memories of an earlier production, probably twenty years ago or more, also in the Geary Theatre, perhaps starring Réné Auberjonois in the title role, in a translation/adaptation called Scapino; memories which may have lessened the current version a bit, as it seemed a little more formulaic, a little less spontaneous.

But that's the nature of the play, whose adaptation of commedia dell'arte into proscenium-stage comic theater depends on formulae. Bill Irwin was a first-rate Scapin; Jud Williford was his match as the other clown/servant Sylvestre; Geoff Hoyle and Steven Anthony Jones were their matches as Geronte and Argante, and the rest of the cast fell easily into place. Great costumes and set; satisfactory musical accompaniment.

I complained a week or so ago about a production of Twelfth Night that too evenly distributed comedy throughout the three levels of society Shakespeare portrays: nobility, clowns, young lovers. It's wrong to do that, I insist, in Shakespeare, particularly Twelfth Night. It's entirely appropriate to treat Scapin that way, and I thought this was a very entertaining production — though the translation I remembered from so long ago, with its recurring
But what the devil was he doing aboard that boat
seemed a much funnier, not to say more memorable, version of Molière's
mais que diable allait-il faire dans cette galère
than did the present rather whiny
but — why did he get on that boat?
  • Molière: Scapin, running through October 23; ACT, 415 Geary St., San Francisco

    Charles Shere said...

    Afterthought on Mark Morris's Socrates: Joan Acocella wrote with great insight on this ballet in The New Yorker, March 15 2010.

    Charles Shere said...

    Another afterthought: I see now the translation we saw years ago was by Frank Dunlop and Jim Dale — wonderul what a Google search can turn up — and that the line was

    What the devil was he doing on board that boat

    a considerable improvement over what I'd remembered. The ACT version is, as I think I mentioned, an adaptation by Bill Irwin & Mark O’Donnell; I don't know what translation they may have "adapted,"