Thursday, August 25, 2016

Castanets and tambourines: "Hernando's Hideaway" becomes "Hillary's Hideaway" in this song of worries

Is there any cause to worry about the clout of the Clinton Foundation in the face of a prospective Clinton presidency? This song, with facts from David Folkenflick's NPR reporting and accompaniment by Mantovani, attempts to address certain reasonable anxieties.

IndyFringe Festival, Days Six and Seven: Closing it out with reports on four shows

At least once a year, you can select a local leisure-time activity that is sure to plop you into the cliche of getting out of your comfort zone. That's what the 2016 IndyFringe Fest offers through Sunday, right on schedule. Even if you stick to selections you feel sure you'll like, there will be surprises.

As a self-published critic, I run the risk of looking clueless — maybe even while covering genres I'm supposed to know something about. I invite you to be the judge of that in what follows.

Despite appearances, Act a Foo' doesn't look down at its audiences.
My last show put me in the pretty unfamiliar territory of African-American improvisational comedy, with Act a Foo' Improv Crew's Wednesday evening show at the Phoenix Theatre. Four actors and an emcee kept the audience-participation-intense performance super-busy and a challenge to follow.

 I laughed heartily, if often uncomprehendingly, at the rapid-fire succession of games and sketches. My grasp of pop culture is weak, for one thing, but we all bring personal handicaps to encounters with anything we're not used to. The show is engaging, and the troupe feeds creatively off the audience's raucous goodwill.

I was drawn into the audience-participation format when I was asked to suggest a dream job other than the one I retired from at the Indianapolis Star three years ago last spring. This is improv, so prepare to have your suggestion modified if you are so tapped. When I said, after a long pause, that I'd like to be a pollster for the Libertarians, it was my idea of a dream job only in the ridiculous-fantasy sense: I doubt I'd enjoy spinning interview data for a bunch of smug quasi-anarchists.

So I probably deserved having "pollster" turned into "upholsterer," and the Libertarians disappearing entirely. The couch-repair sketch that resulted was funny. A troupe with Act a Foo's knack for spontaneous comedy knows when some instant revision is advisable, and the emcee was continually alert to challenging and redirecting his actors as well.

Still, I wonder what this group might do with a Libertarian pollster on the job. It could go something like the "Life of Brian" dialogue by Jewish militants about Roman rule: "Apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?" But even to imply that the Act a Foo' men might fashion anything predictable out of a suggestion they in fact didn't take violates the spirit of improv. And this troupe is about as skilled as imaginable at its deliberately slapdash craft. I would not ever take an actual couch to them, but they are great comfort-zone smashers.

The night before, I had to demolish fewer obstacles to appreciate "I'd Like to See More of You: A Vaudevillian Burlesque," the Fringe debut at Theatre on the Square of the often-amazing BOBDIREX Productions, the work of the wizardly Robert W. Harbin. With a wealth of songs and dances, most of them nicely naughty, the well-dressed and -undressed cast provided captivating entertainment. It held my undivided attention from the title song, performed by the multifaceted, adorable Claire Wilcher,  to the finale, an ensemble dance with peekaboo clothing maneuvers to a "Sing, Sing, Sing" that Benny Goodman never imagined.

Speaking of cultural icons, Walt Disney and henchmen created a memorable setting of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" in "Fantasia" that had Mickey Mouse dealing with out-of-control brooms. Everyone remembers that. Harbin reconceives the apprentice's comeuppance as the outgrowth of a disobedient employee (Wilcher) donning a forbidden hat, whose X-rated design inspires a flood of demon-wielded imitations to cavort around the stage. Trigger warning: Anyone who takes in this show (there are three more performances) will  have two sets of images competing for attention whenever he or she hears the Paul Dukas tone poem.
The doctor is in: Claire Wilcher (from left), Stacia Hulen, and Bradley Keiper

I don't want to know whether my eyes were bugging out and my tongue lolling a la Jim Carrey in "The Mask" responding to Cameron Diaz.  I'll simply salute here the striptease aplomb of Drew Bryson, Jenee Michele, and the towel-swapping duo of Lincoln Slentz and Kris Ezra. Kudos as well for a few vocal showcases, ably accompanied by pianist Deb Ward: Stacia Hulen's "Wherever He Ain't," Joi Blalock's double-entendre ode to a secondhand chair, and Bradley Keiper's "You'd Be Surprised."

On the same stage Wednesday evening, the musical-theater side of the festival had me focusing on an ambitious book musical, "Calder," a collaboration of Dustin Klein (music) and Tom Alvarez (book and lyrics). An instrumental trio led by pianist Klein lent hefty accompaniments to the songs. The brio behind the songs' presentation helped make up for some lackluster aspects at the creative level. When the full production takes the IndyFringe Basile stage come November, maybe some gaps in this bio-musical of the larger-than-life Alexander Calder, among the greatest American artists of the 20th century, will be filled in. The need to handle narrative elements and enable time transitions with efficiency was met by giving Calder a wisecracking guardian angel in the form of Thalia, the Greek muse of comedy, played with zest by Nathalie Cruz.

Liberties with a subject's life are fair enough when it comes to creating entertainment, of course. Yet "Calder" cries out for a big song about the mobile, an outgrowth of the wire creatures, including Calder's reputation-forging "Circus," that get a lot of attention in this show. Klein and Alvarez set the tone with "Wires and Pliers," an affectionate duet for "Sandy" as a boy and his loyal big sister Peggy. And Calder "stabiles" are the pride of several civic spaces around the world; there was one at Ground Zero, spookily titled "Bent Propeller," and there's another that's well-known to Hoosiers on the lawn outside the Musical Arts Center at Indiana University.

That Sandy was going his own way from an early age with sturdy family encouragement is well-represented here. My acquaintance with Calder's autobiography, however, suggests that he was not bullied by his peers for being different -- nothing beyond the usual rough-and-tumble scrapes of early 20th-century boyhood. As an adult, the sculptor even recalled his pride at engaging older boys' admiring interest in his budding craft.

Logan Moore and ensemble in the circus scene from "Calder."
Logan Moore plays and sings the mature sculptor with the joie de vivre that Calder expressed in his art, despite an episode of deep discouragement of the kind that seems to be required in shows that emphasize a hero's mastery of all hindrances.

From the Rodgers and Hammerstein of "You'll Never Walk Alone" and "Climb Every Mountain" through "The Impossible Dream" of "Man of La Mancha" to "Defying Gravity" of "Wicked," the American musical theater often bounces upon trampoline anthems of encouragement. Klein and Alvarez set their seal of aspiration and triumph upon two songs: "A Path to Follow," the hero's solo pep talk, and "Prize in the Sky," a Sondheimesque duet for Calder and his wife Louisa (Katie Schuman).

Ben Dobler's projection designs put various evocative scenes on the backdrop, more in pastels than the primary colors Calder favored, yet resonant with Calder's lyricism and whimsy. Ashley Kiefer did the costumes; Mariel Greenlee, the choreography. Both serve the show's atmosphere well, especially in a ragtime-influenced circus song for the ensemble.

There may not have been room to work in a bit of Hoosier bicentennial trivia: Just a few blocks away from "Calder" is the DePew Memorial Fountain in University Park. Between 1915 and 1919, Calder's father, briefly portrayed in this show in unsympathetic terms, completed the work launched by his mentor and ever since enjoyed by Downtown visitors and loiterers.

A concluding report on a one-man show at ComedySportz: "What's a Wedding Got to Do With It?"  Seen Wednesday night, Jeremy Schaefer of Chicago displayed brilliance with a well-delivered monologue on the subject of marriage, in general and particular. He mixed his own experience with "observational" comedy, so that the sociological and cultural values of marriage today meshed with an account of his hard-won acceptance of formally tying the knot.

The staging was astute, with the monologue divided into scenes that often called for slight costuming changes. Schaefer's talk was rich in imagery and satirical quips, yet it was also affirmative in ways that most happily married people can identify with. Some things went by me that I didn't understand -- things that registered with other audience members more than with me.

For instance: James K. Polk, 11th president of the United States, is apparently a laugh line. He's one of my least favorite presidents. The comedian's references to him seemed gratuitous as he tried to explain how Polk thematically shaped Schaefer's design of his wedding web site. I guess couples are doing that sort of thing now. Polk drove our first misbegotten war, unless you count the War of 1812. A young congressman named Abraham Lincoln, speaking against the Mexican War, had this to say about Polk's weaselly war policy: "His mind taxed, beyond his power, is running hither and thither, like some tortured creature on a burning surface, finding no position on which it can settle down and be at ease."

Schaefer's mind seems to be like that, but that may help produce good stand-up comedy. He fights against it almost successfully, and the conclusion of "What's a Wedding Got to Do With It?" fortunately indicates he knows how to be at ease when love is in charge.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Indy FringeFest, Day Five: Prophecy, curse, and religion in 'Sleeping Beauty,' ballet off the classical-romantic track, and naughty Las Vegas pizazz

Opportunities for going contrary to expectation on the one hand, reinforcing what you're known for on the other, and surprising and mystifying an audience on the third (an impossibility suggested by the show I'm thinking of) abound at the 12th annual IndyFringe Festival.

The mainstage at Theatre on the Square is a welcoming arena for a dance show, but up to now, I've only caught Dance Kaleidscope on that stage. Monday night it was a pleasure to see the Indianapolis School of Ballet's "Beyond Ballet" there. Victoria Lyras' 10-year-old organization is going from strength to strength, shown most recently in the announcement that the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra will be playing for its "Nutcracker" production in December.

I liked the refreshing application of ballet to classic jazz in "Waitin' for Katie" by Ben Pollack (in whose band Benny Goodman got his start). The "beyond" note was immediately struck as the audience took in the surprising aptness of the ballet vocabulary to 80-year-old popular music. That piece was by William Patrick Dunne, and the program surveyed a host of modern styles, with a nod to tradition in the middle, the Petipa-Minkus "Paquita Suite." Brightly presented and sharply defined, that spiffy work opened with a pas de trois (Entrada) and moved splendidly through three variations, ending in a poised coda.

Noah Trulock, a featured guest dancer from Dance Kaleidoscope, makes his first appearance in the program in Lyras' "Machichis & William," a pas de deux with Alexandra James with a scenario of an encounter between an American Indiana maiden and local settler William Conner. Lyras withheld her creative side from the rest of the program except for the three-part finale, "TangoX3," to music of Astor Piazzola.

It was a triumphant exhibition of how suitable the best tango music is for creative extrapolation beyond the conventional tango movement.  A sensuous pas de deux to  "Oblivion" for Trulock and Hannah Schenk was bookended by ensemble pieces "Imperial" and "Escualo" to open up the space around Lyras' inspirations, indicating the culturally shared spirit of tango. "Oblivion" was fascinating: crisply articulated, daring, steamy, and elegant.

Rachmaninoff's "Vocalise," to a lush arrangement for strings, was a lyrical ensemble piece, with effective counterpoint between the troupe's two men (Noah Klarck and Luther DeMyer) and nine women. The dramatic scenario of Roberta Wong's "We See Things As We Are" was vivid but a little hard to interpret in the excerpt presented. Finally, I have to confess an aversion to John Lennon's song "Imagine," so it's a credit to DeMyer's flair as a tap dancer that I didn't mind it at all in this brilliant performance, where I could interpret the dance as superior to its vehicle.

On the same stage earlier in the evening came the high-energy "Class, Grass & Ass," a Las Vegas-style extravaganza of often naughty song and dance starring Deb Mullins. The show's star has a long performing history in the area, and the loyal, close-to-capacity audience loudly cheered her and her colleagues on.

She had professionally astute support from saucy singer-dancers Jenee Michele, Deb Wims, and Carol Worcel as the "Debutantes." A band adept at styles ranging from novelty items from the Swing Era to pop/rock favorites from 1968 onward provides onstage accompaniment. Troye Kinnett leads the  instrumental quartet from the keyboard, and is featured with Mullins on accordion for "Squeeze Box."

With Kinnett and his guitar-bass-drums sidemen going all out, professionally snazzy to the core, there was sometimes an imbalance Monday between Mullins' vocals and the accompaniment. Some of this had to do with her face mic's cutting out (especially during "My Eye on You"). Whether she was being temporarily covered or not, she held her own with a trouper's aplomb.

The show — divided into four parts after each rhyming word of the title, with "class" first and last — was directed  and choreographed by Worcel, who also designed eye-catching costumes. Songs touting recreational drugs and sex give a "blue" tint to the production.

There is never a dull moment, yet there's enough ebb and flow in the intensity to allow for frequent, undisruptive  costume changes by the star and the Debutantes. In a final display of community zest, "Class, Grass & Ass" concludes with a stand-up-and-sing-along reprise of Al Green's "Let's Stay Together."

For a much darker, even menacing sense of spectacle, you might want to visit "Sleeping Beauty," an adaptation of the famous fairy tale being presented by The 7th Artistry of Zionsville at the IndyFringe Basile Theater. Seen Monday night, the show struck me with its elaborate and arresting visual design, as well as the poise of its young cast in conveying the work's mixture of dramatic dialogue and performance-art tableaux and gestures, set to a booming soundtrack.

The familiar fairy tale of the curse upon an infant princess is blended in this version with an early American setting and the hysteria with which unchecked evil was feared and fought, particularly in late-17th-century Salem, Massachusetts, by the religiously orthodox. The split among four supernaturally powered sisters between Do No Evil and the other three — Speak, Hear, and See No Evil — is at the center of the scenario.

Sacrifice of the innocent to satisfy the demands of overwhelming power is always heart-wrenching, whether in our everyday world or in the special one of "Sleeping Beauty." Curses are emblematic of tragically unmet needs for justice, which neither world ever guarantees.The struggle for young souls is perpetual, and takes many forms. In this show, the desire to break the chain of accusation, suspicion, control, and punishment is elevated to a position of mythic weight.

The costumes are stunning, the light and sound design thoroughly at the service of the fragmented but ultimately coherent story.  If you have a taste for fairy tales, the more outlandish the better, or the dark symbolism of stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, "Sleeping Beauty" will play upon your mind as well as your nerve ends indelibly.

Monday, August 22, 2016

"Who's Sorry Now?": With apologies to the shade of Connie Francis, here's my response to Donald Trump's difficulty with apologies

IndyFringe Fest, Day Four: Tapping into history, macabre verse, and performance art

My Sunday visit to the 2016 Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival let me nibble around the edges of the typical gingerbread hut of stage performance. (Invited inside, I usually resist the urge to shove the resident crone into the oven.)

I sampled classic light verse brought to life, cutting-edge testimony from the spoken-word and standup comedy scenes, and the art of tap dance historically considered.

It's been decades since the verse of Robert W. Service, James Whitcomb Riley, Hilaire Belloc and Alfred Noyes has jangled around in my head. At the Phoenix Underground, "A Darkly Humorous Evening with Stephen Vincent Giles" rang those bells all over again with a flair I was never able to manage.
Stephen Vincent Giles: Drenched in the comical macabre.

Giles, with some funky wardrobe changes and low-tech projected title and author identification to one side, brings into fresh perspective the sounds of poetry meant to be understood and enjoyed at first hearing.

This is the genre that Edward Lear perfected on the plain of nonsense, G.K. Chesterton in the arenas of war and religion,  and Rudyard Kipling at sea and the far reaches of the British Empire. The multifaceted Indianapolis performer focuses on the subgenre of verse narratives, with humorously doleful limericks by the inimitable Edward Gorey interpolated, that tend toward the macabre and ghostly.

The climax of the show is a vivid, increasingly despairing, reciting of "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe. It's a poem so famous it even provided the name of the football team that just edged the Colts in a preseason game. And to think Poe never did much for the Ravens' home city (originally the Colts') except die there. That's poetic influence writ large!

Though Giles' program consisted of pieces with a strong "tum-ta-tum-ta-tum" metric stress, he was never metronomic in performing them. Letting meter and rhyme take care of themselves, thanks to his poets' adept prosody, Giles went for the expressive content of the selections, from "The Raven" to the drolly gruesome "Ballad of Blasphemous Bill" by the Anglo-Canadian versifier Service. In the latter case, the recitation was supplemented by simple projected illustrations of the frozen protagonist and the coffin the narrator made for him. In getting the former to fit the latter, some disassembly is required, which the poem amusingly frets over.

Giles' show displays a masterly command of his material's way of getting under your skin.  Every time Noyes'  Highwayman comes riding, riding, and every time Riley warns that

"the Gobble-uns 'll git you
Ef you
Out" (the Hoosier Poet's lineation and spelling in "Little Orphant Annie") you may get chills running up and down your spine, even if the Underground's air conditioning is responsible for some of them.

"Poems for the People," also an Underground show, flies under the aegis of Greg Deboor of Indianapolis. Every performance differs in participants and, thus, content. The one I experienced had some smoothly managed transitions between types of spoken word, starting with a rapidfire monologue by a young woman with a segue to a male comic's shtick about dating today—the often unavailing, repeated attempts to make contact via social media. The poems emphasized the rattling internal rhymes and chock-a-block imagery of hip-hop rants and reflections, notably on issues of acceptance, gender identity, and body image. The prose humor depended on timing and wry flings of rueful self-revelation. Both were in generally good working order.
The show's vibrant mix of hilarity and pathos, insouciance and anger managed to husband its outsize energy well, though the abundance overshot the festival's stipulated 50-minute span.

"The Rhythm Chronicles" celebrates the variety of tap dance.

Upstairs earlier on the Russell Stage, voice-over guidance to the history of the tap-dance art form gave continuity to "The Rhythm Chronicles," a production of Circle City Tap Company.  From some display of tap's origins in African and Irish dance idioms as they got blended in this country, the exhibition by ensembles of various sizes focused on tap's heyday, largely to music of the Swing Era and early modern jazz. 
It made light sociological commentary along the way that included the gradual ascendancy of female dancers and the revival of tap that spilled over from the modern-dance scene in the late 20th century. On the traditional side, there was a chirpy girl-trio performance, with voice and dance smartly combined, of "Chattanooga Choo-Choo."  Two young men offered a slow-tempo respite from the vigorous display of intricate dance bravado with a number illustrating the elegant "class act" variation of tap on the song "Taking a Chance on Love." A finale brought the art form up past its heyday with an electronica hit featuring a full dozen participants.
"The Rhythm Chronicles" has a genuine all-ages appeal and offers, in costuming and music as well as choreography, an energetic survey of an all-American dance type that hardly anyone can avoid feeling — even if you haven't got the pedal chops to carry that feeling into your feet the way these well-schooled practitioners did Sunday.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

IndyFringe Fest, Day Three: A trio of shows, two emphasizing the personal, one drinking deep in Shakespeare

We know so little about Shakespeare's life that every doubtful bit of gossip has its allure. One of them concerns his death at 52, shortly after the playwright retired to his native Stratford. It's said he got together with a couple of fellow literary stars — Michael Drayton and Ben Jonson — for a night of drinking that took on binge proportions. It proved mortal for the most securely immortal of the illustrious trio.
"Suds fools these mortals be" — tying one on Shakespeare.

In that spirit, EclecticPond Theatre Company is offering IndyFringe Festival patrons a bibulous take on the early romantic tragedy "Romeo and Juliet." It seems like a good choice, though I hope "Drankspeare" won't become one in a series. True, it might explain a lot if King Lear came on drunk in the first scene of his play.

With much of its text intact, the earlier tragedy proceeds from street fighting that could be taken as a consequence of drinking deep on to the fatal misinterpretation of potions by the play's star-crossed lovers. And it's not far-fetched to interpret Mercutio and Tybalt as two different kinds of drunk — the long-winded jester and the roaring boy, respectively. Salut!

EclecticPond has mustered a host of its loudest zanies to turn the small stage of ComedySportz into a den of soused roisterers. They are Frankie Bolda, Chelsea Gill, Michelle Greenwell, Pat Mullen, Paige Scott, Evan Wallace and Matthew Walls. All enter and exit holding beer cans, swigging regularly from them. They punctuate Shakespeare's rhymed couplets with commands of "Drink!" — not that anybody needs the encouragement of a drinking game. The effect goes straight to their heads, bypassing the stomach; granted, I might have missed some belches.

Due to the preponderance of women in the cast, there's lots of looseness about gender. It's more travesty than tragedy. The robustly declaimed Shakespearean text — none of the actors is of the sleepy, mumbling type of inebriate — suffers many modern insults. Some of these are just there to display the perils of DWI (Dramatizing While Intoxicated); others have an apropos sparkle to them.

So it's a bright touch of anachronism when at the start of the balcony scene, the "Drankspeare" Romeo says the line "She speaks, yet she says nothing; what of that?" in response to Juliet's fiddling with her iPhone above, muttering, "What's the WiFi password here?"

It would be fatuous to guess whether Shakespeare would have enjoyed this. When it's a matter of dispute whether he was Catholic or Protestant, it's beyond silly to be certain of his taste for outrageous parody. Yet there's a profusion of slapstick in the canon. Besides, the bloody-minded early tragedy "Titus Andronicus" ("R&J"'s immediate predecessor in that genre) has been credibly interpreted as parody.

Like the social-media intrusions in "Drankspeare," Shakespeare occasionally makes fun of contemporary tastes and fashions: In "Romeo and Juliet," Mercutio greets the wandering lover with "bon jour," then adds: "There's a French salutation to your French slop," alluding to Romeo's baggy breeches. Cultural chauvinism, a staple of the history plays, is the subject of jibes and indifference elsewhere among the dramas. Hamlet disdains his uncle's carousals with the comment: "Tis a custom more honored in the breach than the observance."

Accordingly, Shakespearean custom may occasionally be honored most when it is not strictly observed. Into the breach staggers "Drankspeare," sozzled and disheveled, topped by a surprise happy ending that teases final-scene alliances in the comedies. Indulge — you won't hate yourself in the morning.

Probing and interpreting one's past is a lifelong project for just about anyone unwilling to undertake the thankless labor of disowning it. Most of us are better off facing up to it, even the cringe-worthy bits. Loren Niemi and James Solomon Benn shoulder the task head-on, in vastly different ways, in their Fringe shows.

Loren Niemi was deemed a "Bad Brother."
Niemi carries impressive professional laurels and academic credentials into his storytelling craft. The title of his Phoenix Underground show, "Bad Brother: Religion and Politics in '69," provides an immediate focus. The "brother" part has nothing to do with siblings, but Niemi's membership in the Christian Brothers, a worldwide Catholic religious community, and his eventual dismissal from the order.

The clarity and suspense of his personal narrative, hitting upon some of the most vexed social and political issues of America in the Sixties, rivets the attention. Niemi is a master of the well-judged pause. He plays judiciously with different time levels and significant persons in this autobiographical account of a young man's spiritual and political involvement, its fulcrum being the trial of "the Milwaukee 14" in 1969, the result of some of the Brothers' destruction of draft-board files.

At the very end, he suggests parallels between activism in the 1960s and early '70s and a couple of today's raging issues. But he's never heavy-handed about it. Like all good storytellers, he exhibits narrative craft at a high level and leaves it to the listener to apply the lessons. Not only those who are roughly Niemi's contemporaries, as I am, will be fascinated by "Bad Brother."

In "Little Butchie Sings! A Cockamamie Colored Cabaret" in the IndyFringe Basile Theater, Benn combines song and anecdote with a bit of dancing to tell the story of his self-discovery and adjustment to life growing up in Indianapolis with three counts against him: being black, fat, and gay (in his concise description).

He heads a cast consisting of Sandy Lomax and Paul Nicely, who contribute to the vocals – the most hilarious of which is a spiritual-influenced harmonization of "All God's Chillun."  And what they all got here is issues, not shoes or wings. Benn knows he's not alone.

Backing up the singers is a keyboardist with flair, Roger W. Smith, whose musical direction contributes polish and coordination to the performance. Musicals the show's creator loves — "Eubie," "Purlie," "Chicago," "South Pacific" among them — are spotlighted in the song selection, tied in to sketches and narration.

Benn is ingratiating and thorough in making his youthful psychic wounds explicit, re-creating them in an entertaining and finally uplifting way with the help of Smith and the cast. A spoken-word preface by Cornelius "Preacher C" Shaw puts the playwright-star's struggles into a wider context and echoes forceful pulpit messages that usually proclaim values other than the ones this hero supports and lives every day.

Well-known as a professional actor around Indianapolis, Benn in this revealing cabaret show wins the audience over with boisterous humor and the underlying tenderness of his storytelling and personal testimony.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

IndyFringe Fest, Day Two: Fresh thoughts from DK dancers, a Westside arts community, and Earlham College

Something peculiar to the aura that pop divas gather around themselves engenders optimism, even when they move into torch songs and other expressions of doubt and pain. That probably accounts for the upbeat feeling pervading the nine pieces assembled for Dance Kaleidoscope's 2016 IndyFringe Festival contribution, "Divas Workshop" on the main stage at Theatre on the Square.

The key to happiness is the disposition to be pleased, the 18th-century man of letters Samuel Johnson says somewhere. This disposition triumphed in this program by DK dancers, and the result shows that being so disposed doesn't mean that happiness is easily achieved or held onto. (Artistic director David Hochoy will use Fringe audience response plus his own programming knack to decide which of the short works will be further rehearsed for DK's February concert.)

The comic approach to Dr. Johnson's truth came through in Timothy June's "Enlightenment," with its busy, distracted street scene breaking apart and coalescing around the positivity expressed by dancer Stuart Coleman. Set to an assertive vocal by Shirley Bassey ("I Am What I Am"), the buoyant piece showed that accepting oneself as more than the sum of others' expectations is infectious and life-enhancing.

With the right nudges, people can turn aside from ruts of routine and duty they tend to settle unhappily into. The scenario sounds sentimental, but June's choreography handled it imaginatively, with a smoothly working blend of everyday movement and idiomatic dance that communicated the discovery of joy.

Other pieces struck that note as well, with the comedy  muted. A strong feminist statement — celebratory, not bitter — was offered in Missy Trulock's setting of Stevie Nicks' "Edge of Seventeen" for five women, with its advice to "float like goddesses" emphasized by sparkly, gauzy black shawls in the costuming and their eventual draping on the lead dancer, Jillian Godwin. Broadway pizazz on the theme of self-realization came with Stuart Coleman's solo for Aleksa Lukasiewicz to Barbra Streisand's "Don't Rain on My Parade." Lukasiewsicz's crisp articulation of Coleman's busy choreography (a busyness well suited to the way Streisand sings) was radiant and authoritative from first note to last.

Paige Robinson in "Fragmented Dreams"
Challenges to the disposition to be pleased were handled in a couple of pieces. Noah Trulock used Kelly Clarkson's "The Trouble With Love Is" to probe the difficulties of the dating scene, as he told us in introducing "A
Dance About Love." The piece wove on the recording's loom episodes of trust and betrayal, attraction and repulsion. The upshot, unless I'm reading too much into it, seems to be that it's all worth the effort to seek satisfying connections, though Clarkson's belting style keeps doubt alive.

Passion makes it possible, and passion gets in the way of judgment, too. In Mariel Greenlee's "Surrender," the difficulty of yielding to romantic impulses, responding to their pushes and pulls while attempting to stay in control, was memorably set to Nina Simone's dark, steady, oddly reassuring advisory in "Wild Is the Wind." The choreography was exceptional in its attention to emotion expressed by seven dancers in nicely calibrated, reflective movement.

I must pass quickly over the remaining four pieces with brief mentions, and not because I didn't like them. Zach Young uses Annie Lennox's "Missionary Man" to get the ball rolling with bounce and swagger. In "Fragmented Dreams," Marte Osiris Madera spins floating lyricism, with salutes to romantic ballet, setting Celine Dion's version of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." Using Adele's "I Miss You," Jillian Godwin in "First Touch" rings the changes on how things get started between couples,  setting the sparks that become four-alarm fires (to paraphrase "I'm Beginning to See the Light"). And Brandon Comer's "Over the Rainbow" constitutes a majestic company salute to much-admired DK veteran Liberty Harris, centerpiece of his rhapsody on Patti LaBelle's impassioned version.

The image of a little girl among fairies told some people what they wanted to believe.
Among other Friday evening shows I saw was Earlham College's all-female "Elsie and Frances and the Fairies," an extrapolation of oddball history of the kind that Tom Horan does so well, on the Phoenix Theater's Russell Stage.

 Girls playing in grandma's attic evoke a long-ago, proto-photoshop hoax involving an encounter with fairies in the woods. Catherine Blencowe and Emma Socey played cousins Elsie and Frances, respectively, concocters of the adventure intended to cast an ectoplasmic glow over Frances' three days' solitary absence in provincial woods, which, she reports at home, were spent among fairies.

The leads were charmingly handled, and received generally shipshape support from Sage Halewolfe, Mallory War, and Cianna Rothwell as various characters from present and past time levels. Among the portrayals, bordering on caricature, was one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who after his fame as creator of the master detective Sherlock Holmes, astonishingly was taken in by the girls' "evidence" of fairyland.

The play, Friday's audience was told, is still a work in progress. The production handles the interlocking levels of fantasy and reality pretty well. Horan's whimsy was in evidence throughout. In carrying it out, there are refinements one hopes the student cast will be able to apply.

Here are a few quibbles: I hope the adult skeptics will be made a little less ridiculous, because the dramatic tension would be more engaging if the mockery these fussy ladies make of the girls' fairy stories seemed to threaten their credibility.
* A knighted Englishman would not be referred to as "Sir Doyle"; in this case, it's "Sir Arthur" unless the full name is used.
* Does even a little girl not know that the plural of "mouse" is "mice"? To hear "we were as quiet as church mouses" is slightly rattling, especially since it's also a lame variation on "as poor as church mice."
* The word "weirdo" is only about 60 years old, and doesn't fit here.

Outstanding puppetry helps lift "Silken Veils" to a rare plane.
Finally, the intense, and borderline too long, "Silken Veils" tells through puppetry, music, and well-designed projections the story of an Iranian-American woman's hysterical balking at marriage to a man she clearly loves. The imploring groom spends most of the play on the other side of a locked door declaring his love and obviously anxious about the interrupted nuptials. The show is also on the Phoenix's Russell Stage; it's a collaboration between Indy Convergence and Leila and Pantea Productions.

Darya, the bride-to-be, wrestles at length with her conflicted past, giving voice and stature to painful memories. Her parents are on opposite sides of her homeland's 1979 revolution, which takes a deadly toll not only on the family's cohesiveness but also its very existence. They are recalled in both puppet form and as dialoguing silhouettes behind a backlit white curtain. The design and the manipulation of the marionettes are outstanding.

Playwright Leila Ghazravi plays Darya to the hilt, every pained expression and searing outburst well-earned and registering unassuageable anguish. Robert Negron portrays both her intended, Ahmad, and (entering from the other side of the stage)  her lost brother Xerxes. Behind the screen are Carol Anne Raffa and Bob Stineman as Darya's parents, suffering from and with each other.

Difficulty hearing their dialogue, especially the mother's part, can be attributed not only to the partition somewhat muting the sound but also to the distancing effect of not being able to see the parents' faces (until near the end). What works theatrically to probe Darya's state of mind doesn't always succeed from a purely practical point of view.

"Silken Veils" is always enthralling to look at and unsettling to contemplate, bringing a welcome perspective to what is surely Americans' one-sided view of the birth of Iran's Islamic Republic. This show looks well beyond "America Held Hostage" to plunge us into a faraway historic cataclysm that called into question the continuity in family life that Americans can usually take for granted. "Darya Held Hostage" could be its subtitle.

[Paige Robinson photo by Chris Crawl]

Friday, August 19, 2016

IndyFringe Fest, Day One: Identity, Loyalty, and Illusion

Immersion in another IndyFringe Festival requires the kind of sorting that American shoppers have long been accustomed to at the supermarket. Matters of conscience, taste, and enjoyment jostle for priority in our diets and in our entertainment.

So many choices! Should you spend more time — going with impulse or deliberation — eyeing fresh produce or snack foods, at the meat counter or among the wine shelves? (Fill in your own arts-and-entertainment counterparts to these store stops.)
Program art for Timothy A. Taylor's Fringe play

The difference with the Fringe festival is that shopping for price is not a factor. Night after night through Aug. 28, admission to each show is the same: $15 for adults, $12 for students and seniors, $8 for children under 12. The price conscious can by five tickets for the price of four shows with a Fiver Pass ($50). So much for consumer advice. On to the shows.

As with many family shoppers trying at home to justify purchases as they empty their bags, some things can't be adequately explained. Even a blogger's account doesn't have to go there, and there is no emoji for a shrug. So here's my opening night, described and evaluated, sans explanations.

"The Juniper Tree" grew on me, no pun intended. Susan Bennett plays women of three generations  in Timothy A. Taylor's play. It starts slowly. In 1968, the soft-spoken Anna, who escaped czarist Russia with her husband, Avi, invites a visitor to join her for tea, a lifelong afternoon social ritual and link to her past. The memory of the 1905 Odessa pogrom is vivid to her, and Bennett conveys through nervous hand gestures just how deeply anti-Semitic atrocities in her hometown imprinted themselves on her. She laments a family rift the audience soon learns more about.

Her estranged daughter, Cece, recounts difficulties with her mother, which have resulted in her daughter Rachael's growing up cut off from contact with her Bubbe, whom she remembers fondly, if vaguely. Bennett moves among three playing areas in the Phoenix Theatre's Basile Theatre, advancing the story. In a climactic scene, the actress switches quickly between Anna and Cece (who has changed her name from the Hebrew Haya, meaning "life," that she was given at birth).

Otherwise, the playwright has put the monologues into the format of a therapy session (for Cece) and a cassette recording that Rachael prepares to send to her grandmother seeking more insight and a reunion. Taylor has given different ways of speaking to each of the three women, and Bennett amplifies these skillfully. I felt that Rachael's uniqueness could have been pointed up more, though we hear enough about it to make her yearning for family connection come through movingly, and the segue to Anna's comment after hearing the last part of the audiotape puts a seal on the pathos of a family whose history poses identity challenges for each generation.

NoMads Art Collective duumvirate Ben Claus and Scott Jackoway
My evening's other serious stage work was NoMads Art Collective's "So Proudly We Hailed." Nobody can fail to recognize the title's origin in a line from the national anthem. And flag idolatry is crucial to this series of sketches on American patriotism and gun culture. That's evident as you walk into Theatre on the Square's Stage 2, with a large Old Glory forming the backdrop. It's both decor almost a third actor, in addition to Drew Beyer and Ki-Jana C. Moore.  It drapes itself figuratively over what is clearly a collaborative effort, judging from the credits and thank-yous in the printed program.

Thus, "So Proudly We Hailed" is a theatrical stew, with all ingredients stirred by the show's cast to suit the vexed theme of gun violence at its intersection with patriotism — sometimes in synchronization with individual fulfillment, sometimes at odds with it.

Long ago, George F. Will gave an early collection of columns the happy title, "The Pursuit of Happiness and Other Sobering Thoughts." The thoughts of Jackoway and his colleagues on that fabled pursuit and everything it entails are overwhelmingly sober. Indeed, some of the sketches burst into angry flame inexplicably. Delineation of character was vaguer than it had to be, even given the sketch format. Humor around the theme was fleeting in comparison: The goofiness of a young man wanting to buy a gun so he could smoke marijuana out of the barrel received an uninflectedly vehement response. At other times, the dialogue was frivolous, but rarely in a way you might characterize as light, or with a keen satirical thrust.

Three sketches were efficient enough to strike home: A wordless struggle between the two men over an empty chair, a dialogue about marksmanship at a shooting range, and an officious orientation session about dealing with an "active shooter situation."  But the sequencing and substance of the show as a whole did not have me saluting.

Simon Coronel is a sleight-of-hand maestro.
In the middle of my Thursday evening came the zest, precision, and wit of "An Alien of Extraordinary Ability." Magicians who comment on their craft as part of their banter are not uncommon, but Simon Coronel is unusually detailed and resourceful in playing with an audience's investment in the illusionist's art.

Not only did the Australian handle audience participation enticingly and with an astonishing wealth of trickery, he toyed with our notions of magic and our willingness to be controlled at the same time we are trying to puzzle everything out. He doesn't prey upon our gullibility, but upon our good sense. Coronel rightly pointed out that it's neither rational nor creepy for an audience to think actual magic is happening onstage. It's rather that "you know it's not real, and that's what's creepy."

His hands and fingers exhibited the loose-jointed independence and control of a concert pianist's. The card tricks mounted in complexity as he invited the audience to know exactly what he was up to. But of course we nvever did. What he got out of an empty Pringle's can, even one that had been for several minutes in the hand of an audience volunteer, was nothing short of amazing.

"An Alien of Extraordinary Ability," which the magician said was the exact phrase that has enabled him to work in America, is thus a show title that carries a U.S. government endorsement. So, taking a leaf from the "So Proudly We Hailed" book, I'll say you owe it to your country to catch Coronel's act.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Silk Road Ensemble raises the Hilbert Circle Theatre roof

Silk Road Ensemble, with featured players Wu Man and Kayhan Kalhor seated to Yo-Yo Ma's left.
The Hilbert Circle Theatre took on an unwonted intimacy Monday night as the full Silk Road Ensemble — 17 musicians under the artistic direction of Yo-Yo Ma — welcomed a full house to its world, and to a significant part of the world.

The theme was "home" and how it is defined in emotional, physical, permanent, and temporary terms. Music as a vehicle cruises easily over the verbal meanings of home, taking in cultures geographically remote from one another in ways that display their universal appeal. The annual summer tour of the group is focusing on the concept of home in connection with its new CD, "Sing Me Home." The recent showing here of the documentary "The Music of Strangers" also drove interest in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's presentation.

A much-reduced representation played the Palladium in February. That gave Central Indiana a foretaste of the grander display of SRE's gifts on Monday, with the added bonus of the founder himself, master cellist Ma. The repertoire, necessarily consisting of many arrangements and new compositions, does not purport to present the world's instruments and musical styles in a manner that would excite professional folklorists.

Instead, the Silk Road Ensemble presents to audiences instruments in combinations that make musical sense while acknowledging appropriate ethnic influences on phrasing, melody, and rhythm that shape the musical expression. A case point in is Colin Jacobsen's "Atashgah," a piece for Western string quintet plus hand drum and the Persian spiked fiddle known as the kamancheh. The composer, a guiding force in two outstanding classical groups, the chamber orchestra the Knights and the string quartet Brooklyn Rider, drew his inspiration from time spent in Iran. The piece opened with a quiet pizzicato pattern that eventually flowered into a setting over which Kayhan Kalhor, the kamancheh virtuoso, could improvise. The tone of this ornamentally played, bowed instrument lent a wistful cast to the performance, reaching a part of the emotional spectrum that Western string instruments can only suggest.

Silk Road Ensemble pianist, bagpiper Cristina Pato.
The concert opened with something in a droll vein: a duet for gaita (Galician bagpipes) and suona (a Chinese double-reed instrument) given particular flair amid its intense interweavings by Cristina Pato and Wu Tong, respectively. With gestures of attraction and repulsion, both gestural and musical, the "Fanfare for Gaita and Suona" made for a zesty appetizer.  From that point on, the audience was swept into larger-scale pieces — initially three works played without pause: Mali, Ireland, and (I'm guessing) China were the sources. The finale was an original piece by Wu Man called "Green (Vincent's Tune)" that moved through a mammoth crescendo toward a vigorous climax.

Wu Tong, who was also featured on a reed instrument of several pipes called the sheng, had the concert's vocal showcase. It was a kind of centerpiece for the "Sing Me Home" theme as it combined the English words applied to the slow movement of Dvorak's "New World" Symphony with a Mandarin version of "Going Home."  The arrangement was quite sensitive to the original setting, and the singer's performance held the large audience spellbound. Also riveting concertgoers' attention  was the graceful cadenza opening an evocation of Roma (gypsy) culture for the player of the lute-like Chinese pipa, Wu Man.

A program of such variety is difficult to summarize, or even to identify highlights in. I think it worthwhile to note the extensive blend of improvised and composed music, and the variety of ensemble texture, in the program finale by Kinan Azmeh, SRE's clarinetist, titled "Wedding" after village celebrations of such events in his native Syria.

The raucousness of some moments was balanced by the tender lyricism of others. Azmeh hinted in his spoken introduction (one of several by ensemble members in the course of the program) that there might be an encore. The audience's response to "Wedding" was unambiguously enthusiastic, so the entire group came back onstage for an unconventional run through "Take the 'A' Train," a theme song for many years of the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

Tabla player Sandeep Das provided the gradually accelerating pattern depicting a train leaving the station (closer to a steam locomotive than the subway train the title refers to, but that's OK). His fellow percussionists took that up, joined by everybody in a display of coordinated power and joy — typical qualities whenever SRE members play their instruments together.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Yo-Yo Ma sees the United States as the ideal arena for what the Silk Road Ensemble represents

Yo-Yo Ma (seated, left) with the diverse group of musicians known as the Silk Road Ensemble.
The world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma considers the Silk Road Ensemble he founded 18 years ago a multicultural collective whose music represents values the United States embodies naturally.

That's why the 62-year-old musician, born to Chinese parents in Paris and an American since childhood, describes the kind of concert a Hilbert Circle Theatre audience will hear Monday evening as American to the core. The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra is presenting the 16 musicians for one performance only. (Without Ma, 10 members of the Silk Road Ensemble appeared at the Carmel Palladium last February.)

"I think what's interesting is that in the United States," Ma noted, "we make up 5 percent of the world's population and actually contain all the world's population groups."

Speaking by cellphone on his way to an airport on the Ensemble's current summer tour, Ma explained: "If we know our own citizenry, and our citizenry knows itself, having all the ethnicities within our borders means we automatically have access to everyone in the world."

In the present political climate, however, that access may be blocked. Yet the optimistic Ma won't accept that the United States is fated to become less receptive to the rest of the world — if fear can be kept in check. "We become the strongest, the most empathetic, space because creativity comes from the edges, from the margins between different people," he said. "That's when you have the most new life. It's our talent as a nation — our ability to innovate — and that puts us right up there, if we use those assets. Fear is very dangerous. If you're afraid, you clam up and become smaller."

Looking more closely at how the Silk Road Ensemble operates, Ma said simply: "We are a band with similar values. Some of the values are virtuosity and generosity: They are masters of what they do, and they're generous in what they're sharing. We play music from anywhere in the world, and we have a lot of internal leaders."

Curiosity is an important ingredient of the musicianship the ensemble requires. Each member has to be a quick study, since they are learning pieces, sometimes new genres, that their colleagues bring to the group, and rehearsal time is at a premium. "Because everybody's curious and flexible, a lot gets done in a short time," Ma said. Then he added an important element that may explain why the Silk Road Ensemble works: "We won't let anybody fail. Everybody will be able to make their idea successful. They can experiment and take risks."

About seven or eight musicians, Ma estimates, have been with the group since the beginning, so there is lots of continuity. Given considerable "save the date" advance notice in planning annual tours, the musicians are free to meet obligations elsewhere in the musical world. Violinist Colin Jacobsen leads a chamber orchestra, the Knights, and plays in an important string quartet, Brooklyn Rider.

When the collective input filters into a Silk Road Ensemble program, the group has met the objective Ma had in mind when he first convened it near the end of the last century. How it works can be appreciated in a documentary film released last spring, "The Music of Strangers," and its companion CD, "Sing Me Home."

The public effect goes beyond music, he made clear: "The best way to conquer fear is building bridges of understanding — between disciplines, between people — because then we can shed light upon all those problems." When the audience has a good time as a result, there's a further benefit, Ma added. "There's the joy of community. That's always been a good thing, because now we're getting worried that we are losing the ability to manage our own world. What we want to do is give people the opportunity."

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Preparing for the guitar-centric Indy Jazz Fest: Catching a couple of samples of club jazz

A fine guitar scene in Indianapolis today provides an apt context for celebrating the legacy of Wes Montgomery (1923-1968) in next month's Indy Jazz Fest.

Bill Lancton added a well-seasoned voice to the powerful quintet, Avenue Indy.
You can hear notable local guitarists frequently around town. I caught parts of two sets Wednesday evening in Indianapolis: Bill Lancton sat in with the Avenue Indy quintet at the Jazz Kitchen, and downtown at the Chatterbox, Joel Tucker performed with his brother Nick on bass and Kenny Phelps on drums.

A secondary motivation for my first stop was my initial exposure to Avenue Indy, a powerful mainstream ensemble with Jeff Conrad, trumpet and flugelhorn, and Rich Cohen, saxophones, in the front line and rhythm section consisting of pianist Gary Potter, bassist Jon Block, and drummer Larry Sauer. A highly charged performance of Chick Corea's "Spain," featuring a blistering alto solo by Cohen, preceded Lancton's welcome to the Jazz Kitchen stage, where he can often be heard.

Avenue Indy in action at the Kitchen (photo from its Facebook page)
Lancton's juicy, ringing tone was showcased in a rendition of a Carlos Santana piece with just the rhythm section. With the full quintet, a salute to Montgomery followed in the form of one of the master's most popular compositions, "Road Song." Oliver Nelson's "Stolen Moments" was vigorously limned, with some nice climactic touches in the drums.

After "In a Sentimental Mood," with Lancton and Conrad on their best ballad behavior, the ad hoc sextet reconvened for a Conrad original in tribute to the popular restaurant next door, "Yats Blues." New Orleans parade rhythms suffused the steamy piece, acknowledging the hometown of Yats proprietor Joe Vuskovich.

At the Chatterbox Jazz Club on Mass. Ave.,  the first set had attained a high level of commitment and energy by the time I got there. It was a thoroughly energized "Nardis" that confirmed  the rapport of this trio, with the veteran, widely respected drummer working hand-in-glove with two well-established (relative) newcomers, the Tuckers.

Joel Tucker has a leaner, more percussive tone leavened by a lyrical sensibility. He can noodle a bit, yet firm up his out-of-tempo inspirations to lead the ensemble superbly into the material, which is how the "Nardis" performance unfolded. All three took marvelous solos, capped by Phelps in an explosive frame of mind in the exchanges, yet still displaying his extraordinary control.

There was a grooving coda, instigated by Joel,  that his band mates caught on to immediately, moving the rendition to an even higher plane. It was about the best "Nardis" I've ever heard live.  Before finishing with an uptempo bebop standard, the trio handled with aplomb another kind of classic, Jerome Kern's "All the Things You Are," unconventionally metered and spiced up with strong accents.

It was an abbreviated evening of jazz for me, but enough to confirm the healthy state of jazz guitar-playing on the local scene, with lots of compatible colleagues around to help showcase them. Bring on the Indy Jazz Fest!

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

A playlist for the Donald Trump campaign: Why quarrel with rock stars when you can avail yourself of a dead Austrian's output?

This is supposed to be a performing-arts blog, but I seem to return time and again to the phenomenon of Donald Trump. I can't help it: it's like a tongue probing a sore tooth. My only excuse is that Trump commentary has gone way out of proportion with all sorts of social-media commentators. No one else can help it, either.

It's too late to make amends, except insofar as I can tie the Republican nominee to a matter of artistic importance. That's what I will now do. I've been wondering why candidates, particularly Republican, run into so much trouble choosing recorded music for their rallies and other campaign appearances. The musicians unwillingly selected to have their music blasted at crowds eventually object. This goes back at least to the predilection of the Ronald Reagan 1984 campaign for Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." The Boss told the Great Communicator to cut it out.

Anton Bruckner's music could be put to an unexpected contemporary use.
Misunderstandings have continued. As odd a choice during the current season is Trump's use of the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want." They have objected, too. The song is not as wrongheaded as Reagan's choice, but still you wonder: What can Trump have been thinking?  Clearly, music without lyrics might be the way to go for politicians eager for pizazz: stirring music, expansively laid out, great gobs of it in the public domain, and largely free of problematic texts. Yes, classical music— and I mean pieces with heft and a range of sonority suitable for public-address systems. broadcast commercials, and studio interviews.

Specifically, I think the Trump campaign should associate itself with the symphonies of Anton Bruckner (1824-1896). This is not because of any temperamental suitability between the two men. Far from it: The Austrian composer was remarkably provincial, unpolitical, and self-effacing. True, he resented encountering the Viennese buzz saw — the anti-Wagner, pro-Brahms claque — when moving to the capital to teach, and he prided himself on his academic standing. Otherwise, he invested all his ego strength in making music, and was notoriously malleable about how his works reached the public, accommodating to a fault. This has given scholars and conductors lots to untangle in the matter of editions.

I will set aside the rumor, which I have not been able to authenticate, that Adolf Hitler's favorite composer was not Richard Wagner, but Bruckner. Hitler comparisons to prominent bad guys today are a dodgy game, and besides, Trump comparisons lean more toward the strutting, pouting figure of Benito Mussolini, whose fascism bore a stamp all its own and took power in Italy well before the Third Reich.

In the spirit of humble charity and for the love of Bruckner rather than Trump, I offer these five suggestions of musical accompaniment to five different aspects of the GOP nominee. They might be played in whole or in part to suit the kind of Trump campaign appearance on the schedule or the candidate's mood at the time.

1. The tragic Trump. This is the candidate in the dark mood of his acceptance speech at the convention in Cleveland as well as in his dour analysis in a Washington Post interview that, if he loses, it means the November election is rigged. Bruckner's music rarely wallows in anything you might associate with doubt or despair; his Catholic faith was the foundation of everything he wrote. But a melancholy cast lies over the Adagio movement (the second) of the Symphony No. 5 in B-flat, keyed to a reflective oboe solo that conveys a tinge of doubt. A contrasting theme for strings might suggest the difficulties the nation is likely to sink into if Trump is not elected, in the view of the candidate and his supporters.

2. The authoritarian Trump. The man who pointed a forefinger at the convention TV cameras and said "I am your voice" and "I alone can fix it" may be well served by music when he has this sort of message to emphasize on the campaign trail. I am recommending the first movement (Allegro moderato) of Symphony No. 7 in E major. The opening cello melody, a calm stride subtly supported and then taken up by higher instruments, exudes  the almost hypnotic self-confidence that the candidate clearly hopes will solidify the electorate's concentration upon him as a national savior.

3. The friendly Trump. This is the candidate who basks in the crowd's adoration, once the protesters have been dispatched, the man who says "I love you" over and over.  Trump without a hint of threat is a rare creature, but such infrequent episodes are well matched with the sunny Scherzo: Molto vivace of the fifth symphony. Michael Steinberg rightly notes the "sense of caprice" that characterizes the Trio section — a rare aspect of Bruckner that has its parallel in the fleeting exhibitions of Trump amiability.

4. The scattered Trump. As I've just hinted, Trump moods are unstable, and his public talk matches them in its frequent lack of focus. His now disparaged co-author ("The Art of the Deal") has come out with assertions that Trump is characteristically impatient, with a short attention span. The Washington Post interview mentioned above included four occasions when Trump's attention wandered to a nearby TV monitor, particularly when his image appeared. Bruckner was by no means a scattershot or easily distracted composer, but I've chosen the Scherzo movement of his Symphony No. 2 in C minor because its main theme leaps about in an unusual manner, and the form's conventional contrast (the Trio) also features larger interval skips than is usual in Bruckner's music. Then there's the way the brass keep cutting in, a bit startling every time, like a Trump digression or mental spasm.

5. The "great again" Trump. The candidate's religious nature is considerably vaguer and more questionable
than that of our composer. That's putting it mildly. But Trump's slogan "Make America Great Again" picks up a theme he sounded early in the primaries, when he attempted to distinguish himself from his many rivals by portraying himself as an outsider, a non-politician. He painted the GOP norm with the same brush as the Democratic norm, both part of the status quo, which he promised to look beyond and act against. The analogy is to the "heaven-storming" musical rhetoric in Bruckner, which is abundant. It was second nature for the devout composer to look beyond earthly reality; he too yearned to be "great again," but he meant great in the divine presence. So I have chosen for the "great again" Trump the opening  movement of Symphony No. 9, which Bruckner dedicated explicitly "to the beloved God."

I look forward to seeing the alliance of Bruckner and Trump in the public sphere. They have a couple of things in common: They are both prone to make the same succinct, forceful point over and over again. And, just as Trump likes to promise Americans "we are going to win so much you're going to get tired of winning," many lovers of symphonic music get tired of Bruckner's winning ways long before Bruckner is done. It's just that one of them ends up in the empyrean, bowing before the infinite majesty of God and nature; the other....

Monday, August 8, 2016

Elder hostile: A G&S-inspired patter song, recommended for private performance, which attempts to come to terms with aging

Patter master W.S. Gilbert
Surrounding the Brexit vote in June, I proved to be no master of the patter song in blog-posted parody videos setting the fast main sections of two Elgar "Pomp and Circumstance"  marches to satirical texts of my own devising. Gilbert & Sullivan's seminal examples, along with derivative pieces requiring similarly confident blitheness and a nimble tongue,  require a technique I cannot hope to master at 70. 

Speaking of which, I have decided to post only the text of my recent tribute to both advanced age and G&S. I recommend closet performance, if any, of this piece for those of my generation with similar lack of experience as uptempo vocalists. 

Apart from the section marked "slower" (which corresponds to a change of pace in the original song from "The Pirates of Penzance"), this ditty should be performed presto possibile ("as fast as possible"), with the final verse and chorus even faster (to echo Robert Schumann's direction "noch schneller" a few measures after he recommends "so schnell wie möglich").

The very model of a modern major general

The Modern Aging Gentleman

I am the very model of a modern aging gentleman,
It’s true I’ve been here somewhat longer than my lifetime dental span:
My mem’ries, when I conjure them, include black heavy telephones
And music on the radio that cultivated mellow tones,
And riding in hot bulky cars, without seat belts, on two-lane roads
With Dad so anxious to get past much slower trucks with heavy loads.
At home we played in streets and yards, without a structure to our day
And settled matters by ourselves, with fists or words or going away.

And settled matters by themselves, with fists or words or going away
And settled matters by themselves, with fist or words or going away
And settled matters by themselves, with fists or words or going away-away!

When trying to retrieve a fact that I don’t have a purchase on
I never waste more than a minute till a Google search is on.
In short, by every measure of debility and sentiment,
I am the very model of a modern aging gentleman!

In short, by every measure of debility and sentiment,
He is the very model of a modern aging gentleman.

I stride with purpose to a room, and then forget why I have come;
I make haphazard guesses, feeling rather sad, a little dumb:
Oh well, I soon decide it wasn’t that important anyway,
Tomorrow it may come to me, it’s not required for today.
Remembering a list of things, my mind’s become no better, a
Good way I have to fill the gaps is muttering “et cetera” —
A habit picked up from the cinematic King of old Siam
And practiced as I drive in town, since I’m not certain where I am.

And practiced as he drives in town, since he’s not certain where he is
And practiced as he drives in town, since he’s not certain where he is
And practiced as he drives in town, since he’s not certain where he is, he is.

When I rise from recumbency, my joints will crack like castanets;
Though I love life, I do resent how dangerously fast it gets;
In short, by every measure of debility and sentiment,
I am the very model of a modern aging gentleman.

In short, by every measure of debility and sentiment,
He is the very model of a modern aging gentleman.

When meeting people I’m reflective, as I wonder what’s his name:
He looks familiar, but what comes to mind is likely not the same
As how he’s known to friends and fam’ly and Internal Revenue:
I hope to hell that I’m not wrong – I’d better hope to heaven too.
I hold opinions firmly and from them I won’t relent or budge,
Plus useless facts contaminated by a ton of mental sludge:
I know which part of Germany encompasses old Swabia
And also D.H. Lawrence wasn’t Lawrence of Arabia.

And also D.H. Lawrence wasn’t Lawrence of Arabia
And also D.H. Lawrence wasn’t Lawrence of Arabia
And also D.H. Lawrence wasn’t Lawrence of Arabi-ay-bi-a

In this dire path I vow persistence to the final edge of doom;
When all else fails, I hope to trust dementia’s fog to banish gloom:
In short, by every measure of debility and sentiment
I am the very model of a modern aging gentleman!

In short, by every measure of debility and sentiment,
He is the very model of a modern aging gentleman!


Saturday, August 6, 2016

Catch-55: Rereading a celebrated novel, finding it pretty bad after all, yet oddly relevant in 2016

I have too many books — too many for the available shelf space, too many to read in the likely amount of time I have left. So I'm more motivated than ever before to reread. A large collection of recordings, which I  also have, begs for lots of relistening, so why wouldn't too many books call for rereading?

Another motivation: To see how books read long ago might hold up upon rereading. This incentive, when obeyed, dredges up some surprises, the latest of which is my discovery that Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" isn't very good. And it wasn't much fun to read the second time around. It's tedious, overwrought, sophomoric.

Dust jacket of the book that made a name for its author
I remember acquiring my hard-cover copy ("seventh printing") not long after the book came out in 1961. I recall being shocked and stimulated by its vigorous nose-thumbing humor, the wildness and sheer abundance of its characters and incidents.

Heller's moment couldn't have been better. "Catch-22" appeared when the thrill of America's triumph in the Second World War had subsided. The Cold War cast an anxious pall over Americans, and suspicions that we had just entered a decade about ready to burst overhead in a host of explosions, both foreign and domestic, flashed on the horizon.

For me, a teenager trying out adversarial attitudes toward the Establishment and all its verities, Heller's first novel was a godsend. The previous decade's "Catcher in the Rye," which I caught up with late, just as it had started to acquire its "classic" patina, had a similar effect on me. And many of my respected literary and journalistic elders raved about "Catch-22": A.J. Liebling, Art Buchwald, James Jones, Kenneth Tynan, Robert Brustein, Nelson Algren all hailed it. Their blurbs on the dust jacket strike a common note of praise -- "best," "truest," "most sensible," "masterpiece," and so on.

But right after I started to reread "Catch-22," I became uneasy. Surely the book so proudly hailed in 1961 cannot have maintained its luster, I thought. It seems like a period piece:  Relentless smart-aleckry, labored humor rife with serial misunderstandings and non sequiturs descended from Wilde, Beckett, and Ionesco.  I wanted my uneasiness to take whatever course my sensibility dictated, so I hesitated to search online to trace the novel's reputation since it was new. When I did, my heart sank: ranks it No. 33 (among all books, ever, apparently). The Modern Library's board (whoever that is), puts "Catch-22" at No. 7 among the 100 best 20th-century novels; the reader's list (why the singular, I wonder) places it twelfth. I read no more about it.

The sinking feeling that "Catch-22" itself conveyed to me began on the second page. Yossarian, a malingering bombardier in hospital, is assigned the task of censoring other sick warriors' letters home. To relieve boredom, he blacks out words and letters with increasing capriciousness, eventually censoring everything but the salutation, then adding a purple-patch closing and signing the group chaplain's name. He goes on to obliterate even more, including envelope names and addresses. What a merry prank!

I did not know how to take this; it was supposed to be funny. But it resembled a drunken frat-boy stunt, and it still symbolizes for me the cruelty of Yossarian's iconoclastic whims. Men in service trying to communicate with loved ones at home don't matter, apparently, if the censor is bored. And if the author is mostly interested in casual dehumanization.

The anti-establishment verve that drives Yossarian's increasingly bizarre behavior is rooted in  the double-bind situation keyed to the title. The basic form of Catch-22 is that no member of a flight crew can be grounded for medical reasons unless he is deemed insane. Wanting to be grounded, no matter how many missions you've flown, is an indication you are sane, so you have to fly. As the colonel in charge keeps raising the number of required missions in order to enhance his career, Yossarian's comrades who retain their enthusiasm for flying are thus insane by normal standards of judging mental health, and tend to die or occasion the death of others.

Heller's novel is very highly "worked"; the dust jacket text ends with the information that "Catch-22" was eight years in the making. The narrative structure is unusual; there's little clear forward motion. Each chapter carries the name of an individual character about whom we are to learn a little more than we knew before. My second reading left no doubt that making this book required some heavy lifting.

But oh! the flood of paradoxes and absurdities, the sentences that double back on themselves, the painstaking cleverness, the fallen archness! "Colonel Cathcart had courage and never hesitated to volunteer his men for any target available." Yossarian says of a friend: "Nately had a bad start. He came from a good family." Yossarian himself is described this way: "That crazy bastard may be the only sane one left." "This sordid, vulturous, diabolical old man [an Italian at a Roman bordello] reminded Nately of his father because the two were nothing at all alike." And the visual absurdities: The hospital patient bandaged from head to toe and being fed by tube with his own excreta who may not be inside the mummylike wrapping at all; the two standing legs of Kid Sampson at the beach after a low-flying plane lops off his head and torso. Malpractice and mayhem are always good for a jaw-dropping laugh.

Smart, wary, and suddenly successful: Joseph Heller at 38, when Catch-22 was new.
One could go on. The effect is numbing. Maybe Heller was on to something about the frustrations of military life, especially when fear becomes endemic. The Bologna mission, for example, is a source of deep anxiety among the airmen on the small island off the Italian coast, whether it's delayed or about to be launched: "The more it rained, the worse they suffered. The worse they suffered, the more they prayed that it would continue raining."

A few witty paradoxes like this hit the mark. But amid the jokes and vaudeville rimshots, the reader's conviction grows that Yossarian and a number of other characters are unconcerned with anyone but themselves. Can you stay interested in such people? It's a challenge. Some, including the bombardier, are worse than narcissists, which would suggest that a high self-regard drives their actions. No, they are solipsists, acting on the belief that the world outside their own needs, drives, lusts, and fugitive comforts is unreal. In wearying detail, the nonsensical dialogue reinforces their psychic isolation.

Only near the end are there signs of Yossarian's humanity. He becomes aware of other people and of other than
mean ways to value his own survival. Heller finally sets aside the maniacal chatter  to describe a near-fatal attack on Yossarian by the deceased Nately's distraught whore; then, in a moving chapter, goes into Yossarian's experience of the death of the tailgunner Snowden, a harrowing event alluded to several times earlier. These experiences justify Yossarian's crucial decision at the end, which will not be revealed here on the assumption that someone reading this may not have read "Catch-22." (Good luck with that!) Maybe it was this final flash of light over his hero that won for Heller such widespread acclaim. After 400 pages, the reader, exhausted by all the forced yuks, finally gets a chance to empathize, to sense a real world behind all the sputtering satire and shtick.

Fifty-five years after its publication, "Catch-22" has now produced a "Catch-55" politically, especially for Republicans. Donald Trump is Col. Cathcart: His outrageous words and acts resemble Cathcart's self-centered, continual increase of the number of required missions. The airmen's loyalty and commitment are shown by struggling to stay sane and trying to meet the new number required, just as Republicans are tested by Trump's accumulated outrages. They must continue to "fly missions" for the man in charge, though unlike Heller's Army Air Force men, they are the ones who put him there. Trump also resembles Yossarian in his casual cruelty and cynicism, the entrepreneur Milo Minderbinder in seeing every measure of success as a matter of applying business principles to all situations, Col. Cathcart in his ruthless desire for good publicity and attention, and the vain General Peckem for smug assertions of his special administrative ability.

"I have a happy facility for getting different people to agree," the general announces.

To which a colonel confides to a buck private: "He has a happy facility for getting different people to agree what a prick he is."

Something apropos there, for sure.

Though showing its age at 55, "Catch-22" thus has an odd pertinence in this difficult election year. If there is a President Trump, he might just as well swear his oath on "Catch-22" as on a Bible. He is likely as familiar with one as the other.

But by no means, despite the firm niche its title has on the language, is "Catch-22" even a good novel, let alone a great one.