Intiman’s Othello: trust no one

I picked up a button at the Intiman Theatre’s Othello Friday night:

Trust No One

Silly motto for Othello: sure, don’t trust Iago…but do trust your own wife.

But it seemed curiously apropos in regard to Bart Sher. My wife and I subscribed for the last time to the Intiman this year, on the promise the Bart would direct this Othello. We figured he wasn’t long for this town – with so much Broadway success in musicals and an opera or two, he’s already moved his family back to New York – so we decided we’d catch another of his jaunty, but typically not very trenchant, Shakespeare productions one last time.

But no – Bart couldn’t be bothered. Sure, he retains the title of Artistic Director, and even prevailed upon the board to let him pick the next one – but after casting the lead roles, he let the Theatre for a New Audience, with Diane Arbus’s widower’s daughter helming the production, reprise their much praised New York production.

Alas, Bart’s actors weren’t up to the task. Iago spoke in some East European accent, raising questions from the first scene: how did he expect no one to recognize his voice while speaking from the shadows to taunt Desdemona’s father that the Moor was making the beast with two backs with her?

And the actor who played Othello was not only short on stature – the soul of his Othello seemed stunted too, so we never really understood why we should care he met such a tragic fate – he seemed so likely to meet one in any case, given the circumstances.

Othello hinges on whether the actors playing Iago and the title guy can pull off the continuous series of scenes that start with Othello in no doubt as to his wife’s fidelity, and end with him completely convinced she’s cuckolded him, kneeling to swear a perverse second marriage to revenge and Iago, his unlikely paramour in that passion. This production failed to convince. Oh sure, they went through the motions, and Othello at least was well spoken. But the audience remained skeptical, and nary a shocked sigh was heard as the curtain closed on intermission.

What a disappointment. I wish Bart all the best now that he’s finally made it back to New York after a decade spent in this stepping stone of a theater town. Seattle does too – people around here love the validation provided by having their more promising artists leave town and prove they can make it there, after making it in the anywhere we call here.

That’s why Seattle will remain an outpost of the national theatrical scene for the foreseeable future – suitable for tryouts and development projects, a kind of latter-day New Haven, but a true theater town – never, until it starts trusting no one, and hiring people who will stay for the duration, and make Seattle the place it does not quite dare to be at last.

But there’s the tragedy: it’s already too late. Even the actors are rarely local anymore. The Dust Bowl is here. It’s time to follow Bart to fresh woods and pastures new.

Let the last one leaving town turn out the lights – and then turn out the light.

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learning to love you more

I didn’t expect to like Miranda July’s 8:30pm reading of her new Learning to Love You More book at Bumbershoot this year very much. So much success in so many media with such meager resources in so little time breeds envy, and envy contempt. But I was wrong, and came away loving her work just a little bit more, despite myself.

Our 11:30am visit to the accompanying Learning to Love You More exhibit before the crowds arrived did not bode well. Apparently the arts programmer at this year’s Bumbershoot had arranged with the family that lives next door to him to be the star of the show: they were commissioned to complete all 63 assignments on the LTLYM website so they could display the results for all to see. Why they should be given such a naming opportunity and preference to put their mark on the exhibit above all the regular contributors was beyond me, and I began to criticize both the idea and the entire LTLYM project to my wife, until she mentioned the older son was over there, perhaps within earshot. When I looked to see, who should I spot but Miranda July herself talking to him, with her penetrating blue eyes (does she wear blue contact lenses over blue eyes?) looking back at me as I tried to verify that it was really her, and not just someone who looked like her. One can never beware doppelgangers too much.

From that point on the entire visit became awkward, as in hurrying through an exhibit I’d now decided to despise I found myself catching up with July toward the middle of it, in a corner, and had to detour past her lest she suspect me a stalker. My wife was in no hurry to finish looking at the assignments herself, so I dropped off the explanatory page at the exit and entered again to catch up with her. I finally decided to leave and visit the bathroom while she finished – only to find July blocking the exit this time, locked in a confab with the mother of the assignment family. Throwing caution to the wind, I rushed behind her, hoping she wouldn’t notice me again – but probably just attracted her attention more.

When my wife finally emerged, we discussed the show. I mentioned hadn’t really liked LTLYM when I’d seen it exhibited at the Seattle Art Museum a few years ago, before July’s film came out; she didn’t recall it. What bothered me was the difficulty of reading July’s apparent sincerity in mounting the project, and my inability to get over a suspicion that, somewhere behind her equally apparent irony, she might be having a bit of a laugh at the participants, and the way she’d hoodwinked them into helping make her first big success. On the other hand, it seemed more wholesome than YouTube, Yahoo Questions, and similar phenomena (including my own minor efforts in this genre, the Shakespeare Questionnaire and Shakespeare Queries and Replies, both long since abandoned), in that it did not seem aimed at volume merely, did not run advertisements, and provided no opportunity for the usual flame wars and snarky comments that litter the Web landscape generally.

And we had liked her movie Me and You and Everyone We Know a lot when we saw it a SIFF or two ago, and had been disappointed when she’d had to cancel her talk on it, for which we had tickets, so she could leave for Cannes to accept her award. Indeed, I thought the movie quite smart and brave in the way it sedulously subverts the stereotypes basic to the witch hunts that break out with alarming regularity against suspected pedophiles, sometimes merely on the basis of children’s memories recovered, or implanted, by the psychologists assigned to investigate – and their baiting by FBI and news crew agents impersonating children online to ferret actual or potential ones out. It reminds us, as Freud himself did long ago, just how polymorphously perverse and prone to increasingly sexual exploration kids themselves are, amongst themselves – and how loath even the most borderline adults typically are to intrude upon those explorations, however tempted.

July’s evening reading dispelled my doubts, and increased my admiration. The studied spontaneity with which she presented what was obviously a well rehearsed show might, again, have annoyed me, except that if there were calculation on her part, it only seemed intended to encourage those of us in the audience to let our guards down, and open ourselves to the possibility of appreciation, and perhaps of wonder.

The sample assignments she showed us from the website were similarly nuanced, not so much naive art as an art sophisticated enough to make apparent naivete its actual medium of expression – as for example in Tim’s “Lipsync to shy neighbor’s Garth Brooks cover” report – to unexpectedly impressive effect. As July herself admitted, sometimes it seems like nearly everyone sending in assignments are white middle class art students themselves – so it’s hardly surprising they inhale her vibe and produce a kind of post-ironic art in response. Retrospectively, it even seems like the best of these reports contributed to July’s own aesthetic in Me and You, and I could have sworn that one or two bits actually made it into the script for the film – a fine case of artist and artistic audience feeding and extending each other’s creativity, in a kind of virtuous circle so unlike the vicious circles of internet flame wars, viral youtube trashiness, facebook friends list competitions, media witchhunts, and the American political scene in general.

July’s new project that closed her presentation was even more impressive: an entirely self-contained (within this particular audience) charity auction and actual act of charity that seemed as inherently eye-opening and critical of established charitable and non-profit institutions as I myself have been attempting to be on this blog lately, though with much less success. Keep it simple – so simple it seems quite artless and naive, without actually being so – and make it direct: that’s the secret of Miranda July’s most potent art, and the art her example inspires. Maybe she is pulling our strings – but there’s nothing to fear here. All is intended to promote our greater good – and she’s only too willing to let us turn the tables on her through the art we ourselves create in reply.

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Al Gore and the assault on reason

We saw Al Gore Monday at Town Hall, promoting his book The Assault on Reason. My wife managed to snag a couple of the $5 tickets before they disappeared online in under 3 minutes – some kind of record. She’s getting really good at this.

I managed to spot a couple of empty seats right up front, in the 3rd row or so, just before the ushers decided the unreserved seats were all taken, and stopped letting people in lest they snag one of the many seats reserved for Town Hall members, with some extras added right in front of the stage for local political luminaries – my wife recognized City Councilwoman Jean Godden, the former Seattle Times gossip columnist.

Gore came off like a cross between a professor and a preacher, pacing up and down the stage while delivering a rapid-fire account of the entire history of human civilization and its “information ecology” from the emergence of language 50,000 years ago to the emergence of radio and TV. His main point seemed to be that up until recently, we were able to compare notes and talk about what’s real and what’s important in a rational fashion, so as to decide together what to do about it.

But now obviously we can’t, since you can’t use reason to explain why we invaded Iraq – not when 75% of Americans thought at the time it was because Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attack – or why we’ve been ignoring the threat of global warming, when the evidence is substantial and the consequences dire if we can’t reverse it – nothing less than the collapse of human civilization as we know it.

Unfortunately, however, Gore didn’t seem to have any really good answer for why reason has failed us. He seemed to suggest that radio and TV are to blame, especially now that they are controlled by a few large media conglomerates and beholden to the other large corporations that advertise on them, and that the Internet (which, as we all know, Gore invented…) might be the answer, if we can prevent these conglomerates from seizing control of it and continue to guarantee net neutrality – he never actually came around to clinching those points.

Gore also seems misguided about how much reason and reality guided humans in the past in making social decisions. He cited Socrates as an example of reason in the past – but didn’t mention, as I recall, that all the work he did in the Agora engaging other Athenians in conversation in pursuit of the truth only succeeded in getting him tried and executed by them.

At one point Gore made a passing comment that he wasn’t one of those new fangled philosophy types who thinks we create our own reality socially – he quipped he wasn’t enough of a philospher himself to understand them. And he mentioned that schizophrenics make up about 1% of the population throughout history, and that the language that allowed humans to socialize and create a reality-based civilization leads them astray, when they hear voices that tell them things that aren’t real – but never followed up on this insight.

What seemed missing from Gore’s talk was an alternative explanation for why we’ve lost touch with reality in the US recently – and why humans have historically done so throughout history, until reality hits them on the head with the truth, or rears up its ugly in a revolution that sweeps all the illusions that have kept certain groups in power away before it.

After all, wasn’t it Karl Marx who long ago, back in the 19th century critiqued all this under the name of ideology, and demonstrated how throughout history ideological constructs have been deployed by those in power to keep those they dominate and exploit in the dark as to just how unjustified they are in doing so?

And that being the case – how come Gore never once mentioned Marx?

I suppose because Marx currently is, like Hegel before him, a dead dog that no one wants to think about anymore – not matter how accurate his critique might be of what’s lead up to our current impasse, and where we might need to go now. Just as the Athenians executed Socrates because his quest for the truth and his habit of using conversation to trap them in contradictions that revealed they really didn’t know what they claimed to know – that they really didn’t know what was real or true, so we no longer study the contradictions of capitalism that reveal why it’s a shoddy was of organizing the social economy.

After all, why should we need to, since socialism has fallen in Eastern Europe, and is hardly even practiced anymore in Russia and China.

We won, the great threat of the liberated masses is no more – and yet we wonder why a world run by corporate masters and their political allies seems so unreal.

Gore fielded one interesting question at the end of his talk – how do you go about convincing people who believe unreasonable things that they’re wrong? By engaging them calmly in conversation, and using reason to show them their errors and convince them what is really true, answered Gore.

But after this final question, the Town Hall meeting broke up so people could line up in a very long line to get their books signed, with Gore pledging to sign every last one.

I’d have felt more confidence in his theories if Gore had urged us all to stick around, break up into small groups, and discuss our differences of opinion about the major issues of the day – with him dropping in on the groups to hear what was being said and sign any books people had.

That at least would have been a start. But like Obama, I guess Gore really hasn’t thought that much about how his own adoption of a rock star persona is interfering with what he actually wants to see happen in the world.

This post needs editing. Come back for a tighter version later.

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Barack Obama, Edith Piaf, Joe Strummer

We went to a Barack Obama rally Friday, the Edith Piaf biopic La vie en rose Saturday, and the Joe Strummer biodocumentary The Future is Unwritten Sunday – and Al Gore Monday, though he’s going to get an entry of his own.

We were a little disappointed with Barack. The event wasn’t a rally exactly, but a fundraiser for a more plebian group than usually gets to attend them – those willing to contribute $25 (bronze), $50 (silver), or $100 (gold) apiece to see him at the relatively small (maybe 4,000 maximum) indoor Qwest Event Center that recently opened in the former exhibition space built into the ground level of Paul Allen’s football stadium.

It turned out to be little different from a free rally, however, and could easily have been held in the stadium itself, given the impersonal nature of the way Barack addressed the crowd. He was okay, but really just shouted his typical rally stump speech at us, with no acknowledgement that we weren’t just a crowd of the curious, but actually cash-donating supporters.

We sprang for the $100 level, figuring it would guarantee us seats near the front. How wrong we were. In an odd attempt at egalitarianism – considering Barack’s next stop was a more intimate fundraiser at the Westin hotel with tables for those donating $500 apiece, and a photo op for those donating $2,300 – each donation level got an equal shot at being close to the candidate, with an equal pie-wedge-shaped slice dedicated to each: gold on the right, silver in the middle, bronze on the left – and Obama on a catwalk between gold and bronze.

True, we did have a smaller line to contend with when we arrived (though silver and gold shared the same one) – but as for seats, there were none to be had in the floor area we were directed to in front of the press cameras. My wife, who has physical issues with standing for a long time, was actually turned away when she tried to leave the floor area to snag a seat in the back half of the hall – I guess maybe they were afraid there wouldn’t be enough of us gold types to make a sufficient crowd for the press pictures. Later on, I think they allowed the bronzes to fill in behind us – and in the seats in our slice of the hall my wife had tried to use.

Even odder was the pre-show, arranged apparently by the local groups organizing the event, with no input from the Obama campaign. It was like a kind of allegorical homage to Obama’s heritage and early life, beginning with two traditional African dance groups alluding to his paternal heritage, followed by a disaffected high school guy strumming his guitar and singing laughably innocent songs of teenage angst – I think the main lyric was, “read my lips – we’re all gonna die someday” – as if here were the contemporary incarnation of Barack back when he inhaled.

Then a chorus of people gathered onstage – I think they were the volunteers who organized the event, though they could have been a cross section pulled from the crowd – and led us in a chant and clapping for Obama to appear before us – which took longer than anyone thought it would.

And as I said before, when he finally arrived and spoke to us, it was a bit of an anticlimax. There was no real effort to reach out to us, to address us as real people who’d thought enough of his candidacy to contribute to his campaign. Instead, he was just like a rock star, doing his show, and we clapped and woo-hooed our approval, and tried to get close enough to shake his hand when he descended the runway at the end – a woman a couple of people in front of my actually succeeded. I felt closer to Bono the last time I U2, I think – and certainly felt more of a connection to him that time we saw Bono taking a carriage ride with his kiddies down near Pioneer Square, when he tipped his hat to me for having noticed him from afar.

I guess we should have spent $1,000 on the Westin – maybe it would have felt less like a rock concert, and more like real politics.

Today Obama hit me up for another contribution by email – he does it so regularly it seems almost like spam – but this time he said it would be a lottery, and 5 people would be selected to have dinner with him and a real chat – so I sent another $10 to enter. I never spend that much on the lottery.

The movies we saw the next two days at SIFF seemed to provide commentary on the pitfalls Obama faces being a lumpen-friendly rockstar to the masses.

Edith Piaf was definitely lower class – abandoned by her street singer mother, neglected by her alcoholic grandmother, saved by her WW1 veteran father and spirited away by him to live among the maternal whores in his own mother’s brothel, runaway boozer discovered on the streets of Paris, exploited by gangsters who killed the nightclub owner who discovered her – until she finally made a success of it and became France’s best-loved music hall maven.

Unfortunately, La vie en rose doesn’t even let her enjoy her success. The director, who talked after, had a horror of making just another biopic – so we’ve already see Piaf in decline, collapsing on the stage from injuries sustained in a car accident and the incipient terminal illness that killed her before she reached 50, starting at the very beginning of the movie, an arty non-linear dual (later triple) timeline that merely reveals her doom before we have a chance to enjoy her unlikely triumph.

In this the film merely succeeds in resembling the most depressing muscian’s biopic I’ve ever had the misfortune to see – De-Lovely the Cole Porter story starring Kevin Kline, which shows him dying at the very beginning and has his dead spirit preside over the entire sorry story of his life.

Anyway, at least the filmaker allows Piaf, among the less likable aspects of her psychology he dwells on in an attempt to justify the bad bahavior of true artists like himself (as he fancies himself in her image), one truly redemptive quality – whenever some nobody comes along to play her their song so she might consider singing it, and her underlings try to get them to go away, Piaf says – screw my schedule and all the other things I have to do, let them in, let me hear them – and then loves their song, does it and makes it famous (so it is with Je ne regrette rien here, and with La vie en rose too I think ) – saying, “hey, what’s the use of being Edith Piaf if I can’t make important people wait and listen to this schmo and see whether he’s any good?”

And that’s what I miss in Obama. Who is he listening too these days, but his handlers? Back in the day, when he ran for the Illinois Senate, and the US Senate, according to his book he was actually a lot like Piaf, and listened to real nobodies sometimes, who said things worthy of his attention, and that made it into his book. But now? He’s a rock star. Who can get through the crowd and the handlers?

Actually, Joe Strummer is a closer analogue to Obama – or what Obama will likely become. We finally saw Strummer alive, in the flesh, playing with the Mescaleros at the EMP’s Sky Church a few years back, just before he died – we’d missed him at a club in New Haven back int he early 80s when the Clash were still a going concern, because after I called to see if tickets were still available before going to the club to buy them, some chick from Wallingford not only asked, but asked them to hold the tickets for her until she got there – and although I got there first, they held them for her. Jerks. The club folded soon after, thank God.

Anyway, the movie – Julian Temple’s homage to the friend he discovered later in life, since Strummer rejected him for being too close to the Sex Pistols when punk was happening, as we found out a couple of nights ago in his drunken interview with a jerky Sean Nelson, Stranger emeritus – disclosed Strummer’s roots in the squatters movement in mid 70s England, and traced the collapse of the Clash soon after they hit it big to how conflicted Strummer felt about being a radical rock star, calling for an egalitarian social revolution so successfully that he soon found himself rich and playing to football stadiums full of fans – instead of the few real fans he used to let in the window of his dressing room so they could sneak into the small clubs the Clash was playing in the early days for free.

This killed his career – he just didn’t really want to do that kind of scene. While the early part of the movie is filled with unnamed talking heads no one recognizes who knew, lived and played with Strummer when he was a nobody like them – and who he screwed over to join the Clash – the later part of the movie is filled with unnamed talking heads so famous we already know their name on sight – Bono, Johnny Depp, John Cusack – who knew Strummer in later life, and just couldn’t understand why he had such a problem being rich and famous like them – hell, they do very well at it, thank you very much.

And I think that might be where Obama is headed: the more successful he gets in traditional rock star/Presidential fashion, the more contact he’s going to lose with the egalitarian, community organizing, everybody’s point of view is significant roots that have compelled interest in his candidacy – and the more he himself may start to wonder, “Where the hell am I now? What have I done? Why do so many people adore me? Do they really listen to me – or I to them anymore?”

But for that story, we’ll have to wait for David Plouffe or some other now close advisor to tell, 10 or 20 years on, of the fall of Ziggy Stardust, at the hands of the Spiders from Mars – his own, along with a very few others.

We can only hope it doesn’t actually turn out that way, and that Obama actually does find a way to start a movement, and not just be a candidate, however adored by the crowd.

That’s what he claims he wants to do – but so far it isn’t really looking that way.

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skin of our teeth

Ho, hum – that’s how we felt about Bart Sher’s The Skin of Our Teeth at the Intiman after we saw it last night. Nothing about the story, the language, or the production touched the slightest nerve in us. We were left wondering why Sher chose this play for the Intiman’s “to be announced later” production this season – and why we belatedly decided to buy tickets for it.

In prospect the idea seemed good – indeed, Sher’s promotion of the play at the season kickoff party convinced us to go. He claimed Thornton Wilder’s play was wildly experimental, an adaptation of Finnegan’s Wake for the American theater. From the preview I expected more an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts, itself a kind of English adaptation of Joyce’s book, with an historical pageant at the center of it, and dreams of prehistory around – but what we found was something less than either.

I suppose the play must have had some moment when it was first produced in 1942, in the darker days of WW2. But to do it now shows Sher grasping after easy contemporary references – the war in Iraq, global climate change, hurricane Katrina maybe – while being tone deaf to the lack of any truly significant resonances. The play’s concerns don’t really speak to those of today, even if they seem somewhat similar.

Afterwards on the way back to the car, I remarked to my wife that the play was so lacking in dramatic effect, it made me question whether other Sher productions I’ve enjoyed – Cymbeline, The Three Sisters, Nickel and Dimed – owed their effect more to the material’s native quality than anything he added in choosing or directing it. The Skin of Our Teeth had his usual minimalist and schematic, yet mobile and colorful set design, innovative casting (here, the deaf actor Howie Seago signing his performance while other characters vocally interpret him, borrowed from his hero Peter Sellars’ storied staging of the Auletta/Sophocles Ajax), and punchy performances, especially from his wife Kristin Flanders and daughter, first grader Lucia Sher.

But like the punched-up Light in the Piazza we recently saw, or the Cymbeline where we’d first encountered his directorial proclivities and found them highly entertaining, if more or less vapid, here too Sher’s direction seemed – unlike his hero Sellars’s – not really conceptual, but simply unmotivated. Sher’s good at buffing up a play so that it keeps the audience entertained and awake – but not so good at doing so in a way that responds to the play’s actual significance, or the deepest resonances it could have with our current situation.

Such skills could be the foundation of a great success, however shallow, for Sher on Broadway, now that he’s getting commissions there. Here at the Intiman, quieter glimpses of meaning less obscured by the pomp and circumstance of a big show would be better suited to the kind of first-class local art theater it has, under Sher’s artistic direction, started to become.

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light in the piazza

We caught the Broadway touring Light in the Piazza at the Paramount last Friday from row W in the orchestra section, after having seen the original at the Intiman several years ago from, like, row E.

We liked Light better before. The pass through New York made it shorter, more spectacular, more amped up in the usual Broadway kind of way – but less authentic seeming, more disjointed, and much less emotionally immediate.

Plus it now reveals Clara’s secret earlier, just before the intermission, in a clumsy way that just seems stuck in there so people don’t worry their little heads off in the lobby.

When we saw it the first time, we’d of course already figured it out ourselves very early on – but that was half the fun. In fact, the secret seemed so open that what bothered me most was why the piece kept maintaining it as a secret for so long.

Then it dawned on me that this bit of rhetorical excess was a marker of something subterranean going on in the representation – as such rhetorical excesses nearly always are – and that what it was doing was keeping open the much more tantalizing possiblity that Clara’s secret wasn’t mere mental deficiency – or, later, excess age – but something much more interesting in a Crying Game kind of vein. Could she really at this early a date be a transsexual, or, more likely given the the novella’s 1950s genesis and setting, a resolved hermaphrodite who could never have a child herself?

In any event, Light does some interesting ideological work in our own contemporary setting as a kind of indirect allegory of gay marriage. No one these days is really all that opposed to an American marrying an Italian, or a younger man marrying an older woman, or even someone as moderately mentally challenged as Clara marrying anyone at all.

But some people are strongly opposed to people of the same sex marrying, no matter how much they are in love. And it’s against that kind of prejudice that Light works its magic, by dramatizing so effectively the age old story of love conquering all.

And works it so well that, despite the story being old and a little hoary, and the songs and music being a little too Sondheimesque and non melodic – the only really good one is Fabrizio’s final Love to Me, and Guettel cuts that so short it seems he must be embarrased by it – that the play has become so successful on the basis of this facination alone, I think, rather than from any inherent beauty or perfection in its dramatic realization itself.

One thing that was added in New York that clinches the case for this interpretation of the Light phenomenon – the enormous male nude sculptures that dominate the first couple of scenes, with physiques that derive less from the Italian Renaissance and more from the gay club scene at the end of the last millennium. Indeed, the curtain opens on a male nude seen from the rear – how much more in your face can you get than that?

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wake up and celebrate

Last weekend was rough, and I haven’t quite woken up yet. But I’d better make some notes before the experience fades away.

My wife and I went to the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Celebrate Seattle Spring Dance Festival performances Thursday and Friday night and matinee Saturday, the Experience Music Project’s Pop Conference “Waking Up From History: Music, Time, and Place” Friday happy hour, Saturday morning and Saturday after the matinee, and the Seattle Symphony Saturday night. We’d also attended the first Celebrate Seattle performance Friday the week before.

Where to begin? The Celebrate Seattle Festival showed the most promise, The EMP conference was the most interesting, and the Symphony was the usual satisfying snooze.

So let’s start with Celebrate. PNB’s new artistic director Peter Boal, imported last year from New York, is really starting to shake up this sleepy berg. I’ve been meditating trying to start a Seattle play festival myself, but he’s already gotten a Seattle dance festival off the ground, bringing other Northwest companies we never see to town, and importing New York and international choreography that we’ve never seen before, even though – oddly enough – the choreographers originally hailed from here.

The first Celebrate night was part of our regular subscription, and featured Mark Morris’s Pacific and Kent Stowell’s Carmina Burana. We’ve been going to Mark Morris dances since we lived in Boston in the late 1980s and saw Dido and Aeneas there, fresh from Belgium. He’s been at the University of Washington before, but this was his PNB premiere – bizarre. I guess former artistic director Kent Stowell was jealous.

Though born and trained here, in his program notes Morris denies any local influence on his art:

Being from Seattle has nothing at all to do with my being a better choreographer…. I have not lived in Seattle for 30 years. I’m not nostalgic. I live in New York and love it…. I visit often. But as an artist…not much impact that I can think of . My work does not reflect my Northwest roots.

Not a very auspicious opening commentary on Celebrate Seattle.

And the performance of this piece, orginally choreographed in 1995 for the San Francisco ballet, was most interesting for showing PNB dancers caught at distinct points on the road between their native instincts and the playful, easygoing elegance of Morris’s actual aesthetic. None were quite there yet, though some were further along than others. Not that it’s really their fault – in the after dance discussion, Carla Korbes not only talked about how she was discovered as a teenage dance prodigy in Brazil by the visiting Boals, came to New York at his encouragement to study, then spent a decade being typecast as an emotive dancer at the NYC Ballet, before prevailing upon Boals to bring her to Seattle with him – but also about the single day Morris came to work with the dancers, during which he told her she just needed to be “less dramatic.” With so little effort on Morris’s part, it’s a tribute to the dancers that they came anywhere near his conception.

Okay, time to telegraph and edit later:

Carmina Burana – blast from the past – lumbering, Latin, monastic jokes. Surprisingly erotic, though, and heterosexual. Odd skin tight, flesh toned body suits seem as if dancers angelically sublimate the coarse desires of their monking counterparts – Barker and Weevers as reconfigured, prelapsarian Adam and Eve, transcending the crude whorishness of the tavern scene, without desexualizing it at all.

Started to think that maybe was dance represents is, well, sex. Not really contradicted by anthing we saw the next few nights. PNB dancer Kinyon Gaines got his chance first thing Thursday with Schwa – the fey male dancers much more convicing, if entirely reminscent of Gaines’s own dancing style, than the heterosexual pas de deux. Who knew Joffrey, Merce Cunningham, and composer John Cage were from Washington State? They made their names in New York, across the country, and around the world – idea Seattle trajectory before the Microsoft era. Jane Englen was She, who sings – the opposite trajectory some, like Boals too, are finally following now – in better voice than ever singing Wagner’s lovesongs to his paramour, and patron’s wife. The Cage/Cunnigham Inlets 2 most interesting for the odd sounds of water draining through conch shells, oddly in synch if not synchronized with the bird-like motions of the dancers. Torque we’d seen before, but not in such bright costumes. The dancers twirled like marvelous dervishes.

Friday’s highlight were Trisha Brown’s little intermezzi the Carmen Overture, Carmen Entre’acte and Spanish Dance. In the Entre’acte Miranda Weese, soon to join Boal and Korbes in moving to PNB from the New York City Ballet, danced herself amazing down into the ground. The Spanish Dance gave us a conga line of dancers assembling themselves pelvis to butt as they sashayed across the stage in time to a Bob Dylan song. We also caught Brown’s charming pre-performance chat, in which despite her fulsome opening declaration that’s it was great to come back home to Seattle, she nevertheless revealed that like Morris, her choreographic career was the product of the New York loft scene she was furtunate enough to enjoy in the 1960s.

The former co-artistic directors’ son Christopher Stowell took after his father’s Carmina in the similarly bodysuited, similarly heterosexualized Adin, though with what appeared to be a bit of simualted domestic violence thrown in for good measure.

If I had any doubt that dance these days is fundamentally a representation of sexual actions of various kinds, Saturday’s much anticipated Bhangra Fever from Donald Byrd, who closed up his New York based troup in 2002 to move to Seattle and to take over the Spectrum Dance Theater. In his own pre-show Chat, Byrd talked about how Arjun Appadurai’s notion of a the emergence of a globalized, diasporic culture where we are free to make up own identities from whatever bits and pieces of other cultures we choose to assemble had inspired it theoretically, while practically his investigation of the Asian Massive techno-meets-India club music movement had furnished the music.

And the setting as it turned out: youthful dancers out clubbing. Which would have been marvelous, with the energetic Indian/club fusion of moves – except for the distraction of the central couple, all too ably danced by Allison Keppel and David Alewine I think, who stripped down to their underwear for an extended bout of a contemporary and even more sexualized version of dirty dancing – the memory is blurred now a week later, but I’m pretty sure lots of pelvic grinding was involved, while the side couples performed a strange game where the men laid on their back, right foot in the air, while their partners leapt up and landed their crotch on the sole, balancing there for several moments.

I wonder how that felt…

Actually, I think I recall similar problems the last time I caught a Spectrum performance at Bumbershoot or somewhere – great music, excellent energetic dance, inventively choreographed – but a little too in-you-face sexualized to be enjoyable. And here I’d been intending to drop in on their intimate Madrona bath house (that’s where they’re based, right on the Lake Washington beach a short walk down the hill from my house) performances for those in the know. Now I’ll have to reconsider – I’m not sure I’d really like to come that close to a Byrd dance after all.

The EMP Pop Conference revealed a once thriving industry – rock journalism – now threatened with economic irrelevance by the decline of the record labels, the emergence of online media – iTunes, Rhapsody, and music blogs – and the rise of the New Times / Village Voice Media conglomerate. We came to see Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus – but Christgau it seems had recently lost his job at the new Village Voice – a pale capitalistic shadow of its former self – and his talk was mainly venom directed at them, and how his departure had ended his control over his famed Pazz & Jopp poll of the best music of the year, and its bifurcation into competing pretenders to the throne.

Christgau did mention two groups my wife and I were unfamiliar with that would prove increasingly interesting as the conference continued – TV on the Radio, who Christgau didn’t like at first, but now does like after their high standing in the polls forced him to listen more closely, and Joanna Newsom, who despite high standing and repeated listening, Christgau still despises.

As, alas, I myself came to despise the next speaker, Princeton English and African American Studies prof Daphne Brooks – representative of the entrenched academic wing of the conference that, thanks to tenure and the enduring dominance of universities by narcissistic, self-satisfied boomers, have not had to face the wake-up call that’s been ringing louder and louder in the ears of professional rock journalists, and those bloggers and authors who aspire to join their ranks. She kept the same sh*t-eating grin plastered to her face throughout the panel presentation, as if to say – I’ve got mine jack, and I could care less about any of the rest of you.

Her thesis was pretty bogus: that TV on the Radio is black like her in an African American studies kind of way, despite all the good evidence to the contrary. Apparently there has been some controversy in the rock press about whether one should mention that most of the group’s members are black – when their music is apparently diasporic in the sense Byrd embraced in his dance – some kind of techno club music assembled from disparate sources, some of them rooted in the member’s black immigrant experience, most not – a synthesized art for a composite, self-fashioned identity – hence it’s wide appeal and the respect it’s garnered. They sound like the Barack Obama of the pop world. White boys will always be outsiders in rap and hip hop, by definition – while this kind of music includes and subsumes them.

But Daphne wanted none of this – I guess it does threaten, if not her livelihood, at least its intellectual validity. She certainly seemed to feel a great need to reclaim TV on the Radio for African American studies, jealous that they might escape its confines, and require a new way of theorizing their music that might eventually make her own work irrelevant. One sees similar problems in the African American political community’s ability to deal with the Obama phenomena.

The last paper in this panel was by Rhapsody VP Tim Quirk, and was the most interesting of the bunch, even if it was merely an adapted PowerPoint he probably gave to his bosses. By analyzing how songs are played online in Rhapsody, iTunes, and some other service, he’s deduced that the most successful music in the future will not be albums the major labels are pushing – but songs of any vintage that bear repeated listening – the kind of songs you’re happy to hear anytime, and all the time. I can’t remember all the specific examples, but Otis Redding’s Sitting by the Dock of the Bay was high on the list, as were most of the song on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, and apparently climbing the charts is Yo La Tengo.

Instead of ego, what will be needed in the rock journalist of the future is the modesty of a forest ranger, taking music lovers down paths they haven’t explored yet, but based on their previous listening preferences will probably enjoy.

Okay, this posting is getting way too long – too much interesting stuff last weekend to even recall the highlights.

To conclude very briefly then: Yuval Taylor gave an idiotic paper putting down the early 1970s as a musical wasteland, seeminly inspired by animus as the songs his parents forced him to hear. Nate Chinen and Greil Marcus, on the other hand, gave inspired readings of what was really happening then: guys like Neil Young and Rod Stewart leading bands that jammed their way through welcomed error and instant adaptation into a music that wormed its way outside of time itself, into the realm of the eternally recapitulating moment.

And then in the afternoon, we caught a weird Carl Zimring recapitulating Jonathan Raban’s Woody Guthrie thesis with odd enthusiasm for an environmental historian – I guess he was thrilled by how different a conservationist like Guthrie could be from an environmentalist of today, how open to idea that we should control and transform nature to make jobs and improve the living standards of all – and the long-lost childhood friend of emergent superstar Joanna Newsom, newly minted UC Riverside ethnomusicologist Meghan Drury Askins, telling us about the childhood they shared in Nevada City, playing some of Newsom’s bizarre vocals over Senegalese harp, and explaining its popularity with an equally bizarre thesis that it represents nostalgia for the days before cellphones in last generation born before their existence – a truly academic thesis, but entertainly nonetheless.

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Angela Davis

I’m experimenting with some new methods in efforts to keep this blog more current. The last entry was drafted quickly and posted before its time – I ‘ll edit it later. As I will this entry, outlined for now in a telegraphic style.


caught Angela Davis Kane Hall last night

skeptical beforehand – academic radicals – looked at Cornel West’s book remaindered in bookstore before – nice work if you can get it – I gave it a try too, at Yale where I met once met Cornel before he was quite so famous, then Harvard where we saw Skip Gates having tapas at Dali with old Yale chum Barbara Johnson and her partner Marjorie Garber just before started African American studies program there, her head TA a real piece of work – before disgust and realization I didn’t really relish the life made me change careers – but wouldn’t it be better to get actually get out into the workaday world and try to change things?

interesting experience

not at first – preaching to converted – American academic leftist Idol – clapping for points not really made, but just alluded to, toying around conceptually: why do we put so many black people in prison – prisons exist so we can feel by contrast – why not let prisoners vote – slavery only legally abolished after civil war – social construction of reality – involuntary servitude still allowed in prisons – growing up in segregated Birmingham, like Condi Rice…

mention Rice something more interesting started to happen – similar autobio themes of rising above adversity – but Rice sees self as exceptional individual in typical American self-made man story – Rice says she could succeed, because she’s 8 times faster than whites, and only needs to be 5 times – while Davis a social activist, against capitalist individualism

not enough that Rice, Clarence Thomas, D’Souza et al attain eminence – what’s that to the rest of us?

even MLK has been Americanized, holiday, the exceptional man who had a dream

no: MLK didn’t dream up the civil rights movement – the civil rights movement created him

that’s what was great about the 60s: all these anonymous people who came together from the grassroots to bring about social change

when they went looking for bodies of Chaney, Schwerner, Goodman, and other civil rights workers slain, they didn’t just find them – but lots more bodies, anonymous, never claimed

but change 60s achieved not enough: not structural, nor thoroughgoing enough

to revive – don’t need exceptional individuals to become famous leaders – instead, need to get lots of people in all walks of life organizing together for change

but problem: her own audience treats Davis as the very kind of exceptional individual she criticizes – and her slow, coy, intellectually flirtatious mode of delivery encourages it – how else did she get where she is today?

standing O at end confirms – and bizarre Q&A period too – no questions, just people looking for her and the audience to hear and validate them: their litany of causes, their adulation and desire for her to sign a book, that they were there and chanted free Angela when she was in jail in Greenwich Village all those many years ago, that they visited the Santa Clara prison she was held in – and finally 3 crazy people who came together, ranting about being discriminated against because they’re homeless, or that their afterschool program is getting shortchanged because the city or county is giving too much money to immigrants, those damn immigrants…

seems everyone wants a bigger piece of that pie like Angela’s gotten

how do you move beyond a scene like that – everybody out for their lonesome – to something with real political teeth – somethat that will benefit us all equally, not a few exceptional individuals feasting at the public prytenaeum?

that’s a conundrum Angela hasn’t solved yet, nor Brother Cornel, nor even Barack Obama

maybe it will take nobody to lead us out of this mess

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gem of the ocean

We saw August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean at the Seattle Rep’s matinee yesterday afternoon. I was surprised – it was even more radical, though in a less contemporary setting, than Radio Golf.

Which isn’t suprising: Golf dates from 2005, Ocean from 2003, the second-to-last Wilson wrote. They bracket the African-American Cycle, Golf set in the 1990s, Ocean in the 1900s.

Yet they share a disgust with upwardly-mobile blacks who betray not only their race, but the class most blacks share with most other Americans, putting their own individual succeess ahead of everyone else’s – just like every other successful individualist in America, whatever their race or class origins.

Here the black sheriff Ceasar embodies the race and class traitor, keeping order for the white mayor in the Hill District, and renting out lodging by the week on the side himself, mercilously evicting anyone who fails to pay on time.

But let’s not dwell on him. What’s most interesting here is the change Wilson plays on Aristotelian victim-based drama. Instead of ending with an innocent victim, this play begins with one: a tin mill worker falsely accused of stealing a bucket of nails, who jumps into the river and stays there proclaiming his innocence until he drowns, rather than accept the plea bargain Ceasar offers of 30 days jail time in exchange for a false confession.

While the audience’s appreciation of the tragic victim’s innocence is, in the theories I’ve studied, productive of social cohesion – there but for the grace of God go I – this truly innocent man’s self sacrifice to avoid the stigma of guilt is productive of something else entirely: social upheaval and revolution.

As the white (in this production at least) tinker Selig explains the effect, it’s like the horse thief he’s heard about as a child, who before he became a thief was falsely accused on being one. Instead of accepting his victimhood, he escaped and lived to steal many a horse afterwards – each time sending word that, while he didn’t steal the first one he was accused of stealing – he had stole the latest one.

So here, the falsely accused nail thief’s self-sacrifice begins a strike amongst the mill workers – and induces Solly Two Kings to drop his disguise as a mere dog shit collector and salesman (apparently is was used to manure roses), reveal himself as a former underground railroad conductor, and set fire to the mill himself, to free all the black former slaves and their descendants who’d sold their souls to the company store.

Like, for example, Citizen Barlow, newly arrived from Alabama, and the man who’d actually stolen the nails. Thanks to a soul washing ritual performed by the play’s presiding Sibyl and mystagogue – Aunt Ester, who I think only jokes that she’s like 300 years old, as if she were as old as slavery in the Americas, though more credulous critics seem to take her at her word – Citizen overcomes what seems his own destiny toward tragic victimhood in the classic Oedipus mode, and instead becomes purified of his inadvertent sin – catharos truly – and ready to take of the heroic task of living, and dying if the case requires it, on his own terms, out of an educated sense of his own worth as a fully moral actor.

And so he dons Solly’s cape and staff, and picks up his kerosene can, taking himself out into the night to complete the mission that Caesar’s bullet prevented Solly from fulfilling – burning down the jail to free the imprisoned strikers.

I haven’t had time to fully comprehend this yet – but I think Wilson may have invented a new kind of drama just before he died, grounded in tradictional Greek and Yoruba/African-American precedents, yet socially transformative in a way that goes beyond even Brecht.

To have this playing in the main Bagley Wright theater while Rachel Corrie is hitting the boards right next door in the Leo K, is truly amazing.

Forget the Intiman, despite the lucky improvement Native Son brought to it last season (too bad I never finished that review…): this is the American Cycle you must see in Seattle.

What are you waiting for? You still have, what – three weeks?

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Intiman launch party

The day before seeing Rachel Corrie, we went to the Intiman’s 2007 season launch party, which by the end had me thinking along lines almost of cosmogonical – though more despite, rather than because of, what the Intiman’s artistic and managerial representatives had to say for themselves.

Laura and Bart said much the same as they did at the annual meeting, though with a couple of innovations. I don’t remember Laura claiming, in her list of successes that the Intiman is bringing to Seattle and the world, that its American Cycle began a vogue of their “institutional peers” (yes, I guess that’s how they talk these days in non-profit theater management…) doing the same kind of thing, but here she did. She hastened to admit, though, that they were in fact doing the same kind of thing in their own unique ways – ironically undercutting the claim. Heaven help them if they are – except for Native Son (which was indeed very good and very interesting, despite almost ending in disaster when the original adapter withdrew at the very last minute – a pity a shower forever interrupted the account given here), the experiment has been disappointing so far, for reasons I outlined anent the Grapes of Wrath.

Bart continued in his “all theater is local – but we’re taking it beyond Seattle to the world” vein – which, oddly, is in a somewhat different sense the theme of this blog – though the precise pertinence of Uncle Vanya, The Skin of Our Teeth, and To Kill a Mockingbird to the Seattle community, why we should want to gather around the fire to hear these particular stories – and not those with even more local and contemporary relevance, like Olympia native Rachel Corrie’s – never did come clear. Here’s hoping Prayer for My Enemy will be the ringer in the deck.

What was interesting in Bart’s speech was his admission that in his youth he was – a my wife and I were – a great admirer of Peter Sellars work – actually, I think he, Bart and my wife and I must be of an age, so Sellars would have been in his youth too – it’s difficult to conceive, and hence to remember, just how quickly he catapulted from the Harvard to the world stage. Bart was so stricken that he actually auditioned to be in one of Sellar’s plays…where he met the deaf actor who is starring in The Skin of Out Teeth, I think, under Bart’s direction, where he will sign his performance, to be interpreted by a speaker offstage.

Or actually, maybe this wasn’t that interesting – but his description of The Skin of Our Teeth as kind of the theatrical equivalent of Finegan’s Wake – though actually, from what he said and the wonderful preview of the opening voiceover veteran thespian Clayton Corzatte gave, more like the theatrical pageant in Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts, one of my favorite closet dramas in all literature – was, and convined us to finally buy tickets – we’d left it out of our subscription when it was a play to be announced later, and I had no luck convincing Bart to tackle Shakespeare’s Pericles in a series of impertinent emails that I may one day reproduce here.

Indeed, it was the unannounced appearance of Corzatte – a replacement for Adam Guettel’s disappointing no show? – and the unexpectedly engaging performace of the Black Nativity Choir that transcended all my petty disappointment with the way the Intiman has lately been talking a good game about the community’s importance to the theater, but not doing much that furthers that relationship in a truly radical way, and instead just making a good career of it for Bart and Laura – after all, that is important, right? – and got me thinking that maybe the Intiman – historically at least, if not quite contemporaneously – has been the site of people who do (or did) care about making the kind of radical community-spawned theater I’ve been thinking about goading along through an annual Athens-style dramatic competition to be initiated in part through my (yet to be developed) website, Making a Play for Seattle.

Never having seen the annual Black Nativity – we intend to try it out this year, it’s tenth – I didn’t know what to expect when, after a halting introduction by the director Jacqueline Moscou where she expressed some displeasure at there being insufficient budget for new costumes, the choir hit the stage to sing a couple of gospel songs.

But these songs really got me going – much more than Guettel’s faux-operatic pieces in Light, which seem like weak Sondheim to me. These were the kind of songs the Greeks choruses must have sung, a king of updated ritual liturgy that we all could learn to sing if we haven’t already, and sing together after admiring the special gifts of the chorus and its soloists.

What struck me about the first song, after many repetitions of the “how eck….cellent is they name,” much “eck” sounds like “ack” when, as it is at the end of this song, it’s repeated by itself over and over at the very end – as if the community discovers its own name – or at least the last consonant that completes it – in repeating it’s praise of god’s name.

The second song was just as curious – as sort of love song of a daughter to a loving father god, whom she calls her “own.” It reminded me of an article I read recently, but cannot find right now – someone like Daniel Dennett, but less avowedly atheistical – about an anthropologist who studies how it seems to be part of what makes us symbol-using humans that also makes us predisposed to speculate, or theorize, or have faith that there must be a god or gods. Not that that proves anything – not that there necessarily is – but just that, given the way we find and create meaning in the world socially together – the idea of god makes a lot of intuitive sense to us, and at the very least a comforting fantasy we find it difficult to avoid indulging. As here: how easy and comforting it is to find something like a parent’s love and care in a God we just don’t know in the same intimate fashion – though we like to think, he knows us.

Oh, did I mention that Bart’s little daughter was in the audience, and that she’s playing the dinosaur in The Skin of Our Teeth?

As the audience was filing out after the show was over, Clayton Corzatte called us back in to tell us a story of when he and a previous Intiman artistic director were teaching at the University of Washington. At a humanities and arts faculty meeting the topic of budget constraints came up, and a history professor asked why the university needed a theater arts department. The former artistic director rose to say something like – but in the form of a really good quip that I can’t quite recall – theater is one of the oldest ways in which people told themselves their histories, and as such predates recorded history itself.

All I can say to that is – Amen, brother.

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