Sunday, January 31, 2016

Standing up for justice in a small Southern town: IRT has a new production of 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

A beloved book with a strong narrative voice at the center carries strong pluses and minuses over into a stage adaptation. On the one hand, there is the thrilling familiarity of the story and the characters in the flesh in front of us; on the other, there is a dilemma of what to do with that voice. It has to diminish somewhat to allow room to render recalled events in action.

Jean Louse Finch (Lauren Briggeman) with the townsfolk she recalls as backdrop.
First-person narration by a central character puts a novel on intimate footing with one reader  at a time. This is the case with Scout when we read "To Kill a Mockingbird."

How to minimize its loss in the theater? The solution behind the Christopher Sergel adaptation that Indiana Repertory Theatre opened this weekend is to have the adult Scout onstage, facing us,  to capture much of the retrospective wisdom of the story the way Harper Lee wrote it.

Lauren Briggeman presents Jean Louise Finch, to give her the name she reassumed after she outgrew the tomboy nickname Scout, in a believable manner. She captures the steadiness of insight and the quiet wonder behind Scout's recollection of her father and her sleepy Alabama hometown. It doesn't allow for much range, however, and doesn't seem as if it would be rewarding to play.

Atticus elicits his client's testimony while Heck Tate looks on.
Yet Jean Louise's prominence here helps skew the play toward the adult perspective on the story's central events. There's no question that the trial of a black man on a rape charge is pivotal, and a revelation of the character of his attorney. The perspective of the three children — Scout, her older brother Jem, and their new friend, lonely, eccentric out-of-towner Dill — haunts the show but never feels central to it.

The upright Atticus Finch, recently a figure of some dismay among "To Kill a Mockingbird" fans for how he comes across in the novel's sequel, "Go Set a Watchman," is scrutinized by everybody in Maycomb. In the IRT production, Atticus is capably portrayed by Ryan Artzberger in a performance that admits anger and frustration as coloring for the lawyer's steadfastness and devotion to justice.

The community feeling, which crucially extends uneasy respect for Atticus while adhering to its values on both sides of the racial divide, is attractively presented. Tim Grimm, who plays Heck Tate, the sheriff responsible for enforcing those values, also wrote arrangements the cast sings. The setting of "Hush, Hush," which opens the show, is especially apt. The African-American spiritual, with its reminder that "somebody's calling my name," sets a seal on the play's powerful reminder that individual responsibility is a difficult burden everyone may be called upon to shoulder.

IRT's large cast, directed by Janet Allen, credibly portrays the strains the case makes on the town's cohesiveness. Those are underlined by the effect of the national Depression on Maycomb's already hardscrabble existence, where the only relief is the gossip stridently shared by Stephanie Crawford (Laurel Goetzinger) and moderated more humanely by Maudie Atkinson (Jan Lucas).

The set and lighting designs, explicitly in statements by Bill Clarke and Betsy Cooprider-Bernstein, are conceived as crucial to the experience of Scout and her two companions. It's enough to represent her own house by its front porch, where the hired cook and domestic boss Calpurnia (Milicent Wright) appears from time to time as representative of all that holds the Finch household together.

Bulking large is the gnarled pecan tree in the yard next to the house where the recluse Boo Radley lives. The menace applied to both structures in the childish imagination is beautifully realized. In the midst of all this support for the juvenile experience and viewpoint, however, the impression made by the three kids seemed a little uneven Saturday night.

Scout was thoroughly contrasted in the performances of Lauren Briggeman and Paula Hopkins.
In particular, Paula Hopkins as Scout nails the girl's sauciness and curiosity, but is less successful conveying her endearing quality. This is certainly an aspect we need to see in order to bridge the play's unsettling events and their recollection by the mature Jean Louise years later. It's part of what makes the character of Atticus so powerful — the aura that affects the citizens of Maycomb, both black and white, also radiates toward Jem and Scout and, by extension, Dill. (The young actor who showed that sensitivity to Atticus best was Grayson Molin as Jem.) On the technical side, Paula tended to deliver her lines with marked accents that often obscured the words in between the accented ones.

Of the rest of the cast, there was plenty of focus on low life in the performances of Robert Neal as Bob Ewell, seizing the opportunity to disguise his abusive parenting with a baseless charge against Tom Robinson (played with a moving vulnerability and truthfulness by Daniel Martin), and Katherine Shelton as his desperate daughter, Mayella. James Solomon Benn stood firm as a father-figure and bulwark of endurance in the black community as Reverend Sykes. Charles Goad gave a performance as the prosecuting attorney that seemed to acknowledge the unreliability of the charge while also underlining  prejudices of the time and place that he knew would be sufficient to secure a conviction.

All told, this is an earnest production loaded with appropriate atmosphere that illustrates some of the persistent difficulties in giving an even texture to a production that necessarily seesaws between adult memories and a world of childhood struggling to understand why the grownups handle difficult matters the way they do.

What remains outstanding with me is the spirit and tension of the courtroom scene and the vigorous staging of the climactic fight that rids the town of the menace that has cost an innocent man his life and nearly destroyed a modest, conscientious lawyer's career. "People like Atticus never bother about pride in their gifts," one character truly says about him. In this show, it's a lesson not quite clear enough on the juvenile level, which only attains clarity in retrospect.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Hanging meanings on the moon and other heavenly bodies: ISO's "Cosmos Music Festival" enters its second week

From mythological beings flung into heavenly immortality as constellations, through astrology, astronomy, and philosophical speculation, looking into the night sky has long passed beyond simple admiration.

The second week of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's "Cosmic Music Festival" trains its sights on musical interpretations of the larger meanings of stars, planets, comets, asteroids and just about anything else except what man has thrown up there over the last forty years.

Friday night's opening concert confirmed there are works you just can't avoid in such a survey, in
Jun Märkl brought out the full vitality of Holst and Hindemith.
particular Paul Hindemith's "Die Harmonie der Welt" Symphony and that perpetual blockbuster, "The Planets" by Gustav Holst.

Popular guest conductor Jun Märkl is on the podium tonight at the Hilbert Circle Theatre and Sunday afternoon at Avon High School. The Japanese-German maestro radiates affability and intensity in equal proportions, in addition to displaying an electrifying engagement with a score's three-dimensional rhythmic personality.

These qualities were well put to use in the program's two major works. The Hindemith symphony — in three dense, busy movements — was a first performance in ISO history, according to the program book. It's not surprising that the German composer's music has little more than a sturdy niche in today's musical gallery.

Hindemith had as intimate a knowledge of the symphony orchestra's instruments as any composer who ever wrote for it. Ideologically, he represented no-nonsense resistance to both the tattered banners of romanticism and the onrush of atonality. He was all about the craft of composition, and that is as fully evident in "Die Harmonie der Welt" as anywhere. Here, he develops themes from his opera about Johannes Kepler, the astronomer who interpreted his discovery of the laws of planetary motion as indicators of universal harmony. That idea goes way back to ancient thinkers like Pythagoras, whose speculative theories were elaborated by Boethius in the sixth century.

Boethius' work gave Hindemith his three-movement scheme, depicting in succession music as we know it produced by voices and instruments, music as a vehicle for uniting body and soul, and music of the spheres. Holding that lightly in the mind, the listener may well experience a substitute for real enjoyment, as I did Friday night.

And just what is this ersatz enjoyment? "Die Harmonie der Welt" is easy to follow, despite its complicated surface. Imitative counterpoint runs riot (insofar as the very word "riot" ever applies to this composer): Anything you hear from one part of the orchestra will soon be repeated somewhere else. You can bank on it. The ISO's performance was crystal-clear, for the most part. At the end, two principals got well-deserved solo bows: flutist Karen Moratz and bassoonist John Wetherill.

But the formal uprightness of Hindemith's music was indelibly satirized by the English conductor-composer Constant Lambert in "Music Ho! A Study of Music in Decline." It's hard to get his skewering of Hindemith in general out of your head: "Listening to his firmly wrought works we seem to see ourselves in a block of hygienic and efficient workmen's flats built in the best modernismus manner, from which emerge troops of healthy uniformed children on their way to the communal gymnasium." Exactly.

Before I part company with Lambert, it is useful to mention his succinct dismissal of another Hindemith piece that is also apt for "Die Harmonie der Welt": "Its combination of natural aridity with deliberate virtuosity is indeed most displeasing. Exhibitionism is only to be tolerated in the physically attractive."

Enter "The Planets," a physically attractive suite — a 20th-century bathing beauty — of seven pieces fleshing out the astrological personalities of an equal number of planets in our solar system. Holst's score is definitely exhibitionistic, but his expressive palette is so much richer that "The Planets" has long been securely in the repertoire, whenever a symphony orchestra wants to hire the extra players needed to bring it to life. In "Venus, the Bringer of Peace" alone, one finds the kind of sensuous harmonies that almost never crossed Hindemith's mind.

What Jupiter would look like to us if it were as close as the moon.
True, the score is almost too accessible, in that parts of it can become tiresome with only slight familiarity. In my case, favorites among these portraits have varied with my advancing age. At about 20, I thought there was hardly anything more captivating than "Mars, the Bringer of War." Stunning as its thrusting bravado is, in Friday's performance it had some deliciously drawn-out tension before the resumption of the juggernaut 5/4 march.

In middle age, "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity" was a huge favorite of mine. There's so much variety in this central part of the suite, it's as if Holst couldn't bear to let go of it. As it got under way, the ISO sounded rough and (not quite) ready, but the movement jelled nicely well before the grandly hymnlike middle section. In the ISO's magnificent account, the sheer hugeness of both the planet and the chief Olympian god came to mind as vividly as this image that recently appeared on my Facebook or Twitter feed.

As I enter old age, I connect inevitably with "Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age," though it contains portents that make me uncomfortable. But the movement I like best of all now is "Neptune, the Mystic." This finale shows off Holst at his most transcendent, somewhat on the order of my favorite composition of his, "The Hymn of Jesus." With women of the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir singing wordlessly from the balcony, the ISO on Friday gave a fine account, after some errant woodwind tuning at the start righted itself.

Like the first "Cosmos" program, this one had a brief vocal selection between the two major works. "O du, mein holder Abendstern," an enduring melody representative of early Richard Wagner before he outgrew arias, was sung by Wolfgang Brendel of the Jacobs School of Music faculty at Indiana University. He sang like a voice teacher.

 Still, the performance suggested the wise forbearance of Wolfram, the character who addresses the evening star after a poignant parting from the saintly Elizabeth in "Tannhäuser." Brendel's seasoned baritone sounded a little bare on top, and the repetition of the last line, "ein sel'ger Engel dort zu werden," drifted slightly out of tune. The cello section solidly reprised the main part of the melody at the end to put the performance on a firm footing.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Indianapolis Opera lifts its voice to proclaim financial, artistic health in the 2016-17 season

A work that its author yearned to see turned into an opera will reach that status posthumously next September when Indianapolis Opera premieres "Happy Birthday, Wanda June."

Indianapolis native Kurt Vonnegt wrote the libretto based on what started life as a 1971 stage play. After Richard Auldon Clark, director of instrumental activities at Butler University, befriended the fellow New Yorker late in the author's life, the two talked frequently of imbuing the story with music. Vonnegut died in 2007.

Scheduled for production in the Schrott Center for the Arts on campus, the opera will be directed by Eric Einhorn, heading a production team including Cameron Anderson (set design), Shawn Kauffman (lighting), and Candida Nichols (costumes).

"Happy Birthday, Wanda June" was motivated by Vonnegut's opposition to the Vietnam War. It is loosely based on "The Odyssey," the epic poem by Homer, with an American soldier of fortune as the Ulysses character. He returns home to his wife, Penelope, finding her much changed while he was away, lost in the Amazon Basin.

"He had talked many times about 'Wanda June' being good as an opera," Clark told a season-announcement gathering at the Schrott Center Thursday night. "The story and words were most important to him," and Vonnegut thought new music would serve the text well:  "Kurt thought that as soon as it had music, everyone would  understand the characters of 'Wanda June' better," Clark said. "This man knew music like you wouldn't believe."

Indianapolis Opera plans to set up a small Vonnegut festival in the week before the opera premieres Sept. 16-18. Details have yet to be concluded

The rest of the season:

* "The Barber of Seville," by Gioacchino Rossini (Nov. 18-20), the Tarkington at the Center for the Performing Arts, Carmel. It's one of most produced comic operas.

* "The Jewel Box,"  (March 24-26, 2017,  at the Schrott Center), a pastiche fully scored by W.A. Mozart and put together by music critic Paul Griffiths. Concert arias are used, given new English texts and linked with spoken dialogue. The piece fancifully puts the composer inside the action with the goal of creating a new kind of operatic genre.

Reginald Smith Jr.
Sydney Mancasola

Yi Li
Margaret Mezzacappa
The current season will end March 18-20 with the American premiere of Jonathan Dove's opera based on Jane Austen's "Mansfield Park." This weekend the company presents "Opera's Rising Stars," a program of highlights from the opera repertoire featuring four recent winners of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. They will be accompanied by the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra conducted by Matthew Kraemer, its music director. Both programs are at the Schrott Center.

Heard in rehearsal Thursday night, they proved to be four capable singers of thrilling potential. They are soprano Sydney Mancasola, mezzo-soprano Margaret Mezzacappa, tenor Yi Li, and baritone Reginald Smith Jr. The Indianapolis Opera Chorus is also on the program, which will be performed twice this weekend.

Before the season announcement, IO general director Kevin Patterson summed up the company's achievements over the past year since he was named to head it.

A new matching gift program of $25,000 for the endowment has raised $11,000 so far. Its educational component performed 78 shows in 18 Indiana counties for audiences totaling 25,574. On the way to having seven resident companies at its home, the Basile Opera Center, 4011 N. Pennsylvania St., it now has Motus Dance, Encore Vocal Arts and the Indianapolis Film Festival as tenants. "We intend to establish the Basile Center as a midtown destination for the arts," Patterson said.


Wednesday, January 27, 2016

'Once in Love With Bernie': A song in ambivalent tribute to the cult of Senator Sanders

On the day when the insurgent Vermont socialist senatormet with the President, I honor the occasion with a campaign song that is unlikely to be adopted by the Sanders campaign. No one should have to vote for the Loesser of two coevals (Susan Raccoli and me)!

Posted by Jay Harvey on Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Conflicted views search for clarity through 'Skylight,' a production of David Hare's play at Theatre on the Square

Far into the first act of "Skylight," I started to anticipate the simultaneous appearance on the Theatre on the Square stage of Tom Sargeant, a bluff, opinionated London businessmen, and his alienated, directionless son, Edward. As the second act proceeded, I began to ache for it.

Then it became clear I was trying to put David Hare's play into a box it didn't belong in — the sort of play where all the major conflicts characters bring to the fore are catapulted into the future by a confrontation. Isn't that where we often think we live — in an ever-vanishing present marked largely by the effort of lugging our past forward, both hoping for and dreading a clarifying jolt toward understanding?

Bill Simmons as Tom Sargeant: The control freak starts to lose his touch in Act 2.
 "Skylight" is not that kind of play. Father and son never appear together; instead their neediness pivots around the third character, Kyra Hollis, who left the Sargeant household suddenly several years before, exposing a gaping family wound.

Kyra is now a schoolteacher living in one depressed area of London and working in another a long commute away. The play's scene — her apartment, designed astutely for TOTS by John Walker to exhibit her fragile yet orderly grip on the lower middle class — embraces the separate, unannounced visits of Tom and Edward.

The overwhelming emotional weight of those visits (and the bulk of stage time) falls on the Tom-Kyra relationship. Hanging over it is the ghost of Tom's wife Alice, who succumbed to cancer after an agonizing decline, propped up in a room her husband had built for her — a room with a skylight, creating for the dying invalid a vestibule of heaven.

Construing this room spiritually was Alice's project, recalled disparagingly by Tom in the flood of
Sarah McGee as Kyra, whose options seem better grounded than they at first appear.
talk that passes between the ex-lovers. He deplores the very words "spiritual" and "guilt," he says, on top of scorning Kyra's post-Sargeant life. He believes talented people of good breeding and energy are obligated to go for the brass ring, not slink downward into pockets of misplaced charity.

The go-go nineties happened in Britain, too, we're reminded. A corporate-minded restaurateur, Tom makes his case in terms Americans will recognize: People beaten down by life probably "made bad life choices." Material success, on the other hand, is the tangible reward for good character, and Tom feels unfairly stung by political winds that buffet "job creators," belittling enterprise and hard work. In the second act, Kyra gathers strength for a rebuttal of this outlook, railing against establishment bromides and the comfortable habit of blaming the victim.

The playwright has piled heavy burdens on all three characters. The contrasting social and political  views of Kyra and Tom are embedded in their personal baggage; the 18-year-old Edward's outlook is less sophisticated, but equally aggrieved. Hare gives to each a mode of expression that never seems to be merely about intellectual calisthenics. They aren't mouthpieces for opposed political stances as we so often find in the plays of George Bernard Shaw.

Signaled particularly by Tom's withering attitudes, all three are without sources of spiritual succor. "Skylight" takes place in a thoroughly secularized UK, and the only important history is personal, sucking all the air out of a wider consciousness of time. While watching the opening-night performance, I thought of William Faulkner's oft-quoted assertion: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

But more to the point than this Zen-like apothegm is something on the same theme at the end of his Paris Review interview: "Time is a fluid condition which has no existence except in the momentary avatars of individual people," Faulkner said. "There is no such thing as was — only is. If was existed, there would be no grief or sorrow."

The is of these characters constitutes a burden to them, expressed in terms of memory. But it's fully present and threatens to overload the viewer as well. Hare goes beyond the function of exposition — where characters bring up naturally the information it's vital for the audience to know — to saturate the play with an encyclopedia containing only three entries: A short one for Edward, massive ones for Kyra and Tom.

Edward, a successful man's son at loose ends, seeks to reconnect with Kyra
Under the direction of Gari Williams, the performances hold up well. They are animated and fully fleshed out. An immediate strong impression was made by Tyler Ostrander as the play got under way; his Edward was as demonstrative physically as vocally. A virtually discarded son desperate to find a purpose in life, Edward is seeking something in Kyra he has to flail a bit to find. His success becomes evident in the touching final scene.

As Kyra, Sarah McGee had a willowy intensity that suited the character's suppleness as well as her vulnerability. The acoustics of TOTS' main stage are not flattering to actors' voices, and hers is perhaps a little light. But she made up for that in several ways: Even the character's quiet wariness was sharply etched, and the ferocity toward Tom that emerges in the second act was heart-piercingly genuine. Hare cannily implies that the couple's sexual reunion (in the imaginative space of the intermission) has aroused Kyra's feistiness.

Tom and Kyra tentatively envision a future together
Bill Simmons reflected in his postures and voice his character's well-applied veneer of self-confidence and gimlet-eyed bravado. He also  accounted for much of the play's humor. Tom's mimicry of his new corporate bosses and the phoniness of Britain's booming managerial class was sharply satirical. His vanity poured forth abundantly in Simmons' portrayal; it was like one of those chocolate fondue fountains you sometimes see at fancy receptions.

Thus, the richness of the text wearies the palate. Lots of credit goes to director Gari Williams for moving the actors around TOTS' wide space well. All that talk needs the abundant punctuation of gesture and movement. Especially impressive was the amount of dialogue between Tom and Kyra in the first act in which they were about forty feet apart with no loss of dramatic engagement.

I was reminded of those Eugene O'Neill characters who seem to absorb everything around them, often too much for both them and us. You sense that if they ever stop talking they will implode. Hare resembles O'Neill in creating characters that captivate us and engage our sympathies — and at length dare us to find them tedious. The locus classicus of this kind of character for me is King Lear. Tom Sargeant is definitely not more sinned against than sinning, but like Shakespeare's king, he's his own worst enemy.

A man who's his own worst enemy usually focuses his combative energy on finding a way to abandon the battlefield. Lear does it through going mad; Tom, in a manner that can't be revealed here. Ethically, and not just because I'm a liberal, my sympathy comes down on Kyra's side. Her departure from the Sargeant household, held up for so much of the play as a quixotic, willful escape, turns out to be better grounded morally than anything Tom does.

He's fascinating but toxic, totally self-absorbed but not really self-aware. Lacking that redeeming quality, he's a vulgar modern version of another tragic Shakespeare hero: Hamlet. He's exuberantly manipulative, like the Danish prince. But he's also afflicted with unexpiated touches of the guilty Claudius. His "words without thoughts never to heaven go."

That's not Tom's milieu, and he's well practiced in ways to compensate for the lack of it. Heaven in this play is for the absent Alice to have gazed toward through the skylight. Our earthly views are roughly filtered through the flow of time, whose momentary avatars we can't help being in Faulkner's never-ending is. This fine production confirms the surplus of grief and sorrow always to be found in that sphere.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Voyager is 2 billion miles away, but the ISO is right here playing some of the music on it

The first time I heard "The Rite of Spring" in concert, Richard M. Nixon was there with me.

I shouldn't assume it was also the President's first time, but that was likely the case. His musical tastes got only as highbrow as Richard Rodgers' "Victory at Sea." He had skipped the main event marking the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Arts — the premiere of Leonard Bernstein's "Mass" — for what were credibly rumored to be political reasons.

Attending the National Symphony Orchestra's christening of the center's concert hall with Mrs. Nixon in September 1971 was a shrewd compromise. I was nowhere near the presidential box, of course, as the crowded room witnessed Antal Dorati leading the NSO forces in Igor Stravinsky's shattering masterpiece.

The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's  "Rite" at  Hilbert Circle Theatre Friday didn't put me in such
The image that misled me as a teenage fan of "Rite"
distinguished company, but the performance had the same kind of momentous feeling. And I'm guessing its clarity, tonal allure, and rhythmic acuity surpassed what I heard in Washington, D.C., more than 40 years ago.

The particulars of that performance have long since been swept into oblivion, but I remember somewhat better my second live hearing of the work, when in the 1990s Frederick Burgomaster conducted a professional pick-up orchestra (including many ISO members) to cap the "Stravinsky Fest" he had mounted across the Circle at Christ Church Cathedral. It struck me as both exciting and routine.

There was nothing routine about what a capacity audience heard as Krzysztof Urbanski conducted "The Rite of Spring" in the first of three performances this weekend. The program opens a three-weekend "Cosmos Music Festival," which celebrates the music director's high regard for both music and science. Before a note was played, he drolly told the first-night audience that NASA had discovered Indianapolis to be the center of the universe for at least the duration of the festival. This must be the ISO's ultimate outreach programming.

This weekend's concerts focus on music included on the Golden Record, a selection of Earth's music aboard the twin Voyager spacecraft, launched in 1977 and believed to be now some 2 billion miles from its origin. Urbanski invited the audience to imagine Beethoven's Fifth, "The Rite of Spring," and the Queen of the Night aria (from Mozart's "Magic Flute") as if heard by sentient beings unimaginable distances from Earth.

As difficult as that might be, there was a freshness to Friday's performance of Stravinsky's precedent-setting ballet score. Its evocation of pagan Russia in modernist terms, created by a young composer just coming into his own, has proved to be beyond imitation. With mixed reviews at its 1913 premiere including a famous riot, the hostile reception that first night in Paris was certainly influenced by the unseasonably warm weather, Vaslav Nijinsky's unconventional choreography, and the odd costuming.  No one in that audience could have been much in the mood to remain calm, whether pro or con.

After the high-register bassoon solo, given a touch of elegance by John Wetherill, the ISO performance soon moved onto a high plane of rich color and startling accents through the "Augurs of Spring" and "Ritual of Abduction" sections. The absolute Russianness of the thematic material has been emphasized by many commentators, correcting my early impressions of the music as rooted in  tropical lushness. The first recording I knew, with Pierre Monteux conducting, had Henri Rousseau's "Snake Charmer" reproduced on the jacket. The exotic jungle image has been hard to shake.

Vaslav Nijinsky in "L'apres midi d'un Faune."
Urbanski, with his Slavic heritage no doubt coming into play, reveled in the work's rich melodies. He also didn't hold back from what one early critic sneered at as the score's "tinselly barbarism" — the blend of sensuousness Stravinsky absorbed from his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, and a focus on mixed rhythms, dissonance and clashes of tonal centers throwing Romantic "expressiveness" into a cocked hat.

Critically noted in ambivalent terms for his quasi-choreographic movement in his recent  San Francisco  Symphony debut, Urbanski here in his typically scoreless management of this music was as animated as I've ever seen him. He made full use of the podium. Some of his postures — the curved back, thrusting arm motions, raised heels with some near-pivoting on toes — brought to mind images of the great Nijinsky. It was as if the maestro were unconsciously evoking the era of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo out of which the great Stravinsky ballets emerged.

The concert's second half opened with the ferocious display piece of the Queen of the Night, one of the most theatrically outsized arias in the operatic canon. The ISO's guest soprano is Shannon Love, who on Friday negotiated the pinpoint coloratura nearly
without a hitch, accompanied smartly by the ISO. Her fervor was unrelenting, her technical prowess sound.

Before intermission, Urbanski's grand manner with Beethoven's Fifth occupied the spotlight. In
Shannon Love portrayed Mozart's raging queen.
keeping with modern practice, his procedure with the first movement, whose four-note motif is the touchstone of classical music even among people who never go near a symphony concert, was "Allegro con brio" all the way. The momentum was overwhelming Friday night, and frequently a challenge to the players.

The most significant pause in its progress — a one-measure oboe cadenza — introduced a note of poignancy to the interpretation as played by assistant principal oboist Roger Roe. It was like an answer to Beethoven's characterization of the movement's main material as "Fate knocking at the door" along the lines of "OK, I'm coming — but I'm sort of dreading this."

Softer dynamic levels were expertly managed in the second and third movements. The rushing passage for cellos and basses  in the latter was somewhat imprecise, but otherwise the level of coordination remained high.

Usually I'm a fan of "breathing" hints in instrumental music, which indicate players' sense that the source of all musical impulse is song. But I liked the dense character Urbanski and the ISO gave to the main theme in the finale. The phrasing was broad and mighty, the canvas filled edge to edge. Who needs to breathe? The movement is one long exhalation. This seemed quite suitable for the atmosphere of absolute triumph that the Fifth Symphony moves toward in its protracted conclusion. And the exposition was properly repeated with no let-up in the thick impasto of sound the orchestra applied to Beethoven's portrait of unquenchable Victory.

Pre-concert chamber music by ISO players was also drawn from the Golden Record. I appreciated the pensiveness Sylvia Scott brought to the Prelude that opens the second volume of Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier." The only composer represented more than once on the Golden Record, Bach concluded this short program.

For his Second Brandenburg Concerto, names of three of the concertino players were omitted in the printed program, but oboist Jennifer Christen, flutist Karen Moratz, violinist Philip Palermo,  and guest trumpeter Joey Tartell made a pretty successful attempt to get the right balance in the front line, a few extra-loud bursts and missed notes from the trumpeter to the contrary notwithstanding.

Concertmaster Zach De Pue offered a poised account of a movement from Bach's Partita No. 3 in E for solo violin, then joined ISO colleagues Peter Vickery, violin; Amy Kniffen, viola, and Austin Huntington, cello, in an evenly set forth, subtly ethereal performance of the Cavatina from Beethoven's String Quartet in B-flat, op. 130.

Whatever intelligent creatures far away in the universe may make of the music from this small blue-marble planet, we can only hope the human race will not have rendered its place of origin uninhabitable by the time they discover it. Our descendants need to be around to savor their responses. In the meantime, it seems sufficient that today's earthlings can enjoy the musical achievements the ISO is sampling this weekend.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

'A Whiter Shade of Palin' brings back, in a speech-song style, a Sixties hit to address the winter of our discontent

Not quite as hard to understand as Procol Harum's original, "A Whiter Shade of Palin" comments in speech-song on the bonechillingest new political alliance.

Posted by Jay Harvey on Thursday, January 21, 2016

Monday, January 18, 2016

'Values of New York': With apologies to the shade of Vernon Duke, here's an explanation in song of the point Ted Cruz tried to make the other night

In the recent GOP debate, Ted Cruz attempted to skewer Donald Trump for representing "New York values." This plaintive song attempts to explain that accusation from the standpoint of the "white-bread" Republican base.

Posted by Jay Harvey on Monday, January 18, 2016

Saturday, January 16, 2016

'The Mystery of Irma Vep' moves IRT's virtuosity into the foreground, where it rubs shoulders with sheer comic gusto

There aren't many shows a producer would promote the way Indiana Repertory Theatre has "The Mystery of Irma Vep." On my Facebook feed, a sponsored item carries a picture of Marcus  Truschinski and Rob Johansen in one of several "Vep" guises and invites the public to savor their "utterly asinine performance."

Talk about disarming criticism! It's tough to top that as a description of what took place on IRT's Upperstage opening night Friday. But of course an asinine performance brought off with such energy and commitment, and with every aspect of IRT's technical acumen synchronized with the actors, is just what Charles Ludlam's "penny dreadful" needs.

Directed by James Still, Truschinski and Johansen bend every effort toward realizing the rich Gothic absurdity of Ludlam's imagination. Never have winds across the moors of northern England blown with such mind-clearing gusts of shrieking nonsense as they do around the Mandacrest estate.

The plot is difficult to summarize. An amateur Egyptologist and novice hunter, Lord Edgar Hillcrest (Truschinski) is enmeshed in his own spooky back story. It's set out for the audience in flagrant bits and pieces, like a generous but haphazard buffet. Ceaseless laughter becomes an aid to digestion.

In a calm moment at Mandacrest, Jane offers Lady Enid tea, but little sympathy
Edgar's new wife, Lady Enid (Johansen) stands in the shadow of his previous spouse, the title character. A vain ex-actress out of her element, Enid is resented by the longtime domestic servant Jane Twisden (Truschinski), whose fellow factotum Nicodemus Underwood (Johansen) clumps about on a wooden leg, spouting dense wisdom in a Yorkshire accent as thick as gorse and harebell.

The cast is so deft with quick changes, and the script so rife with knowing allusions to the precarious balance of character absence and presence, that anyone in the audience can be forgiven for losing the narrative thread. I've extended such forgiveness to myself, at least.

Stupefying events in succession tend to obliterate what has preceded them. I would be reduced to stammering if asked to give a full account of any given scene, though images of just about all of them are whirling around today in my private phantasmagoria. They are accompanied by Lindsay Jones' stunning sound design, keyed to resonant pipe-organ music.

Johansen and Truschinski: Protagonists agonistes.
Mistaken identity has been a staple of stage comedy from ancient times. Ludlam builds upon the misprision basic to the genre to make a spicy stew out of the ingredients of personhood. Identity is fluid and ever subject to change in the kaleidoscope of extraordinary life situations. Johansen's Nicodemus shifts into a werewolf practically before our eyes. Truschinski's Jane, when she becomes especially bossy, adopts a chesty, mannish tone of voice. The show's answer to everything confining is to "shake it off," in Swiftian (Taylor, not Jonathan) terms.

Such fluidity seems to be an outgrowth of gay culture within historical bounds only recently breachable. Sexual ambiguity and looseness of gender roles is central  to the tradition. It emerges out of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" (vivid portrayals of Lady Bracknell have come from gay actors, including the late Brian Bedford). It attained provocative mordancy in the plays of Joe Orton. It's evident in all-male productions of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" that Edward Albee has at times tried to quash.

Still has played up some suggestiveness of this sort, which is deeply embedded in the way Ludlam mocks supernaturally charged romantic movies, and the cast brings it off piquantly. One can only hope most such business went over the heads of  kids in the opening-night audience. Despite the all-ages "wow" factors in this production,"The Mystery of Irma Vep" is not for children.

Besides arousing gales of guffaws, IRT's achievement here is to bring front and center the expertness of its production team. Its technical resources are unmatched by any company for miles around. The unity of effect that "The Mystery of Irma Vep" made Friday night represents a triumph of professionalism over material that deliberately pulls dramatic cohesiveness every which way. It's all in the service of what Oliver Wendell Holmes called the height of the ridiculous.

I doubt either of the athletic, virtuoso players ever asked in rehearsal: "What's my motivation here?"  It's not that kind of play. I'm supposing the answer would have been something like: "To bring off this bit as spectacularly as possible and get smoothly to the next outrageous bit. Rinse and repeat."

That's a lot to ask, of course, but everybody concerned  with "The Mystery of Irma Vep" delivers on all counts.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Ai Wei-Wei won a shipment battle with Lego, and improved his brand in the marketable universe of artistic freedom, but at the price of this song!

The most famous Chinese artist, though he has undoubtedly suffered, has a hustle like everybody else. When Lego blocked his recent bulk order, he fought back, suggesting that a planned Legoland for Shanghai motivated their decision. Eventually the Danish toy maker relented. Through me, he attempts to sing of his triumph (in his cups). "No true art without a strong dose of banality." -- E.M. Cioran

Posted by Jay Harvey on Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Tucker brothers and two simpatico colleagues issue an enchanting debut disc

I don't know why "nine is the magic number," but the question takes second place behind the cogent musical answers offered on "Nine Is the Magic Number," a CD produced by brothers Nick Tucker, bass, and Joel Tucker, guitar.

Nick Tucker on the job [photo: Mark Sheldon]
Hearing the well-schooled Indianapolis natives in several concert settings with tenor saxophonist Sean Imboden and drummer Brian Yarde confirms the consistent evidence on this disc:  These 11 tracks, mostly originals, amount to a series of tight but roomy four-way conversations.

A pop sensibility shapes the quartet's performance of Imogen Heap's "Closing In," but on the whole there's no deviation from a fresh approach to small-group jazz that also extends the mainstream. That extension takes the form of structures that avoid the routine. Tunes stated in unison by guitar and sax are the norm; solos are imaginatively distributed across each performance.

There seems to be a ready interaction between written and improvised material. The level of soloing is inspired.  I was charmed by Nick Tucker's strong showing and Imboden's rangy solo in "Achilles."

Moodier pieces establish their characteristic atmosphere without being weighed down by overthinking. "I've Never Been Good with Goodbyes" has a fetching stop/start melodic line and a showcase solo for Joel Tucker. Every member of the group connects his ideas and melds them with the group product.

Often a piece will encompass a wide emotional range without ever coming close to falling apart. "Glassbreaker," which closes out the disc, is torrential at first; then it settles down, and you never suspect the musical equivalent of an attention-deficit disorder. It's typical of the contained world each of the tracks presents — a celebration of four young musicians feeling comfortable in their collective skin.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The last word on uptalk (not really, but it wouldn't be so bad if it were[?])

To repost now my mockery of uptalk, which took the form of parodying a well-known Christmas carol, may seem perverse in mid-January.

Tracy Kidder
But my excuse is that I hadn't come across until today this marvelous smackdown of a curious vocal practice current mainly among young women.

It's Tracy Kidder quoting with admiration a magazine piece by his longtime editor Richard Todd, who was writing about accompanying one of his daughters on a college tour. Consider the following a belated epigraph to that Yuletide post of mine.

"We met our tour guide, and then she asked us her name. "Hi, my name is Melissa?'"

   --  from "Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction"
by Tracy Kidder & Richard Todd (Random House, 2013)

Monday, January 11, 2016

"Act Ruthlessly": A narcoballad focusing on the recapture of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, who thinks (like millions of dreamers before him) he oughta be in the movies

"Act Ruthlessly: An El Chapo Narcoballad," in observance of the (for now) thwarted biopic ambitions of Joaquin Guzman, asking you to imagine him as a gringo vocally attempting to channel Buck Owens and Ringo Starr and keep hand claps consistently on 2 and 4.

Posted by Jay Harvey on Monday, January 11, 2016

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Dance Kaleidoscope ushers in the New Year with "Classic Greats," a three-part program inspired by musical classics

Dance Kaleidoscope's publicity for the program "Classic Greats" includes a subtitle that will surely remind patrons of one of the perpetual challenges of New Year's resolutions: "A Perfect Meal of Dance."

If the appetite for good contemporary dance can suppress appetites that were perhaps overindulged during the holiday season, that's all to the good. The proof is in the pudding, of course: "Classical Greats"  at Indiana Repertory Theatre Friday night was a satisfying three-course repast that ought to keep more basic thirsts and hungers in the background for a while. The master chef was DK's resourceful, indefatigable artistic director, David Hochoy.

The entree was his "Romeo and Juliet Fantasy," a  2012 piece set to Tchaikovsky's "fantasy-overture" after Shakespeare's romantic tragedy. Hochoy here finds a way to make a true ensemble work out of a drama that, despite other vivid characters and exciting crowd scenes, has elevated its title characters to symbols of young love the world over for four centuries.

Mariel Greenlee (left) and several couples foretell the tragedy's end
Hochoy spreads the focus out over three couples: one to represent the first blush of true love, a second to stand for the couple in trouble, and a third for the tomb scene. A fourth couple represents the parental duos opposed in the Montague-Capulet feud.

Where Tchaikovsky's score kicks up ferocious energy, the ensemble (including three dancers not paired) portrays the conflict between the two houses the dying Mercutio wishes a plague upon. The death of Tybalt is clearly presented; the balcony scene is introduced by Juliet's descent from a "balcony" formed by the dancers. Crucial narrative points were well covered, but never placed uppermost.

Most striking was the opening, with a solo dancer foreshadowing the tragedy, miming the ingestion of poison, next to a wonderful episode in which embraces between couples rise and fall, coalesce and slip apart. Hochoy has captured the universality of Rome and Juliet's plight at the very start.

The Balcony Scene pas de deux also plumbed the play's meaning. The projection of a huge full moon on the backdrop brought to mind Juliet's admonition to Romeo not to swear his love by the inconstant moon. The repeated gesture of touching upraised palms underscores promises of fidelity summed up in Juliet's line (in the lovers' first meeting at the Capulets' party) "And palm to palm is holy palmer's kiss."

The entire pas de deux (Mariel Greenlee and Timothy June) was nicely poised between the lovers' erotic attraction and their mature caution and thoughtfulness (I've often thought Juliet is the brains of the pair, frankly). Hochoy has successfully recast Shakespeare's poetry in dance terms. The transfiguration of the couple in their star-crossed death (Jillian Godwin and Zach Young) avoids protracted gestures of extinction in favor of Juliet's sudden clinging leap onto the standing, immobile Romeo's back. It's an inspired complement to Tchaikovsky's forceful final measures.

It's the worst ear worm ever, but "New York, New York" can't miss as a finale.
"Frank's Way" provides confirmation of Hochoy's innate good taste as well as his imagination. For one thing, there's a refusal to hammer home an obvious point: Godwin's marvelous solo in "That's Life" has her artfully falling on her face the first time the lyrics indicate that's what happens in life; when the line returns, Hochoy avoids recycling that movement. He is above implicitly saying to an audience: "Wasn't that great? Watch and I'll do it again!"

In "Frank's Way"  10 of Frank Sinatra's recordings are the basis for some deceptively offhand choreography as well as movement that gets to the heart of the musical performance. I want to focus on "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," with its fitting transition from the verse to the chorus. The tension of the former relaxes into the arm-in-arm gait of  three dancers as Sinatra sings, "I'm wild again, beguiled again...." Richard Rodgers' tune captures the tension behind the bemusement of a new relationship, as wonder veils anxiety; and, as so often in their collaboration, Lorenz Hart's mordant lyrics make for a piquant partner.

Hochoy's good taste shows again at the end of the song, where the arrangement for Sinatra rises to grandiloquence. The choreography follows it only part way, but without undercutting the arguable overproduction. It's a tribute to Hochoy's imagination and the excellence of his troupe that from now on, whenever this version of "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" plays in my head, it will be accompanied by visions of June, Mariel Greenlee,  and Caitlin Negron dancing it.

Revived from 2000, "El Salon Mesico" is both forceful and ingratiating.
The program's appetizer was a tasty setting of Aaron Copland's "El Salon Mexico," a spirited evocation of Mexico from a visitor's viewpoint. Hochoy's version eschews routine application of local color. There are no sombreros or ponchos in Cheryl Sparks' timeless costumes. The choreography for eight dancers is often geometric, with erect, frontal postures. Arms are typically raised, bent at right angles, palms open. Such gestures, and the abstract forms evident in pre-Columbian nonfigurative artwork, evoke Aztec culture. Hochoy alludes in his program note to the largely subconscious way this visual art was grafted onto his personal roots in the art of Martha Graham.

When the cheeky E-flat clarinet solo enters, Hochoy allows some humor into his piece. There's an almost hoedown sort of buoyancy that's smoothly introduced, never entirely displacing the formality. Even after the humor recedes its effect is evident:  there's more fluidity and roundedness in the dancing. Something exuberant in the culture — both pre-contact and since colonization — emerges in combination with ritual sobriety.

Only two more sittings of "Classic Greats" remain.  You're likely to come away feeling content, not stuffed. Bon appetit!

[Production photos: Crowe's Eye Photography]

Friday, January 8, 2016

'Butler' at the Phoenix Theatre: Civil War drama delves into our national identity, with coded secrets and words that clarify or obscure

The first scene in the Phoenix Theatre's "Butler" will stun anyone inclined to think a play based on an incident in the Civil War ought to have the pace, flow, and sheer ordinariness of realism.

As Major General Benjamin Butler upbraids his adjutant, Lieutenant Kelly, over nice distinctions between a few pairs of words, you might feel you are being asked to manipulate a Stoppardesque Rubik's Cube. But more than verbal distinctions are involved. Richard Strand's two-act drama is steeped in the American burden of slavery and race in its most consequential era.

The first scene's word play is fundamentally all serious, a pedantic way Butler has of covering his insecurity as a
Gen. Butler deals with escaped slave Shepard Mallory as his adjutant stands guard.
lawyer recently thrust out of civilian life into command of a Union fort in Virginia early in the conflict. As seen on opening night Thursday, his playfulness comes out of hiding from time to time, but essentially Butler is a man used to success and determined to continue on that path with his nation in crisis. The way of war, however, is to upend peacetime standards of success and erect its own on imperiled foundations.

Stephen Hunt embodied the title character's bluster, keen intelligence, and sturdy sense of propriety.  Butler's personal moral and legal crisis about the duty to return runaway slaves to their rightful owners is also the nation's. The problem, rooted in the Fugitive Slave Act, is introduced in that word-crazy opening scene as Butler spars with the younger but more seasoned junior officer, played with long-suffering restraint and erectness of bearing by Brandon Alstott. (I have no military experience, but isn't a salute always delivered with the fingers together, not apart? It seemed the sole, and minor, flaw in Alstott's performance. [Update (1/12/16): Dale McFadden, the play's director, wrote to inform me that this style of salute is authentic.[)

Ramon Hutchins as a slave with one undaunted mission
Leading a group of three escaped slaves from a nearby plantation, Shepard Mallory (Ramon Hutchins) insists upon being sheltered at the fort. Butler's inclination to return Mallory and his colleagues to their owner is checked only by his basic decency and a suspicion, encouraged by Shepard, that he and the leader of the escapees are temperamentally akin. Hutchins conveyed the vast difference in status between the two men, as well as the equality of their intelligence.

Guest director Dale McFadden draws from Hunt and Hutchins fiercely galvanic performances. Both characters are clever and rhetorically gifted. Shepard's humanity and keen powers of observation clearly appeal to Butler and eventually to Lt. Kelly, whose hostility toward the slave gradually softens. The catalyst for that is Butler's magnificent lawyerly rejection of any obligation to return the three escapees to the evident brutality of slavery. Shepard's feisty history as the property of the Mallory family, plus his role as ringleader of the escape, make his execution a virtual certainty.

Doug Powers as Major Cary, Stephen Hunt as General Butler.
In the crucial supporting role of Major Cary, the Confederate officer assigned to deliver their owner's demand for the slaves' return, Doug Powers was the picture of Southern good breeding challenged by a staunch need to defend the basic inhumanity of the Confederate cause. Every gesture and expression illuminated the character; he made Cary's precise pulling off of his gloves and tucking them in his belt mesmerizing.

The back-and-forth between the two officers is not only dramatically compelling, but also a lesson in the rationalizing strategies of each side. Butler's stratagem ensuring that Cary will turn aside from his mission and return to the Confederacy empty-handed was beautifully played.

Jeffery Martin's set design created the picture of a sparsely but appropriately furnished general's office, and the clear sense of being lived in as the lights came up on the second act made for a telling contrast with its unsettled look in Act 1. Michael Moffatt's lighting indicated different times of day subtly, and there was just a suggestion of a period glow of the kind audiences might recognize from old photographs. Emily McGee's costumes looked authentic, with the blue and gray contrast speaking volumes in the negotiation scene, leading up to the turning point of its broken-off sherry toast.

That climactic event was echoed in terms foreshadowing the Union's eventual victory by Shepard's proposal in the final scene. Other victories stemming from the Civil War's causes have yet to be realized by the nation that sadly still requires them.

[Production photos by Zach Rosing]

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Not "The Interview": A song of concern about the possibility that North Korea is now a nuclear power

Trying to calm my nervousness about the prospect of North Korea's joining the nuclear club, I felt a song coming on. (Thanks to @Susan Raccoli for assisting at the piano.)
Posted by Jay Harvey on Thursday, January 7, 2016

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Presidential politics and the power of "dialectical Trumpism": An analysis of a populist billionaire's Hegel-Marx-and-Engels-influenced campaign

Despite a well-received parody of Donald Trump's rhetorical style posted here last month, I am revoking a personal pledge to allow that to be my unique entry into the bulge and bilge of commentary on him.

Trump fatigue is unlikely to be worsened much by a return to the battlefield from my small redoubt of the blogosphere. So I'm not apologizing, but I ought to explain: What prompted this post was my nagging wonder about Trump's durability as a billionaire populist. I'm not referring to his appeal  in light of the way he keeps managing to de-gaffe the gaffe on the campaign trail, but to his relationship with adoring audiences he simultaneously flatters and positions himself as superior to.

The billionaire populist stirs the pot from an openly declared position of superiority.
What other current candidate acknowledges the applause with copious thanks before he starts speaking, and also thanks the crowd for their applause in mid-speech?

Who else interrupts his remarks when he sees a copy of his book held aloft and insists on autographing it then and there?

Who besides Donald Trump keeps inserting "you know that" as a tag to an unsupported assertion ("Unemployment isn't 5.6 percent, you know that"), while in the next sentence telling audiences things they couldn't have known before he tells them? He places himself well above them in status, and often refers to the sacrifice he's making, putting aside his business interests in order to seek the presidency.

Here's my paraphrase: "I love you, but I've got an inside track. I value your love, but because I'm so much above you in access and prestige, you've an obligation to relieve some of your ignorance by listening closely and staying with me."  How does he manage that?

He does it by a personal adaptation of the dialectic of G.W.F. Hegel, who influenced Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the creators of a form of "scientific" socialism the world learned to deal with as Communism. In the original, the dialectic describes the process by which opposite forces contend and resolve into a higher form. Marx and Engels called this contention the class struggle. Economic forces pitted the classes against each other; control of the means of production determined what kind of thought, art, religion was dominant in any society.

For the idealistic Hegel, an economics-based class struggle was no part of the dialectic. His theory  comprised Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis as a cyclical process driven by Spirit and Matter, whose interaction assured that no synthesis would be permanent. For Marxists, materialism governed all, and its notion of a scientific foundation ensured that a classless society could finally be achieved, meaning the dialectical process would come to a natural end.

Donald Trump is more Hegelian than Marxist.  He extols the American spirit. He derives his Thesis vision of America from a mythical blend of the Eisenhower and Reagan eras. A believer in American exceptionalism, he is capable in the same speech (Lowell, Mass., Jan. 4) of praising both Boston Marathon bombing survivors and U.S. border patrol agents, including presumably the one who shot and killed a Mexican teen across the border, in similar terms: They are "great, amazing people."

They are carriers of the Thesis of America, like most of us, who are being oppressed by an Antithesis that has hypertrophied — not the Marxist Antithesis of capitalism, of which Trump is a proud champion, but the political class, who run government with a high degree of incompetence. The businessman's outspoken scorn for his political rivals doesn't stem from a mean disposition, but as a way of underlining his distaste for politicians and their media and special-interest enablers.

Engels and Marx believed they had superseded philosophy.
In describing the current Antithesis, Trump has to be especially careful on two counts. He must avoid any suggestion of proposing reforms to the suppression of popular will and energy by the political class. Reform is wonkish, boring, and to focus on it would be to fall into what the Marxists fought against as the abominations of social democracy and Utopian socialism.

The second thing he has to avoid is the language of victimization. He must describe what amounts to America's victimization, thus earning the sympathy and assent  of his audience, without making them feel like victims, who in political terms are "losers." It's a favorite word in the Trump lexicon; he has interrupted speeches to savor the word, especially as applied to Secretary of State John Kerry, an inept negotiator compared to the candidate, he asserts.

If Trump avoids those two traps in analyzing the components of the Antithesis, he is fully prepared to articulate the Synthesis. Even this is risky, since that resolution of conflict is highly centered on himself. He softens it by emphasizing the extension of himself through wealth, access and know-how. He told the Lowell audience, after mocking a rival who recently echoed his suggestion to build a wall along the Mexican border: "He wouldn't know where to start," then proceeded to sketch in the engineering process behind wall-building. The description faded into a burst of admiring applause.

Dialectical Trumpism positions Trump as the agent for resolving internal contradictions that obstruct American achievement and reduce its stature in the world's eyes. A true leader combines his insight into the ambitions and weaknesses of other leaders with a steady vision of the position America should occupy under his leadership. One of his most revealing boasts (at last summer's Freedom Fest in Las Vegas) is that a Chinese bank, "the largest bank in the world, is a tenant in one of my buildings."
Trump's power overlays China's, in other words. And he is personally acquainted with government and business figures around the world, particularly those challenging the U.S. economically, who confirm our government's inability to protect American interests by telling Trump: "I can't believe we're getting away with this." In contrast, Trump will preside over the make-America-great-again  Synthesis by virtue of special knowledge and dynamism that can stir the emotions of audiences whose imperiled self-worth parallels what Trump identifies as national decline. "We don't have victories anymore. We used to have victories. We used to be great."

Father of the dialectic: G.W.F. Hegel created a system accounting for the absorption of conflicts and partial truths.
Like Hegel, Trump distrusts abstractions. His rhetoric prizes sketchy anecdotes. If he wants to denounce the way our government makes deals, he'll say normal practice can be summed up by one of the most unpopular deals: the exchange of five suspected terrorists for a disgraced soldier, Bowe Bergdahl. "All our deals are like that," scoffs the author of "The Art of the Deal." If he wants a vivid way of presenting his disgust for Nabisco's moving a factory to Mexico, he won't relate the move to the big picture of globalization. He'll promise not to eat Oreos anymore.

Given the long-contending forces of Thesis and Antithesis, it's no wonder that political discourse, from the center rightward, shifted from demonizing "bureaucrats" to disparaging "Washington" as a metonym of "out-of-touch" government. Trump's innovation has been to expand the enemies of American excellence to politicians in general. "They talk and talk, and run for office, sometimes they win, sometimes they lose — they're all talk and no action," he has said.

The inanity of conventional political discourse contrasts with Trump's coming from the outside, from business, a world of action. "They think I'm in this for fun," he protests. "I could be doing all sorts of other things," he told the CPAC Conference last year. There's always the reminder that Trump is something other, and better,  than a politician, just as Marx and Engels insisted their ideas amounted to something other than philosophy.

But as Marxism's critics, including Albert Camus in "The Rebel," have pointed out, no dialectic can exist anywhere but in the mind. The metaphysical side of dialectical materialism is inescapable. No wonder the founders were so defensive. Marx famously trumpeted: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it." And in "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific," Engels boasted: "Modern materialism is essentially dialectic, and no longer requires the assistance of that sort of philosophy which, queen-like, pretends to rule the remaining mob of sciences."

It's likely that both men were haunted by these words from their master, Hegel, who threw cold water on philosophy as a force for change: "Preaching what the world ought to be like, philosophy arrives always too late for that...When philosophy paints its gray in gray, a form of life has become old, and this gray in gray cannot rejuvenate it, only understand it. The owl of Minerva begins its flight when dusk is falling..." In other words, wisdom thrives only after whatever it is scrutinizing has lost vitality.

Trump never stops at this quasi-academic stage of understanding, and seems a deliberately slipshod thinker, preferably poised on the cusp of action. That doesn't mean he's incapable of thinking, however — far from it. He knows what to emphasize and what to leave out. "We have to rebuild our infrastructure," Trump declares, comparing our roads and bridges unfavorably with their pristine counterparts in the Middle East. But he names only bridges and roads, because they symbolize to Americans the freedom to move in first-class, individualistic style. He doesn't mention infrastructure difficulties involving water security and scarcity. Messy, underground, complicated! Don't go there!

A nation led by Donald Trump will reverse the decline caused by "incompetent" leaders. It will push to the margins "losers" of all kinds. The dynamic example of Trump will provide a counterweight to the ineffectual talkers who mismanage the domestic economy and internationally set the USA on a slippery slope of declining prestige and respect: "They're mocking us," he says. "Mexico is treating us like a bunch of babies." "They laugh at us." "There's no respect."

Harvard prof thought great men were obsolete.
I don't believe Trump is a great man, but he has cast himself in the mold of great men. Already in the 19th century, some in the political and academic elite were proclaiming the American experiment to be so thoroughly reliant on its institutions that individual greatness was passe. Edward Channing, who held Harvard's Boylston Chair of Rhetoric from 1819 to 1851 and whose illustrious students included Emerson, Thoreau, and Richard Henry Dana, said: "We never need great men now to take the place of laws and institutions, but merely to stand by them and see that they are unobstructed and unimpaired. A great man is perpetually taught that the world can do without him."

In contrast, Donald Trump is out to convince the body politic that our world can't do without him. Our institutions have failed; the political class has ruined them. In making that case, Trump may channel the anger of a significant portion of the electorate, but he doesn't come across as angry.

Watch those videos! He conveys his indispensability through casting his arms wide, shrugging and raising his voice in disbelief at the idiocy of leadership he sees everywhere around. His eyes twinkle and he relishes off-the-cuff, sometimes caustic wit. He's a master of several rhetorical devices, including one known as praeteritio, as when he says he's not going to bring up the shortcomings of Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, and Jeb Bush, then does, once again. He has made effective use of the common device of anaphora, the use of the same words at the beginning of clauses and sentences: "I would just bomb those suckers [ISIS], and that's right, I'd blow up their pipes, I'd blow up their refineries, I'd blow up every single inch, there would be nothing left."  (Ted Cruz's promise to "carpet-bomb" ISIS, using a term for geographical devastation designed to neutralize advancing armies, is both archaic and rhetorically weak in comparison.)

Trump is different from politicians who mention what's wrong and needs to be fixed, who hold out hope for a better America that connects with Americans' deepest values. Dialectical Trumpism puts a structure over aspiring politicians' hackneyed messages. The appeal to traditional values takes on substance as a founding myth (Thesis), even if it is short on historical detail. Trump's real innovation is his choice of Antithesis: He proposes that, even if lower-class immigrants are a threat, the real obstacle is highly placed but incompetent leaders. Synthesizing the resultant conflict is a job for an energetic outsider, a builder and  developer — with all the symbolism those specialties promise to bring to the civic sphere.

Dialectical materialism was highly attractive to 19th-century intellectuals for its claim to a scientific
Sexy intellectual: Edmund Wilson traced the attraction of three.
basis,  but also for its three-part format. Humankind loves things and ideas in groups of three. Hegel's "triad was simply the old Trinity, taken over from the Christian theology, as the Christians had taken it over from Plato," Edmund Wilson wrote in "To the Finland Station," his examination of the growth of socialist thinking in Europe.

The foxy literary and social critic goes on to say: "It was the mythical and magical triangle which from the time of Pythagoras and before had stood as a symbol for certainty and power and which probably derived its significance from its correspondence to the male sexual organs."

Wow! Does this make too much of the subliminal attraction of things in three? Wilson stifles the objection immediately by quoting Marx, putting down philosophy somewhat like the way Trump puts down politicians: "Philosophy stands in the same relation to the study of the actual world as onanism to sexual love."

Now we can put in context Trump's singsong criticism of politicians. To reiterate: "They talk and talk and talk, they run for office, they win, they lose, they run again." What does that sound like? His rivals are wankers, to borrow a British term. Machismo lies behind Trump's energy. My invention of dialectical Trumpism is a flimsy but suggestive imposition of an intellectual triad onto the sexual drive behind Trump's candidacy.

Trump wants his vaunted knowledge of the world to feel both carnal, and, by extension, truly loving. When it comes to our enemies, Trump envisions the chastity belt of a huge wall to keep out immigrants, some of whom he notoriously labeled rapists. When other enemies threaten violence against us, Trump's language can be more revealing than his famous pledge to "bomb the s--- out of ISIS." It happened when he pledged that his response will be "hard and firm and fast." Like a poster boy for the alleged rape culture, Trump is determined to score. If politics is about winning, so will governing be, in his view. The wankers in the political class will be left on the sidelines, pleasuring themselves.

Trump knows he's not boring, so he jokes with his audiences while reinforcing a major theme by saying that when he's president, America will be winning so much that "you'll be getting bored with winning."  But he and his fans know that Americans never get bored with winning. It's what we expect, and that's no joke. Neither is the prospect that dialectical Trumpism might sweep the field in the year just begun.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre looks into the New Year with marital double vision

Cabbie-bigamist attempts to digest news of his troubling heroics.
"Run for Your Wife" pushes to the outer limit the peculiar ability of farce to show people using extraordinary cleverness to extricate themselves from dumb situations of their own making.

Taxi driver John Smith has inexplicably allowed himself to be talked into marrying an attractive fare, apparently concluding that keeping the new marriage hidden from the wife he already has can be managed easily. His heroism interrupting a mugging late one night upsets his schedule of keeping both wives satisfied and unsuspicious.

From that brief touch with fame, thanks to the news media (in 1985 London, as now everywhere, drawn to the sensation of the moment), all hell breaks loose. Beef & Boards' production of Ray Cooney's play, which opened Saturday night at the dinner theater, never stints on extracting the most from a three-ring circus of misunderstandings and short-lived cover-ups.

On a brightly lit unit set with plenty of doors — the architectural feature most useful in this genre —
Mary Smith works to uphold monogamy.
the action shifts between the two apartments John Smith (Eddie Curry) calls home. Characters walk in on each other smoothly: if they don't notice the other's presence, it's pretty clear they are not occupying the same space. If they are, there is often enough stunned surprise to animate a whole scene.

As hard as Smith works at both his job and his double-sided domestic life, his friend and neighbor Stanley Gardner is, in contrast, afflicted with a ravenous appetite for leisure. He is thus available to become ever more entangled in the cat's-cradle of lies Smith is forced to construct to fool not only his wives but also a police detective from each of the precincts he inhabits.
New wife Barbara Smith just wants her scheduled time.

This tests Smith's ability to think on his feet and the audience's ability to follow it all.  There was little doubt that a cast displaying this much energy and expressiveness, keyed to Curry's manic performance, would ever allow their characters to deviate into sense.

The first act had me laughing so hard I nearly blinded myself with goofy tears. In the second act, Cooney's unstoppable wit and fascination with his own ability to concoct new misinterpretations started to wear me down. Under J.R. Stuart's direction, all of it gathered such momentum, however, that the play rolled ahead like a whiz-bang juggernaut.

In Act 2, sexual innuendo got knottier and more perplexing, heightened by the "out" flamboyance of Sean Blake as the upstairs neighbor at Smith's other flat. Yet no amount of Cooney's occasionally labored nonsense stayed B&B's couriers from the the swift completion of their appointed rounds. Layering on a little extra "business," an irritating habit in some B&B comedies, never seemed too much for "Run for Your Wife." It amounted to a useful corrective to overthinking the plot.

Two London police detectives square off as they plumb the mystery of John Smith.
As original wife Mary Smith, Sarah Hund was at first the picture of self-contained propriety sorely tried by her husband's strange behavior.  An overdose of medicine prescribed for Mary's husband, who was injured in the mugging melee, helped push Hund's performance over the edge.  I didn't find her crazy act fully believable, though by the time it occurred, I'll admit I was a little overwhelmed by the implausibility of the whole scenario. As Barbara Smith (wife #2), Erin Cohenour was statuesque, ardent, and more than a little nonplussed by unwelcome exposure to her husband's other life.

Jeff Stockberger poured every ounce of resourcefulness into the role of Stanley Gardner. His performance embraced vocal and physical caricature, virtuoso twitches, pratfalls, eye-popping changes of expressive direction and double takes. He and Curry once again showed how readily they feed off each other in representing the outsize B&B brand.

Cooney has given the show a little extra zip in not making the two detectives Tweedledum and Tweedledee.  Variety was tidily embedded in the two portrayals: A.J. Morrison, as Detective Sergeant Troughton, was more the straight arrow investigator, while Adam O. Crowe as his counterpart, Detective Sergeant Porterhouse, had more flexibility built in, being comfortable donning a yellow apron to make tea as he attempts to get to the bottom of all the shenanigans.

But, then, "Run for Your Wife" is like Bottom's dream — it hath no bottom. Peering into its deep shallowness merely induces a delightful vertigo that  B&B's madcap players fully exploit.