31 January 2012

“But Doctor – I am Grimaldi!”

Several years ago a friend borrowed my DVD of City Lights. When he returned it, he said, “But it didn’t make me laugh.” This surprised me, as I had taken for granted that it wouldn’t make him laugh, so it hadn’t occurred to me to mention it. (I had him watch it because of the ending, which I think is one of the greatest things ever captured on film, and which I can’t even describe because I choke up and then dissolve in helpless tears.) I’m a devoted viewer of silent comedians, particularly Chaplin and Keaton, but I don’t watch them because they make me laugh. I watch them for their grace and inventive wit and their skill and timing. I love to see the echoes in Chaplin of Victorian melodrama and Edwardian music hall, and in Keaton of vaudeville and an American fascination with new technology and a home-grown fatalistic surrealism among the white-picket-fence little towns. But laughs? Not really.

I’m just too clumsy myself to find pratfalls funny. I once staggered through several rooms of my house with an old dining room table, carefully maneuvering it around narrow doors and trying not to scrape my hardwood floors, until I reached a door too narrow to angle the table through – and it was only then, after several frustrating attempts and some damage to the paint and the walls, that I realized the legs could be unscrewed and removed. And even now, years later, the gouge marks in the kitchen door bear witness to my difficulties negotiating the obvious. And if someone has spilled water on the break room floor at work and not bothered wiping it up because apparently I do not work with adults, then I’m sure to be the one who’s going to slip and land on his ass while badly banging his knee – in fact, it’s going to happen more than once (not in the same day, at least), and the second time is going to be even better because I’m going to be carrying a cup of water which will drench my shirt and pants as I tumble down. But I think even if I hadn't felt the pain I would still not understand people who laugh when other people fall.

A few years back I went to see Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters, performed in Italian and in traditional commedia dell'arte style. I loved the sense of theatrical history that comes with seeing something that an eighteenth-century audience could have seen (except for the electric lights and things like that, of course), and I love the visuals of commedia (Jacques Callot! Jean-Antoine Watteau!), but as the three-hour play progressed I realized . . . funny? Not so much. Yet clowns and circuses do fascinate me visually, metaphorically, theatrically, historically, and psychologically, and nothing perks up a movie like a bitter, vengeful, and possibly alcoholic clown (and Rigoletto is one of my all-time favorite operas), but when it comes to laughs . . . I look elsewhere.

I first heard of Lorenzo Pisoni when he performed at ACT several seasons ago in the lead role of The Gamester, an eighteenth-century tale about a young man with two loves: a beautiful young woman and gambling. The thing about addiction stories is that they are by their nature inherently undramatic: the addiction always wins; that’s what makes it an addiction. But Pisoni was dazzling in the role, bringing unexpected aspects of his part to light, and staying true to both sides of the complex character. After that memorable turn I was eager to see him perform again. So off I went last week to Humor Abuse at ACT, his one-man show about growing up in his father’s circus (co-created and directed by Erica Schmidt).

The announced running time of the show was “approximately 80 minutes” but the night I went it was twenty minutes longer than that. I don’t know why, or if that was unusual. I never really felt that the pace was off or lagging. Pisoni commands the stage single-handedly and easily, with great charm and confidence. I find it fascinating that someone as handsome as Lorenzo Pisoni would regularly stick a big red nose and chalk-white make-up on his face. I think he should do a show about that.

Though the clowning routines were not really the reason I went or the main reason I enjoyed the show (as should be obvious from what I wrote above), I will say right off that I did laugh at them, which is a tribute to Pisoni's skills, even though he claims that his father was the funny one. There is a part with falling sandbags barely missing him as he wanders from place to place on the stage that, while breathtaking, really rattled my nerves.

There is a long rueful routine about the complexities of carrying some suitcases up a flight of stairs which made me laugh because it’s a whole philosophy of life: it’s the sort of thing Keaton would do that would make you understand why he appealed so much to Samuel Beckett. There’s another extended routine, also a study in the frustrations resulting from the simplest actions, in which Pisoni wears swim goggles, an old-fashioned one-piece bathing suit, and flippers, and tries to climb up a ladder so he can dive into a tiny pail of water.

It’s his great skill as an actor that really sells these routines, adding some poetry to their elegant mechanics. At the beginning of the show he gave us some ground rules, announcing that we could eat candy (assuming we had brought some, I guess) and applaud whenever we liked, or “just sit in silent judgment,” a line which gave me my biggest laugh of the evening because that is the sort of thing I find hilarious (because that is the sort of thing I do).

He starts off with a brief history of clowning and his family’s involvement in clowning, both of which spring from commedia dell'arte (his great-grandfather, an Italian immigrant, had joined a commedia troupe). He turns himself into Pantalone and Arlecchino with astonishing speed and thoroughness (maybe he should do a one-man version of The Servant of Two Masters – I'd be up for that), and as Arlecchino he tells a really filthy joke, and then tells us that his father told him that joke when he was seven. So he very skillfully ties his family story in with the theatrical history, though I could have done with a little more background on his parents’ troupe, The Pickle Family Circus. Many of the audience members clearly already knew the background and were there for a nostalgic tumble through a shared past (I saw a number of people wearing Pickle Family Circus t-shirts or jackets, and there was the laughter of sentimental recollection at some of the projected photographs of Pisoni pere et fils), but I really had only vaguely heard of them.

Given the time (the 1970s) and the place (the Bay Area), I assumed there was a countercultural element to the Pickle Family Circus, even before we were told that his father drew clowning inspiration from shamans, medicine men, and the Monkey King. And apparently it really was a family-run circus, though there must also have been other performers involved, but it’s not clear exactly who or how many they were. The set gives a nice sense of what the circus must have looked like, with cut-up rusty coffee cans lined up holding the footlights, and a backdrop duplicating the old circus curtain, with its paintings of local landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge.

Pisoni’s father seems to have been a charismatic but also difficult man, whose problems with alcohol led to the break-up of his marriage and the circus. He kept performing elsewhere (I wasn’t really clear where – he doesn’t seem like a Barnum & Bailey type and I'm not sure where else a clown would go for work). Lorenzo, not yet a teenager, continued touring with the Pickle Family Circus, taking over his father’s routines. He seems to have been a lonely boy who didn’t realize how lonely he was, or how very young he must have looked as he tried to behave as he thought an adult should. His life reminded me several times of Buster Keaton’s life as a child touring the vaudeville circuit with his parents, while his father drank more and more heavily (which must be especially self-destructive for an acrobatic performer who relies so much on his body, his reflexes and timing). Pisoni traveled with the circus until he reached high-school age, with sporadic but affectionate contact with his father, who remarried and divorced again.

He realized that what he thought of as his father was really his father’s clown persona, Lorenzo Pickle, whose first name he shared and whose routines he inhabited for years. Larry Pisoni remained a mystery to him. It’s a fascinating, fleeting insight into the enigmas of identity, and one of several doublings in the show (he used to share space in the act with a life-size dummy of himself as a child, who made a reappearance in this show). Personally I would have preferred a little less of the clown routines and greater detail about his father and the rest of the family (there are just brief mentions of his mother and sister), and about circus life and its physical and mental toll. On the other hand, I respect the reluctance to impose his own theatrically shaped views of his family onto them. They are individuals with their own views of what happened. Perhaps it’s best to allow only glimpses of the darkness and strangeness and the ultimate unknowability of even those closest to us. The great silences around what we know and don’t know are part of the essential mystery of fathers and sons.

Haiku 2012/31

just as the man said
there is no sun, and no rain
cloudy with a chance

30 January 2012

fun stuff I may or may not get to: February 2012

Ensemble Parallele presents a new chamber-opera orchestration by Jacques Desjardin of John Harbison's The Great Gatsby. If you follow the local opera scene or have seen other shows by Ensemble Parallele you already know that this is 10-12 February and that you need to see it, so let me just mention here once again that I saw this opera at the Met, and I'm sure we all wish that was the last time you're going to hear about that from me. . . .

Cutting Ball Theater presents Tontlawald, a multi-disciplinary retelling of an Estonian fairy tale, with text by Eugenie Chan and movement by Laura Arrington, co-directed by Paige Rogers and Annie Paladino; 17 February to 11 March.

The Sanford Dole Ensemble presents an "All New, All Local" program at the SF Conservatory of Music on 4 February, featuring The Nine Muses (David Conte, with text by John Sterling Walker), The Changing Light (Peter Scott Lewis, setting three poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti), Waiting... (Michael Kaulkin, setting poetry by Elisabeth Eliassen) and Gertrude and Alice (Sanford Dole, songs from a work in progress about the lives of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas with text by Brad Erickson). Nice to see that the Summer of Stein lives on!

Earplay presents an evening of new chamber music; the oldest piece is by Morton Feldman (Nature Pieces from 1951; each Earplay concert this season is anchored by a Feldman piece) and the rest are all 21st century pieces by Alex Hills, Mauricio Rodriguez, Wayne Peterson, and Chen Yi. That's 6 February, with a start time of 7:30 (thank you).

Magnificat closes its 20th season with madrigals from Monteverdi's Eighth Book, 17-19 February in their usual varied locations.

Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony appear at Davies Hall as part of the American Orchestras series presented as part of the San Francisco Symphony Centennial Season. On 14 February the program is Pacific 231 (Honegger), Alternative Energy (Mason Bates, a CSO commission), and Franck's Symphony in D minor; and on 15 February the program is the Entr'acte No. 3 from Rosamunde (Schubert), Night Ferry (Anna Clyne, a CSO commission), and then back to Schubert for the Symphony in C major (the one they call The Great).

The San Francisco Ballet has two mixed programs: 14-25 February is Program 2, featuring Chroma (Wayne McGregor to music by Joby Talbot and Jack White III), Number Nine (Christopher Wheeldon, to music by Michael Torke), and Beaux, a world premiere by Mark Morris (no music is listed on the Ballet's website). 16-26 February is Program 3, featuring Le Carnaval des Animaux (Alexei Ratmansky to Camille Saint-Saens), Trio (Helgi Tomasson to Tchaikovsky), and Francesca da Rimini, a world premiere by Yuri Possokhov (no music listed for this one either).

San Francisco Performances celebrates the 30th anniversary of the Alexander String Quartet with a 4 February concert featuring works by Debussy and Hahn, along with Camille Claudel: Into the Fire, a world premiere by Jake Heggie featuring Joyce DiDonato. They also have Leif Ove Andsnes on 9 February, playing works by Haydn, Bartok, Debussy, and Chopin; and jazz violinist Regina Carter on 18 February.

Cal Performances has so many varied offerings this month that I'm just going to be lazy and suggest looking at the whole month for items of interest. I am eyeing a few, but am waiting to see how schedules and budgets work out. But I did go ahead and buy my ticket for next October's Einstein on the Beach.

You have until 12 February to catch the sublime masters of the Venetian Renaissance show on loan from Vienna at the DeYoung Museum. And you have until 19 February to see Bernini's Medusa at the Legion of Honor. But starting on 18 February at the Legion you can immerse yourself in the Aesthetic Movement with The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860-1900. That exhibit runs until 17 June, but why would you wait until then?

Haiku 2012/30

no one looks backward
something is gaining on us
just as the man said

29 January 2012

Haiku 2012/29

such tender new grass
crushed by careless young children
no one looks backward

28 January 2012

Haiku 2012/28

air washed clean with rain
treefuls of chattering birds
such tender new grass

27 January 2012

Haiku 2012/27

stripped boughs, black with rain
matted brown leaves, slick with rain
air washed clean with rain

26 January 2012

Haiku 2012/26

everywhere but here
icy winter water drops
stripped boughs, black with rain

25 January 2012

Haiku 2012/25

anywhere but here
pale blue skies, a crisp cool breeze
everywhere but here

24 January 2012

Haiku 2012/24

off to work we go
pale blue skies, a crisp cool breeze
anywhere but here

23 January 2012

Venetian Masters at the DeYoung

Back before they rebuilt the DeYoung Museum but after they realized they needed to, there was some talk about relocating the museum from Golden Gate Park downtown, closer to other museums like the Museum of Modern Art, the Jewish Contemporary Museum, the Cartoon Art Museum, and the Museum of the African Diaspora, where it would be more accessible to the rest of the Bay Area and help form sort of a "museum district." I thought this was a great idea, but nothing came of it (oh, the unseen backstage intrigues that shape our existences!), and the DeYoung remains a long trek out of the way for most Bay Area residents.

I’ve never regretted the museum’s location more than during its magnificent current show, Masters of Venice: Renaissance Painters of Passion and Power, a jaw-dropping assortment of Mantegnas, Giorgiones, Titians, Tintorettos, and Veroneses (along with assorted others) on loan from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. If the DeYoung were as accessible as SFMoMA, I’d be visiting this collection once or twice a week, the way I did with the Stein collection this summer. If you have any interest in Italian Renaissance painting, Venetian art, Old Masters, pictures of pretty naked people, or just great art in general, you really need to see this show. I’m hoping to go back again before it closes February 12.

On my first visit I was in the gift shop buying the very attractive and inexpensive catalogue and some prints and postcards, and a young saleswoman proudly pointed out that the DeYoung is the only venue for this show. I asked why that was. She told me that the galleries in Vienna were being redone. I already knew that, so I explained that what I meant was Why here? I didn’t want to come right out and say, “Why here, instead of a more prestigious venue like the Metropolitan or the National Gallery?” She didn’t know why. Another of those unseen backstage intrigues, I guess.

Whatever the reason, I’m grateful. It’s hard to describe how stunned and excited I was to turn a corner and see, in all its glorious jeweler’s precision, Mantegna’s St Sebastian, something I’ve known in reproduction most of my life. And here was the actual, irreplaceable thing! (Also: I don’t usually associate Mantegna with Venetian art, though he was active in Padua, which is close to Venice and was part of the Venetian republic at that time. But he comes down pretty clearly on the side of line as form rather than color as form, which is what the Venetian painters were famous for (to put it in terms of their contemporary art theory, he favored disegno over colore).)

And then to turn another corner and come across the enigmatic poetry of Giorgione, with his melting lucid landscapes and the calmly assertive looks of his many-meaninged figures, then to the bold Titians with their glowing nude women (and his later canvases, where the increasingly vivid brushwork almost takes over as the subject of the picture, in the modern way), and then to the Mannerist elongations of Palma Vecchio’s Bathing Nymphs, and the lambent rows of what a wall label amusingly and accurately describes as “beautiful anonymous blonde women,” and then to the vivid Tintorettos and the lush Veroneses . . . the DeYoung has become, temporarily at least, one of the great museums.

There are a few interesting labels discussing the changes due to the use of oil paints from tempera (richer, thicker colors) and canvas rather than wood (a different surface texture). Frescoes were less significant in Venice as well, due to the general dampness of the climate, which is nice for us since panels can travel and frescoes can’t (though frankly I can’t believe some of these paintings were available for loan – the St Sebastian, Giorgione’s Three Philosophers, Titian’s Danae – these, and others in the show, are some of the great images of Renaissance art).

Some of the assertions on the wall labels seem dubious, like the one about Tintoretto’s Susanna and the Elders (I’m quoting the version in the catalogue): “Men often displayed paintings of this kind in bedrooms, to remind their wives about proper married behavior.” Really? Susanna was a virtuous young wife, spied upon in her bath by two lecherous old men, pillars of the community. In an early example of sexual harassment, they threatened to claim she was an adulteress unless she actually became one with them. She refused and they accused. She was about to be stoned to death based on their calumnies when the prophet Daniel, then a boy, rose up and insisted on questioning the two old men separately (CSI: Ancient Israel!). Their contradictory answers exposed their falsehood, and the crowd stoned them to death, instead of the virtuous Susanna. If you know this story, and I assume any Renaissance Venetian who would own a Tintoretto would, it seems a lot more like a warning about proper married behavior for husbands. Tintoretto’s lushly decorative version may lack the psychological intensity of Artemisia Gentileschi’s versions, but it’s perfectly clear that his naked woman is pure of heart and his crouching old voyeurs are not.

I can only hope that some day the Kunsthistorisches Museum decides to redo their Pieter Brueghel galleries, with the Bay Area once again the beneficiary. If that happened I really would trek out to the DeYoung once or twice a week, no matter how awful the bus rides.

Haiku 2012/23

making pale the stars
sinking to silver-white dawn
off we go to work

22 January 2012

Haiku 2012/22

headlights floating by
traffic lights red green yellow
making pale the stars

21 January 2012

Haiku 2012/21

waiting for a bus
glaring, blaring, hurrying
headlights floating by

20 January 2012

Haiku 2012/20

ant-like scurrying
rain slaps down the dirty streets
waiting for a bus

19 January 2012

Haiku 2012/19

I stand in between
two large windows high above
ant-like scurrying

18 January 2012

Haiku 2012/18

sun stuck overhead
shadows pooled around my feet
I stand in between

17 January 2012

Haiku 2012/17

watching the time go
staring at a glowing screen
sun stuck overhead

16 January 2012

Haiku 2012/16

straightening to dark
bustling clerks arrange the shelves
watching the time go

15 January 2012

Haiku 2012/15

grass waves on the fields
bending to a lighter shade,
straightening to dark

14 January 2012

Haiku 2012/14

rivers snake through fields
snakes ripple through the rivers
grass waves on the fields

13 January 2012

Haiku 2012/13

still silence below
the airplane's steady humming . . .
rivers snake through fields

12 January 2012

Haiku 2012/12

even birds still sleep
moon unmoving up above
still silence below

11 January 2012

Haiku 2012/11

silent horizons
two gleaners pass the trash bins
even birds still sleep

10 January 2012

wild at heart

Last Sunday night I went to Berkeley Rep to see the Kneehigh Theater’s production of The Wild Bride, which is an adaptation of The Maiden Without Hands, one of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. A couple of years ago I missed Kneehigh’s production of Brief Encounter at ACT; I really love that movie so I was wary of any adaptations and by the time I heard enough praise to make me think I should go it was too late in the run for me to make the schedules work. I thought I was going to miss The Wild Bride as well, which made me kind of sad since it sounded like something I’d really like: a folk tale staged with lots of music and theatrical savvy and the suggestive and creative use of props (similar in style to some of the Mary Zimmerman plays I’ve seen and enjoyed). Then Berkeley Rep extended the run to 22 January, so The Wild Bride became my first performance of 2012, and my first big disappointment.

The short version is that the staging is often clever and inventive, but the script just isn’t there. Here’s the long version:

To start with, everything – dialogue as well as music – is miked, so all the sound has that slightly off-center, flattened quality. All the actors had ugly little body mikes taped to their heads, and at least one had a long wire snaking down her back, which was distracting when she danced. The sound itself wasn’t all that bad – I’ve experienced much, much worse on Broadway – but I’m wondering why the miking was done at all. The Roda Theater is fairly small, and if your voice can’t fill it, you probably shouldn’t be on stage. But this seems to be standard procedure at Berkeley Rep these days; in fact the playbill had an interview with Elliott Ares, holder of the first Harry Weininger Sound Fellowship, who spoke casually about body mikes as if there was no question they were standard issue. Why should I go to live theater if I’m not getting live sound?

Speaking of the playbill, it contained an extremely odd “Prologue” from managing director Susan Medak, gushing on and on about the late Steve Jobs with his “rich capacity to dream” and “unfettered imagination” and what a “wildly creative visionary” he was etc etc and oh yeah here’s a little afterthought we’re presenting this theater group called Kneehigh – can boilerplate gush? Because we all saw reams of this standard-issue ass-kissing right after Jobs died, and with all due respect to him and his influence, I don’t really get it, but then I’m not a tech groupie-cultist or a CEO groupie-cultist, and I think most of his products actually help further marginalize live performance, and so much for theater that is “trying to change the world, one play at a time,” to quote another part of the playbill.

Speaking of changing the world, I hope all those little Chinese child laborers assembling Apple products are appropriately grateful that their nimble and pennies-per-hour fingers are helping to implement the creative vision of the Great and Beloved Leader! (Talk about accidentally selling your children to the devil! which, by the way, is the starting point of The Wild Bride.) Can we acknowledge that "creative visioning" is just more readily available to those who can afford Berkeley Rep's ticket prices in this economy? (In fairness to Ms Medak, I will assume that in a later “Prologue” she will say something about the late Vaclav Havel, a genuinely great man who actually had something to do with theater.)

Here’s another random complaint, before I get to the problems with the play itself: the evening would have been much better without the intermission, which doesn’t do much besides stall whatever momentum has been developed (there were no set changes or other technical reasons that I could see for needing a pause) . Played without an intermission, the performance would be about an hour and forty-five minutes, which is not unreasonable, and it would have been easy enough to pare back some of the more repetitious dancing and singing to bring it in at 90 minutes – I really enjoyed the bluesy music, but how many times do you need to hear about Ezekiel and the dry bones now hear the word of the Lord? As it was, the performance lasted just long enough to make me miss my train by one minute, so that I had to sit in the station for almost twenty minutes, stewing in my disappointed juices.

I’m going to give a bit of a plot summary now, so consider yourself spoiler-alerted. Playwright and director Emma Rice, who is also the co-Artistic Director of Kneehigh, changed the story in some interesting and significant ways from the original, which I read after seeing the play, though unfortunately she didn't always substitute anything but theatrical flash:

There is a loving but perpetually drunken woodsman who meets a stranger, who offers him great wealth in return for whatever is in his backyard. The woodsman thinks it’s just his old apple tree, not realizing his beloved daughter is climbing the tree. (The girl is portrayed by three different women at three different stages of her life, and they don’t particularly look, act, or sound alike, which I liked because it gives a nice sense of the different possibilities in the one character.) The stranger turns out to be the Devil, who comes to collect his payment, only he can’t because the girl is too clean, and the Devil hates anything clean (though he does manage to pick her up and mime raping her before he realizes he has that little problem).

So the Woodsman is ordered to dirty her, which he does with a bucket of slick beige mud. But she weeps so much her hands become clean, and the Devil still can’t carry her off, so he insists the Woodsman chop off her hands. He does so, in a scene that is both highly stylized and completely terrifying (the woman next to me covered her eyes): she extends her hands one at a time, sobbing; his axe comes down on the tree-stump in front of her (which is of course a safe distance ahead of the actress's arms), and one of the other two women takes that hand and dips it into a bucket of shiny dripping red paint. It's simple but striking and effective and the kind of effect that can only work in the theater. The mutilated girl is still too good for the Devil, so he declares he will let the world dirty her, and when it does, he will be back for her. Pause for unnecessary intermission.

The armless girl leaves her father. She discovers an orchard with numbered pears (cleverly presented by lightbulbs with large numbers hanging from them). She is hungry but cannot reach the pears without hands. The trees benevolently bend down so she can eat a pear. She is discovered by the orchard owner, who is the King. He is inexplicably Scottish, complete with kilt, though he becomes less Scottish as the evening progresses, and his mother doesn’t sound Scottish at all. The Scottish king is played by the same actor who played her father (which is kind of creepy), only then he had an Irish accent, which also seemed to be the only such accent in the vicinity. Kneehigh is a British troupe and presumably all this tomfoolery with accents makes some sense to them. Since I am part Irish I feel I should at least note the possibility of offense, if not from giving the only drunkard the only Irish accent, then from the moldiness of the stereotype.

The king falls instantly in love with the strange silent handless girl, because that is the role of men in these stories: if you’re not of high (in fact, the highest!) social status and willing to fall instantly in love, you might as well be a dwarf or a weakling father, abandoned after a paragraph or two. In the original story the King has a pair of silver hands made for the girl, but here they are big ungainly instruments of steel or iron; one ends with strange straggling twig-like fingers and the other with a scimitar. No use is made of these extensions and it’s unclear why he gives her such ungainly implements, especially since he makes jokes about how dangerous they are during their cheerfully, relentlessly vulgar and overextended sex scene, during which they enthusiastically act out a variety of positions.

The King goes off to fight a war, battling amid much dry ice and many strobe lights. The Wild Bride gives birth. His mother sends him the news. (The mother is portrayed, in another clever bit of staging, by a large portrait of an elegant woman in the eighteenth-century style with large holes where her hands would be, so that one of the actresses not playing the Bride can insert her hands through the holes and gesture appropriately; there are golden pears on the frame and a white wire chandelier hanging nearby that is also shaped like a pear, so there’s definitely a pear thing going on.)

The Devil intercepts the letter and substitutes one saying the child is half-dog. The King says to love it anyway. The Devil intercepts that letter too and substitutes one saying to kill the Wild Bride and the child and to save her eyeballs and tongue as proof that his order was carried out. His mother can’t bring herself to do this, so she warns the Bride to flee with the child. The mother then, with her bare royal hands, rips out the eyeballs and tongue of a delightful large puppet doe. Red streamers shoot out from her violated orifices, and the gentle creature dies, deserving better.

I might be making this sound a little more entertaining than it was. The bluesy music was certainly enjoyable. I kept wishing that the jogtrot rhymes weren’t so often clumsy and obvious, and padded out, and that some of the singing and dancing had been tightened up a bit.

The Bride heeds the warning and wanders in the frozen forest for years. We are told she and her child are in imminent danger of starvation, but she actually seems to be fine and does a little kick-boxy dance indicative of – ugh, let me hold my nose with one hand and extend the meaningless jargon term out to arm’s length with the other – “empowerment.” It seems to me she’d be better off figuring out how to fish or hunting for berries or something actually helpful and specific rather than indulging in some generic emotional mood that would in reality crumple in no time against the hardness of the world, but I am impressed at how clearly her stance and fist-pumping and striding indicate “empowerment” without also looking completely hacky and ridiculous, so good on ya, choreographer! The meaning was clear enough to the well-dressed, middle-aged frosted blonde in the middle of the front row (I was at the end of the row) who raised her glass and went, “Yeah!” Earlier in the second act the same woman had started talking a bit too loudly. Berkeley Rep might want to rethink its policy of allowing beverages in the auditorium, at least when it comes to wine.

The Wild Bride’s hands have now grown back – for no particular reason, they just regenerate, apparently as a result of her feeling “empowered,” because that is how cells behave. The regeneration makes sense in the original story, which is filled with benevolent Heaven-aided miracles, but less so here. Compassion for suffering creatures is a spiritually and socially valuable feeling, but the Wild Bride is going instead for improbable wish fulfillment and generic uplift.

Another result of her "empowerment" is that she seems to gain her voice, though it’s a little unclear if she was born mute or if muteness just happened early on. In either case “gaining her voice” is such a hacky and obvious symbol that it moved me to eye-rolling rather than wonderment. Why not let her speak all along, like the girl in the original story? Rice has given her a voice, but not really anything to say. Rice sure likes to pile on the Bride’s suffering. And indeed it did seem to be one of those stories in which we are invited to luxuriate in the spectacle of a woman’s endless victimization, with a bit of bogus “empowerment” slapped on at the end to make the self-pitying wallow acceptable – the spoonful of medicine that helps the sugar go down.

The King returns, finds out what has happened, and goes searching for his wife and child in the forest, where grief and solitude drive him mad. He is cured when they are reunited. So the Devil comes back to collect his beloved Bride, and – she punches him a couple of times and he falls down in defeat and then runs off.

And that's all. That's it.

Let me step back for a minute here to the original story, which turns out to be a story of suffering redeemed by piety and goodness – the tale of a dutiful daughter. Her father is not a vaguely comic drunkard, but a poor, frightened man whom the Devil tricks and then terrifies into cutting off his daughter’s hands. He explains his dilemma to her and she, like Iphigenia stepping between her warring parents, freely offers herself as a sacrifice. She also has the dignity to then refuse the help of her now-wealthy father, and wanders off, where her goodness and piety gain her an angel helper, both in the pear orchard where she meets the King and in the forest with her child, where she is eventually reunited with her husband through the angel's help.

The problem is not that Rice has altered what is after all a fairly grotesque tale of a woman who is rewarded for her pious submission. It’s that she hasn’t put anything dramatically or psychologically convincing in its place. Sorry, the whole final scene fell as flat and as quickly as the Devil, and he took a dive like a regular patsy. I kept assuming this would be one of those stories where a clever, brave girl outwits the Devil. Nope. It just took a left hook. (It's like seeing The Merchant of Venice only when Portia stands up at the trial, she doesn't blather on about the quality of mercy or taking the flesh but not any blood, she just walks over to Shylock and slugs him, and then the case is dismissed.) For someone who fights dirty and has supernatural powers, the Devil sure gives up easily. So why didn’t she punch him earlier? If she now has super boxing powers thanks to her life experiences, then what has she learned and how has she changed and grown? We’re not told, except for that little “empowerment” dance, which was mildly entertaining but not really enough to defeat the Devil. If he couldn’t touch her earlier because she was too good for him, why doesn’t he have the same problem now, since she’s not only still good, she’s better? If her hands had to be chopped off because otherwise they were too clean for the Devil to endure, why isn’t he also put off by her regenerated hands?

The play is a mash-up of the plights of Griselda and Job (with a dash of Faust), with the Devil taking the place of Griselda’s paranoid husband. The Devil describes the story early in Act 2 as "a feminist fairy tale," with (I'm quoting from memory, so this isn't exact) a bit of everything: humor, thrills, excitement (end attempted quotation, and I kind of resented being told this, as if I were at a restaurant and the chef came out halfway through the meal and told me that I was certainly enjoying my dinner, and it had everything I like – thanks, but I can taste for myself). But – even granted that “feminism” is a capacious and slippery term – in what serious way is this feminist?

The Wild Bride remains a passive victim throughout, until that last scene, which I found unconvincing and arbitrary in the play’s own terms, a slapped-on and modish "happy ending." The Bride doesn’t do anything: she doesn’t use her wit or cunning, she isn't particularly brave or bold. She isn't actively good, and doesn’t even get to be pious and pray for help, since this is a world which contains devils (though their power seems to vary considerably, depending on dramatic convenience) but no angels. If she’s learned anything, we don’t know what it is. Look, this isn’t Chekhov – it would have fit in perfectly with the tone of the piece to have the Bride impart some rhyming wisdom to us, some cheerful words about fighting back or not trusting the Devil or maybe even just laying off the moonshine, Dad.

There’s an interview with Rice in the playbill in which she announces “I’m not a huge lover of words. I do use words in my work, but I always think they’re the sprinkle on top.” Yeah, that would explain why the staging is so often striking and even poetic but the words are mundane and the action often doesn’t make sense outside of its immediate moment. The tone shifts wildly and unevenly; sometimes horrible things are treated terrifyingly and sometimes comically; sometimes the Devil is all-powerful and sometimes he’s laughable and weak. It all seems to depend on what’s dramatically convenient at the moment, and whether the performance needs to be goosed a bit with some vaudeville laughs or some thrills and chills, as opposed to what makes sense in the overall context of these characters and what happens to them.

I could have gotten past most of this, if Rice hadn’t let me down in the big scene. Where was the clever heroine I was expecting?

As the auditorium was filling up before the show, I noticed a woman with her little dark-haired son. I think he was the youngest person there. Seeing him made me think of going to the theater with my mother when I was a child. As I was leaving, I saw his eyes shining as his mother asked him if he wanted to go up and look at the stage. I hope they enjoyed the performance. Would I have, when I was his age? I no longer know.

Haiku 2012/10

so I go thank you
blue starry night stretching out
silent horizons

09 January 2012

Haiku 2012/9

so I keep sneezing
so this lady goes, "Bless you!"
so I go, "Thank you!"

08 January 2012

Haiku 2012/8

Nature is chancy
skies are warm so flowers bloom
so I keep sneezing

07 January 2012

Haiku 2012/7

unyielding hard place
while the rest of the fruit rots:
Nature is chancy

06 January 2012

Haiku 2012/6

unable to move:
O stern unrelenting rock!
unyielding hard place!

05 January 2012

Haiku 2012/5

a breath on the neck
crammed in the commuter trains
unable to move

04 January 2012

Haiku 2012/4

soft velvety dark
caressed by warm unseen hands
a breath on the neck

03 January 2012

Haiku 2012/3

cats slinking away
shadows hidden in shadows
soft velvety dark

02 January 2012

fun stuff I may or may not get to: January 2012

I assume it's wishful thinking that makes everyone say that things slow down at the end of a year. I've been more pressed for time than ever, and have once again fallen behind on what I've already seen, which is bad because there's a lot more on the way.

I did have some thoughts about doing a "best/worst" list for 2011, an idea I dismissed for various reasons, laziness and lack of time among them. But also: the calendar year doesn't really coincide with the performing arts year; there were things I enjoyed even though "good" (let alone "best") would probably be an overly generous assessment; there were things that were very good that I just wasn't in the mood for; there were things that were good but were spoiled by rude audiences or by the on-going plague of director/conductor speeches from the stage; there were things that were memorable mostly for one or two performers. . . . it all started to get very blurry and confusing, and as already noted I had too much else to do (so much party cheese left over to eat! and which leftover crackers should I put which cheese on first?), so I decided anyone interested could just go back over my previous year's entries and come up with an individualized list of what I liked best, bearing in mind that everything hasn't been covered yet since 2011 posts will be continuing into 2012.

I will mention the worst of 2011, though, because it wasn't even close, with no deliberation required, and I need to get my money's worth by figuratively holding this work's head under water until the bubbles stop coming up. Maestro, a drumroll please! The worst thing I saw last year was easily the relentlessly superficial and dishonest Heart of a Soldier. David Gockley has certainly not added much luster to his reputation as a commissioner of new operas during his time here in the Bay Area. When you throw in (or out) the equally worthless Bonesetter's Daughter, you have to hope that someone over War Memorial way is noticing that there's a problem when operas are inspired mostly by marketing opportunities (the large Chinese-American population in the Bay Area, the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks).

Well, en avant:

The San Francisco Symphony presents Christian Tetzlaff in the Ligeti Violin Concerto on 6-8 January. Michael Tilson Thomas conducts and the program also includes Liszt's Prometheus and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No 1, Winter Daydreams. Then the week after (12-14 January, to be exact), Tilson Thomas conducts Janacek's Sinfonietta and Debussy's Le martyre de Saint Sebastien, with excellent soloists (Karina Gauvin, Sasha Cooke, and Leah Wool) and narration by Frederica von Stade.

Cal Performances presents Susan Graham on 14 January (I have no idea what she's singing, but, you know, it's Susan Graham! Isn't that enough?) and the new-music group the Eco Ensemble on 21 January.

San Francisco Performances continues its awesome vocalist series with Christopher Maltman on 19 January (rescheduled from last year) and Dawn Upshaw on 28 January. [UPDATE, 6 January: Upshaw's recital is being rescheduled for 1 April. Details should be at SFP's site soon.]

Berkeley Rep has extended the run for The Wild Bride until 22 January, which is nice for me, since now I get to see it.

ACT presents Lorenzo Pisoni in his one-man show, Humor Abuse, from 12 January to 5 February.

San Francisco Ballet opens its season with the evening-length Onegin, starting 27 January.

Cutting Ball Theater 's Hidden Classics series continues its Strindbergpalooza on 29 January with a double bill of Miss Julie and A Dream Play.

Haiku 2012/2

slipping out of sight
clouds drifting over the moon
cats slinking away

01 January 2012

Haiku 2012/1

arbitrary hours
driven by the random winds
slipping out of sight

one for the new year

from Philip Larkin:

The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Peace to all in the new year, and deepest thanks to all who stop by here, either occasionally or frequently.