29 June 2008

and repetition palls him

My last subscription opera was Friday, and since the theater gods had smiled on me and given me a wonderful evening, I decided not to pursue my original plan for marking the end of my sixteen-or-so-year subscription, which was to ascend to the topmost balcony, cry out in electrifying tones, O Gockley – avanti a Dio!, and then hurl myself into the orchestra pit, where with any luck I would land on the cymbals and timpani with a resounding crash. Also, the last thing San Francisco Opera needs is yet another performance of Tosca. Besides, Gockley’s name doesn’t scan right.

So I’ll be slipping unnoticed into the ranks of the single-ticket buyers. From the way I’ve been carrying on, you’d think I was never going to set foot in the place again. But it does feel different, and sad, to me, and I’ve considered just surrendering to habit and resubscribing, even though most of the upcoming season leaves me bored and indifferent. Part of it – and this may just be that relentlessly upbeat, incurably sunny-side-up optimism which has become a byword among all who know me – is that I just cannot figure out Gockley as an artistic administrator, and I don't think that's a bad thing.

I loved Pamela Rosenberg’s programming, but I have no opinion on how she ran the company or worked with people or whatever; I was sorry to see her go, but I had certainly noticed long ago that things have a way of changing even when you don’t want them to, so I was interested to see what Gockley came up with. He is of course best-known for commissioning new works, so that looked promising, and I had a sentimental link to Houston since the first opera I ever saw was their touring production of Porgy and Bess. And on my one trip to Houston, shortly after Gockley had been announced as SFO’s new general director, I had really admired HGO’s production of L’Incoronazione di Poppea.

Since then it’s been a very mixed bag. His first season here had largely been planned by Rosenberg, and though I was not thrilled that his one major change was to add Die Fledermaus to the schedule, I figured that, given all my sneering at opera-goers who refuse to attend anything they haven’t already heard a hundred times, I had better cowboy up and give my first Fledermaus a fair listen. So I did, and the singers were wonderful, the orchestra excellent, and the staging top-notch, and I loathed every minute of it. I’m too lazy to link to my write-up, but I believe I compared it to being clubbed to death with meringues, which makes for a long, sticky, and endless end. But now I know, right? It’s always better to speak from knowledge than prejudice.

Later I read an interview in which he seemed puzzled that anyone responded to that year’s closing production of Iphigenie en Tauride, which to me seemed so clearly one of the most memorable evenings at the opera that season and perhaps for several seasons that I was puzzled that he was puzzled. I had tried to ignore the interviews in which he assured the SF Philistines, like a man trying to soothe a yappy little lapdog, that there would be no “Eurotrash” productions. I hate that meaningless term anyway. I figured that if he needed to assure nervous patrons that they would be fed a safe diet of sloppy seconds from the Met, then that’s just part of running a big opera house.

But it was starting to look as if he just had fairly uninteresting taste. Then came Graham Vick’s Tannhauser, and Gockley made it clear that he felt this was a signature production for him, which floored me, since it out-Rosenberged anything Rosenberg had presented here. I loved it, but many others didn’t, which, let me say, is an understatement. Given the vehemence of the reaction, I wonder if he simply figured San Francisco audiences are even more averse to nontraditional productions than he had thought. But how could someone who spoke longingly of staging Andrea Chenier with big stars from the Met also consider this art-installation Tannhauser a good example of what he was all about?

I felt Gockley did an excellent job this season balancing the new, the familiar, and the less familiar. So I was stunned by the announcement of next year’s plans. The upcoming season is entirely respectable, and if you hear an undertone of dull and safe in that description, then thank you for reading me as I intended you to read me. Rudolf Bing himself might have assembled this season and proudly presented it to his Met patrons; in fact, with the obvious exception of the new works, it may well actually be one of Bing’s seasons, plucked straight from 1954 (oh, the now fashionable mid-century years!) and dropped into the laps of a San Francisco audience that has longed for nothing else, as it wonders vaguely where all the past years went, and why the glitter has left the atmosphere, and maybe Tony Bennett will be singing later in the Carnelian Room. . .

So I can’t just write Gockley off; he seems to have a zig for every zag, and if the cumulative effect is not one I find interesting or appealing, clearly many others feel differently. I was looking at the calendar for next year and realized I could see just about all the operas I was interested in by early October. For all I know by December I’ll be begging for tickets to Boheme, but somehow I suspect that I’ll just check out some of the DVDs that have piled up while I’ve been out: Britten, Janacek, Schoenberg, Berg, Henze, Chin, Dusapin, and Handel, as well as Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini. I know it’s ironic that I repeat myself in criticizing the repetitive season, but we all enjoy our habitual pleasures, and hate to have them taken away, and I'll miss having all my tickets lined up. I sometimes wonder if I rely so much on routine because it frightens me deeply to realize how quickly I adapt to anything’s absence.

19 June 2008

Lhude sing, cuccu!

Maybe it’s the influence of the sultry air of summer, heavy, dirty, and mournful with thunderstorms that will never come, but in just two days last week, on ferry boat and BART train, I saw three women reading celebrated novels of adultery: two Anna Kareninas and one Madame Bovary. We all get the yen, and I too felt like putting down Paradise Lost, because even the deepest love can tire, oh, just a bit, after a dozen or so readings, and grabbing a ripe adulteress from the shelf, but I resisted and went back to the battle in Heaven. Reading about it (adultery, not warring angels) is so much easier than dealing with it oneself (well, I guess that's true of the angels as well); go for the glamour and avoid the work. By "glamour" I mean "deep insight into the human condition", of course.

If you’re tired of trains and arsenic, though, you may dazzle and entice your friends with some equally great but more obscure members – and who doesn’t like obscure members? – of the body of nineteenth-century adultery novels, lesser known only, I have no doubt, because they are written in Spanish and Portuguese: Leopoldo Alas’s La Regenta and Galdos’s Fortunata and Jacinta from Spain, and any of the novels of the great Eca de Queiros (sometimes spelled Queiroz) from Portugal. As a public service, because that is the sort of thing I do here, I will provide a pronunciation guide to Queiros’s name (which contains various cedillas and things which I am omitting out of laziness and ignorance). I myself have a wretched Portuguese accent, and speak only a few words, but since “I am offended” and “You are shameful” are among them, I am in reality fully equipped for life in Lisbon, though perhaps not in Rio.

Anyway, I asked my father, a native speaker, and here goes: AY – sa duh kay – ROYZH. Do that with a slight backward roll on the “R” and you’re close enough. My father then hastened to inform me that the family (meaning his older relatives) did not consider Queiros a decent author, which is really all the enticement one might need. (By the way, if you read The Maias, and you should, do not read any of the introductory material first, at least in the Penguin edition – there is a major plot point they blithely give away, and you should come across it on your own.) I also used to see every movie condemned by the Vatican until they got around to The da Vinci Code. Not even the Pope’s proscriptive thunder could make me want to sit through that. When I finally heard what the book was about, I was stunned: that’s it? Jesus had kids who now live in the south of France, undoubtedly sucking on Gauloises and sneering at Americans? Look, if they can’t turn water into wine, I’m not interested. What an odd tribute to the human obsession with bloodlines, and what a sad insight into what passes for religious discourse in this country.

Since I’m providing pronunciation guides to Portuguese names, I’m going to put it on the record that my last name is pronounced to rhyme with “jazz.” Any other pronunciation gets a correction from me, and when I occasionally have the pleasure of meeting someone who reads me, I hate for the very first thing I say to be a correction. My grandparents anglicized the pronunciation when they emigrated, and in one of my few faint gestures towards ancestral respect I insist on their pronunciation. Though perhaps what I’m respecting is anglicizing, on behalf of several branches on the other side of the family tree.

Speaking of unsatisfied yearnings and disappointment, I finally have DSL installed, and though the guy from AT&T who had to show up to repair the line here was extremely prompt and helpful, everything else, meaning mostly the speed, has been . . . unimpressive. I haven’t had the heart for my eagerly planned YouTube orgy, because it just takes so much more time than I thought it would. I mean, I’m glad I’m off dial-up, but mostly because it’s just embarrassing still to be on dial-up. If you don’t own a cell phone (I don't), people assume you’re making a statement, as opposed to just being befuddled and stuck in the past, and they might even think it’s some sort of intriguingly independent-minded and subversively Luddite anti-electronic-leash statement, as opposed to “I am unpopular and do not get calls and besides I hate figuring out new technology”, whereas with dial-up all you’re really saying is that you sure do miss 1997.

Speaking of missing things, I'm really going to miss subscribing to the San Francisco Opera. I felt a restless melancholy earlier tonight as I prepared for tomorrow night's date with Lucia di Lammermoor by tearing my second-to-the-last subscription opera ticket from the subscriber ticket sheet I received last summer as I have every summer since 1992. Then comes Ariodante next Friday, and then farewell to Orchestra Left D5, and farewell to my sixteen-or-so years of subscribing and donating. I’ll undoubtedly end up at some of the operas next season, but it's not quite the same. I’ll be damned if I’m going to encourage Gockley as he drains all artistic excitement from the opera house. Technical toys are no substitute. I know I’ve already said I’ll be damned if I encourage the Opera's bold retreat to 1953, but I’ll say it again: I’ll be damned if I pay for a ticket to La Boheme or the lovely though exhausted standards Gockley is trotting out for the walled-in tastes of those who think, or rather who wish, that the musical world stopped with Rosenkavalier. The Opera’s upcoming schedule is not a season, it is a surrender. Oh, here I go again, an obsessive and spurned lover. I do wish them every happiness. What do I know. Maybe they were right to dump me, or, rather, in that classic move, to maneuver things so I felt compelled to dump them. Maybe it all really has been downhill since Zinka stopped singing Gioconda.

Under the circumstances, the San Francisco Symphony is looming larger and more gratefully in my mind. I am, needless to say, way behind in posting, so expect the drawn-out summer nights to be filled with Proustian (long, ravishingly self-indulgent) reminiscences of concerts from months ago (look, it’s all memory as soon as you stop applauding anyway), but I do wish I had written sooner about some of the Symphony concerts, just because I’m so glad to see a big musical organization that seems to be pointed in the right direction. I’m heading there Saturday night for my favorite Beethoven symphony and the new piece by Magnus Lindberg, but even though I’ve been eagerly anticipating this concert all season, still (and watch me ouroboros this whole thing, right here!) part of this faithless lover’s heart will be longing for the exotic charms to be found in hanging with the cool kids at the Columbarium. Go, and live without regrets.

16 June 2008

still, the flowers are more poetical

Mr Bloom walked unheeded along his grove by saddened angels, crosses, broken pillars, family vaults, stone hopes praying with upcast eyes, old Ireland's hearts and hands. More sensible to spend the money on some charity for the living. Pray for the repose of the soul of. Does anybody really? Plant him and have done with him. Like down a coalshoot. Then lump them together to save time. All souls' day. Twentyseventh I'll be at his grave. Ten shillings for the gardener. He keeps it free of weeds. Old man himself. Bent down double with his shears clipping. Near death's door. Who passed away. Who departed this life. As if they did it of their own accord. Got the shove, all of them. Who kicked the bucket. More interesting if they told you what they were. So and so, wheelwright. I travelled for cork lino. I paid five shillings in the pound. Or a woman's with her saucepan. I cooked good Irish stew. Eulogy in a country churchyard it ought to be that poem of whose is it Wordsworth or Thomas Campbell. Entered into rest the protestants put it. Old Dr Murren's. The great physician called him home. Well it's God's acre for them. Nice country residence. Newly plastered and painted. Ideal spot to have a quiet smoke and read the Church Times. Marriage ads they never try to beautify. Rusty wreaths hung on knobs, garlands of bronzefoil. Better value that for the money. Still, the flowers are more poetical. The other gets rather tiresome, never withering. Expresses nothing. Immortelles.

A bird sat tamely on a poplar branch. Like stuffed. Like the wedding present alderman Hooper gave us. Hu! Not a budge out of him. Knows there are no catapults to let fly at him. Dead animal even sadder. Silly-Milly burying the little dead bird in the kitchen matchbox, a daisychain and bits of broken chainies on the grave.

The Sacred Heart that is: showing it. Heart on his sleeve. Ought to be sideways and red it should be painted like a real heart. Ireland was dedicated to it or whatever that. Seems anything but pleased. Why this infliction? Would birds come then and peck like the boy with the basket of fruit but he said no because they ought to have been afraid of the boy. Apollo that was.

How many! All these here once walked round Dublin. Faithful departed. As you are now so once were we.

And a happy Bloomsday to my mountain flowers. Here's a fun website to check out on James Joyce's music.

15 June 2008

And you may tell yourself, This is not my beautiful house!

I saw Francesca Zambello’s “American” Das Rheingold when it premiered at the Washington National Opera two springs ago; the revival at San Francisco Opera is also to some extent a revision, and I think in some ways an improvement.

In DC I felt that the production went overboard with the projections, so that they began to seem not an aesthetic but an economic choice. I understand that the Ring is incredibly expensive to put on, but you can’t really look as if you’re scrimping even if you actually are. I thought the landscape projections both during the scenes and during the musical interludes were nicely done and effective (“That’s the Sierra Nevada!” the old man next to me helpfully announced as we were traveling up to Wotan), but I thought, as I did in DC, that when Alberich uses the Tarnhelm to turn himself in a giant serpent, it just looks cheap to use a giant projection of a snake, especially when the picture breaks over the apertures in the Nibelheim mine. I can’t say I cared for the opening space shots during the prelude, either; the visual echoes of sci-fi movies (which have larger budgets and sharper effects anyway) are unfortunate, and aesthetically entrancing as the rings of Saturn are, they don’t really link up to anything in the music: it’s the creation of the world, sure, but the Prelude pretty clearly gurgles and swirls towards a water-borne creation, and when that music reappears with the Rhine Daughters or Erda you need that link to earthly elements, not outer space, and when the waters rise at the very end and swamp the world, you need that sense that they are circling back onto the very first notes of the prelude, long before. Given the very visual nature of our culture, it’s a shame to neglect the power of a completely dark theater with no stimulus but the rippling music.

The first scene is simplified and improved from the DC production. My memory of that set is of a fairly elaborate gold-mining structure off to the right, with the three Rhine Daughters looking semi-prostitutey in white nineteenth-century bloomers and camisoles, and the Rhine gold (always referred to in the surtitles for some reason as “pure gold”, as if we can’t hear the singers calling it “Rhine gold”) was a large billowing quilt top of sheer golden fabrics. I had mixed feelings about the quilt, since quilts are made of scraps and the Rhine gold needs to be untouched and unformed until Alberich steals it. I thought the switch in San Francisco to a seamless piece of the sheer gold fabric was effective (though the quilt blocks in the earlier version did suggest rich farmlands viewed from the air, which was a nice touch even if I was the only person who thought that) and led to some nicely picturesque effects when the Daughters billowed it aloft or when Alberich wrapped himself in it. After he steals it, the gold reverts to its usual stage form as heavy-looking sacks or glinting rocks.

Alberich still enters dressed as a prospector, which neatly brings not just an American but a local twist to the theme of exploiting and despoiling nature. Maybe because there was less of a camp they seemed less like camp followers, but the Daughters (Catherine Cangiano, Lauren McNeese, and Buffy Baggott) seemed less like whores and more like frontier women this time around. I liked the power of Richard Paul Fink as Alberich, though his voice was sounding tired by the end of the evening, but he was competing with my memory of the mighty Alberich of Gordon Hawkins in DC. I don’t know if this was deliberate or not, but casting a black man like Hawkins as Alberich – the despised, rejected, and angry Other – in the context of an “American” Ring lent a really powerful and troubling subtext to the role, an element that Fink, through no fault of his own, doesn’t bring to the part. (In the same way the usual casting of children as the laboring Nibelungs gained an extra resonance in the light of America’s long history of child labor, which continues in the reliance of American corporations on the poorly paid labor of overseas children.)

This was clearly not a Wagnerian audience; the chatter – please, people! the Master’s music is playing! – during the gorgeous interludes between acts made me think it was maybe just that worst of all opera audiences, the ones who don’t pay attention until The Big Aria, when they suddenly turn into highly critical connoisseurs. Lucia is next week, kids! I don’t know why anyone who cares enough about music to pay those prices and give up an evening would lose a single moment of those rapturously beautiful sounds (the orchestra was in outstanding form) listening to their own voices instead. Maybe they figured the incredibly noisy scene changes meant open season. I’ve actually never heard noisier scene changes anywhere. I really knew it wasn’t a Wagnerian audience after the performance while standing in the immensely long line for the basement men’s room: “That’s it,” one older guy was saying. “They need an intermission.” What a candyass. Try sitting on those Bayreuth seats for the show and then I might sympathize. Or not. I think the whole “Oh my God no intermission” thing is psychological anyway. Plenty and too many movies these days run two-and-a-half hours, even without the previews and soda commercials and dancing snack items singing Let’s Go Out to the Lobby, but people don’t feel trapped in quite the same way. You can get up and leave during a movie without causing quite as much disturbance. But if people can sit for two-and-a-half hours of Sex and the City or Transformers, it’s clearly not too much of a physical burden to sit through an uninterrupted Rheingold as the Master wished.

Probably the most notorious element of the DC production was Erda’s appearance garbed as an American Indian maiden (check any package of Land o’ Lakes butter and you see the costume). You may have heard that the Indian maiden is gone, but that is not the case. She’s just switched regions, from the fringed fawn-colored dress decorated with bright beads and eagle feathers of the Plains Indians to the gauzy white cotton fabric and silver squash-blossom jewelry of the Southwest, a more understated costume that tends to lose the effect, so that I can see why those sitting in the back thought Erda was just dressed in her usual flowing, vaguely Earth-Mothery garments. I had mixed feelings about the original costume and also about the change. On the one hand, I hate the use of ethnic groups as symbols rather than individuals, and the sentimental and erroneous stereotype of American Indians as a simple and harmonious part of nature is pretty annoying. On the other hand, the resonance created by an African-American Alberich also occurs with an American Indian Erda, and though positive racism is still racism, there really is a long history in the United States, dating back to the nineteenth century (to around the time when the Indian nations stopped being violent threats and started being conquered remnants) of seeing the Indians as nobler (because less complicated and more in touch with nature and the basic elements of life) than their white conquerors. Also: the costume is visually stunning, not only in itself but in contrast to the leisure-class white suits and gowns of the bright gods. You lose the effectiveness and the contrast when Erda looks like just a funkier version of the gods. Neither the DC nor SF Erda really overcame the costume; I found Jill Grove the vocal disappointment of the night, fairly hooty and underpowered. Elena Zaremba in DC had a better sound but the wrong demeanor; Ms S of DC had accompanied me and when I ventured the criticism afterward that Erda had smiled too much, she said, “Yes, she seemed very pleasant.” Indeed she did, as if she were the nice neighbor lady down the street who had just shown up with a covered dish to welcome the gods to their new home, along with some common-sense advice about the looming end of all things. Erda’s appearance is one of my favorite moments in the entire cycle, so that may account for some of my disappointment.

Zambello did a really nice job directing the gods and giants. Fafner (Gunther Groissbock) and Fasolt (Andrea Silvestrelli) enter on a cross-beam lowered from the ceiling, and the costume designer (Catherine Zuber) did a terrific job making them look like giants without burdening the singers with stilts. They were a mix of nineteenth century laborers and creatures of myth, on big elevated shoes and in denim overalls, with their shoulders and arms padded for muscle (very effectively and carefully done, in fact, so that they actually looked as if they had the right bulging muscles there instead of just cotton padding), their arms ending in metal hooks and claws instead of hands. Froh (Jason Collins) and Donner (Charles Taylor), despite their bravado and threats of retribution, showed clearly in their curved posture and discomfort when the giants approached them that they felt effete and useless next to them; and beneath the arrogant swagger of the giants (with Fafner suitably the more aggressive) they conveyed a sense of being outclassed, out-thought, and out of place in the bright palace they had built.

Freia (Tamara Wapinsky), in a fascinating insight, gradually returned Fasolt’s love, so that she had to be torn away from him after the giants were given the stolen gold. I’ve never seen this relationship staged like this, but it makes sense – she’s the goddess of love, and why wouldn’t she reach out to someone who so clearly loves her; for all of Siegfried’s and Brunnhilde’s declarations of smiling love and laughing death, neither says or does anything as profoundly moving as Fasolt’s declaration that he cannot bear to give up Freia as long as he sees even the glow of her hair or the glint of her eye. (Once again the exchange of gold for Freia is staged absurdly with the goddess lying on the ground being covered by sacks, instead of standing up and having them piled in front of her, so that the poor singer is trapped down there, being covered – and not even completely, as required for the scene to make sense – with props, until she has to find some more or less clumsy way to get out from under all that.)

Some of those at opening night mentioned to me that they found Jennifer Larmore’s Fricka a vocal size too small; that may have been the case, but if so she had adjusted by the second performance, when I heard her. She gave a precisely etched comic performance of an entitled and frustrated upper-class housewife, from the moment she forces Wotan (a powerful Mark Delavan) awake by thwacking him with the rolled-up blueprints of Valhalla on through to her triumphant entry into the hall, despite the dead Fasolt and the lamenting Rhine Daughters. When Loge (played as a suavely ironic lawyer by Stefan Margita), for whom she had openly expressed her dislike, praises the love of women above all things, she gives him a wonderful look of ironic bemusement and surprise, and her approach to him after that is brittlely flirtatious. She has a wonderfully sharp-elbowed and determined walk when she’s angry and wants to get something out of someone, usually her husband. It was an amazing comic performance, and if I found myself marveling at it some times and disagreeing with it at others, it’s because Fricka is not a comic role. Yes, she is a narrow-minded and conventional woman, and she is as complicit as any of the gods in the building of Valhalla and the theft of the gold – you can’t be a goddess of the hearth without a hearth, and her sense of entitlement is only strengthened by her spouse’s failure to stay at home like a good husband – but she is also always correct. There’s a lot to be said for the rule of law as opposed to grand but shaky schemes, if you want to draw a parallel to American political life today. She is always the first to perceive and accurately point out the fatal logical flaws in all of Wotan’s schemes while he’s still brushing the facts aside as troublesome details, to be dealt with later. Though she plays a necessary role, nobody likes a rulemeister, and it’s just as well to emphasize when you can the moments when Fricka is softer and more sympathetic.

A couple of times Zambello brought characters on stage at moments when they aren’t usually there. Loge appears at the very end of the first scene, as an eyewitness of Alberich’s escape with the stolen gold. I found this unnecessary; he pretty clearly says to the gods that the Rhine Daughters have told him what happened, so there’s no real need to have him stroll on at the last minute to see it, especially since most of what he relates (about the curse on Love, the forging of the Ring, the dominance over Nibelheim, and so forth) are things he isn’t seeing at that moment anyway. It seems like a solution to a staging problem that doesn’t really exist. I did like the physical as well as vocal reappearance of the Rhine Daughters at the end; they obviously are important to the scene, and their lament from the waters is one of the prized moments in the Cycle; it wasn’t entirely necessary to see them in person, ragged, bedraggled, and with imploring hands outstretched, but it was effective, especially since it gave Mark Delavan the chance, with a troubled, dismissive gesture, to emphasize once again Wotan’s tendency to form grand schemes at the expense of the reality he can’t quite dismiss from his sight, as he finally turns his back on them and Loge to bring up the rear in the procession of the gods, who march up what looks like a ramp to a luxury liner, giggling and sipping champagne with the exquisitely refined and appealing frivolity (a quality better conveyed in this production than I have seen it before) that will doom them.

When we left the DC production, Ms S kept saying, “But did you think it was American?” And you may notice I keep putting “American” Ring in quotation marks. As I said back in DC, it makes some sense that a Ring that starts out in late nineteenth-century America will in many places look awfully European. The changes in this production from the original DC staging make me think that further and deeper thought is being given to the themes as the Cycle progresses, but so far, the use of local scenery is not that different from Stephen Wadsworth’s forests-and-mountains-of-the-Pacific-Northwest staging for Seattle, and the presentation of the gods and giants as late-nineteenth-century robber barons and labor is not that different from any of the Shavian (or Chereauvian) interpretations. I didn’t see the Walkure when it was staged at DC, so I don’t know how the "American" theme develops. I’m curious to see how it plays out in the entire cycle; at this point it looks like an interesting but not crucial approach, though this production is well worth hearing and pondering.

10 June 2008

the heart of the matter

As you can tell from the previous entry, I did a little prep work, not having read the play in many years, before going last Thursday to ACT’s production of John “Not the Film Director” Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. So I can report that the production is extremely faithful and complete, and I’m glad I went despite the inane chatter during the performance of the two senile harpies behind me, though that wasn’t the only reason I felt a bit unfulfilled by this Whore.

I actually would have been OK with some judicious trimming, not so much because of the running time (though I’m as tired of pointing out the stupidity of starting a three-hour show at 8:00 on a work night as I always am the next day; no wonder audiences tend to be students and retirees, who can sit and enjoy their incest-murder-revenge dramas without thinking about the looming 8:00 a.m. cubicle the next morning) as because the comedy scenes . . well, they take the person of a doofus foolish suitor named Bergetto, and though Gregory Wallace performs him well –the acting throughout ranges from solid to excellent – the character is such a bizarre zany, so clueless and – can I just say mentally challenged? – that the longer he’s on stage the more inexplicable he becomes, so that when an attractive young woman (Philotis, but I’m going to keep plot summaries and character relationship diagrams to a minimum here, because you’d be better off spending the time it would take you to read the complicated summaries and explications in just reading the play) wants to marry him you can’t possibly figure out why. A little of this sort of character goes a long, long way; I’m faulting Ford, not the performance.

Much of his humor is of the robustly bawdy sort (“I like his codpiece!” announced the woman behind me, the more egregiously offensive one, in the Pepto-Bismal pink jacket, and here I might as well compliment the periodish costumes by Candice Donnelly, who no doubt would have done wonders with Pinkie behind me) so beloved of busty serving wenches at Renaissance Faires and English majors who want to play dirty without dirtying themselves. I will freely admit that I have an addiction to even the grossest sexual puns myself, a fault (if fault it can be called) which I attribute to a lifetime of reading Shakespeare, but can I just say without getting all Dr Bowdler here that I’m tired of the whole “bawdy humor” thing? It gets too coy and precious, and over-emphasized, when it should be obscene, and just one element among many. Seriously, rent some porn and yank it out of your system, and then maybe we could perform pre-Victorian works without the constant nudge-wink emphasis on all the naughty bits, and place a little more emphasis on the poetry and philosophy. But of course the audience chuckles at every hip thrust, in case anyone thinks they didn’t get it, and I just think of Polonius, who is for a jig or a tale of bawdry, or he sleeps.

I’d say that “of course” (of course, you should always beware of a statement that follows of course) ‘Tis Pity survives for its tragic scenes, but I’ve come across (or overheard) a surprising number of theater-goers who assume it’s a comedy (apparently on the theory that “whore,” being one of those above-mentioned bawdy terms, is inherently comic), so I guess we live in a world – and I ask you, what kind of world is this? – in which even veteran audience members don’t realize this is the tragic tale of Giovanni (Michael Hayden), his sister/lover Annabella (Rene Augesen), and her husband Soranzo (Michael Earle Fajardo). Most of the poetry and philosophy are supplied by the brother and sister, which is one of the elements that unites them against those around them. High praise to all three leads for capturing the quicksilver intensity of this triangle.

The blithering hags behind me mentioned (during the performance, of course; some insights just can’t wait) that it was very Shakespearean, which is true enough; there are Shakespearean echoes throughout, and though some, like the comic rundown of the suitors by the saucy maid, seem like standard theatrical devices that we only remember thanks to Shakespeare, some echoes are just too specific: watching the troubled philosophy student Giovanni grapple with his incestuous yearnings amid the comical parade of various unlikely suitors is like seeing Hamlet dropped into the wooing of Bianca.

So I was basically enjoying the performance very much, admiring the actors, particularly the three leads, and admiring the multi-level unit set, hung with strings of large iridescent glass beads and twists that lent a slightly tawdry yet dazzling air to the shifting scenes, yet feeling that somehow it wasn’t quite catching fire for me, when we came to the end. Everyone I’ve ever talked to who has read or seen this play always remembers one thing (maybe I should put in a spoiler alert here, just to be nice, though the point I’m about to make is that this memorable one thing doesn’t happen in this production): at the denouement, Giovanni enters with his sister’s heart, which he has cut out, impaled on his knife. In this production, though Giovanni kills the pregnant Annabella as required (and though the program notes made much of the literal and symbolic role of the heart in this play, and how the play was written shortly after Harvey’s discovery of the heart’s role in the circulatory system), they shied from the final tragic grotesquerie, and Giovanni’s pointed remarks about Annabella’s heart lost their literal meaning. In short, Ford and his play walk sublimely off a cliff, and director Carey Perloff and ACT declined to follow.

I can’t really blame them, even if it meant they didn't go quite as far out as the play demands. There was enough clueless laughter (which is different from nervous or unnerved laughter) during passionate or ironic moments to make me think a large portion of the audience would have just lost it if Giovanni had been walking around with his sister's heart on his dagger. Perloff said something I really liked in her “From the Artistic Director” letter in the program: “. . . ‘Tis Pity is one of those big meaty classics that are disappearing from the stages of the American theater, as both our economy and our attention spans constrict. As the American theater seems to move closer and closer to television realism, it is thrilling to reconnect with a classic work that is truly theatrical, poetic, ambitious, complex, and metaphoric. So we feel incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to explore one of the great plays of the 17th century [OK, here comes the part where she loses me] with one of the great audiences of the 21st.”

Look, I understand she needs to say that, but I’ve sat in too many local audiences to think that we have the great audiences that great theater deserves, or even that deserve great theater. The two women behind me, obviously regular theater-goers, are too typical of the breed: blithely chattering (despite being shushed several times), too oblivious to everything but the rusty clanking of their own brain-gears, too smugly pleased with their own status as theater-goers (yet identical in their reactions to any of the much-scorned television audience), too quick to offer opinions instead of to pay attention.

Years ago I read that Joseph Conrad said of his art, “Above all, I want to make you see.” I thought that was sort of obvious, but over the years I’ve realized that this is one of those remarks, like “Love thy neighbor,” whose simple surface conceals a maddening, endless and endlessly ambiguous imperative. Nothing is harder than just seeing what is happening accurately and, while maintaining concentration, withholding your own judgments until the end, when you can separate the wheat from the chaff. No wonder so many religions condemn the theater while stealing its best effects; both are in the business of making you above all things pay attention to the elusive underlying. This may seem like a heavy burden to lay onto, for example, Feydeau farces, but there are all sorts of degrees here, and the comic is as worthy and exalted as the tragic.

So I walked out feeling like Savonarola, disgusted at the unworthiness and frivolity around me, but what he burnt as vanities I wanted the crowds to worship as our closest simulacrum to truth, or at the very least to admire as some sort of justification for humanity’s continued existence. I applauded the actors as they deserved, and then hightailed it out of the profaned temple before I turned around to the babbling lumps behind me and said or did something I wouldn’t regret.

01 June 2008