Sunday, November 29, 2015

"I Wish They All Could Be Christian Refugees": Your wretched refuge need not apply, as far as some GOP presidential hopefuls are concerned

The Republican candidates demanding a religious test for the admission of refugees might want to consider commissioning an arrangement of this version of "California Girls" to promote their next debate.

The Republican candidates demanding a religious test for the admission of refugees might want to consider commissioning an arrangement of this version of "California Girls" to promote their next debate.
Posted by Jay Harvey on Sunday, November 29, 2015

'A Christmas Carol' at IRT displays imaginative elan, underlines its moral lesson

The rude thump of a heavy walking stick interrupts a flash-mob-like rendition of a Christmas carol to start off Indiana Repertory Theatre's production of "A Christmas Carol."

On opening night Saturday, it had the intended startling effect — a real one for the audience and me, a well-rehearsed one for the carolers divided by the frosty approach of Ebenezer Scrooge. He strides without speaking through the stunned singers on the way to his office.
Bah! Humbug!: Scrooge casts a disdainful eye at Christmas.

The arresting opening scene places the mean-spirited miser in a social context, where we will not see him again in his real self until his conversion near the end, after guided visions by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. Scrooge famously learns from those visits — a posthumous gift thrust upon him by a miserable ghost, his deceased business partner — the personal benefits of charity.

Among our traditional carols, the interrupted "Good King Wenceslas" most vividly lifts up the blessings of charitable works, whose purpose is lost on Scrooge. Immediately, then, the audience can ponder the heavy soul work that lies ahead. Courtney Sale directs the production with a liberating style, getting to the moral and fantastic essentials of the story.

 IRT's signature element on the raked set — that lovely snow, both falling and fallen — is played with, as well as walked through and brushed off. Handfuls are tossed at the audience now and then, the rehabilitated Scrooge flops down in it to make snow angels, and it's imaginatively put to use as the components of the Cratchit family's joyous, hard-won feast.

Dickens' language is intact, its distinctive, emotionally charged narrative rhetoric faithfully preserved in Tom Haas' adaptation. The story moves forward through choral-speaking passages and solo narrative asides, in addition to dialogue. Most actors play several roles and move set-pieces and props in and out of place. Further displaying her freedom from realism, Sale has her cast not only steering clear of London accents, but also following the tonal contours of Midwestern American. And as the play progresses, there are several "bro hugs" at moments that exceed Victorian notions of propriety, but fit dramatically.

There is plenty of delightful filigree, as well as more poignant touches, along the way: Robert Neal's "portly gentleman," his request for a charitable contribution having been rebuffed by the miserly Scrooge, rolls his eyes in disbelief at the approach
The Spirit of Christmas Present encompasses jollity and dread.
of the repentant miser. Constance Macy's "plump sister" at nephew Fred's party sits down at the piano, turning to chortle self-consciously before playing. The break-up scene between Belle (Eliza Simpson) and Young Scrooge (Will Mobley) is insightfully staged; the couple is never on the same level, matching their temperamental disparity.

The three Spirits drive home their crucial points in effecting Scrooge's change of heart. For the first time, a youth (Grayson Molin) is cast as the Spirit of Christmas Past. Dickens' description of this character is unrealizable even with today's stage magic (a department in which IRT excels), so the choice here is an apt interpretation, since scenes of Scrooge's early life are recapitulated during this visit. David Alan Anderson enjoys a reprise of his hearty portrayal of the Spirit of Christmas Present.

Marley's ghost wears the chains he forged in life.
Chuck Goad, a former IRT Scrooge, has never looked and sounded better (read: worse, but in the best sense) as Marley's Ghost. His dire admonitions to his business partner would soften a heart of stone. And that, indeed, is their job.

Ryan Artzberger's Scrooge does more than snarl before his transformation; he sometimes sets forth his views offhandedly and with flashes of wit, making his dismissive anger all the more vivid in contrast.

The first time I saw him play Scrooge, I was struck by how completely the character was overcome by the realization he had not missed the opportunity to celebrate Christmas properly. "I don't know anything," Scrooge exclaims. "I'm quite a baby." And Artzberger as Scrooge was suddenly another person, "beside himself" in the New Testament phrase reflecting the misplaced concerns of Jesus' friends about him. In this production, Scrooge's giddiness persists to the very end. "Beside himself" gets it.

I confess that Artzberger's arid, wheezy giggle became slightly tiresome before the final "God bless us all, everyone!" My naughty self said: "I could almost do with a bit of the old Scrooge about now." But my less naughty self saw the wisdom of hitting Scrooge's transformation hard.

Ebenezer Scrooge, whose very name is a reflection of Dickens' genius, is one of those rare fictional characters who have become myths, along with Huckleberry Finn, Sir John Falstaff, and a few others. A mythical character is large enough to shape and reflect our values (including the ones we are reluctant to acknowledge) as well as to represent a fascinating, three-dimensional person.

Through Scrooge, both as himself and "beside himself," "A Christmas Carol" is an affirmation of hope — the meaning of the season at its most abstract and powerful. Though Dickens wraps things up in a tidy Christmas bow at the end, it is useful to take Scrooge's vow to "keep Christmas" as a promise whose permanence lies beyond the story.

The Cratchits sit down at Christmas, sustained by love, driven by hope.
Just as love sustains the Cratchit family, wonderfully filled out in this production as headed by Joshua Coomer and Jennifer Johansen, hope drives them forward day after difficult day. Dickens understood hope  as mankind's ultimate resource, though he knew it could be destroyed by Want and Ignorance, forsaken children who creep zombielike from under the robes of the Spirit of Christmas Present.

In the essay "Of Names," Michel de Montaigne exclaims: "Oh, what a brave faculty is hope, which in a mortal subject and in a moment, usurps infinity, immensity, eternity!"

That brave faculty thus rivals some of the attributes of God in "A Christmas Carol," and the IRT  production buoyantly endorses its power and spiritual resonance.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Thursday, November 26, 2015

X marks the spot: For the tenth time, Phoenix Theatre digs for yuletide treasure

The Phoenix Theatre has used the tried-and-true total of ten to wax lightly nostalgic in "A Very Phoenix Xmas X."

Gayle Steigerwald ornaments the show.
A decade ago, its holiday variety show with a bit of an edge debuted at 749 North Park Avenue. As narrator Gayle Steigerwald pointed out at the new production's preview Wednesday, what began life as a jibe at Christmas-season traditions has itself become a Christmas-season tradition.

Just as consumers supplement shopping lists with goodies for themselves, "Phoenix Xmas X" is a blend of self-tribute and genuine holiday spirit. The audience is adequately warned by the show's subtitle (modestly clad in lower case): "oh come, let us adore us."

Steigerwald's narration reminisces, and there's no more fitting Phoenix stalwart to do so. Her repeat appearances, which serve to smooth the way between set changes, include fanciful costumes celebrating the season's decorative mania and her previous roles in the production.

Santa's ho-ho-ho encounters girl's WTF.
In this anthology of freshly minted sketches, Steigerwald has one starring role. In "Ms. Claus," she's an applicant for the vacant post of Santa Claus after a scandal has forced the previous occupant's early retirement. It's an amusing plea on behalf of gender equality in the workplace, a cause fueled here by a little well-placed bribery. A panel played by Paul Collier Hansen, Eric J. Olson and Lincoln Slentz scrutinizes her application — all in seasonally official garb and burdened with ridiculous beards.

Santa Claus stereotyping also gets some ribbing in "Jolly Saint Dick," with Hansen making the customary flue drop at the home of a snarky prepubescent girl (Olivia Huntley). The sketch makes a little too much of the Jolly Old Elf losing his persona under provocation and going on a foul-mouthed rant, but there's a sweet message underlying it all.

The toxic boss that Santa has long been in much Christmas satire (dating back at least to S.J. Perelman's "Waiting for Santy" (1936)) is turned into a Scrooge-like present-day oppressor in a caustic song by Lizz Leiser. It features one of Tim Brickley's apt instrumental tracks accompanying the ensemble. Apparently, audience members will be filling the ugly-boss role as one did Wednesday, working from cue cards and saying ungracious things between employee eruptions.

The energy, wit and rapid pace of a couple of duo sketches were among the show's high points. In
Sara Riemen gets a surprise call in "Regifting."
"Regifting," Scot Greenwell and Sara Riemen play an adult brother and sister anxiously figuring out how to counter an impending visit from a friend they're certain will embarrass them in the gift department. The prospective hosts go  frantic trying to one-up Peggy without making the mistake of boomerang regifting.

Greenwell was also marvelous fully decked out as a talking Christmas tree in dialogue with its Jewish owner (Olson) in "Oh, Tannenbaum," a brilliant contribution from the dependable "Very Phoenix Xmas" writer Mark Harvey Levine, a noted specialist in short plays.

The annual silly season is combined with the current (and relentless) political silly season  — oh, how they deserve each other! — in "Commandeer in Chief." It entails elaborate mockery of the current presidential candidates in a debate moderated by Riemen, who is nearly a dead ringer for Rachel Maddow. Everyone else is cast as pawing, prancing, snorting reindeer. In the lengthy, full-cast sketch, Rob Johansen lets his gift for travesty rip, with the ensemble spiritedly managed by director Bryan Fonseca.

"Oh, Tannenbaum," by the way, segues into a finely honed ensemble chorus in Hebrew (with a projected English translation) seriously embracing the seasonal celebration of Hanukkah.

Eric J. Olson tries to process a talking tree.
Clever faceless costumes, technical adroitness, pantomime (by Johansen, Riemen, and Lincoln Slentz),  Mariel Greenlee's choreography and prerecorded dialogue by Tom Horan made enchanting work of "Shiny New Toy," whose title object shifts among the variety of soundtracks available this time of year. The technological frontiers of the holiday were further explored with a stunning visual punch line in "Putting Away the Decorations," with Johansen and Slentz as an apparent father and son.

Technology enables the kind of musical saturation that will wear just about everyone down over the next few weeks. It is the object of some spoofing — well brought off by Johansen, Riemen and guest vocalist Deb Mullins — in "Miracle on 34th Street vs. Exile on Main St.," a sketch with a somewhat belabored premise to the effect that even a rock nightclub can't help being infected by hackneyed Christmas songs. The parody elements were largely lost on me, hopelessly nonconversant with rock as I am.

The Phoenix players, though not uniformly the best lot of the past decade, sound and look committed to the material from start to finish. Through Dec. 20, you can follow them in merry measure while they tell of yuletide treasure.

And of course you can add your own fa-la-la-la-las along the way and in retrospect. Here are mine from last year and the year before. "A Very Phoenix Xmas X" is a good way to escape the fa-la-la-la-blahs that threaten to overtake us all as the season grinds on.

Two drumsticks and a wishbone: A Thanksgiving Hymn on Themes of Robert Frost

This one day devoted to Gratitude
May not be enough to establish the mood,
Especially since sages are sure it's allied
With all the insatiable urgings of Pride.

We turn now to one of them, dear Robert Frost,
Who never rejoiced without counting the cost:
The ambivalence of his "The Road Not Taken"
Pride and gratitude contend when we sit down to this.
Can leave almost anyone's confidence shaken.

How grateful was he for the choice of two ways?
How deep were his sighs for unknowable days
That might have been happy, or perhaps not so much?
Who rightly decides for the best in the clutch?

It's certain that thankfulness had little chance
To trip the fantastic in this doubtful dance
As, near poem's end, "I" gets up twice alone
To declare that his Pride can cavort on its own:

"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
"I took the one less traveled by."
The chest swells just slightly, all doubt set aside,
And the hike through the woods begins hitting its stride.

Robert Frost
So let us think now, as we turn to our feasts,
That what separates us for sure from the beasts
Is a mixture of Gratitude that makes us feel good
And Pride, which will always take more than it should.

Their value to us means division of labor —
Let's celebrate both with pipe, horn, and tabor:
The grandma cooks turkey, the grandfather carves;
If Pride is not satisfied, Gratitude starves.

To be truly thankful, we must work on our needs,
Feel proud of ourselves. On this everyone feeds:
Sometimes false, sometimes true, at bottom there's Pride.
So, as Frost advised elsewhere: 'Provide, provide!"

Monday, November 23, 2015

Old Possum still carries weight: T.S. Eliot's 'objective correlative' and the narrative economy of 'Spotlight'

The "Spotlight" principals in a rare moment of inaction.
I'm not a movie critic, and I try not to play one on this blog, to paraphrase a commercial cliche. But I found "Spotlight," the current movie focusing on the Boston Globe's exposure of widespread sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests, worth a brief note.

In addition to its riveting story, crisp dialogue, focused acting, and — of course — realistic scrutiny of the perils and rewards of newspaper work, where I spent my career, "Spotlight" is remarkable to me for never having a wasted scene. There's no fluff or filler material. Even the shortest scenes unfailingly contribute something vital to the whole.

Two of them in particular seem to me to exemplify on the big screen an old lit-crit notion first put forward by T.S. Eliot nearly a century ago in an essay on "Hamlet": what he called the "objective correlative," which the young poet-critic claimed was "the only way of expressing emotion in the form of art."  He defined it as "a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion."

T.S. Eliot about the time he came up with "objective correlative."
There is a marvelous objective correlative in two separate scenes of "Spotlight," both involving the Globe investigative team's one female member, Sacha Pfeiffer (played by Rachel McAdams).

In the first, her stress in pursuing the difficult story, interviewing victims who either turned her away or broke down in mid-interview, finds an objective correlative in her awkward attempt to shove a dishwasher rack into the machine. We've all done this slambangingly while thinking of something else. In "Spotlight," the frustrated gesture is enough to stand for the emotional toll that working on the investigation takes on handling everyday domestic chores, even the simplest ones. As with the other members of the Spotlight team, Sacha's personal life gets shelved or battered in all sorts of ways as work on the supremely difficult story goes forward.

The other objective correlative occurs when Sacha, a lapsed Catholic who only attends Mass when her devout grandmother asks her to, is sitting down with Nana as she reads, crestfallen, the initial published story. The Globe is laid out before her; she scrutinizes the text slowly, with a pained expression. Suddenly she looks up and asks: "Sacha, will you get me a glass of water?"

Water, which represents so much that's germane to this story, from the first Catholic rite of infant baptism through the biblical thirst for righteousness, is crucial.  The request is the formula for expressing the emotion so many faithful Catholics felt at the revelations; it sums up the wrenching effects of the sex-abuse scandal on the stability of faith.

Eliot's "casually introduced" term (the description is M.H. Abrams') continues to have relevance, especially when artists find ways of making words and acts perfectly overlay an emotion that it would be wasteful to lavish too much attention upon. This economy is part of what makes "Spotlight" a must-see film.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

No drums, no horns: Regina Carter and Kenny Barron combine for expert soft-spoken jazz

Generation gap bridged: Carter and Barron
Busy schedules keep the compatible duo of Kenny Barron and Regina Carter apart, so they understandably launch their concert appearances upon the solid foundation of (ironically) "Freefall," their 2001 collaboration on Verve.

So it was Saturday night at the Tarkington, Center for the Performing Arts, in Carmel. The pianist and the violinist closed the generation gap effortlessly once again (he's 72, she's 49), in a trim program of pieces mainly from that recording. They respond seamlessly to each other and come up with one effective moment after another.

Carter has brought to jazz violin a sensibility deeply rooted in the blues. Her instrument is ideal for bending pitches as adeptly as the best slide guitarist, and she knows all the tricks. The violin's keening tone and variety of articulation can approach the expressive range, from plaintive to exuberant, of the classic blues singers.

Her technical adroitness matches well with Barron's crisp piano style and cornucopia of well-turned phrases. And the pianist is also well-versed in the blues, with newly minted flourishes that dependably steer away from cliches.

It was no surprise, then, that the concert opened and closed with the blues, both tunes by Thelonious Monk. "Misterioso" found Carter a bit scratchy to start things off, but the spacing of the theme in partnership with Barron came off attractively before the blues form was filled out by improvisational exchanges between the musicians.

Carter revealed a penchant for inserting brief quotes in her discourse. In "Misterioso," these included some Gershwin, some Ellington, and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." In the next number, "Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise," a nearly 90-year-old Sigmund Romberg tune restored to its tango pulse in this version, the violinist tucked in smidgens of "Flight of the Bumblebee" and the perky trumpet tune from "Petrouchka."

The duo gave Gershwin full measure in a bluesy, mid-tempo interpretation of Gershwin's "Oh Lady Be Good" to bring the concert up to intermission.  They were thoroughly inspired by this point, having just come out of the etude-like thickets of a Barron original called "What If." This was nicely positioned after an ethereal ballad, also by Barron, called "A Flower." Both were among the six pieces available on "Freefall." Another was a buoyant rendition of Johnny Hodges' "Squatty Roo."

The concert's second half opened with a deep-delving interpretation of the Billie Holiday song "Don't Explain." The performance featured a complex solo cadenza by Carter that tucked in a paraphrase of cross-strings figuration from Arvo Part's "Fratres."  I found the adventurousness of this arrangement more to the point than the wallowing, unfocused account Barron and Carter gave of Wayne Shorter's "Footprints." That jazz standard is also subject to puzzling overextension on "Freefall," where it's the only one of the 10 tracks that doesn't make sense to me.

The concert closed with another classic from that monstre sacre of jazz piano, the self-explanatory "Monk's Blues." The energizing mutual regard of the two musicians ensured a fresh interpretation of the bedrock form of so much American music. The Tarkington audience was sent out into the snowy cold with memories of a rare meeting of minds that was also a meeting of old souls.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Love handles: Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project explores what we talk about when we talk about body image

An overview of Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project's season
Neil LaBute specializes in comedy that makes us squirm about how easily we fall in with tribal thinking. In "Fat Pig," he is blunt from the title on about the way overweight people, particularly women, are pushed to the margins of social life among singles.

Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project, a resident company of IndyFringe Basile Theatre, opened a production of the 2004 play Thursday night that sailed confidently through the rough waters of 21st-century romance. The confidence displayed did not always deliver the insights buried in the rapid-fire dialogue, which was keyed to an intensity that seemed partly the fault of the script.

Callie Hartz directs the cast of four, who also handled the movement of set elements and props throughout the two-act play. Office, restaurant, and apartment settings were efficiently if minimally suggested; bathing suits and beach chairs did the trick for the finale, a pool party where the fate of the apparently mismatched lovers — plus-size Helen (Kait Burch) and regular-guy Tom (Josh Harrington) is driven home.

Hartz has her actors richly endowed with gestures and facial expressions that make each character vivid and a little overelaborated. I kept wondering if an expressions chart like the one below had been consulted. Besides Helen and Tom, there are Tom's office buddy Carter, a crude piece of work played by Ryan Ruckman, and Tom's spurned castoff Jeanie (Chelsea Gill), who works down the hall in accounting and is just as detail-oriented in settling her romantic accounts.

The production worked some of these hard.
The pace at which the story is told was jam-packed and unrelenting. It could have used a little more air at first, a "meet-cute" scene between Helen and Tom. LaBute's penchant for crafting characters with a gift for quick repartee, sometimes toxic or cliche though it is, has to be modulated in performance. The opening scene, which contrasted Tom's gingerly manner with Helen's self-confident frankness, needed a few "beats" as this unlikely couple gets used to each other over a quick lunch at which they happen to share a table.

LaBute is awfully fond of characters signaling "Just kidding" or "I'm serious," but I didn't sense such verbal emojis throwing the sort of low hurdles into the conversational path one might expect. Later, I also felt it hard to imagine Jeanie's violent eruption at Tom taking place in an office without attracting a crowd. Maybe we are supposed to see Tom's work station as entirely enclosed and soundproof.

This reflects something airtight in the play's construction, which implies but barely sketches a world outside these four people. The playwright focuses so fiercely on the social norms that make a liaison between a fat woman and a fit man scandalous that he finds it uninteresting to round them out (pun unavoidable). Same with the other two characters: Jeanie is fighting mad at being dumped for an overweight woman, and Carter is a busybody and a jerk upholding normal prejudices. In his case, those are grounded in the embarrassment he felt growing up as the son of a fat mother.

Some poignancy in his recollection doesn't stand a chance against the pit bulls of scorn Jeanie and Carter unleash (along with everyone else in the office, evidently) to make Tom question his choice of an unconventional girlfriend. LaBute has his agenda polished, bolted down and ready to take its course. Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project follows that course energetically.

The main recommendation I must make to those considering "Fat Pig" and pondering the issues it raises is to grab a seat along the Basile Theatre's west wall. Otherwise, you may be looking at actors' backs a lot of the time. Some of the silent responses  — the "takes" — that seemed absent to me may have been there but just not visible from a side seat. When you've got audience on three sides of the stage, you are obligated to play to three sides. That means moving actors around more than might seem natural, but finding ways to make it look natural. Otherwise, a side seat ought to be sold as "obstructed-view."