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Globe 2016: Shrew and Macbeth

Last night put the bow on UK theater for this summer: 6 plays in eight nights, working around a couple WSC receptions and family vacation. The last two nights I was at the Globe, sitting down in that theater for the first time, since I usually buy the cheap yard tickets. The stage looks really great from the upper deck, it turns out.

ShrewAn Irish Shrew

I heard the Irish director Caroline Byrne on Saturday morning talk to the WSC about her production of Shrew, set during the Easter 1916 rising in Ireland. She talked about how Irish women had been airbrushed out of the history of 1916, and also out of the commemorations in 2016. She told the assembled academics that in this play directors get paid for Kate’s final speech, and also that she wanted her play to take a stand for equality.

I kept wondering how she would pull it off, given that the language of that long, complex, sometimes maddening speech celebrates subjection and passivity — “A woman moved is a fountain troubled” — and ends with Kate laying her hand beneath her husband’s foot. The most striking innovations of Byrne’s staging of Shrew spliced in an Irish liberty ballad that drew on Yeats’s “Easter 1916” into the text. Aofie Duffin’s fiery Kate opened and closed the play by singing the ballad, and I couldn’t help but think that in returning to it at the moment Kate’s long speech ended registered the production’s slight distrust of the early modern material. I like the idea of a performance of this speech that really makes a play for equality: it’s important that Kate lectures and dominates the other wives, that she wins a tidy sum for herself and Petruchio in the bet that, just maybe, Grumio has had time to tell her about offstage, and that she speaks the longest and most rhetorically compelling speech in the play. Can that be enough to redeem the speech in a feminist age? I’m still not sure, and this production didn’t quite let me find out.

Petruchio had lost his voice the night I saw the show, which was in fact the very last show of the run. Edward MacLiam carried himself well, but his growling laddish brutality wore thin pretty quickly. I’m somewhat attached to a reading of the play in which Petruchio finds in Kate’s wit and aggression a match for his own intelligence and lack of care for social norms — but this production played the misogyny pretty straight.

The most reliable bits in this show were the subplot and the servants. All the servant parts were played by women, thus emphasizing the patriarchal structure of the social world, but the servants were often able to resist, reconfigure, or otherwise re-route the power structures under which they served. In the tragic romance main plot, with its echoes of Irish revolutionary tragedy, that mobility was hard to find.

Wordless Macbethmacbeth

I have a strange feeling — perhaps more in the nature of a forlorn hope — that there may have been some compelling interpretive choices in Iqbal Khan’s staging of Macbeth. But the acting was so terrible — so frankly and shockingly incompetent at times — that it was hard to think about the stylized witches, the nameless boy who never spoke but ended up preceding Malcolm to the throne, and the interesting stage business with the center-stage pit and the yard. Or maybe I liked those things because they meant that at least for a while neither Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, nor Duncan were speaking?

I really don’t understand why these actors spoke so strangely, with widely varied pacing and at times meaning-destroying pauses between words. They rushed past such lines as “Unsex me here” and “Make the green one red” as if they had someplace they needed to be. I understand wanting to try to remake or individualize these old chestnuts, but in practice they just seemed erased.

The play was full of shouting, dearest chuck! I suppose we have to blame those sorts of things on the director, unless we assume he was distracted with his larger stylistic choices and just forgot to listen to his actors? Alas, I couldn’t quite mange that myself.

The silent child was never explained, but perhaps gestures toward Lady Macbeth’s lines about nursing (spoken at an incomprehensible roar). The boy’s presence on stage added some drama or at least mystery — but it didn’t add up to much in the end.

Oh well — not all productions work. I’d thought for a while that I’d never seen a bad production at the Globe, because the audience engagement pulled everything up to at least the level of good fun. Didn’t quite get there this time.

The Porter was great fun, and the Malcolm/Macduff scene was nicely played, as well as being a welcome break from the lead actors.

No plays for the rest of my travels — but some good things will be coming to New York in the fall!

 

 

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WSC 2016, Day 3: Alchemist and Faustus

alchemistWhat is theater if it’s not a con, a gull, a way of looking at things and people and seeing something other than what they are?

The Alchemist was Olivia’s and my favorite of this year’s Stratford plays. With a large, uniformly excellent cast headlined by Ken Nwosu as Face, Mark Lockyer at Subtle, and Siobhan McSweeny as Doll — the trio of reprobates who play while Master Lovewit is away — it’s the purest fun we’ve seen on stage so far. Olivia was especially taken by Joshua McCord’s Dapper, the lawyer’s clerk who at one point in the second half of the play was forgotten in a back room of the house until he chewed through his gag to remind Face that he was supposed to have an interview with the Faerie Queene. Doll’s cynical and magical turn did not disappoint. My favorite was probably Ian Bedford’s Sir Epicure Mammon, whose visions of global plenty — dolphin’s milk, rivers of gold, silver only for giving to beggars — distracted him even from his assignation with Doll. The half-dozen or so subplots crossed and converged in the fast-paced second act, with the return of formerly absent Lovewit eventually leading Face to resume his servant’s name, Jeremy, while Doll and Subtle hot-footed it over the back gate.

Face wasn’t quite done with us — he introduced the epilogue by flashing some RSC tickets, and counting up the total take in the house was that night. “Thirty-five quid each for the ground level,” he grinned. It came to quite a sum, though he didn’t reveal the full accounting, and he didn’t push the point too hard. We the audience were happy gulls, perhaps open-eyed gulls — but each time the curtain rises the money flows only one way, out of our wallets. It didn’t really darken a joyful production, but it left us thinking.

What is theater if it’s not a dream of power, a vision of unearthly beauty, a gamble that might be worth its price?faustus

Maria Aberg’s direction of Faustus was the most conceptually ambitious  of the four Stratford plays. Part dance, part fantasia, and occasionally a penetrating dive into ambition as an impossible dream, the play began with two actors facing each other, striking matches, and waiting to see whose will go out first. As I understand it, based partly on the wisdom of the pub, whoever’s match burns down first plays Faustus, and the other Mephistophilis. I don’t know if the actors can tip the scales or take turns somehow. We saw Sandry Grierson as Faustus and Oliver Ryan as Mephistophilis, though I kept imagining what it would have been like the other way round. Striking moments included the pageant of Seven Deadly Sins and, perhaps most of all, Faustus’s slow painting of the magical star-in-circle design onto the center of the stage floor, his labors standing in for the conversion of the scholarly books he tossed aside at the play’s opening into necromantic visions of power.

The other shocking bit was the appearance of perhaps 12-year old Jade Croot  as Helen of Troy, the final gift Faustus asks Mephistophilis to bring him. (UPDATE: I’ve been assured she is at least 16, as required by UK child labor laws, since she performs every night.) Croot is a young theatrical pro, with stage productions of Oliver, Grease, Les Mis, and TV’s Doctor Who to her credit already — but the staging n of a young girl as the greatest temptress in literary history was hard to watch, especially since I was sitting next to my own 13-year old daughter in the theater! The Helen-Faustus pas de deux was very carefully staged: she had lots of agency and stage power, and the dance ended up not eroticizing their relationship, and perhaps emphasizing that Faustus could not access anything like real love. At the end I wasn’t quite sure why Helen was a child, despite the power of the scene.

I did think that this Faustus, like last night’s Hamlet, was a play about deep & unquenchable loneliness. No one could touch either the Danish Prince or the German magus onstage. What did Faustus really want from Mephistophilis, as his hour neared and he grew more and more frantic? Human connection was the thing he could not even name, from the start of the play when he rejected all forms of non-magical learning to the drama’s end when his demon-servant came to claim Lucifer’s reward. Non-human Mephistophilis was all that remained to the doomed Doctor, and the kiss that fallen angel gave to the dying man came just after midnight, too late, too inhuman. That perhaps unfelt kiss made a powerful ending to the play, partly because the chance for real emotional fulfillment seems to have been just missed.

Heading for London today, where Shrew and Macbeth wait at the Globe!

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WSC, Day 2: Hamlet

RSC HamletPaapa Essiedu’s antic scenes as Hamlet were amazing. Powerful, graceful, physical, unpredictable, his presence at the heart of  the RSC’s anniversary-year Hamlet created real urgency and danger in what was (I must admit) a pretty long-feeling production. Once he put his antic disposition on, with the help of an inventive paint-smeared costume, he pulled away from the other actors into his own private manic dance.

It’s a play about a solitary melancholic, but I thought it was telling that only one of the two soldiers on watch in the first scene seemed to have met the Prince before. This Hamlet wasn’t easy to know. Ophelia showed us love letters and even an “H & O” hand-painted t-shirt, but she couldn’t reach him either.

In those mad moments and the soliloquies, Essiedu’s Hamlet was gorgeous and inventive, powerful to watch. I did wonder a bit about the old-fashioned “objective correlative” business, in that it was hard to believe that this Hamlet could have loved his father (or anyone) as much as he professed. In general, he seemed brilliant but loveless and deeply unattached: the eventual graveyard expostulation, “I loved Ophelia,” came across as a bit unconvincing. Who was there?

But perhaps that flatness emerged because the graveyard scene came after Hamlet replaced his madness with a red wool knit cap of sanity, having returned from the pirates, condemned his treacherous friends Rozencrantz and Guildenstern, and apparently believing his own Providentialist boilerplate about the fall of a sparrow. I tend to see this final Hamlet as still violent and unstable, but that wasn’t apparent in this production, at least not until the (quite striking and visually great) stick-fighting-as-swordplay scene.

Of the surrounding players, I though Gertrude was very weak and unconnected to the other figures on stage. (I admit I missed the closet scene, b/c I was bringing Olivia home at the interval. Too much nihilism for her!) Ophelia started well, in a winningly comic fashion with her father and brother, but her mad songs, which should be heart-wrenching, didn’t for me match Hamlet’s preceding insanity. The prince who was but mad in craft put her in shadow.

There was a moment in the final scene, when Laertes and Hamlet have been cut with venomed blades and Gertrude has drunk the poison, in which Claudius stood alone on stage, caught as his villainy was being revealed. I had the odd sensation that in that short gap of time, he should run: none of the wounded men could have caught him, and surely the guards would remain loyal to their sovereign. I spotted Clarence Smith, who played Claudius, at the pub after the show and almost asked him about it — but I figured that would have been a bit obnoxious. “Have your ever thought about just running offstage just before Hamlet gets up…?”

The other performance I loved in this production was Cyril Nri as Polonius. Some of the air that went out of the second half of the play for me had to do with missing his stage presence and (admittedly forced) cohesiveness. I’m becoming increasingly interested in Polonius as an alternative center in the play; he presents distinctive theories of acting, of genre, and of politics. Does that make me sound like the old suburban Dad that I am? Yesterday I liked Cloten, today Polonius. What is Stratford doing to me?

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WSC, Day 1: Cymbeline

The thought snuck up on me last night while I was watching. It’s not the sort of thing one likes to admit. Probably if I’d made it to the pub I’d have been argued out of it, but I needed to bring my daughter Olivia back to the B&B, and it was raining, and I wanted to be able to get up and swim this morning — which I did, despite lingering jet lag.

Maybe it’s just #slatepitchy and counter-intuitive, or an attempt to find some clarity in a wildly digressive production (paper dolls! dialogue in Latin, French, and Italian! Cymbeline as a Queen!), but I’ve never before seen a Cymbeline in which I was so sympathetic to Cloten. He actually underplayed his nativist faux-Brexit rhetoric, which uncomfortably transforms John of Gaunt’s rousing patriotism into small-minded farce. But — and perhaps this is testament to a somewhat uncentered show — watching last night I found Cloten’s politics felt equally as compelling (or not) as the bland internationalism of Posthumus and Caius Lucius. What, I wondered, if this play were really performed for Leave voters, or Trumpkins on holiday? Could Cloten be the failed hero? They didn’t go all the way there  last night, but I had the strange feeling that they weren’t that far from it.

It’s not possible to sympathize with Cloten all the way through. He’s a fool, an attempted murderer, and he dies aspiring to a rape he can never get himself into position to attempt. But, as Olivia reminded me, in his violence and misogyny he’s not very different from his rival Posthumus. Each of these two men thinks Innogen has chosen another. Posthumus reacts by ordering her death, Cloten by chasing her into Wales with intent to ravish. Why is it that we prefer the first suitor again?

Olivia also observed that last night’s Cloten had “nice hair.” I’m sure she and I are both responding to Marcus Griffeths’s oddly cast physical charisma, which made Cloten overshadow Posthumus. I imagine the RSC will find some better parts for him soon!

In my Cloten-centric speculation, I wonder if the play might suggest that both British chauvinism and Roman internationalism are bad? Not equally so, perhaps, but…

Olivia also observed that of Innogen’s suitors, the only one who took no for an answer was Iachimo, who never quite assaults or attacks her, despite his creepy leering while she’s asleep. Maybe, Olivia suggested, Imogen should dump both Posthumus and Cloten, smooch a bit with pretty Iachimo, and then run off into the woods and be a bad ass with her Welsh siblings. A Katniss Everdeen revision of Shakespeare?

The brother-and-sister pair of pastoral heroes, the elder of whom kills Cloten and tosses his bloody clod pole into a mountain stream, suggest that there are better nativisims than Cloten’s, or the 21c nativisms of assorted orange-maned clowns on either side of the Atlantic.  It struck me last night that the off-stage moment when Guideria/us cut off Cloten’s head without knowing his identity has a political subtext, in which a natural Britain decapitates the island’s false heir. The Welsh foresters who are here long-lost siblings seem better matches for Innogen than any of the courtly characters — except possibly for Caius Lucius, to whom she sidled up to toward the end of the very long final scene during which I lost sight of Posthumus entirely for some time.

Cloten wasn’t there, of course, since he died in the previous act. But Queen Cymbeline’s ambivalent back and forth with Rome, Britain’s military victory, the return of her heirs from their pastoral education, and the general mayhem of this play’s over-plottedness suggested — at least to me, at least a little bit — that we missed his awkward voicing of patriotism. Just a little bit.

I doubt that any staging of Cymbeline will ever want to go fully pro-Cloten. But amid the whirl of this messy production, I saw a different side of the buffoon. That, plus a wonderfully clear and moving performance by Bethan Culinane as Innogen, made a nice start to this week in Stratford.

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Ethan Lipton’s “Tumacho” at Clubbed Thumb

TumachoAs the US grapples with horrific evidence of our culture’s violent obsession with guns, Ethan Lipton’s hilarious and brilliant satirocomic Wild West musical, Tumacho, provides the perfect comic riposte. The show is closed now, after a super-short sold out run the Clubbed Thumb’s The Wild Project in the East Village. But I hope it re-opens someplace soon — it’s the play we need to see. I’m ready to go again!

A desolate sagebrush town has been depopulated by Big Bill Yardly, a black-dressed gunman played with an enthusiastic snarl by Danny Wolohan. Mayor Evans, played with equal parts sympathy and hypocrisy by John Ellison Conlee, can’t stop the violence and is thinking about skipping town. Doc Alonzo, played by Gibson Frazier, is tired of being covered in the blood of his town’s expiring citizens. Catalina, played by Celia Keenan-Bolger, has lost her parents to the gunman as a child and seeks “murderous bloody revenge.” So far, so archetypical.

Into this too-familiar landscape floats the demon Tumacho, a free-floating spirit of violence doomed to return to the town at uncertain intervals. Tumacho, who in his original human incarnation appears to have burned his true love alive after mistakenly thinking her false, represents the circularity of a culture built on violent retribution. Can the demon rid the town of gunslinger Bill? Would a town run by Tumacho — the name slyly insinuates both “too much” machismo and a culture in which you (“tu”) must always be macho — be better than Bill’s pueblo of horrors? Would anyone notice the difference?

Sara Krulwich / NY Times

Sara Krulwich / NY Times

My favorite scene was the early three-way standoff between gunman Bill, revenger Catalina, and Clem, the son of a rival gunman who’s arrived in town seeking to kill Big Bill in order to impress his now-retired father. All three listen to old man Sam’s doggerel prophecy:

When the streets run red with blood,

And the clouds are upside down,

Then the three-legged coyote howls,

For Tumacho’s back in town…

Each thinks: that could be me!

Has the gunman killed enough townspeople to merit the title Tumacho? Will newly-arrived Clem finally step into his daddy’s bloody shoes? Or will Catalina’s dedication to revenge her parents carry the day? Quien es mas tumacho?

I won’t spoil the gorgeously random twists and turns of the plot, except perhaps to say that Tumacho eventually occupies an unexpected body. And it will require all the town’s residents, including the halitosis-fueled Mayor, to send the demon packing.

On one side of the stage, Mike Brun plays guitar, electric bass, piano, and banjo, and the cast sings a series of original songs. The one I can’t get out of my head is “No Justice for the Dead,” sung as a duet between Catalina and the father of the gunslinger who challenged Big Bill in the opening scene. Part sentimental ballad and part comic tour-de-force (Catalina sings with a tongue swollen from waterless desert travel), the song gets at the hollow core of a culture of violence. What’s the point of shooting? What’s violence for?

Or, as a goofier send-up number near to the end has it, performed by a nearly full cast dressed as ramblin’ Saguaros —

Yes, it takes a little practice

To love a cactus…

Like Ben Brantlee in the Times, I loved this play. It’s a kind of hopalong Orestia, singing out the futility and injustice of our culture of violence. I hope it’ll appear again somewhere soon!

 

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Some of a Thousand Words by Wendy Whalen #Artsideas16

WendyAs this year’s Festival of Arts and Ideas heads into the home-stretch, we enjoyed the world premiere of ballerina Wendy Whalen’s new modern dance performance, “Some of a Thousand Words,” done in collaboration with choreographer Brian Brooks and music by the string quartet Brooklyn Rider. Once again, I’m at a loss for vocabulary.

Whalen is the former principal dancer for the New York City Ballet, and Brooks is a modern choreographer with whom she’s been working since 2012. Their Philip Glass-accompanied piece “Fall Falls” debuted in Vail in 2013; the show in New Haven contains that piece and four others, including a stunning silent dance.

I don’t have words for the gorgeous abstraction of the dances, the impossible length and reach of the dancers’ arms and legs, or the clever playfulness of especially the dance that involved two chairs, off of which each dancer would slouch and impinge upon the other’s space.

I’ll remember two moments especially. The first is Whalen repeatedly and gently falling onto Brooks’s back during “Fall Falls,” with her body remaining perfectly still until he caught her weight on his shoulders. For a moment she remained perfectly straight, as if weightless. Isn’t weightlessness — flight — the dream of dance?

The other moment I’ll remember was watching her walk slowly across the stage, after an astounding series of solo moves and turns. She’d taught the audience to expect miracles, but she was now just walking across the stage, not flying or turning or jumping. Not yet.

Just two more days of Festival 2016!

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The Square Root of Three Sisters (Dmitry Krymov Lab) #Artsideas16

Shaunette Wilson as Olga

Shaunette Wilson as Olga

I almost didn’t make it to this one. Alinor was in NYC, having gotten last-minute tickets to some Ham- play (not the one playing right now at Shakespeare on the Sound), and Olivia wanted a night off with Harry Potter. But I’ve seen a little bit of Dmitry Krymov before — the bizarre mash-up of ballet, puppetry, and pantomime that he called A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It), which I saw in Stratford in 2012 — so I flew solo to this world premiere riff on Chekov’s “Three Sisters.” It’s true that I’ve never seen that play and haven’t read it since college. But how often do you get a chance to see something like this?

The show started with the lights on and the cast working together to “lay the scene” with flat rectangles of cardboard held in place by masking tape. Assembling the set together was an important part of the staging, and perhaps the first quarter of the show consisted of Aubie Merrylees stage-managing the assembly of all the elements of a Chekov setting: the father’s grave, the houses of the sisters, the lake, the bar, the soldier’s barracks, a birch grove, a train. Some of the elements, including Merrylees’s eventual part of the writer Trigorin, appear from other Chekov plays, in his case The Seagull.

The cast is students and recent graduates from Yale Drama School, which institution co-produced the show. The actors were directed by Krymov and his Lab. The young Americans couldn’t quite do everything that the Russian cast did in 2012, though they were strong and worked well together.

One highlight was a solo scene by Shaunette Wilson, playing Olga the unmarried schoolteacher and eldest sister. She circled a table that had been used for a dinner scene earlier. Picking up each item from the table, she would name it: “This is a cup. This is a spoon. This is a saucer.” In the same matter-of-fact tone, she’d say, “I don’t need love. People marry for duty only. This is a knife.” As the scene swelled, she started mis-naming the cutlery. “This is a cup,” she’d say, holding the knife. “I don’t need love.” The subtext smashed the dishes and cleared the table in short order.

I suspect if I knew Chekov better I’d have seen more. Like Krymov’s Midsummer, the performance seemed animated by its commentary on the classical dramatic canon. The booming voice of an unseen director intruded at times, at one point telling Wilson to leave the stage because he wanted “another Olga,” who turned out to be Merrylees in drag. Wilson resisted going, and plead her case to the audience that “I was good, right?” She was, we all agreed. In another memorable moment, audience members were brought up on stage to waltz with the cast. (Alas, I hadn’t paid extra to sit in front!)

The title of the play takes the square root of three. This operation transforms the classic dramatic triangle into an irrational number. That strikes me as a pretty good metaphor for Krymov’s method.

 

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The Bookbinder at #Artsideas16

bookbinder-1_webAfter an ambitious, difficult, near-miss Friday night in Steel Hammer, it was a real pleasure to see The Bookbinder yesterday afternoon at the recently refurbished Yale Center for British Art. An inventive one-man-plus-one-book show that’s traveled all the way from New Zealand’s Trick of the Light Theatre Company to New Haven, The Bookbinder serves up its pleasures easily and generously. A mysterious book-binder needs an apprentice! An old woman arrives with an old and illegible book, a page of which our hero damages in the act of repair! A fantasy world inside the book into which our hero falls after burning the missing page so that his crime can’t be found out!

You can fill in the rest, maybe, if I tell you that it involves a voyage across a strange land, a nest of hungry eagle chicks and their soon returning mother, a girl who oddly resembles the old woman who brought the book to the store, a ship, a storm, and a desperate act of book-and-landscape repair involving a linen thread, a knife made from human bone, and the handkerchief that our hero’s gruff father gave him at the start of the story.

An elaborate pop-up book guides us through the story, supported by several dolls, some shadow puppets, and a few other props and light tricks. Ralph McCubbin Howell’s performance of a script that he co-wrote with director Hannah Smith is delightful, funny, and spooky.

The show left me thinking about how, in an age of digital media, we are rediscovering to the book as object and technological marvel — though really The Bookbinder’s interest in the craft of binding wasn’t all that technical. I also thought about the difference between the kind of socially contextualized critical perspectives that theater for adults wants to create — the raunchy high-spirits of Our Ladies, the graceful and forceful protest of Abraham.in.Motion, the inchoate rage and longing that suffused Steel Hammer — and the more abstract darkness, which perhaps really just emerges out of a child’s fear of the dark, of a play designed for younger audiences.

I value difficult and experimental work, but there’s something powerfully cleansing about a deep plunge into a child’s imagination. I spend lots of time in my own work historicizing and contextualizing the notion of being “lost in a book,” but sometimes that immersive experience really is what we most enjoy.

 

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Steel Hammer at #Artsideas16

steel_hammer_0In the middle of Steel Hammer, an occasionally brilliant but also wayward show with music written by Julia Wolfe and performed by the Bang on a Can All Stars and SITI Company, Patrice Chevannes, playing the role of John Henry’s wife Polly Anne, sat still in center stage and told her story. She met a strong man named John in an overcrowded shack filled with migrant laborers during Reconstruction, and she knew — maybe before anyone else did — that John Henry was special. The joy and wonder of her solo tall tale lingered at the center of a busy performance that featured six actors, at least eight musicians, and the not always integrated writing of four playwrights.

I’ve seen Chevannes a few other times recently, in Tamburlaine and Pericles, both at Theater for a New AudienceHer infectious smile, powerful presence, and dazzling stage charisma tend to steal the show, as she did again last night. I was also intrigued by Steel Hammer’s layered engagement with the folk tale and musical history of John Henry, who — according to research one of the characters presented early in the show — appears to have been either very short or very tall, from Alabama or Kentucky or Georgia or Elizabeth, NJ, or perhaps someplace else. Possibly a criminal, or maybe not. But we are sure that he’s the most famous American folk hero who’s African-American — and possibly the only folk hero who dies on the job.

At a certain point, when the actors were exhausting themselves running circles around the center stage for what seemed a very long time, I wondered if the performance might be trying to represent the experience of painful and tedious work — which is a tricky thing to perform. (My daughter, alas, just thought it was dull.)

I love the John Henry song, and its ambivalent celebration of the human heart struggling against the machine. I also enjoyed the music in this show, especially the inventive clarinet playing and percussion by the Bang on a Can All Stars, featuring Ken Thomson on clarinet. This show feels like a work in progress, though I guess it was at BAM last fall. It’s hard to stage painful work!

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Abraham.in.Motion at #Artsideas16

I wish I had a richer vocabulary to describe dance — because the gorgeous, playful, and fierce show last night by Kyle Abraham’sabrahaminmotion_web company deserves more than I can write. The company of seven dancers combined moves from classical ballet with hip hop and other dances in front of an alternately blazing and soulful jazz quartet. The things the human body can do!

The Time’s dance critic Gia Kourlas didn’t love it as much as I did when the four pieces played in New York last fall, but I think she missed the point. What she calls “sketches” or half-finished dances were part, it seemed to my much less trained eye, of Abraham’s aesthetic of play. The dances unfurled as if they were spontaneous eruptions of feeling, things that might just happen, in the rush of emotion and public protest. The middle performance, “Absent Matter, which was performed in front of video projections of Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, MO, rolled over us like a freight train. What if everything we feel and think becomes physical? What if our bodies can move in every possible way, so that the full complexity of lived experience — anger, rage, risk, play, improvisational discovery — jumps out from each impossibly long dancing leg or arm?

Of the four pieces, I thought “Absent Matter” hit the highest heights, but I also loved the final number, “The Gettin’,” which brought the band up on stage to perform the Freedom Suite from Max Roach’s “We Insist!” (1960) in front of images from apartheid South Africa. “The Quiet Dance,” the second piece after a short solo prelude, began without any music at all. My daughter Olivia, who’s 13 and didn’t follow all the political references in the videos, loved this one the most – pure beauty of humans in motion. abrahaminmotion_web2

One of the best things about #Artsideas16 is seeing things I’d never find otherwise!