"Money was maliciously introduced in ancient times as a tool of enslavement" -
Michael Tellinger

"The present belongs to the future and future generations, and all old laws, religious and other, should be abrogated immediately. Free us!" - Vinay Gupta on Twitter

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." - R. Buckminster Fuller

"You find the strangest ways to be positive!" - Diane Duane, Wizards Abroad

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

OSF 2011: Ghost Light (play review)


Every time I think the Oregon Shakespeare Festival can't possibly get better, it does. Ghost Light, a new play by Jonathan Moscone and Tony Taccone, is a very affecting and wise story--amusing, surprising, and well and clearly told, with a profound punch. It's about its main character's inner psychological state, and at the same time it struck me as a haunting refraction of American culture's broken and transitional condition in the years following the assassinations and disruptions of the Sixties and Seventies. Now that we're going through another period of rending and rapid change, violence and the threat of violence, its hero's story continues to resonate. I feel too close to my own times to judge whether the play will translate well in "states unborn and accents yet unknown," as Shakespeare's history plays still do, but I think it might, because of its art and its psychological truth. It's certainly a fitting addition to OSF's American Revolutions: United States History Cycle, which had such a great start, last year, with American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose.

As the play begins, 14-year-old Jon is watching something trivial on TV when the program is interrupted by a report that his father, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, has just been assassinated at City Hall along with Supervisor Harvey Milk. Then we meet the adult Jon, now a gay theater director. He's working on a production of Hamlet, and he's having a breakdown; he simply can't get past how to deal with Hamlet's father's ghost -- a dilemma that offers frequent opportunities for humor and playful references for the Shakespeare-loving OSF audience, and serves as a perfect way to externalize his own psychological situation, haunted as he is by the ghost of his own father... as well, we learn, as by those of  his own younger self and a very scary grandfather, plus a somewhat ambiguous guardian angel given to morphing, a dream lover, a nightmare film director, and various other characters from his unconscious.

All these dream characters and ghosts sounded impossibly confusing to me when I read the synopsis before seeing the play, and I had a hard time imagining how it would work; but when I did see the play, as the story unreeled and the elements unpacked it somehow made perfect sense (most of the time; enough of the time). These fantasies and ghosts are all, as characters in dreams are often said to be, really facets of Jon's own mind (who knew references to brain physiology and function could be so funny?). Like a multiple personality, Jon's consciousness is in serious need of integration.

Christopher Liam Moore is wonderful as Jon.

Ultimately, with the help of his best friend Louise, who will not give up on him (or let him get away with giving up on himself), he does achieve a very moving resolution that must surely work on a deeply personal level with any receptive theatergoer. That's the main story arc, but it's rich in detail, twists, and humor. And by the way, OSF and its Playbill authors describe the play as being about a father and son, but it's more than that: who hasn't lost a loved one, or had some trauma, and been haunted by it? By the end, Ghost Light really gets at those old wounds -- in a good way. There were a lot of tears and trembling smiles in the audience on the day I saw it, at the last scene.

For many of us who were paying attention to politics at the time of the assassination, the Mayor was a hero, but young Jon also wonders about those who didn't "like" his father, because in his young wisdom he knows they're part of the big picture, too. One of Jon's many challenges--as boy and man--is to accommodate himself to continual intrusions by the many strangers who were also affected, in their own ways, by the loss -- and to the sometimes cruel usurpation of his personal history by others for their own benefit (like a cheap joke on Golden Girls that I remember cringing at when I saw it once). The play is full of strong moments about this dynamic in which the public becomes downright sociopathic in its lack of empathy for the real people affected by tragedy. We see it happening all the time, but this play shows us how it's experienced by some of the "celebrities" being exploited.

Still, because the assassination and its aftermath were played out in the public eye, every aspect of Jon's grief does have its referent in a larger fractal pattern, a more universal loss, as well, or at least that's how it feels to me. This complexity of context was true at the time, and now, when this play is taking its place in the new American History cycle, Jon's story embodies larger themes of American life recurring throughout our history-- violence, politics, a belief in progress, the demand for individual liberty, and more.

Tony Taccone
Most of all, this play is a work of art: it takes all these issues, themes, facts, psychology, all of it, and becomes something more than the sum of its parts, that at times reaches very deeply down into Mystery, and then finds Resolution. Though there were some brief sections that flagged a bit, or some parts that seemed rather too complicated (the play probably will continue to be honed; these are early days) the writing, the staging, the acting (bravos to the cast, every one), and of course the directing, are all superb. Christopher Liam Moore's performance as Jon is amazing, witty, touching; he seems to be on the stage nearly the whole time and every moment is rich and new and commanding.

Ghost Light amplifies and offers new perspectives on themes explored in several of this year's other OSF productions: Julius Caesar looks at political assassination through a psychological lens; Measure for Measure shows politics, morality, and personal liberty in conflict; August: Osage County explores the dynamics of a family fractured along cultural lines; Henry IV 2 shows a nation torn by civil strife but being rebuilt; and, coming back to Ghost Light, we see an individual (and, by proxy, his country) struggling to put a fractured psyche back together. And that's just some of what comes to mind. This all feels very much, to me, like America today.

This use of art to carry on important discussions is surely vital to the health of any culture, but we have very few venues to do it in this country anymore, since corporate interests increasingly control what is said. What are the chances that anything like the Federal Theatre Project (of the Roosevelt WPA years) will emerge and flourish in today's time of economic crisis? The OSF, which continues to thrive in hard times, and is committed to take on the big questions and give us all a forum, is a national treasure.

Long may its light shine. 

Ghost Light will be on at OSF through Nov. 5, 2011. Then it can be seen at the Berkeley Rep beginning January 22, 2012.
More... This review was a tough piece of writing for me, because there was so much I wanted to say, which, come to think of it, reflects the complexity of the play itself and certainly the strong effect it had on me. My brain was firing like crazy! After several drastic cuts to bring the length of this review down and fix its focus, I saved some bits I didn't want to lose entirely and have appended them below (click on link to view, if you're interested in more about this play).

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A day in Ashland: Art, music, and shamanic adventures at the Schneider

Earlier, I wrote a post about Todd Barton, the composer in residence at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. He's been doing a series of improvisational sessions with musician friends on Friday noons at the Schneider Museum on the Southern Oregon University campus. I've only been able to get to two of these performances but each was amazing in its own way. I do enjoy hearing new sounds-- and sometimes even like the experience of having my neural pathways blasted open, reconstituted, and rerouted -- so if you like that kind of thing too, there's just one more of these sessions to catch (July 8). Don't miss it.

Enhancing and intensifying the aural experience is the setting: the current exhibit of art in the "expressive tradition" (through August 26), "Views from the Inner Eye" , features three artists-- Morris Graves, Ellen Van Fleet, and M.R. Renjan-- whose suggestive, visionary images worked in interesting ways with the very expressive music as it unfolded (and, in the second session I saw, with dance, too).

As you enter the museum, the first artist you encounter is Ellen Van Fleet, a contemporary Sacramento artist, and her watercolors and collages are a good introduction because they do draw you in.  She says she's interested in "how the eye moves through a painting." She uses repeated painting motions to create "pure visual stimulation of that pleasure," adding, "I don't have a message." 

Some of her paintings, like "Turtle Dove I" at left, are rather sprightly, even cheerful, in the Matisse colors that evoke, for me, the creative, optimistic aspect of Northwest culture that I like best. However "Stripe #3", below, is perhaps more indicative of the mood of much of the music that I heard: some of it was very dark.

"Stripe #3" watercolor collage by Ellen Van Fleet

The next room features the Morris Graves exhibit, and that's where the musicians have set up their instruments. Here's how it is: Under a series of rather brooding watercolors (the one of the snake, below, which I found in Google Images, is very similar to one in this exhibit and might be part of the same series) are several folding chairs and an array of electronic instruments the purpose of which I couldn't begin to guess (I didn't say I know anything about this kind of music - far from it). There are keyboards and things that look like turntables and perhaps drums and - yes - some brass instruments, too.

Morris Graves, "Snake in Moonlight"

The third room is a delightful surprise, as it features the work of an artist from Kerala, M.R. Renjan. The introductory text is an autobiographical sketch that brought back a memory of that beautiful South Indian state (I once lived nearby and visited it). The artist now lives and teaches in Delhi, my other long-ago Indian home. Here are two rooms of striking, powerful images in ink (black, and black and brown) on white foamboard which somehow catch the magic of village movement and of Kathakali, the muscular classical dance of that region, from its powerful, whirly large movements to the subtle mudras of the hands. I like the way an Art Knowledge News article puts it, in words as abstruse yet suggestive as the works themselves (I especially like "Pandora's box of the inner world"):
"The works owe little to the appearance of observed reality. His predisposition towards envisioning the Pandora’s box of the inner world is timely.  He manifests it as charged with the traces of the fabulous, a theatre of pregnant meanings, surprising possibilities, of strange specters and visitations."
 This art, too, is a perfect setting for the music to come. Sadly, I Googled in vain for an example of M. R. Renjan's art to include here. But at left is a Kathakali dancer from Kerala that will probably resonate with you if you've seen the exhibit. If you haven't seen the exhibit, try to imagine this dancer rendered into the abstract, in strong black lines, with probably a lot of other stuff going on too, full of movement, and you'll get some idea...

While I'm discovering all this, the musicians are tuning up. That sound is as new and interesting to me as the music to come.

And so back to the Morris Graves room, and a few folding chairs for people like me to sit and see what would happen next. Some people have clearly come to hear the music. Most seem to know each other, and the musicians. Others appear to be there for the art, but see something going on, and stay for it.

And there is Todd Barton's Waterphone! I've seen that on YouTube. In fact, here's a YouTube of him playing it in an earlier Schneider performance.

In the first of these sessions that I saw/heard, after an early-music recorder piece (which he warned us would be the only traditional music we'd be hearing in the coming hour, and boy was he right about that!), Barton led off the session with an improvisation like this one on the waterphone. The other musicians, Bruce Bayard on Computer-thing and Michael Vannice on a whole collection of brass reed instruments, came in gradually and together they all went for a long, strange, and riveting trip through sounds that -- well, you had to be there. I don't have the theory or the vocabulary to write about it.

In an oddly satisfying paradox that struck me as somehow Mobius-like, the reclusive and visionary Graves worked his whole life, apparently, to create art outside what he called "the machine-age noise" of the modern world. Yet here were musical instruments born of the machine age, making noise that would not have existed before "machines" or the modern age -- and the music they made seemed entirely in keeping with the aesthetic of Graves images--shamanic, otherworldly, and even similarly discordant.

Morris Graves, "Kingfisher" (not in this exhibit but similar to some of the paintings there)
In the face of the abstract, the brain forms stories and images from the patterns it perceives (and, lacking patterns, sees them where none exist) and so this is not to impose my own experience on what the musicians intended or created, but just to describe how my brain took it in: much of the music was simply physical, but at times (and this became a theme for me, that day) I found myself in an old growth forest being logged (surely Barton was playing chain saws, there) at one point and at another, in a deep ocean traumatized by BP, nuclear waste, and plastic. Whales, elephants, chain saws - oh my! Of course all this powerful stuff was balanced with other more gentle, even humorous riffs. A great variation. There was something apocalyptic about the sound I heard that day (though I don't know what others heard, or the intentions of the musicians). Aside from what my brain tried to make of what I was hearing, it was just a fascinating aural journey through a landscape of sounds I'd never heard before. And I love that!

("Wounded Gull"at the Phillips Gallery, a favorite haunt of mine when I lived in that neighborhood in Washington, DC. This is another Graves painting not in the current exhibit, but it reminds me of a lot of the music I heard)
The second performance that I saw, last Friday, didn't have such a programmatic effect on my poor brain, but it was equally strong: this one I experienced as more of an abstract shamanistic trip in a spirit, again, wholly in keeping with the visionary art on the walls, especially of Graves and M. R. Renjan. At times the guys got downright terrifying but the setting was safe so that was okay. (I wouldn't want to hear that in a dark alley or unfamiliar parallel universe, though!) The three musicians from the earlier session were there again, joined by a fourth --Terry Longshore, a percussionist on an assortment of computer-thing electronic drums that he kept getting surprising sounds from. Barton also said we'd be joined later by Suzee Grilley.

Sonoluminescence: Terry Longshore, Michael Maag, Suzee Grilley,
Bruce Bayard and Todd Barton. Performance in 2007.
When Grilley appeared, midway through one of the improvisations, dressed in black, she reminded me at first of that Jules Ffeiffer beatnik dancer cartoon character - remember her? - but I soon got over that: this is a powerfully accomplished modern dancer and she worked magic, seeming to anticipate sounds before they materialized, so perfectly did her movements express the music. She was amazing.

The musicians sat beneath a quotation from composer John Cage, an admirer of Graves. In the text he is saying that he once asked Graves if he sang and danced while painting, and Graves said yes, he did that. And here comes the dancer, who creates a perfect synthesis of the very music being played, and the very painting by Graves, this one, as she passes in front of it. At this moment, it was just like this, the music, the dancer, and the painting:

And then she danced on into the M. R. Renjan room and out of sight, and that seemed very appropriate; I could imagine her fusing those forms with the music too.

And that was pretty much how it all went.

Then back to my car, driving two miles through a beautiful summer day, finally home, in a lovely daze. Bemused and no wiser in the ways of music, but thoroughly entertained by something new to me. Ashland seduces and satisfies, and then offers more.

 The fourth session of "Todd Barton and Friends" will take place at  noon, Friday, July 8, 2011 at the Schneider Museum in Ashland, Oregon. The Schneider Exhibit "Views from the Inner Eye" can be seen through August 26, 2011. Apologies for any misspelled names; corrections are invited.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

OSF 2011: Julius Caesar and Henry IV 2 revisited


I've been fortunate enough to see both these plays a second time recently and it's amazing what a difference a day makes! This isn't about unevenness; although it's likely that some changes have been made in these productions between their preview performances and the ones at the height of the summer season, the fact that I enjoyed both of them even more the second time probably just reflects my own state of mind on the particular days I saw them. So this is a quick post to fill in some blanks that I missed in my initial reviews, and to thank OSF for some wonderful experiences.

Vilma Silva as Caesar and Jonathan Haugan as Brutus

Today I saw Julius Caesar again (here is my earlier post; I covered a lot of ground about the play there, so I won't repeat any of it here). Just... RAVE!!!!!!!!! I liked it well enough the first time to want to see it again, but I have to upgrade my rating now from four out of five stars to, I dunno, about a zillion stars. I was blown away today. It was an incredibly moving and engaging performance.

One difference from when I saw it before was that I was sitting much closer this time (but there aren't really any bad seats in the New Theatre). Whatever the reason, I loved the costumes this time around, where before they left me cold; and the choreography of the actors throughout the scenes made perfect dramatic sense to me today, where before they just seemed to be milling about. And the performances - it just doesn't get better than this: nuanced, powerful, and as clear as epiphany. Though I knew the play well, today it was freshly minted for me; I doubt it's possible to do Julius Caesar any better than this. Maybe it's my new favorite Shakespeare play. Psychologically and politically, it is a revelation.

So what made the difference between a performance that just interested me keenly and one that blew me away? I really can't say. That's the joy, though, of being able to see these productions more than once. There are always delightful surprises. Bravo, all concerned. This is truly great theatre and I'm grateful for it.

Here's a beautifully written review of this production. 

Michael Winters as Falstaff

And last Saturday I saw Henry IV pt. 2 again. (Here's my earlier post on that.) In this case, my experience of the play was not so different than the first time around - except that it was more comfortable and mellow, a beautiful summer evening (where before, it was cold and rainy) and a perfect night at the outdoor theatre. This is more typical of what you'd expect to experience in the "the Lizzie" (as I overheard an actor refer to the Elizabethan Stage recently) throughout most of the season.

I did notice the scenic design more this time, and it is something special: a kind of stylized, erector-set scaffolding covers the background on the Elizabethan stage, and includes a balcony that stretches all the way across the set. This allows for some movement you don't normally see in this theatre, and gives a powerful, ongoing subliminal message about the main theme of the play (or so it seems to me after seeing this production)-- the building of a new state following the disruptions of civil war. Probably I just didn't notice the scaffolding before, in the rain. But this set was another character, almost. Very effective. I really liked that it worked with the Elizabethan stage, rather than ignoring it or fighting with it, as some of the past scenic designs have done. (Such as my personal least favorite, vert ramps covered in bright green Astroturf in last year's otherwise excellent Twelfth Night; they did enable some great physical comedy, but clashed too much  with the Elizabethan aesthetic of the permanent backdrop. At least for me.)

Jeffrey King
Anyway, on Saturday my original impressions of the play and the production were pretty much validated and confirmed, so I felt a little smug about that, and just enjoyed seeing it unfold again in a much more relaxed way and from a better seat (first row, balcony - my favorite). As always with OSF the performances were wonderful. This still isn't one of my favorite plays because personally I just cannot enjoy Falstaff and his lowlifes that much, and this play is largely about them. But Michael Winters somehow made Falstaff more tolerable for me -- maybe because he brought to the fore every bit of wit that Shakespeare put there, behind the obnoxiousness. Also, I'd like to give a shout-out to the wonderful Jeffrey King, who stands out in everything he does with a unique blend of (sometimes rather macho) charisma and strong intelligence (here, as Westmoreland, and particularly last year as a Claudius-for-the-ages in Hamlet).

John Tufts, Ashland landscape, ep 1 of his vlog at http://www.myosf.org/connect/?page_id=688
However, I have to say that whenever Prince Hal (John Tufts) had one of his speeches, a special electricity took over my entire nervous system; he owned that stage. Was it just me? I don't know, but his performance seemed to be in a dimension an order of magnitude beyond anything else. This enhanced effect is probably the result of two factors: (1) Hal's speeches are rare in this play, and particularly welcome and significant if you aren't a Falstaff fan, and (2) John Tufts is one powerful actor. Well, and of course (3) Shakespeare wrote some great stuff.

So- this is not a play for everybody, but if you are interested in Shakespeare it's a must-see at least once; and if you see it only once, this is the production to see!

Fangirl strikes again. I do love OSF!

Update: here's a nice article about Tufts and the Henry vids, and a fine review of this Henry IV 2: "This play is about life. See it." I agree!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Balle! Balle! A little Bhangra for your computer

Thanks to friendly neighbor Meri Walker, who posted this on her blog. Who'd have expected the famously vigorous Punjabi dance form to translate into a kind of yoga for overworked computer users?

Or how about just getting your robot to do it for you! (I especially like the arm movements at about 22 seconds)

Or get up and dance along with this -

Or in full color, a Bollywood bhangra starring a darling cross-dressing Rani Mukherjee (from Dil Bole Hadippa)...