Friday, May 31, 2013

Brown, Bischoff, Fabritius, Vermeer

Eastside Road, May 30, 2013—
I MADE A COMMENT over on Facebook the other day that I've been thinking about on and off since:
I think culture is primarily local — think Vienna in Mozart's day, or London in Johnson's (not to say Shakespeare's!), and Paris at various times. Some of the local cultures develop intense moments; others no doubt simply simmer along comfortably and sustainably. But entertainment as we know it today is global corporatism, like agriculture, and war, and any number of other disasters. Oddly, the Internet supports this global tendency to a degree, but it also facilitates the thing I'm calling local; there are "localities" uniting me [with my readers and] commentators though we live thousands of miles apart.
Yesterday we drove down to San Francisco to see two favorite paintings, here from the Mauritshuis in The Hague. Two of the finest paintings I know, painted within twenty years and ten or twelve years of one another, by painters who must have known one another. To Vienna and London and Paris, add Delft, where Carel Fabritius (1622-1654) and Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) both lived toward the middle of the seventeenth century.

The Goldfinch (1654) seems to be one of the last of Fabritius's paintings, of which few have come down to us. Fabritius was killed, only 32 years old, in the great gunpowder explosion of October 12, 1654, which destroyed a quarter of the city of Delft, including his studio and paintings. Thirty-two years old! He was, you might say, the Schubert of painting. He had studied at Rembrandt's studio in Amsterdam before his unlucky decision to move to Delft. He was certainly taking painting into a new direction. I don't know why he painted this pet goldfinch; even whether it is in fact a finished painting as we see it, or a fragment of a larger work (it's about the size of a sheet of typing paper). I only know it is enigmatic, neutral in mood (to me), beautifully composed, and — seen in the flesh, not through reproduction — amazing for its application of paint to capture light, solidity, texture. The white highlights on the brass rails; the striking yellow-god on the wing, the delicate tracery of the chain… and the marvelous texture of the plaster wall, a triumph of abstraction…

Johannes_Vermeer_(1632-1675)_-_The_Girl_With_The_Pearl_Earring_(1665).jpgHardly anything need be said about The Girl with the Pearl Earring (ca. 1665). Hardly anything can be said with any certainty. It is most likely not a portrait, but what was called in its day, by the Dutch, a tronie, an unidentified model, usually costumed, painted half-length or, more often, as here, closer to, concentrating on the face and its expression.

It is possible that its painter, Johannes Vermeer, studied under Fabritius. He was known and respected by the members of the Delft guild of painters, serving as head of the guild on four occasions. He worked slow, experimenting with light in a number of interiors whose walls are often hung with paintings or maps, in which milkmaids or astronomers or ladies are engaged in enigmatic occupation or preoccupied with unknowable thoughts.

It's stupid to single out one Vermeer, so I'll single out two: The Milkmaid and The Girl with the Pearl Earring. The latter has become even more universally known, I suppose, since the publication of Tracy Chevalier's novel of the same title, and the 2003 film made from it. As I stood gazing at the painting yesterday two women behind me were discussing it, one of them helpfully explaining many details of its production, meaning, and setting; she apparently took novel and film for absolute fact. They are pure fiction: but the film has marvelous views of Delft, and some haunting imagery of the studio and, especially, the grinding of pigments. The blue of the turban is lapis lazuli ground to powder: these paintings are rare and beautiful partly because they are literally made of rare and beautiful things.
Upstairs from the paintings from the Mauritshuis (which remain on view only through June 2) there's a striking installation of three paintings by Joan Brown (1938-1990), a seated Swimmer by Manuel Neri (b. 1930), and a pensive Bather by Elmer Bischoff (1916-1991), all San Francisco Bay Area artists. (Neri is a sculptor; Brown and Bischoff were painters.) I have always felt the Bay Area of, say, the years since World War II has constituted a cultural energy-spot that can be ranked with the communities mentioned above, particularly in the visual arts but with literature and music not that far behind. IMG_8047.jpg

Joan Brown's painting of a girl, from about 1960, is an early canvas among her considerable output, but she was an early master. It was marvelous to contemplate this strong but muted painting with the enormous poster based on Vermeer's painting available simply by turning my head — and with the recent memory of the Vermeer to have for ready comparison. The similarity of mood, though not of execution, is unmistakeable, I think.

The degree of community here! Brown and Neri were married; Brown was the sitter to Neri's sculptor of the seated swimmer; their son Noel is depicted in her painting Noel and Bob, hanging nearby. Noel's eyes repeat Joan's, as Neri paints them on his plaster sculpture. Walking about Delft, by the canals, after dark, on a quiet night, you can be forgiven for thinking you know a little bit what the town may have been like in the 17th century. I know better, I think, what existed among Brown and Neri and Bischoff, and no doubt their work speaks more quickly to me because I knew them and their voices, let alone the streets they walked. They were — and Neri still is — deep, contemplative, yet sociable artists, living the experiences we all do, responding to them, and to their predecessors, with the greater insight gained through knowledge, discipline, patience, and commitment. We are all so incredibly lucky such men and women live and work among us.

• de Young Museum, through Sunday 9:30 to 5:15, Friday to 8:45 pm; Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis closing June 2; John Kennedy Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

RIP Kenji Nanao

Nanao.jpgTWO YEARS AGO or so I wrote briefly here about the painter and printmaker Kenjilo Nanao, whose studio I had visited that day, to get to know him and his paintings better, since he had asked me to write an essay for the catalog that would accompany the retrospective exhibition at the University of Santa Clara that September.

We hit it off immediately, Lindsey and I, Kenji and Gail. We didn't get together often, but we had dinner in their home — Kenji cooked at table, memorably — and again at Chez Panisse. Gail is an intelligent, deeply sympathetic woman; Kenji was a force of Nature. A samurai, as Gail says, big, bearlike, lusty, tender. Like all good painters, he sees things privately, attaching importance and poetic meaning to things you and I simply look at.

I cobbled together the essay quickly enough — there wasn't a lot of time — drawing on my memories of paintings I'd seen over the years. I had always cherished one particular painting of his, which I'd made a little sketch of in my journal when I first saw it in a San Francisco gallery. It seemed to me to be an ideal mediation of landscape and abstraction. It was almost entirely in white, and projected a kind of tranquility I associate otherwise, in works of art, only with the music of John Cage and Morton Feldman.

I reprinted the essay in my book The Idea of Permanence; it is not available, I think, on the Internet. I quote here only the final paragraph:
Comely and appropriate, searching and explorative, rooted in childhood, in youth, in maturity; traveling through time and space, tracking life energy to its most universal source, these paintings stand I think astride the Pacific, one foot in Japan, one in California, aware of the beauties and triumphs of the long history of the arts from Ancient Greece to the present, celebrating yet regretting our transient energies, always presenting, containing, suggesting the essential optimism of contemplation. There is nothing more beautiful, in all its generous modesty, than this mastery.
Kenji died on Monday. He'd been in hospital ten or twelve days, after a series of strokes culminating in cerebral hemorrhage. Gail e-mailed me quickly, asking me to write an obituary, which I set here:
Kenjilo Nanao, whose serene, lyrical paintings assimilated the sensibilities of his native Japan and his adopted California through a long and distinguished career, died in Berkeley on May 13, at the age of 84, of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Born July 26, 1929, in Aomori, in the far north of Honshu, over four hundred miles north of Tokyo — “the Oklahoma of Japan,” Nanao used to say — he arrived in San Francisco in 1960. He had wanted to study painting in France, but had trouble learning French. He became instead a Bay Area painter, influenced by the lyrical abstraction of Richard Diebenkorn and his own friend and teacher Nathan Oliveira.

He became known first as a printmaker, his erotic and realistic imagery similar to that of his friend Mel Ramos, but the Japanese sensibility, and an intrinsic love of seascape and marine light, led him to the uniquely spiritual, meditative quality of his mature paintings.

He was an influential and greatly loved teacher who contributed greatly to the growing reputation of California State University in Hayward, where he was considered a "consummate professional," Ramos says, adding "It was difficult to be an innovative Abstract Expressionist after the 1960s, but Kenji managed to dispel that myth by making wonderfully fresh paintings."

An inveterate traveler, Nanao was particularly drawn to Venice, Turkey, and his native Honshu. His work drew on these travels, on the light and space they revealed to him, and on the paintings he was able to study at first hand by such favorites as Cezanne and Titian; but it also speaks of transience and objectiviity, resolving the vulnerability of human life in the contemplation of the immaterial.

Nanao loved sweet things, colors, jokes, cooking, poker, and his family. His grandchildren adored him. He leaves, beside the fond memories of hundreds of students and friends and the beauty of his many prints and paintings, his devoted wife Gail, his son Max and daughter-in-law Chloe, and their children Zoe and Alexander.
I will miss him, but as I get older I seem to get more accustomed to these disasters. In a curious way Death draws us closer together. Some of us: those who have departed after affecting us deeply, deeply enough to have left a part of them behind in our hearts. Like Cage, Kenji affected me with his silence and his vision, his tender passion for life and his awareness of its limits and his dedication to the reconciliation that awareness demands of us. The essential optimism of contemplation.

There's a touching farewell to Kenji by Deborah Barlow on her blog Slow Muse, with a wonderful photo of him taken in his studio only a couple of weeks ago. And here's another, which I took on that studio visit nearly two years ago…

Iberia, 5: Fado

Patricia Costa singing Fado in Porto, April 5 2013
photo: Lindsey Shere
Hotel Sao José, Rua da Alegria, Porto—
FADO IS THE TANGO, I suppose, of Portugal; the national vernacular music, commercial, not authentically in a folk idiom, that has come to represent a certain sad, nostalgic, existential quality that seems to me to permeate this enchanting city.

I like, though not unreservedly, what Wikipedia has to say about fado:
In popular belief, fado is a form of music characterized by mournful tunes and lyrics, often about the sea or the life of the poor, and infused with a characteristic sentiment of resignation, fatefulness and melancholia (loosely captured by the word saudade, or "longing"). However, although the origins are difficult to trace, today fado is regarded, by many, as simply a form of song which can be about anything, but must follow a certain structure. The music is usually linked to the Portuguese word saudade which symbolizes the feeling of loss (a permanent, irreparable loss and its consequent lifelong damage).
Fado — the word means "fate" in Portuguese, though apparently is rarely used in that sense — has fallen out of favor in some quarters, where it is criticized for having succumbed to commercial imperatives. No doubt it has; and it's as ubiquitous a tourism property in Portugal as is tango in Argentina or flamenco in Spain. That's no reason to avoid it.

plaza.jpgOn our first afternoon here in Porto we were wandering the narrow, cobbled, hilly streets of the old quarter. Such a curious city: the façades, grey and dirty, often embellished with Baroque lintels over the windows; lots of ancient ironwork — railings, balconies, window-bars.

The façades on the plaza express everything Fado sings, I think; everything except the individual human content of the song. They represent the context: history; motionlessness; decay; outlived aspiration. Dignity. Within it all, reserved, somewhere, hope: what once was known may yet return.

Rounding a corner we saw two men straining to lift a heavy stone into a battered wheelbarrow. They joked with me about the weight of the stone, and its perverse presence in the way of whatever work it was they were about. It's everywhere, they said, this stone; you can never avoid it. The younger man then wheeled it, downhill fortunately, into a plaza, up a steep plank, into the back of a pickup truck parked casually in the midst of the plaza.

We turned back to our walk, immediately confronting a restaurant I'd been curious about: RESTAURANTE TIPICO O FADO, the individual blue-glazed tiles spelled out; and the same message was engraved on a bronze plaque right next to the tiles, framed by a lamp, an alarm-bell box, and the wiring supplying them; with a menu and a few snapshots in windows below. The haphazard care and symmetry of it all appealed to me, and we took note of the place.

We continued through the confusing narrow streets, down to the center, across and up to Sao Bento, the marvelous railroad station, its vast lobby walls covered with cazuelos, blue and white glazed tiles, depicting great moments of Portuguese history. Outside the front entrance, in the place where the restaurant had featured its menu-box, I was touched to see a bronze plaque in homage to Gago Coutinho and Sacadura Cabral, two great Portuguese aviators, the first to cross the Atlantic, in 1922. On it, addressed TO POSTERITY, there was a poem in two stanzas, only the second of which I am able to decipher from my notes:
A nossa alma, na sua trajetória

Para o supremo Bem, para a Beleza,
Tem desferido um canto de vitória
Nas amplidões de toda a natureza!
Em frente ao apogeu da nossa glória
Veja o mundo que a raça portugueza
Leventa sempre o génio criador
Para a luz, para a vida e para o amor.
which I translate, with the help of the indispensable Google:

To our soul, in its trajectory
to the supreme Good, to Beauty,
they unrolled a song of victory
greater than all nature!
Before the height of glory
see the world that the creative genius
of the Portuguese race will always lift
toward light, to life and love.

THAT EVENING OUR DESK clerk recommended two fado restaurants in town; each was represented by fliers in the local-hotspot display you see in most hotel lobbies these days. I asked about a third, which we'd noticed on our walk in the Rua São João Novo, in the heart of the old town. Oh, that's the best of them all, the clerk said, though in fact they're all good, they all give you professional singers, there really isn't any difference.

In the end, though, we went to the Rua São João Novo, precisely because they did not supply the hotel with a pamphlet — maybe that suggests they're less touristy. We reserved a table for the four of us at eight o'clock: a little early, I thought; but the Portuguese seem to dine earlier than do the Spaniards.

The dining room is a long rectangle. It was empty of diners save one table at the very end — on reflection, this may have been relatives of the restaurant staff. Our table was reserved, in the center of the room, directly opposite a small stage for the performers. As we ate dinner other diners showed up, and before too long the place was fairly full.

After an hour or so the host — clearly the restaurant owner — took the stage to welcome his guests and introduce the performers. He did this first in Portuguese, then in quite fluent English, getting a good deal of applause from the audience. Then he went through it again in French. The many Americans laughed and talked among themselves, as if the French announcement were nothing anyone needed to heed; next to us, a table of French tourists looked quite pleased and attentive.

Then the first singer appeared. Again, I was unable to catch the name: subsequent rooting around the Internet leads me to think she may be Patricia Costa, whose photo I find somewhere on the Internet. She had a clear soprano, bright, silvery, and she sang like a young woman, on the threshold of mature life, expecting her first child, aware of the difficulties of life but not at all overcome by them, harboring no sorrows, no angers. She sang about singing, about Lisbon, about life and love. She sang simply, affectingly but unaffectedly, directly, stepping aside at moments to allow the guitarist to supply his wordless comment on her song, stepping back naturally, without pretense or ego, to resume the song.

When she was finished, after perhaps fifteen minutes or so, she walked unaffectedly off her platform into another room, followed by the guitarists. We turned back to our table; a new course had arrived, and we enjoyed it and our conversation, and the energy of the dining room which had filled up and was clearly as pleased as we had been. We didn’t expect further entertainment, at least I didn’t: but our master of ceremonies returned to the stage to introduce another singer, a man this time, Antonio Laranjeira. Behind him the guitarists were taking their places again and tuning up, and soon Laranjeira appeared: a young man, late thirties perhaps, a little stocky, with a broad open honest face, very pleasant-looking, rather artless.

His singing was most direct and disarming. He had a clear tenor, supple, insinuating I suppose, light, inflected with perhaps more personal experience than the soprano had had. There was a wistful quality to his voice and his delivery; he reminded me at times of Luciano Pavarotti when he was young and was singing simply. He began, straight-forwardly, with
Este fado é de nós dois
Quero cantá-lo e depois
Vou levar-te pela cidade
De bairro em bairro à toa
Por esta velha Lisboa
Onde se canta a saudade

[This fado is for us two
I want to sing it and then
I'll take you through the city
Neighborhood by neighborhood aimlessly
For this old Lisbon
Where saudade sings…

[Saudade is famously untranslatable. Nostalgia, longing, melancholy are all involved. I first met the word in Darius Milhaud's marvelous piano suite Saudades do Brasil, composed in France after spending two years in Rio de Janeiro. Then, years later, but many years ago, we had a Brazilian exchange student with us for six months, and I observed a lot of saudade first-hand.

There's a long discussion of the word, the concept, the condition, on Wikipedia: "The state of mind has subsequently become a "Portuguese way of life": a constant feeling of absence, the sadness of something that's missing, wishful longing for completeness or wholeness and the yearning for the return of that now gone, a desire for presence as opposed to absence…"]

Again, the gravely smiling grey-haired man with the Portuguese guitar accompanied the voice, then played the interludes, accenting certain beats with a curious quick upward motion of his entire upper body, arms, and instrument, as if he were incapable of resisting the urgent insinuation of the music; his quieter, more retiring colleague supplied bass and afterbeat harmony with his conventional guitar.

Laranjeira gave us quite a number of songs — this was generous entertainment. And then, after another interlude devoted to conversation and the table, a third singer was introduced: an older woman, Leonor Santos, whose face and voice and styling were quite a contrast with the previous two singers. Where the first woman had the clear light soprano and the disarming innocence of, say, Doris Day, this woman made me think of Peggy Lee, if she'd only sung fado.

After her set the evening was pretty well over. We talked to the two female singers — a nice conversation, about fado and its history, about the irrelevance of such categories as popular or commercial or folk or vernacular. The singers were clearly artists, they'd given their art a lot of thought. I was struck, as I so often am, by their generosity, singing so artfully and sincerely in a restaurant to an audience of tourists. We took photos and bought a CD.

As we left the restaurant, just before getting to the door to the street, we passed through a sort of vestibule — it looked like the reception desk of a small hotel, though this was no hotel, as far as I could see. The restaurant host, who'd served as MC, was standing toward the back of the room. Antonio Laranjeira was leaning over the high counter; behind it the man with the Portuguese guitar — how I wish I could find his name! — was seated, with his instrument. Laranieira was singing to him, and he was playing guitar back to Laranieira — as if they were working up an arrangement, or refining a duet whose music each had long known but had perhaps not performed with the other.

I suddenly realized my iPhone could record this, and made a short video — the singing was extraordinarily beautiful, persuasive, engaging, direct; and the guitar supported it intuitively. It was late and time to go, but I couldn't tear myself away. Finally I had no choice: if you watch the little video I made you'll see what finally happened…
My latest book, Improvised Itineraries, is just out. In a little over two hundred pages it describes walking in Limburg and on the GR5 in Belgium and Luxembourg; driving across France; exploring cave art and cassoulet in the Perigord; seeing Einstein on the Beach in Montpellier; lunching with Lulu at Domaine Tempier; and a number of small hotels, country restaurants, and good times. A number of black and white photos. You can order it online, and I wish you would. $12.95 plus shipping.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Two more plays in Pasadena

Pasadena, California, May 12, 2013—
QUICKLY NOW, BECAUSE it's late and we have a longish drive tomorrow, let me sum up the rest of the spring season here at A Noise Within, whose productions continue to impress us after all these years. Yesterday we saw Frank Galati's adaptation for the stage of John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath, a work that perhaps means more to me than it will to you, since my father was born in Oklahoma, and lived through the Dust Bowl, the great Oklahoma migration, and all that.

I shouldn't have to write much here about the novel, which traces the eviction of the Joads from their Oklahoma farm, their travels across the Southwest to the migrant worker camps of the California Central Valley, the unspeakable poverty and hardship of the period, the injustice and inevitability of their exploitation at the hands of ranch managers, their brutal treatment by the establishment, and all that. You think the last few years have been tough in the USA: you have no idea how things were in the years before World War II.

It's a long time since I've read the book — I really should re-read it, I know — so I can't be sure: but this adaptation, while necessarily episodic, seemed faithful to me, fleshing out the main characters mostly through Steinbeck's words, organizing the high points of the lamentable narrative effectively, leavening what might otherwise have been overwhelmingly depressing deaths, disease, and failure with the finally irrepressable energy of the daily untutored will to live, and to live with dignity and decency.

Michael Michetti's direction was straightforward and effective. Matt Gottlieb, Steve Coombs, and Deborah Strang stood out in the large and effective cast as Casy, Tom Joad, and Ma, with Mark Jacobson a remarkable Noah and Lili Fuller growing through the course of the play as Rose of Sharon.

Many in the cast sang, danced, and played instruments — fiddle, guitars, bass, jug — with skill and vigor, contributing to a sense of authenticity. One would never want the country to return to such hard times, but it sure would be nice if people could once again be that good, that adaptable, that determined. This was a first-rate production. If it could travel the length and breadth of the land, Americans might learn something positive about their heritage, about the honesty and justice of workers and the out of work.
THEN THIS AFTERNOON we saw a rare production of The Beaux' Strategem, the 1707 comedy by George Farquhar, in an adaptation by Thornton Wilder that was abandoned, then finished recently by Ken Ludwig.

It's a Restoration Comedy, I suppose, about scoundrels: impoverished gentlemen, louche inkeepers, a highwayman doubling as a parson, a dotty old woman dabbling in surgery, and the like. Beatrice and Benedick meet commedia dell'arte, action gives way to direct address to the audience, jokes are made at Mr. Shakespeare's expense.

In Julia Rodriguez-Elliott's brisk direction, it was all great fun. Blake Ellis was superb as the blandly loveable Jack Archer; Freddy Douglas a good match as his sidekick Tom Aimwell. Abby Craden and Malia Wright were just under overwrought, good-looking and very funny as the young ladies Kate Sullen and Dorinda. Apollo Dukakis did his characteristic wide-eyed goof for the Boniface, and Deborah Strang defined demented zaniness as Lady Bountiful.

Best of all, perhaps, Robertson Dean portrayed Sullen. I don't think I've ever seen a more complex, longer, more utterly believable, and funnier drunk impersonation than his. He was absolutely hilarious. The whole show was. There are serious things here, comments on Science, on The State of Woman, on class warfare. (At one point, a gentleman masking as a servant declares they are all on the cusp of a great upheaval in such relations: and this is the early 18th century.)

One of the most remarkable things about this company, A Noise Within, is its record, its ability, with repertory, balancing serious drama with entertainment, looking in dusty corners of repertory, finding vehicles that stretch the company and its audience and that speak to one another, developing an intelligent conversation about the constant human condition through the theatrical entertainment that has been devised throughout the centuries, across boundaries of nation and language. This spring season has, in one sense, simply been one more example. In another sense, it has been exceptionally effective.

Friday, May 10, 2013


E282-1024x819.jpgJules Wilcox as Eurydice, with her recumbent Father (Geoff Elliott) and the menacing Lord of the Underworld (Ryan Vincent Anderson); three Stones in background
Pasadena, May 10, 2013—
SAW A PLAY down here last night that needed reseeing in my mind's eye this morning: Sara Ruhl's 2003 romantic comedy Eurydice. We're here for the spring season of a company we've followed for a number of years, A Noise Within: one of the things we like about them is their propensity for thoughtful repertory. (Tomorrow we see The Grapes of Wrath; next day, The Beaux' Stratagem.)

Sarah Ruhl is perhaps better known just now for a more recent play, Dead Man's Cell Phone, which we saw a few years ago up in Ashland. Like it, Eurydice is an entertaining and very contemporary play on verbal language, mindless American leisure, and Life and Death. I suppose her antecedents include the American novelist Robert Nathan, whose bittersweet fantasies were once bestsellers and produced hit movies — think Portrait of Jennie — but is now so neglected none of his thirty-eight novels now rate an individual Wikipedia entry. (I particularly loved One More Spring, which I try to re-read every ten or twelve years.)

I wouldn't be surprised if Eurydice is similarly forgotten in twelve or fifteen years: and that is not to its discredit. Theater must be of the moment. There are of course, and thank both Melpomene and Thalia for them, plays that manage to hold the stage for centuries, even millennia. A Noise Within offers them, usually two or three a year. It seems reasonable, though, given the limits of human activity, that for every one of those plays there must be hundreds and thousands that have shorter runs.

And there's no reason that among them there shouldn't be some whose short shelf life is due to their specific address to their specific audience, in its specific social context. One of my objections to Eurydice, during the ninety minutes I was actually watching its single long act, was that it trivialized the Orpheus myth. Myths owe their power to their ability to speak to the most basic concerns of their audiences, what you might call root level desire, fear, and comprehension. The higher you go (to use suspect spatial analogy) in the intellectual reception of the audience, conscious or subconscious, the more particular the appeal, the more delimited to a specific construct of social or psychological issues.

Eurydice opens with the two characters on a beach, apparently in the United States, apparently in the late 20th century. Orpheus is a glib, rather bland young man whose head is full of tunes. Eurydice, equally adolescent, prefers the books she reads. They prance and preen and prattle good-naturedly about their differences, and they seem not really all that passionate about one another.

They engage to marry, though — one's not sure why — but during the ceremony, or just short of it, she runs off to the apartment of a sinister fellow who has picked up a letter written to Eurydice by her dead father, who has some advice for her. After stealing the letter she rushes out of the apartment, falls down a flight of six hundred stairs (not "steps": Ruhl's language is occasionally oddly imprecise), and dies.

From there the play returns more or less to the standard myth, saving the presence in Hades of Eurydice's never named Father, who coaches her in verbal communication following Lethe's erasure of her intellect.

The cast is rounded out by a Greek chorus of three Stones, who comment on the action from time to time, more to remind us that Ruhl's play grows out of antiquity than to enlarge the effectiveness of her theater.

Looking back on the play this morning, a few hours after seeing it, I see its resonance — in terms of physical production, at least, but through that also in terms of suggestion — with such plays as Il Re cervo (King Stag), which Noise Within did ten years ago. If Ruhl's play looks back, consciously or not, to Robert Nathan, it also recalls, at least to me, the plays of Wallace Stevens: Three Travelers Watch a Sunrise, for example.

Geoff Elliott's direction of the play was consistent, a little subdued, sympathetic, and intelligent. (The same can be said of his portrayal of the role of Her Father.) He didn't flinch from the playwright's idea of anchoring, miring perhaps, the play in the specifics of bland American adolescence, and that speaks for the esthetically ethical respect he has for the script. In the other main roles, Jules Willcox found some wonder and depth in the title role; Ryan Vincent Anderson was often imposing as A Nasty Interesting Man and Hades. Graham Sibley was, I thought, weaker as Orpheus, but then in Ruhl's play this isn't a very rewarding role.

As the chorus, Abigail Marks, Jessie Losch, and Kelly Ehlert were perhaps a bit too indulged as Big, Little, and (especially) Loud Stone, sitting stolidly on the ledges of the back wall of the set, blue, comically ominous and eternal, enigmatic. These stones can't help but bring the dead in the closing pages of Our Town to mind. I like them, the more I think of them.

The physical production was effective and memorable, especially Meghan Gray's lighting design and Jeanine Ringer's scenic design. Indeed it was those components, abetted by Endre Balogh's offstage violin improvisations (if indeed they were improvised), that force me to rethink my immediate reaction to the evening, and to find considerable merit in the play. I'd see it again, especially in this production, if I lived down here: the production closes May 19.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Two Stoppard plays

FOR THE RECORD, whatever the record might be, we saw two plays by Tom Stoppard on Saturday, down in Berkeley. We caught them just in time; I'm sorry to tell you they've closed. Comments are justifiable, though, because one or another or, I hope, both might well be remounted next season: they constitute the first two-thirds of a trilogy, whose closing piece has been promised for next year.

The trilogy is The Coast of Utopia, which, as stated by Wikipedia, focusses on "the philosophical debates in pre-revolution Russa between 1833 and 1866." The trilogy runs nine hours, Wikipedia further states, and I can believe it: the two plays we saw, Voyage and Shipwreck, ran close to three hours each.

My experience with Stoppard is insufficient — not entirely my fault: his plays aren't given sufficient attention by the companies whose productions we visit. We've seen, let's see, Travesties, On the Razzle, Arcadia, maybe The Invention of Love. His translation of The Seagull, too, and of course the movie Shakespeare in Love, whose screenplay he co-wrote (with Marc Norman).

Nor have I read any of his plays. This will distress my reclusive friend in Corvallis, in the unlikely event he reads this: he lent me a copy of The Invention of Love months ago, and I haven't yet got to it.

It was Travesties that put me off Stoppard. I was a dedicated Joycehead for decades, and the idea of fooling around with historical fact, throwing Joyce and Tzara and Lenin together on stage simply because they happened to live for a short time in the same city where they might have met, seemed not only dubious in terms of ethics, but downright shameful. It seemed to my priggish standards an assault on the dignity of Joyce's accomplishments; certainly the dignity of the situations he suffered in those Zurich years.

Of course I've come to realize the absurdity, the ignorance, the uselessness, the short-sightedness of my outrage at Stoppard's "liberties." An outrage facilitated, by the way, by my not having actually read or seen Travesties at the time: it was only a few seasons ago that I first saw it, produced — brilliantly, I thought — by the Shotgun Players.

It was the same theater that brought us Voyage and Shipwreck the other day. They are truly a marvelous company, engaging, resourceful, enterprising. Their little Ashby Stage, a storefront theater with a steeply raked audience seating perhaps a hundred, is obviously limited in terms of facilities, but where other companies wallow in theatrical resources, Shotgun dances cleverly and gracefully in theatrical imaginativeness and enterprise.

I've complained here about certain productions in other theaters, where the urge to make Shakespeare, for example, "relevant" to today's audiences has sometimes resulted in compromises with what seems to me the intent and meaning of the script. The idea seems to be that the audience can't understand the complexity and seriousness of the play unless it's pushed at them in theatrical dress more current. The result is Troilus and Cressida, say, performed like an Iraq War movie. You alter the play to make your audience "understand" it, even though the result is not the play Shakespeare wrote.

What Shotgun did with Stoppard's complex and serious plays was alter the audience, not the scripts. The alteration was simple enough: a member of the company came out onstage a few minutes before curtain and explained a few details, in the course of which aspects of Russian art, philosophy, and society of 180 years ago — not to mention the French Revolution, the aftermath of the Congress of Vienna, Marx, George Sand, and a few other items — was easily and gracefully presented.

What a pleasure, to attend a theater whose audience is treated like a collection of intelligent men and women, interested in such things, and capable of following simple declarative sentences! And the printed program, too, was a masterpiece of clarity and precision, dispensing with the usual format and setting instead a timeline of the dramatic content of the two plays, another of the French Revolution, biographies of the characters Stoppard involves in his plays, and synopses of the action.

The plays are meaty, no question. Of the two, Voyage, the first of the trilogy, seemed to me the more fascinating, largely because of its structure. Act I, set on a Chekhov-like country estate near Moscow, presents nine scenes centered on the wealthy Bakunin family, four daughters and a son (Michael) and their parents, guests, and serfs.

Act II moves the action to Moscow and Petersburg, following the same characters (and a few new ones) through the same time period, 1833-1844, backfilling details and motivation and consequences.

The play is "about" the lassitude and hopelessness and uncertainty of the Russia of the period, mired in the serfdom economy, torn between fascination and envy for Europe (especially the freedom of France and the dedication of Germany) and an obstinate loyalty to the antiEuropean qualities of the eternal Mother Russia.

All this is slowly, carefully spooled out through conversation, with a few set pieces at critical junctures. The economy, agriculture, law, religion, literature or the lack of it — those are the subjects, ostensibly: but the real substance of Stoppard's play is the complexity, the inheritance, the philosophical difficulty and the eventual failure of a historical moment, reaching back to the Age of Reason and the French Revolution that followed it, and forward to the long night that would follow the events of this play, seventy more years before the Russian Revolution, then ninety more to our own time, when the Russian failure seems just as surely sealed.

Shipwreck follows Bakunin and his foil the literary critic Vissarion Belinsky to Paris, 1846-47. Where the first play introduced literati and liberals as guests of the Bakunin country estate, Bakunin himself is now seen as a guest in the cosmopolitan home of the wealthy Alexander Herzen, half German and half Russian, at home in neither society. In a similar structure, though much more linear in its chronology, Stoppard narrows his focus, drawing the net tighter around his characters, propelling us to the inevitable futility of the 1848 Paris revolution in the first act, then in the second dissolving the tension in the anticlimax of the Herzen household in Nice.

I can hardly wait to see the final play, Salvage. In fact I'll probably have to buy the scripts of all three and read them soon; the production can't come soon enough for me. If Shipwreck was less gripping than Voyage, it was probably because it is after all the centerpiece of the trilogy. The first play stands on its own; the second needs the first and, I'm sure, the third.

I can't say enough about the principles among the cast. Joseph Salazar was deep and changeable as Michael Bakunin; Nick Medina was smoldering and intense and brilliant as Belinsky; Jonah Rotenberg was sometimes meditative, sometimes quick and brittle as Herzen. It's a huge cast, and there were a couple of weaker actors in lesser roles, but for the most part I was persuaded throughout the afternoon and evening.

The director was Patrick Dooley, artistic director of Shotgun. I'm glad he's where he is; intelligent theater needs an intelligent and effective master in a community like Berkeley. But when I think what he might be able to do a few hundred miles north…