Archive for April, 2009

Reviews – Dimetos, Donmar Warehouse and A View from the Bridge, Duke of York’s Theatre

April 29, 2009

While I don’t normally double up my reviews, there were so many similarities between these two plays that I thought it would make sense to review them together. Both are modern Greek tragedies, both …


Just let me be clear, I am about to give away major plot points. I recommend both of these plays, with the note that A View from the Bridge makes for a better evening’s entertainment (due to being less abstract) than Dimetos, though Dimetos has more beautiful language and imagery and may have more appeal to the sophisticated theater-goer looking to have her imagination tickled. And with THAT, I continue my review and move on to the SPOILERS ….

Both are modern Greek tragedies, both feature men who are inappropriately attracted to their orphaned nieces. Culturally speaking, they are millions of miles away from each other, as Bridge‘s Eddie Carbone (in a note-perfect performance by Ken Stott) is a hard-working longshoreman of the sort idolized by Dimetos (Jonathan Pryce), a highly educated South African engineer. Eddie’s problems (alongside “making enough money to feed his family” and “hiding his wife’s illegally immigrated relatives, who are living in his house”) are how to make sure his his niece is taken care of in a world where a lot of things can go wrong for a young woman; Dimetos’ biggest problem seems to be staving off boredom. In fact, Dimetos seems comically spoiled compared to Eddie, and while he’s certainly engaged with his environment (as in the beginning scene where he’s solving the problem of getting a horse out of a well), it’s just really hard to garner up a huge pile of sympathy for a man with such a big ego.

Oddly, it’s also Eddie’s ego that gets him hugely into trouble at the end of the play (whereas Dimetos’ trouble is ultimately caused by his inaction), but it just seems so much more compelling to see a man whose anger is at having his life overturned and who is, in fact, protecting what he considers to be his own. Mustering up a full head of sympathy is a bit difficult for either of them considering that, well, it is clear that both of them don’t have their hearts in the right place when it comes to their relationships with their nieces, but Eddie the fighter, even if he’s a drunk and lashes out at his loved ones, is easier to understand than Dimetos the dreamer, who feels free to complain about what’s wrong with the world but doesn’t seem to be willing to engage with it.

The heart of both of these plays wants to be the men, but in Dimetos it is the niece, Lydia (Holliday Grainger, whose perfectly toned body had me and my husband debating her workout regime long after we’d stopped talking about the play) who is the real center of her show – much as she is the center of Dimetos’ world. Watching her interact with housekeeper Sophia (Anne Reid) and visitor Danilo (Alex Lanipekun) is fascinating – Sophia clearly loves her and the two of them have a relationship that shows signs of years and years of being built, and the budding love affair with Danilo is just amazingly tense. Will he? Won’t she? And does Lydia even know where things are going? She forms a fascinating character study of a girl on the brink of womanhood – and perhaps passing over it – though the ultimate turn she takes during the play seems to make little sense in terms of her overall personality.

Lydia and Eddie’s niece Catherine (Hayley Atwell) also have a lot in common. Despite being orphaned, they’ve been sheltered and perhaps a bit spoiled; but in an atmosphere in which they have been loved to pieces, they’ve both grown up intelligent, engaged with the world, convinced of their own powers, and perhaps a bit naive. It makes me wonder if Lydia would have followed Catherine’s arc and finally had to just make a run for it if she’d stayed. Catherine, however, did not provide all of the heart of Bridge, as Eddie so strongly held the stage, but as a part of a trio in which the “other woman” was Eddie’s wife, she was in a much more precarious position than Lydia was. It was, in fact, quite painful to watch the tug of war with Catherine’s head as Eddie attempted to bend her to his will and Bea (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) attempted to bend Catherine’s head to a view of reality that would ensure Bea’s continued primacy in the family, and this further added to the dramatic tension of Bridge.

In general, the drama of the Carbone family (will the immigrants be caught and deported? will Eddie’s niece fall in love?) seems much more vibrant that that of Dimetos’ household (will Dimetos decide to return to an exciting job in the city rather than continuing to live somewhere where he’s not appreciated? will the adults start treating Lydia like a part of the family again?), especially given that a key turning point in Dimetos involves two people both going mad and the actors involved doing it completely unbelievably. While the narrator Arthur Miller dropped in Bridge tends to make the whole thing sound a bit Sam Spade (with flat, identical Brooklyn accents), I’m not surprised that Bridge was ultimately able to keep forty 17 year old students riveted to their seats while Dimetos is the rare Donmar non-sellout. I enjoyed them both, but Dimetos, despite its brilliant script and fine performances, was, like Dimetos himself, just too “woo woo” and in love with itself to really provide as much of a punch as A View from the Bridge. I say see both if you can, but if you can only see one … well, do you want to see the play you’ll never see revived again, or do you want to see the one that’s a hugely compelling night out?

Oh, who am I kidding. View from the Bridge is great. But if you miss seeing Holliday Grainger hog up the stage with her big heart and her radiant, perfectly-formed self, you may truly regret it.

(The Dimetos performance reviewed here was seen on Friday, April 24th, 2009. Dimetos continues through Saturday, May 9th, 2009. A View from the Bridge was seen on Monday, April 27th, 2009 and continues through Saturday, May 16th, 2009. If anyone can get me tickets for the Donmar’s next production, A Doll’s House, please let me know as it’s already sold out and I’m sad.)


Review (sort of) – Kneehigh Theatre’s “Don John – Battersea Arts Centre

April 25, 2009

I am not really in a mood to write about this show.

At the very end, a bit of “Don Giovanni” is played. I felt a little bitter about being reminded about one of the most fantastic, surprising moments of any live performance I had ever seen in conjunction with this one, especially because on the surface, you might think “Don John” and “Don Giovanni” had something in common.

But they don’t really. One is a great work of art. The other is a well-designed, emotionally empty bit of theatrical time killing. I made it through intermission. Sometimes it was pretty to look at. But I’ve already written more about it here than it warrants. I will, however, remember hearing this song for the rest of my life:

(Don John continues through May 9th, 2009 at the Battersea Arts Centre, which really is a gorgeous venue. They serve a mean double vodka cran to boot, but 5.50 seems a bit steep, really.)

Ballet Summer 2009 – Mikhailovsky and Diaghilev program at Royal Opera House!

April 25, 2009

I finally flipped through the Royal Opera House program last night and was very pleased to see that we’ll be getting some Russian ballet this summer! The Mariinsky/Kirov is coming to the Royal Opera House from 3-15 August and presenting four different programs. However, I was disappointed at the rather unimaginative seat-fillers they’ve got on offer – Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty. I mean, GAH, could they pull any chestnuttier chestnuts out of the chestnut case? (Oh, wait, they’re not doing Nutcracker, so I guess they could have pulled one more out still.)

Now, it’s Leonid Lavrovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, and Petipa’s Sleeping Beauty, so it should be substantially different from the Royal Ballet productions people would be more likely to be familiar with. (Note that the Swan Lake is choreographed by Konstantin Sergeyev off of Petipa and Ivanov, so again a different version.) But I’m just really disappointed at the lack of really different productions, like when the Bolshoi brought Spartacus and The Pharaoh’s Daughter to the Royal Opera House five years back. They weren’t just different versions of the same old stuff (Look! A cheese sandwich with relish on it!) but just entirely different worlds of ballet to what I was used to seeing (rather like chicken mole’ after a lifetime thinking Mexican food meant tacos). And that is what I would like to see – or, better yet, some really modern choreographers, the Mariinsky doing work especially choreographed for it, a chance to see something truly new! But no, all we get is Balanchine, and it’s Balanchine war horses to boot. I mean, come on, Serenade and Rubies, not only have I seen them before, but they will have both been done in London earlier in the yeah, and even on the stage of the Royal Opera House.

Wah. On the other hand, there’s this wacky little “Tribute to Diaghilev” thing happening on June 7th, directed by Valeriy Ovsyanikov, with various Russian dancers and Royal Ballet members doing some real classics I’ve never even had a chance to see (Le Spectre de la Rose and The Dying Swan being particularly notable holes in my ballet experience), and while the tickets seem a bit painfully priced, I think I’m going to make the effort – 30 quid is more than I’ll normally spend for a ticket, but, well, you know, a few times a year I can let myself splurge. And, inevitably, it’s for ballet, and it’s in the summer, and it’s the shows that, with luck, I’ll spend the rest of my years talking about “that one time I saw that really great production of that wild XXX” and I won’t regret spending the money one little bit.

(Booking for these shows opens on April 28th, 2009. Gentlemen, start your engines!)

Review – Pop-up Tea Shop – 47 Lamb’s Conduit Street

April 23, 2009

While reading the London Paper Wednesday night, my husband turned to me and said, “A pop-up tea shop! Isn’t that just your thing? Better go tomorrow?” I looked at the paper and the description of the event. Not only was it tea, it was tea served in vintage tea cups, and it was on the very street behind my office! I was excited! And it was only happening for two days, Thursday and Friday April twenty-third and twenty-fourth, so I was going to have to get myself down there.

I showed up around 12:30, and how gorgeous it was! The inside was black flocked wall paper. Two tables and a sofa were in the main area, with seating for about seven total in the space, and a handsome mustachioed man was behind the counter.

I admired the gorgeous, 40s-ish decor. The cups were all vintage; the cake stand (with home-made, iced chocolate cake on it) adorable; the cutlery (with cream bakelite handles) exactly what I want in my own house. A few quiches were on the tables. A strange pile of comically fashionable people masquerading as artists kept parading into the back room. The man with the mustache, hiding behind several metal and glass tea containers (and a big metal tin marked “cake”) was where it was at.

As it turns out, the whole thing appeared to be a marketing campaign for Timberland’s new line of ladies shoes, the advertising pamphlet for which was filled with so many typos and grammatical car crashes that I considered correcting it to save the originator further embarrassment. But no: with the offer of free tea and cake (and quiche!), I was far too full of good will toward the world to make the effort. I sat down with a china cup full of lapsang souchong and nibbled on quiche. I thought of tea parties I wanted to have. I stirred my tea with a silver spoon. What an utterly perfect way to spend a sunny Thursday. All I needed was someone to talk to and I could have spent the whole afternoon there. Instead, I packed up after my third cup (and after having some of the cake) and went back to work.

(The pop-up tea shop continues for one more day. Unfortunately I did not get the name of the gentleman behind the counter, who said he runs a tea shop on Shoreditch High Street. Any help identifying him and the name of his shop would be highly appreciated! And sadly the vintage stuff inside is NOT for sale. I was sad, but not too much. You can’t beat free cake.)

LATER: I’m pleased to announce my subject above is Johnny of Time for Tea, who apparently occasionally serves tea on weekends out of his shop/house on Shoreditch High Street, 110 (E1 6JN). And I was also told this event wasn’t sponsored by Timberland, though I’m still in the dark as to why it happened. Thanks to the people who set it up, though!

Focus on Forsythe goes into fourth gear

April 20, 2009

Sadler’s Wells is heading into the home stretch with its year of programming by William Forsythe. Tonight is the UK debut of You Made Me a Monster. Each night it’s showing three different times, which is providing a lot more opportunities for people to watch than a regular show would. This is good because almost all of the rest of the series is sold out.

And you know what? I’ve got some stomach bug and might not be able to even go tonight. Life is cruel, I tell you, cruel.

Review – Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas – Royal Opera House

April 18, 2009

Wanye Macgregor directing Baroque opera, with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment providing the accompaniment? Really, when I read about this production of Dido and Aeneas at the Royal Opera House, I thought someone might have been reading through my mind and picking my dream production. Movement has frequently been a problem with Baroque opera for me (i.e. Partenope), and I thought with Macgregor, not only would this be taken care of, but we would actually have someone with enough imagination and vision to really shake up the the whole Baroque opera “thing.”

I don’t really like opera, and the only opera I do consistently enjoy IS Baroque/early music opera, but it has this horrible tendency to be staged in a manner I find just painful. It’s really all about the artistry of the singing, see, so there are these long bits where people are just standing there … singing. Sometimes this means that, well, basically someone is frozen on stage while they make really pretty noises, and sometimes … and this is worse … the director decides this singing thing, it must be very dull, I need to make sure the audience is entertained, a la the mortifying Orfeo we saw the English Touring Opera perform, and then my ability to enjoy what is coming in my ears is destroyed by my desire to claw my eyes out to get away from the horror that is on the stage in front of me.

So. Totally modern, “with it” guy taking on Baroque Opera? I say, Bring It On! It’s not a case of making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear (of not trusting the material), it’s an opportunity to take a really unusual ingredient to a master chef and, let’s say, make a mole’ out of ultra-dark chocolate. In addition, to me it promised the opportunity to see some great dance on stage in addition to the whole orchestra/singers shebang, so BIG STOKE!

Except for … well, the fact that on April 15th, I was just coming back from a 14 day vacation. And exhausted. Which is why I am not also reviewing Acis and Galatea. Do forgive me for this! But 90 more minutes of show after a 25 minute intermission – I don’t know what I was thinking when I booked tickets for a weeknight instead of on a weekend. I couldn’t risk being shot all of the next day at work, so I gave my modest side balcony seats to someone in the slips, realizing I was going to be missing out on a lot of great music in favor of, er, keeping my job. Ah well.

The curtain arose on the overture to show a stage with a very modern/postmodern design – a simple stage with a perhaps shoulder height light colored rectangular box on it about two thirds in, and the light-grey, Greek-esque robed Dido (Sarah Connolly) having her maid, Belinda (understudy Simona Mihai, filling in for the evening) fiddle with her dress. The overall feel for the costuming was greys (darker for the rest of the cast) and fairly simple robes … except for the dancers, who wore sleeveless shirts and black short shorts. It had a very unified feel to it, and much fresher than usual, and while the women and townsfolk looked fairly, if anonymously, classical, the men (well, Aeneas and a few of his shipmates) in their rather Japanese wide, split pants did manage to look different. Aeneas, though, wore what looked like a scarab beetle chest piece, which cracked me up. The costuming generally help focus attention on the singers, though, which was good.

I’m actually not very good at talking about singing, and should have taken many more notes to try to prod my memory (three days later) so that I could discuss it better. Sarah seemed good at Baroque singing, full of trills and expressiveness. Her movement on stage wasn’t histrionic, but neither was she stiff. Simona did sound years younger than her mistress, which was good, and benefited from sounding generally fresh and excited to be on stage. While I expect she’ll sound even better as her voice matures, it was a pleasure to watch and listen to her. Aeneas (Lucas Meachem) was fine, but the opera doesn’t focus on him so much and even a few days later I can’t remember how he sounds. I do remember what a laugh I got out of the Siamese twin First and Second Witches (Eri Nakamura and Pumeza Matshikiza) – it sure added a lot of visual interest to what in a previous viewing of this opera had been a very snoozy scene!

On to the choreography, which was a lot more of why I came to this. In general, the movements of the principles and the chorus on stage was far better than I’ve seen in any Baroque opera since I’ve moved to England (I usually manage two or three a year). They didn’t move just because there was nothing else going on on stage, but mostly to move the story forward; the massing during the scene in the witches’ lair was very good, while the couples promenading and cooing during the “grove” scene (“Thanks to these lovesome vales”) and the snuggling and then leave-taking of “Come away, fellow sailors” really increased the dramatic impact of the music.

However, the effect of the dancers was mixed. In part it was because of their costumes; to suddenly throw these ultra-sexy, bare-legged creatures on stage with people parading around in robes just pulls your focus right off the story and into the present. In the scenes where they were filling in for an unsung musical interlude, they were generally good, even though the dance didn’t feel quite integrated into the “feel” of the piece. In the scene where a dancer took the role of Mercury/”Spirit” (as sung deliciously by Iestyn Davies) and mimed the content/feel of his speech to Aeneas (telling him he must leave Carthage) was perfect; gorgeously lit, the offstage voice adding more to the otherworldly feel of the scene, the dancer himself looking very much like an incarnation of a god. However, during the witches’ scene, “Here Actaeon met his fate,” the dancing made me think of tits on a bull – it just didn’t fit (the costumes and movement were so wrong for the moment) and was a complete distraction. Ah well, perhaps more experience with this kind of work will lead to Macgregor getting the format right.

Overall, though, this evening proved to me that Baroque opera can be just as enjoyable to watch as it is to listen to, and I look forward to seeing such a strong performance in the future.

(This review is for a performance that took place on April 15th, 2009. Two more performances are set for Saturday, April 18th and Monday, April 20th. This is the Dido you will want to see this spring!)

Review – Birmingham Royal Ballet’s “Pomp and Circumstances” (Serenade/Balanchine, Enigma Variations/Ashton, ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Cafe/Bintley) – London Coliseum

April 15, 2009

Last night W (“Parsingphase”) and I went to the London Coliseum to see the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s “Pomp and Circumstances” program, part of the Spring Dance at the London Coliseum series.

My interest in this was due to 1) really enjoying my previous viewings of this groups’ work (they are a strong notch above English National Ballet and, as near as I can tell, the second best ballet group in England) and 2) the pictures for the Penguin Cafe piece were really intriguing.

I was fascinated by the idea of a ballet featuring zebras. Really, how would it work? Would it be like Merce Cunningham’s “Beach Birds,” or would it be (shudder) more like the “Tales of Beatrix Potter?” It had a look of whimsy (tempered with high artistic skill) that I really appreciated – even though I realized in some eyes the whole thing could come off like a giant Furry fantasy ballet. (But, you know, perhaps best not to go down that path!)

I faffed and faffed about buying tickets, hoping I could get a half price deal and get seats on the floor, but the gods weren’t with me – the deal I saw was for Sylvia, and when I looked at ENO and Sadler’s Wells sites to figure out what seats were available, it in fact looked like it was nearly sold out! I decided that rather risking not going, it was best to get some sort of seat bought, and so I settled on £20 seats in the next to last row of the Coliseum’s upper balcony (aided pricewise by Sadler’s Well’s 20% multibuy discount – I bought seats for Northern Ballet at the same time to get that deal).

As it turns out this was not a bad decision – while the show certainly wasn’t sold out (at least in the balcony), it did NOT come up on the TKTS offerings for the day (though I note it’s there today). Perhaps our balcony seats were a bit warm, but the view was unobstructed, and other than the damage to my knees from the ridiculously narrow space between the edge of my seat and the back of the next chair (a problem for all but the last row of the second balcony), it was most decidedly worth £20, especially since all of the music was done live (yay!).

The first piece was Balanchine’s “Serenade,” which premiered in 1935 and was the first piece he choreographed on American ballerinas. It did show signs of age – some of the movements looked like they’d been lifted right from Martha Graham (right arm straight out Hi-YAH!), and a few of the group bits had a heavy feel of Busby Berkeley – but it was still such a pleasure to watch. Really, his 70 year old ballets look so much fresher than many choreographers’ works from the seventies and sixties. The bit with the five women knotting and unknotting themselves with each other seemed to have almost a mathematic quality to it, and the “menage a trois” scene (rather a more appropriate name that “pas de trois” given what appeared to be the subject matter) had real dramatic tension in it. I didn’t feel like the corps of BRB was as good in this piece as Pacific Northwest Ballet was when I saw them do it some years back – there’s just something about the discipline in the way they hold their arms, and the incredible strength of the women’s torsos, that wasn’t happening for BRB – but the power of Balanchine carried me through (and they were certainly good enough to make it work, just not 100%).

“Enigma Variations,” as choreographed by Frederick Ashton to the music of Elgar, summary: Ashton ain’t for me. I have seen several of his ballets and they just utterly failt to grab me. The program went on about his skill at capturing character through dance – well, he does, that’s great, but there’s more to ballet that just putting some characters on stage and having them “express” themselves. I want to see great movement, I want to be swept away and amazed, and cutesy vignettes (a la his “Tales of Beatrix Potter“) just don’t cut the mustard. Jerome Robinson was his contemporary and managed both the dance and the character, so it’s not like it’s something that wasn’t happening at the time or can’t be done. I did enjoy the pas de cinq (as it were) with the four townspeople dancing around the old man (David Morse, whom they’d imprisoned in a hoop), but I just wasn’t convinced in the least by this dance, which suffered immensely by being placed next to a Balanchine. I am going to either have to have someone seriously explain to me why Ashton is so great (and change my experience of watching him) or just give up on seeing his work altogether and write it off to just not getting English tastes in ballet.

I liked Julia Trevelyan Oman’s design – though, in some ways, the extremely detailed costuming and set rather weighed the piece down in the very way that Balanchine’s “leotard ballets” were utterly freed to just be dance by having nothing else to them but the dancers and the music. And, geez, maybe all of those years of watching PNB perform Balanchine have just informed my tastes in a way I can’t overcome anymore than I can warm up to feathered hair or bell bottom jeans. I like plotless dances in the same way I like vanilla ice cream, plain cheese pizzas, and undecorated sterling flatware – strip all of the nonsense away and you can really see what something is made of and what kind of quality it is.

Enough grousing. The final piece of the night, David Bintley’s “‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Cafe,” choreographed to music of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, wound up the program in high style. I had great fears that it would be insufferably horrid, that it would get nauseatingly cutesy (due to having humans dressed as animals) or irritatingly preachy (with its underlying environmental message). Somehow, it avoided either of these big wide pitfalls and was both entertaining and fun to watch – with good music. Each of the pieces had an animal as its center, with dancing done in a particular style that the choreographer had taken a shine to – the Utah “Longhorn Ram” (rather a comic name as it was clearly a she-sheep rather than a ram, and a “bighorn” as “longhorns” are a type of cow!) with Angela Paul as a glamorous ’30s Hollywood starlet dancing with her tuxedoed (human) partners, the Texas Kangaroo Rat (Christopher Larsen) a yee-hawing country bumpkin, the Southern Cape Zebra (Chi Cao per the Teenage Theatre Critic) a bit of a chanting tribal shaman dancing amidst fashion models.

I realized, while watching this, that it’s a horrible thing to have a dancer perform with a mask on. It reduces our ability to see what emotion they are experiencing, and while they should be able to express themselves quite competently with their bodies – well, as humans, we’re programmed to look for the face for clues to what’s going on in the head. And I began to wonder, as I watched the Texas Kangaroo Rat, if maybe having a mask on puts a dancer at a serious disadvantage, not just in terms of movement and weight, but in terms of their ability to connect with the audience. I felt like Mr. Larsen was maybe not feeling as “there” as he could of because of his own restriction in seeing the audience, as if perhaps wearing a mask made him feel like it was not really “him” performing the role, and that he didn’t need to give his all because he was just an anonymous body performing as an animal. At any rate, I was seeing a lack of fire and commitment in his movement, so ultimately this proved the most disappointing to me of the scenes.

This, however, was but a small twinge in the overall pleasure of “Still Life.” I’ll focus on my favorite bit, “The Ecstacy of Dancing Fleas,” starring a made-up species, the Humbolt’s Hog-Nosed Skunk Flea. It started with an orange-clad dancer (Carol-Anne Millar) skipping on stage, being bouncy and fun, followed by a platoon of … wait for it … Morris Men. I kid you not. Never before have I seen such a queer embodiment of English culture depicted in the highbrow world of ballet (though of course we have bastardized versions of Scottish, Spanish, and Hungarian folk dancing galore) and I was laughing. Then the bizarre factor was really turned up as the flea and the dancers interacted. She danced with them, they carried her, she ran away as they swung their sticks, she refused to participate in leap-frog – it was just totally fun and great to watch and really a good time.

But it got better and better. The big finale with the Brazlilian Woolly Monkey had us all thinking we were going to end the night on a simple high note of “crazy monkey in a top hat” plus Carmen Miranda/Caribbean ladies in full skirts … then the Morris Men and the Zebra’s fashion models came back on stage – only suddenly Hayden Griffin’s costumes had been pared back to just the black and white, and they all blended together nicely while still maintaining ties with their earlier incarnations (I was really impressed by this).

There was a huge “everybody come out and party” finale … and then … it turned out it wasn’t the finale. The masks came off of the animals, and everyone was dealing with a sudden burst of rain … and rifle shots, occasionally hitting the people as well as the “animals.” (Or was it lightning strikes? Both seemed possible.) The lighting was really great – swirls on the floor, shimmers (of water) on the backdrop – and somehow it didn’t make the whole thing feel like, “Ooh, ooh, save the pwecious cute animals from extinction,” but rather a more generalized panic, a desire for shelter, a bit of truth about death – and while I found the final image of the Noah’s Ark (painted on a scrim so the animals could show “within” it) a bit twee, it was pretty enough as a framing device and didn’t wreck the mood. (The painting itself was childlike and I didn’t care for the use of an ark – it’s just too fraught and felt a bit inappropriate being used outside of the context of a Norman cathedral.) If I just focused on the glowing bodies huddling together behind the scrim … it was nice. And really, this whole ballet was just really great. I could talk about the rest of it at length, but 1800 words seems like quite enough! I’m really glad I had a chance to see it and I look forward to seeing the Birmingham Royal Ballet when they come back to Sadler’s Wells in the fall, presenting David Bintley’s “Cyrano” (thanks to the head up from Rob at BRB) and hopefully another program of shorts – which will, of course, be what I’ll be seing.

(This review is for a performance seen on Tuesday, April 14th, at 7:30 PM. Two more performances take place on April 15th, at 2:30 and 7:30.)

Ambassador’s Theatres tells me lies, tells me sweet little lies

April 14, 2009

So, I come home from my long visit to Sicily, and, while digging through the monstrous backlog of emails I’ve got, I see one from Ambassador Theatres, “Last Chance to see Graham Norton in La Cage Aux Folles,” well! “SPECIAL OFFER – BEST SEATS £25!” (Monday – Thursday performances until 30 April, using promotion code ATGLAST.)

How exciting! I’ve been wanting to see this for ages and now my chance has come. And I could get good seats in the stalls! So I went to the website, picked my date of choice (April 23rd), entered the promo code, then clicked on a swathe of four lovely seats, right there and row J, and found …

NO! I can’t have those seats, not for £25! And the best best seats, Cabaret Table D, are those available? No!

What are they willing to let me have? Stalls N2-N3. Dress circle row J (the back). Dress circle row A (“The safety rail may affect the view”). Are any of these the “best seats?” I think not. It says in the fine print of the ad that the discount can’t be used on premium seats, but, let’s be honest, BEST SEATS is not a way of saying “the best seats that have a restricted view” or “the best seats under the balcony,” it means the BEST seats. If they’re not willing to let the so-called premium seats go at this price, than, as far as I’m concerned they are engaged in false advertising. Ambassador Theatres/Ambassador Tickets / Ambassador Theatre group, I call you out here as LIARS for misrepresenting your wares. Don’t dress your sheep in ringlets and tell me it’s a spring lamb – this email was simply a LIE.

Review – Teatro dei Pupi (Marionette/Puppet Theater) Syracuse/Siracusa (Piccolo Teatro dei Pupi) and Palermo (Puppet Museum and Vicenzo Argento e Figli)

April 13, 2009

While I didn’t make it to any plays per se in the last week, I did make it to not one, not two, but THREE puppet shows while travelling in Siciliy. The first was on Saturday, April 4th, at the Piccolo Teatro Dei Pupi in Syracuse (Siracusa in Italian), on Ortygia Island, where we saw “Orlando al Giardino INcantato di Drogantina.” The second was Wednesday, April 13th, in Palermo at the International Puppet Museum (Museo internazionale delle Marionette), which was showing “Dama Rovenza assedia Parigi”. Finally, we made it to Opera dei Pupi di Vincenzo Argento e Figli on Sunday, April 12th (Easter Sunday!).

Guessing that most of you haven’t been to a Sicilian puppet show, I’m going to fill in a little background. First, there are two active styles (Palmeterian and Catanian), which is a big deal to the Sicilians but won’t make much of a difference to the uninitiated (differences have to do with puppet size and the ability of a puppet to draw a sword or otherwise not have a sword in its hand) – they both are enjoyable for similar reasons. Second, the “stories,” as such, are drawn from traditional Medieval troubador tales, and typically involve Orlando/Roland, Orlando’s love, Angelica, and possibly Rinaldo (Orlando’s friend), one or many Moors, Charlemagne, and a host of other figures. (The story lines seem to pull from every myth ever told, such as Odysseus and King Arthur, as well as a frequently-cited traditional collection of chivalric tales whose name escapes me.) Third, the stories are episodic, by which I mean you’re just going to get a slice of the entire story; if you’re lucky, you may get a summary of what you’re going to see (the Piccolo Teatro and Vincenzo Argento provided these) but what you won’t get is an ending unless you manage to watch a cycle all the way through. The summary is important because, fourth, the story will be told in Sicilian. However, this may not matter too much because, fifth, the stories are primarily set-ups for battle scenes, and it’s not too hard to figure out what’s going on when a puppet gets sliced in half or has its head whacked off. Sixth, the theaters are fairly intimate, the cost is low (7 euros in Syracuse and 12 for each of the shows in Palermo), and they only last and hour, and with all of the stomping and fighting they are really a good time.

So, on to a proper review. The Piccolo Teatro dei Pupi in Siracusa was showing “Orlando in Drogantina’s Enchanted Garden.” The theater holds about thirty people in total and is located off a tiny alley five minutes from the Piazza Archimede (showtime was at 6:30 PM) and probably sells out pretty regularly. This was ultimately my favorite of the shows that I saw, partially because of the variety of the puppets and the fact that there was no amplification used for the voices, but also because of the considerable coherence of the storyline. A literal reading of the story would be: Orlando helps retrieve a man’s young son from a giant; fights a creature that acts and looks rather like the Sphinx; is imprisoned by another giant (who finishes ding from his wounds after trapping Orlando in a cage, most awesome); is freed by a sassy monk; fights a cyclops; then finally drinks a potion that puts him under the spell of Dragontina, who wants to add him to her collection of men (statues) in her garden. (There is also a side story about Angelica and her father, a king who wants to marry her to someone who is not Orlando, but this does not distract much from the main action.) However, this is very dry. Let me instead relate to you my impressions as I watched it:

Wow, cool, he looks great! Why do they keep stomping every time Orlando walks on stage? Hah, great fight! But why was Orlando fighting a Klingon, and why was the Klingon armed with a piano leg? Hey, did that monk just change clothes and come back as Angelica’s maid? NONE SHALL PASS! So, what, Orlando is too stupid to answer the sphinx’s riddle? What is that other knight doing there? DEMONS! DEMONS! HA HA HAH! Ooh, more stomping, another fight! Wait, is that the end?

As you can see, I thought this was really a great time even without really being able to follow the dialogue. Fights don’t really need translations; awesome puppets (every company makes their own) are enjoyable on their own, especially in limited doses like this (and when you have really crazy ones like demons, giants, and dragons); and all of the noise and special effects kept me pretty focused on stage even though the battles (whack whack whack) were fairly rote.

On later reflection, I realized that this company was actually of the Catanian style, as the puppets were pretty much forced to hold swords at all time, but what I was more interested in was that the puppets’ sword arms were operated by rods instead of by strings like for traditional marionettes. This, apparently, is why they call these “pupi” and not really marionettes. The rods make it possible for the puppets to really fight hard with each other, and I was kind of surprised when I realized how much whacking their shields and armor probably take over time. (I was also impressed when I realized that in addition to carving, painting, and dressing the puppets, the puppet company also has to make their armor – quite a range of skills in one house!) The rod puppet is the style for all of the Sicilian puppets, even the ones that are holding a rod (such as a magician) or a cup (Dragontina’s servant) or nothing at all (Angelica and her father). Compared to the Carter Family Marionettes in Seattle (the company whose puppetry I am most familiar with), these puppets seemed fairly crude – their mouths and eyes didn’t move, and they couldn’t make any hand gestures at all. I enjoyed myself nonetheless.

The two shows I saw in Palermo followed pretty much the same story, in which Rolando, under orders from Charlemagne and in Paris, has to fight a piles of Saracens to get the hand of Angelica. The Puppet Museum’s tale had Rolando inadvertently killing the sister of his best friend (who was fighting, God knows why, but perhaps if we’d made it in on time we’d have known); the Argento e Figli show has Orlando fighting with his friend Rinaldo for her. Both shows featured huge battles against Saracens, which resulted in a wide variety of dismemberments and a pile of dead bodies on stage; both featured magicians speaking with demons (which/who otherwise didn’t figure in the action); both had dragons (NO idea why, but Vincenzo Argento won this battle as his dragon puffed smoke out of his nose); both had music (which wasn’t in the Piccolo Teatro, as best I recall); both had Charlemagne and took place in Paris.

My thought is that the puppets created by Vincenzo Argento were superior to the Puppet Museum’s, but that the presentation of the Puppet Museum was better because of the use of a live player piano for accompanying music. Argento used recorded music, including “The Blue Danube,” which went over well with his audience, but I felt like the amplified voices were distracting (especially since this wasn’t done consistently for all characters). The player piano used for the fight scenes made them feel especially mad, and I really got into it. Now, Argento had a better space – the very high ceilings kind of took away atmosphere at the puppet museum, though the broad space meant there were no interrupted sight lines.

Overall, however, all three of these shows were a good time, and I think they added greatly to my trip. I will happily go see more the next time I am there, or if one comes to my home town. (I might have even managed more shows if I’d seen this very thorough listing or read this article, but I had enough to do with figuring out hotels, cars, and public transportation that I did not have much luck finding information before I left about what I might be able to see while I was there.)

Review – Romeo Castellucci’s Inferno and Paradiso – Barbican (Spill Festival) – and Alain de Botton “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work”

April 2, 2009

Tonight J and I went to the Barbican to see Romeo Castelluci’s Inferno and, earlier in the day, his Paradiso. (Sadly I won’t be seeing Purgatorio, as I’ll be out of town the days it’s being performed.) I’m really into performance art, and I was excited after reading an article in the Guardian about it (which I’ll link to when I can find it). It sounded deliciously experimental, multi-media as all get-out, and full of really rich imagery.

Well … it is loud, and there is neon, and there are dogs, small children, and a horse on stage, not to mention a burning piano. So there are certainly lots of rich images, such as said children in a mirrored box that starts out looking like the Qa’aba (covered in black cloth), being observed by Andy Warhol. And there is a final image of a black sun slowly rising over a black wall, in a lovely sort of vision of the end of the world. But … so much of it seemed like sound and fury. Yes, Castellucci is attacked by dogs, and then goes to don a German shepherd’s skin (which later forms part of the costume of a sort of suburban American Mononoke), and a skull is crushed by a giant wall, and about forty people mime cutting each other’s throats until only one is left alive (in a scene worthy of Thomas Middleton), so there is really a LOT to look at, but nothing to care about.

But unfortunately, other than seeing this as some kind of freakish homage to Andy Warhol, I just wasn’t able to be amazed by this work despite the tremendous effort put into creating it. Yes, the three people crouching beside a dead body looked like the soldiers sleeping while Christ rolls aside the rock, but that’s just not enough for me. I didn’t see any real emotion in all of this. I mean, gosh, in the end, I wondered if my initial thought, the one I had when the curtains of the black cube were drawn away and the lights in the house were raised (so that what we saw reflected in the cube was us, the audience), was correct – that hell is being stuck in a theater with 1500 other people who aren’t really having a good time, in which case I suppose Inferno was a far cleverer show than I thought it to be.

Our conclusion was that chopping about 15 more minutes off of it (it was only about an hour and twenty minutes) would probably get the snappiness right up there and make this a much better production, but … I just don’t think that’s really likely. Still, it seems likely to be a cultural touchstone of sorts, and I expect I’ll be seeing pictures of it for years to come. (Pictures here from The Guardian – you can see how it caught my eye. Another review available at the Teenage Theatre Critis‘s blog.)

Paradiso was actually cool as shit, another cube but this time about three stories tall and gleaming white, with a tiny entrance. We had to go through a black circle into a darkened and extremely humid room beyond – which was really making me think about all of that “going into the tunnel” stuff you hear about near death experiences, but also is very reminiscent of birth imagery – where, when my eyes adjusted, I could see a pale little body two-thirds of the way up the wall, about half way out and sort of fighting as if he wanted to make it through. Water was coming out of the hole, running down the wall, and splashing on the floor. Every now and then the guy would make little agonized noises, making me think of Sisyphus or Tantalus, suffering away for a lifetime of sins.

It was difficult for me to see this as Paradise (despite the extensive notes we received upon our exit), but it was a fantastic, intense, visceral experience that brought to mind Bruce Nauman or James Turrell. Sadly, after waiting 15 minutes for our turn to be let into the room, we only spent about five minutes there – nothing was really going to happen, we had “got it,” and my partner was suffering some pretty severe neck agony due to an earlier accident that made me think we should get him back home if there was any chance of making it back for Inferno that night.

Oddly the big winner of the evening for me was Alain de Botton, who gave a talk at the National Theatre focusing on his new work, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. Now, I am not a good person to write neutrally about Mr. de Botton, as I spent two years plowing through Proust and developing rather a personal relationship with the entirety of In Search of Lost Time, and after this great effort I have come to believe de Botton is the only person who’s had anything intelligent to say about Proust’s writings (which is rather like being 15 and saying some rock band really gets my angst). On the other hand, God knows my time spent in darkened rooms listening to total strangers drone on has proven to me I can be disappointed by anything.

This, however, did not happen. De Botton had interesting things to say about why people don’t enjoy work (“They’re not supposed to, but they think they are, so they’re dissatisfied”), why workplaces are bizarre (“They put policies in place to make sure you continue to value making money over, say, having sex with your coworkers”), what work says about us as a society (“It’s a good thing that people have jobs no one can understand, at least according to those that judge a society’s evolution by how specialized its workers can be”) and the biscuit industry (“Of all of the people at XYZ biscuit company involved in the design of the Biscuit Alpha, not a single one of them knows how to bake”). He only talked for about 35 minutes but I was fascinated by everything that came out of his mouth. I mean, I know he was shilling his book, but he was great! He sounded like he’d actually really learned something interesting about work. And he’s right – we spend so much of our lives there, we should really be thinking about what’s going on. And he made me think.

I found it especially interesting to listen to someone lecture an audience on a point I’d learned long ago, that it’s perfectly fine to expect work to not provide you with fulfillment, and just with money (and then call himself a cynic, which I suppose everyone who knows me thinks I am). I long ago decided that when it came to work, I was going to look, not for my “true love,” but for my “good enough” – something that didn’t aggravate me and stress me out but provided me with enough money to make the rest of my life okay.

So go, Alain, you were my big hit of the day, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be getting a copy of his book and regretting not going for an autograph after the show – didn’t want to embarrass myself with squealing like a 15 year old, after all. But gosh, I wish I could work for or with him. At least I realize my dream of being a paid theater critic is not nearly as reachable as my dream of making enough money to go see lots of shows – as long as I keep to those upper balcony seats.

(This review was for shows seen on Thursday, April 2nd. All quotes by de Botton are approximate as I was not taking notes. My apologies for the long gap between this article and my next one, but I’m heading to Sicily for the next 12 days and will not be watching shows!)