Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The President Addresses the UN General Assembly, the world gasps

I've used this tune before, but it really fits well in responding to Donald Trump's blustering address to the United Nations the other day. To be sure, there's a bad moon rising.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Randy Brecker: Indy Jazz Fest welcomes back to Naptown a durable trumpeter-bandleader-composer

Randy Brecker and I are contemporaries, so it was a coincidental boost to my mental hold on youth to appreciate how robust a
Portrait time at the Jazz Kitchen: Kenny Phelps (from left), Rob Dixon, Randy Brecker, Nick Tucker, and Steve Allee.
trumpeter he remains after decades before the public.

The trumpeter turns 72 at the end of November; I dialed up that number on Sunday at the Jazz Kitchen, where Brecker was the Indy Jazz Fest's guest star with a band of local all-stars known as the Indianapolis Jazz Collective.

A clever composer with a puckish sense of humor, Brecker opened his first set leading the quintet through his "There's a Mingus Amonk Us," the punning title reflecting inspiration from 20th-century jazz titans Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk. Both the bassist and the pianist were highly influential to jazzmen during the formative years of Randy and his brother Michael, a powerful tenor saxophonist who died 10 years ago.

The tune starts out Monkish, with quirky harmonies and short phrases, then easily passes into the smoother but characteristically rambunctious style of Mingus. There were solo choruses all around, then exchanges — first eight bars each, then four,  between the hornmen and pianist on one hand, the drummer on the other. This is often the kind of format that pick-up small groups employ to get everyone used to each other; it quickly appeared that minimal rehearsal beforehand had been sufficient to get the band into high gear.

Brecker obviously admired his sidemen for the occasion: tenor saxophonist Rob Dixon, pianist Steve Allee, bassist Nick Tucker, and drummer Kenny Phelps. He expressed his pleasure in between songs along with a few brief stories on his works' origins. "Shanghigh," for example, not surprisingly came out of an experience involving recreational drugs in China. Disco music was involved at the time, and so this peppy piece proceeded over a a steady disco beat.

Dixon, playing a horn new to him while his regular axe is in the shop, sounded remarkably at home. Though he always sounds like himself, he seemed to be channeling the Brecker brothers' roots in Philadelphia r&b and back beyond that to John Coltrane (who was based in the City of Brotherly Love for a while). There were "sheets-of-sound" aspects in his solo that channeled early and middle Coltrane, modified by Michael's bar-walking affinity for funky pop, a genre adapted profitably for jazz in the 1970s by the Brecker Brothers band.

Also notable in "Shanghigh" was the firm yet understated underpinning Phelps gave to Tucker's solo. The coming-together of disparate experiences continued with  "O Corko Mio," an attractive piece written by Brecker's wife, Ada Rovatti, an adept saxophonist who's part of the trumpeter's regular touring band. The theme is rooted in aspects of Irish folk music, the band having been working in Ireland at the time she wrote it. In one of his well-articulated solos, Brecker drew on both the florid lyricism of his wife's Italian homeland and the modal characteristics of the Celtic tradition. I liked the witty manner with which Allee climaxed his solo with chiming chords. Phelps followed with an effervescent solo before the end.

Brecker graciously included a piece each by Allee and Dixon. Allee's "Ebony" had the urban elan of his memorable compositions for "New York in the Fifties," the TV realization of a Dan Wakefield memoir. Dixon's enchanting "Twilight Dusk" brought forth from the saxophonist a solo that made his ownership of the material crystal-clear. There was some simultaneous improvisation in the hornmen's paraphrased return to the tune near the end.

In between, everyone got a chance to stop reading charts to offer "Body and Soul," which drew particularly rich lyricism from Brecker. The well-received set ended with a romp through Brecker's "Free Fall," which righted itself superbly after a false start.

Apart from his well-preserved chops and the oomph and brilliance that continue to come out when he plays, Brecker also struck a chord with me when he made gentle fun of the ubiquitous shortening of the city's name to "Indy." "We used to call it Naptown," he said in his first spoken interlude to the full house. He used the old nickname without a trace of disparagement, but accompanied "Indy" with a little eye-rolling. Exactly!

"Naptown" never implied that Indianapolis suffered from narcolepsy, I believe, while "Indy" always sounds a  bit like baby talk to me. Hey, I'm an old man. I don't have to make my peace with "Indy." So, kudos to the Indy Jazz Fest for bringing Randy Brecker back to Naptown.

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Dr. Lonnie Smith heats up the Jazz Kitchen to complement the current weather's warming trend

The distinctive Hammond B-3 master out of Buffalo, N.Y., made a return visit to the Indy Jazz Fest two years after his
Dr. Lonnie Smith takes care of business with evident joy in IJF appearance.
last engagement, distributing fitful elegance and pervasive powerhouse effects during a second set Saturday at the Jazz Kitchen.

Dr. Lonnie Smith, with a title that has become part of his name and an honorific by extension of the high regard in which he is held, brought his touring trio to the Northside club for two sets.

He mingled with patrons between sets, and cemented his rapport with the public during a climactic piece in which he walked the aisles playing his growling, rumbling, wailing electronic cane.

These were characteristics of his appearance in 2015 as well, when, I must admit, my overall impression was more favorable. Introduced by Tony Monaco, an Ohio organist with quite a local following who shared this weekend's "Organ Summit" festival programming, Smith and his trio presented an emotionally expansive but tidy hourlong set to conclude his latest appearance here. The organist is on tour with guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer Xavier Breaker.

The trio opened with "Mellow Mood,"  a cumulatively fiery piece that (Smith admitted with a chuckle) didn't stay true to its title, not that anyone minded. It proved an exciting opener, with Kreisberg's long-lined solo yielding to Smith's overarching mastery. He has a way of driving a figure almost into the ground just before he varies it. At his best, Smith has a superb feeling for dramatic effect: In the second number, "Alhambra," he made the most of an upward-creeping pattern on the bridge. His solo reflected that later in gargantuan terms, rumbling up from the depths of the keyboard. The trio put together a climax as if out of nowhere, capped by organ trills, before moving into double time near the end.

Smith erects signposts on the way to key changes that build audience anticipation. Surprises abound when a ballad is undertaken; the fourth song in the set, for instance, metamorphosed subtly when Breaker introduced a strong backbeat pattern.

Stretching his audience's ears considerably, Smith turned to other electronic keyboards for a long introduction to a fast-moving piece. The introduction — with its drifting, otherworldly manner and crunchy harmonies, through which was threaded a synthetic muted-trumpet solo — sounded like a lost Miles Davis/Gil Evans collaboration from a couple of galaxies over.  Then, after the aforementioned ballad, Smith ended the set with his "cane scrutiny" number before returning to the Hammond B-3 to wrap things up.

Good showmanship, as usual, from the doctor. But to me there was less clarity than on the Dr. Lonnie CDs I'm familiar with or to the best of my concert recollection from two years ago. Some of the reliable mannerisms of his style seemed more to be felt than firmly etched this time around. Though not lacking in energy and flashes of imagination, the hard-hitting Breaker didn't strike me as an ideal partner for the guitarist, who was always intense but a model of debonair control. Fortunately, Smith was able to mediate between them with an old pro's zeal and savoir-faire.

The trio worked compatibly enough, but not at the same high level as formerly. Yet, with a half-century career for him to build upon, there can be no doubt that experiencing Dr. Lonnie Smith is like visiting a monument — the kind that will never be removed from its pedestal.

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]

Saturday, September 16, 2017

A view past identity politics toward an embrace of difference: ATI's 'La Cage aux Folles' conveys the impact with glitz and authenticity

Power couple: ZaZa (Don Farrell) and Georges (Bill Book)
The conservative politician concerned to impose his narrow vision on society is a fixture of America today. In "La Cage aux Folles," he gets his comeuppance in a manner consistent with the score-settling gusto typical of French farce. That harks back to the play upon which the Harvey Fierstein/Jerry Herman musical of the same name is based.

But the 1983 musical comedy that opened Actors Theatre of Indiana's season Friday night at the Center for the Performing Arts' Studio Theatre  has a more satisfying theme than the just deserts visited upon self-righteous bigotry. And that is the enduring vitality of relationships built on mutual acceptance, but ultimately resting on a foundation of willingness to change as a result, to love beyond what you are used to.

Set on the French Riviera in the not-too-distant past, "La Cage aux Folles" is at the edge of seeming dated, except for the energy it puts into what's required to live authentically outside "the norm" (the scare quotes seem inevitable). The nightclub of the title, its brand built on the zesty naughtiness of performers in drag, rests upon the professional and personal romance of proprietor/emcee Georges and Albin, who as ZaZa is the multifaceted marquee name of La Cage aux Folles.

Georges' early liaison with a woman, an affair he chooses to characterize as accidental, resulted in a son, Jean-Michel. Raised largely by Albin, he's now about to definitively express his heterosexual identity by marrying the nubile Anne, independent-minded daughter of the aforementioned conservative politician and his officially dutiful wife. The conflict that puts the fizz in this highball is a meet-the-parents visit that would make the demonstratively gay Albin an encumbrance, imperiling the match's prospects of success.

The resolution of this dilemma is of course anything but smooth. It demands much from everyone in the know about the host household — expressed with saucy resistance by Jacob, Georges' maid/butler, and with a nagging campaign by the desperate Jean-Michel — but largely falling upon Albin's sleek, vulnerable shoulders.

Don Farrell sounds all conceivable comic notes of the character, as well as the pathos of the self-sacrifice Albin is called upon to make. His performance as ZaZa of "I Am What I Am," an adaptation of the brilliantly staged earlier production number "We Are What We Are," made for a rousing finale to the first act on opening night.

Farrell's ZaZa impersonation, winsome and provocative, was striking enough to render his scenes as Albin — hissy fits and
In the end, the enduring partnership of Albin and Georges is reaffirmed.
pained tenderness alike —  thoroughly credible. The portrayal contrasted appropriately with the blithe accommodation Georges is accustomed to make between his public and private selves in Bill Book's polished performance. The discrepancy between the drag queen and "the plain homosexual" (Georges' self-description) was believably bridged by the genuine rapport that Farrell and Book projected under Larry Raben's astute direction.

With the central relationship so well defined in this production, the show's underlying theme thrives both beneath and beside the manic comedy and vividly costumed and choreographed representation of La Cage's entertainment product. Kudos to Stephen R. Hollenbeck and Carol Worcel, respectively, crowned by the spectacular wigs and makeup of Daniel Klingler, who also plays Jacob.

That theme is the hard-won but essential respect that intimacy requires if it is to last. Not the kind of contractual respect summed up in the Aretha Franklin hit, but rather something Feierstein articulated in the final scene of his near-masterpiece "Torch Song Trilogy." when the hero Arnold's mother defends how she raised her children: "I wanted them to respect me because they wanted to."

Les Cagelles, the resident troupe supporting ZaZa, frolic in "La Cage aux Folles."
In "La Cage aux Folles," the respect finally comes to Albin because the other characters, chiefly the single-minded Jean-Michel, want to extend it to him. If you have to call it the show's message, OK — it's a message. It comes through in Georges' wonderful second-act solo,"Look Over There," later adopted by Jean-Michel after the pivotal production number "The Best of Times."

Sean Haynes is an earnest Jean-Michel who moves from self-absorbed plotting to a genuine change of heart. Throughout, Jerry Herman's songs both sparkle and stick in the mind and heart. Directed by Levi Burke, they are brightly performed in this production, with well-coordinated accompaniments from an offstage band that is sometimes a little too insistent. Wishing to avoid a check list covering the whole cast, I need at least to salute the well-integrated vigor of everyone's acting, singing and dancing.

Long before "La Cage," an influential book by sociologist Erving Goffman, "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life," used theatrical analogies to demonstrate how direct interaction between people makes us all not only actors but also playwrights and, to a considerable degree, the burgeoning production team of a perpetually workshopped project. We act as the persons we believe we are in part to shape others' responses to us and to create compatible environments for the selves we inhabit.

That truth is fully fleshed out in "La Cage aux Folles" with this production's smoothly interacting backstage and onstage milieus and a degree of character development that goes well beyond farce. The audience itself balances on this fulcrum as the truth enunciated by "Torch Song Trilogy"'s Ma hits home: We can't demand respect for who we are; we have to find ways to persuade other people, especially those we care most about, to want to respect us.

It's all show biz, but, given these terms, what's so bad about that?

[Production photos by Zach Rosing]

Friday, September 15, 2017

Themed 'Hip Then, Hip Now,' Indy Jazz Fest looks to past glories while asserting present ones as well

Rob Dixon was bandleader and emcee as Indy Jazz Fest 2017 got under way.
Thelonious Monk's enduring companion and patient wife, Nellie, once said memorably of her often cryptic genius husband that he had "a marvelous sense of withdrawal."

Apparently, that trait applies posthumously as well, at least as far as the 2017 Indy Jazz Fest is concerned. As the 19th annual festival got under way at the University of Indianapolis, Monk was withdrawn from what had been advertised as a tripartite tribute concert to the birth centennials of three jazz giants. The other two are Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie, who were duly celebrated in a 90-minute concert of generally high quality at the University of Indianapolis.

1917 is to jazz what 1685 is to classical music's baroque era, when three geniuses first saw the light of day — J.S. Bach, George Frideric Handel, and Domenico Scarlatti.

Mark Buselli was occasionally Dizzyesque.
Program length may have been a consideration, yet it seems the unique pianist-composer — whose contributions to the music are still widely enjoyed and take many developing musicians profitably to school — could have been troweled into the program somewhere. His best-known piece, "'Round Midnight," might  have gotten an outing. If a quirky masterpiece like "Criss Cross" had been considered a little out there, one of his funky-sided tunes, like "I Mean You," would have been a natural. And if "'Round Midnight" had been the choice, there is a natural tie-in to one of the other honorees, because Gillespie contributed material at the beginning and end of the song that is usually considered an essential part of it, the way Barney Bigard's original clarinet solo in "Mood Indigo" became fused to the Duke Ellington composition.

I'm sure this excellent sextet knows its Monk: saxophonist Dixon, trumpeter and congas player Mark Buselli, trombonist Ernest Stuart, pianist Steve Allee, bassist Nick Tucker, and drummer Kenny Phelps. We heard good things from them in the Gillespie numbers: Buselli's plunger-muted solo in "Birks Works," following upon Allee's tidy, deep-rooted blues playing; Stuart's exuberant showcase in "Manteca," setting the stage for a delicious congas-drums duet bringing forward the excellence of the Buselli-Phelps partnership; and tenorman Dixon's  forthright staking of claims on "Groovin' High" territory.

Yvonne Allu held up the Ella end of the tribute concert.
True, Stuart sometimes sounded unfocused and scattered in his soloing, especially on "Groovin' High." And Tucker's typically alert work on bass came across somewhat blurred — the well-managed sound system still has disadvantages in the Ruth Lilly Performance Hall where jazz is concerned. Tucker was clearest, joined to the subtlest of Phelps accompaniments, in "Birks Works."

Nonetheless, the pacing and variety of the show worked well, with instrumentalists taking turns sitting out now and then. There were several beautiful endings, drawing hushed audience responses before the applause.

The Ella portions of the concert were competently handled by vocalist Yvonne Allu.  She has a heavier instrument than Ella's, but she deployed it tastefully.  I missed hearing a few scat choruses on "How High the Moon," where Fitzgerald was accustomed to showing off her virtuosity.  But Allu went briefly into scatting elsewhere, and her spontaneity reached in the direction of Fitzgerald's genius for paraphrasing a melody. "Summertime" really rocked, and "Night and Day" featured an exquisite partnership between the singer and Buselli's flugelhorn.

As an ensemble achievement, "Manteca" came across a little lead-footed, though it always stirs up excitement. More cohesive, in part because the composition has a more interesting structure, was "A Night in Tunisia." Ahead of a performance late in his career with the United Nation Orchestra (whose drummer, Ignacio Berroa, brings his band to the festival next Wednesday at the Jazz Kitchen), Gillespie hilariously (and accurately) said of his classic: "It has withstood the vicissitudes of the contingent world and moved in an odyssey into the realm of the metaphysical."

No one could have put it better. And whatever that description may mean, the Indy Jazz Fest Band seemed to embody it Thursday night, no more so than in the flamboyant break with which Buselli launched his trumpet solo — Dizzyesque to the nth degree and harking back to a similar break taken in the golden age of bebop by Gillespie's confrere, Charlie Parker. That's metaphysical, bruthuh!

[Photos by Mark Sheldon]

Monday, September 11, 2017

Clarity, insight, and power: Nikita Mndoyants, 2016 winner of the Cleveland International Piano Competition, plays a 'Grand Encounters' recital for APA

Among other accomplishments of his recital Sunday afternoon in the Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall at Butler University, Nikita Mndoyants shared a fresh outlook on the much worked-upon 24th Paganini Caprice. Long a favorite of composers to rhapsodize upon and submit to variation, the last number of the violin virtuoso's Op. 1 had the Mndoyants stamp put upon it a decade ago, according to the American Pianists Association's "Grand Encounters" program book.

Nikita Mndoyants played a brilliant solo recital Sunday afternoon as APA's guest.
The winner of the 2016 Cleveland International Piano Competition showed his gifts as a composer, too, when he returned to the stage after intermission to play his Variations on a Theme of Paganini (2007). Launched with isolated notes abstracted from the theme, the work soon lands on the familiar tune, but quickly springs free of literalism.

There is obviously no need to mirror what has already been done memorably by Rachmaninoff, Lutoslawski, Brahms, and Liszt, even with novel harmonies.

So Mndoyants sets a free fantasy upon the melody, using its contours and characteristic rhythmic flow with great originality. He looks askance at it even as he celebrates it. There is a quasi-fugal episode and other indications that the composer-pianist knew how to apply a wealth of techniques to familiar material.

But what was most striking to me was Mndoyants' evident insight into the embedded mood of Paganini's original: The first part of the tune is brightly assertive; the second half is veiled in mystery, swirling downward as if in counterstatement to what precedes it.  Mndoyants has something to say that's more than clever; he pays tribute to the caprice's immortality. The composition shows what makes the 24th Caprice a permanent, tantalizing icon, like the Mona Lisa. What's more, Mndoyants' piece ends with — what else? — a capricious flourish. All in all, quite an accomplishment for a teenage pianist-composer.

Also impressive was the second half's companion piece, the formidable Eighth Piano Sonata (in B-flat, op. 84) of Sergei Prokofiev. Mndoyants made sense of the sprawling, knotty first movement, Andante dolce, in a way previously unavailable to me as a listener. Despite the heading, the movement isn't predominantly sweet; it presents a host of vexations to both pianist and audience. Mndoyants laid everything out clearly. The long, sinuous phrases that justify the "dolce" directive were nicely proportioned and wonderfully balanced. The work's greatness is unmistakably established in a performance of this sort, though the slow movement, Andante sognando, strikes me as unworthy of it. Despite its imaginative treatment, the theme itself is sentimental, close to salon music.

Enter, gratifyingly, the motoric drive and buoyancy of the finale. Mndoyants' rhythmically crisp and dynamically varied performance was delightful.  Even in the most finger-busting toccatalike passages, he displayed an uncanny variety of touch. You never got the feeling he was just barreling through all the excitement. The audience's tumultuous approval elicited two Baroque encores: Rameau's "Le rappel des oiseaux" and Purcell's Ground in C minor.

In the first half,  Mndoyants' mastery had already been quite evident. He brought an extra buzz to intermission conversation with a spectacular performance of Liszt's "concert paraphrase" of Wagner's Overture to Tannhäuser. The Pilgrims' Chorus, one of the noblest tunes in early Wagner opera, ranges from stately and pious to overwhelming in its first appearance. But that proves to be just a warm-up for the hurricane force (I wonder why that image popped into my head) of its return. The returning pilgrims have brought from Rome the green, leafy miracle of the Pope's staff, signaling Tannhäuser's rescue from the sensuous distractions of Venusberg.

Liszt, with his sharp sense of the tussle between virtue and vice (his girlfriend, Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, was trying to extricate herself from a failed marriage at the time), certainly wanted to bring the full resources of the piano to his future son-in-law's depiction of the conflict. Mndoyants was equal to the task of representing the music's daunting spectrum of emotion and sonority.

The recital opened with Beethoven's Six Bagatelles, Op. 126, a set of miniatures hard to encompass with any brief description — music expressing the stubborn freedom of the prematurely aged composer,  totally bereft of hearing beyond what his imagination could produce for him. At first, the live acoustics of the Eidson-Duckwall seemed to require more of a scaling back from Mndoyants than he was willing to provide. The necessary adjustments were made by the third bagatelle, and its soft-spoken fleetness was fully engaged. The ebb and flow of dynamics in the sixth piece sounded fully responsive to the environment. Like just about everything else in this recital, the performance confirmed the pianist's fitness for whatever he applies himself to.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Catalyst Repertory takes us to hilarious and heart-wrenching mistakes by the lake in "The Seagull"

Fascinated like everyone else by sobering reminders that nature is still in charge, I happened to have as the last image on my iPhone before the start Friday of Catalyst Repertory Company's production of "The Seagull" a short video of the Angel of Independence monument in Mexico City. A tall structure of the type represented locally by the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, it was swaying metronomically from the effect of the huge earthquake hundreds of miles away.

The metronome divides time in adjustable units to aid musicians. We invented time and devices to measure it to order our response to natural cycles and events. Inevitably, they now chop up our workaday lives to the millisecond. The world of "The Seagull" lies in the peculiar suspension of time that Anton Chekhov was so good at populating.

Set by a Russian lake at the turn of the last century, "The Seagull" situates a few seismic events in the midst of anxiety about what to expect from the passage of time. The play is saturated with the sense that things are happening elsewhere or in a vaguely sensed future—  or were missed in a regrettable past. The characters nurture fleeting hopes and frustrations in a superficially idyllic setting  far removed from the original timeless paradise: Eden before the Fall.

Would-be actress Nina, thwarted by her family, is fascinated by the bitter idealist Treplev.
Casey Ross' direction is responsive to the Chekhovian pace. Opening night at Grove Haus, despite the inevitable distraction of the former church's stained-glass windows and the set's indications of a tight budget, conveyed the atmosphere as well. Life in the country pushes to the forefront card games, long walks, and fishing, but also flashes visions in restless heads of a more significant life. Loving the right person, pursuing the right career are matters that leisure tends to throw into high relief, often making it less relaxing than it should be.

Treplev (I'm using the program's versions of character names) is a morose, struggling writer attempting to break free of his actress mother's eminence by trying to realize new artistic forms. He may have a smidgen of talent, but he has no resources and not much of a foothold on life. Arkadina (his mother's pretentious stage name) is vain about her importance in conventional theater and fixated on the trappings of success, which include a prolific writer, Trigorn, whom she's taken on somewhat anxiously as her young lover. Visits to her brother Sorin's country estate accentuate her buoyant self-regard, in contrast to Sorin's dour semi-invalidism, represented well (though sometimes inaudibly) by Dennis Forkel.

Always "on," Arkadina holds forth expansively, as Dorn and Masha listen.
Eleven months ago in Carmel, Catalyst patrons got to take in Taylor Cox and Nan Macy in the much different son/mother conflict of Shakespeare's "Coriolanus."  Both actors benefit from the less heightened language of Chekhov's play. When they needed to rise to levels of shattering emotional distress in "The Seagull," the contrast from their characters' steadier moments (of which Treplev has few) presented them more three-dimensionally. Their long verbal duel after Arkadina has solicitously tended to Treplev's superficial head wound (from an ominous suicide attempt) was riveting, and set against their better selves.

Thomas Cardwell, trailing clouds of glory behind him as the debonair Trigorn, projects the self-confidence of a man accustomed to trimming his sails to the prevailing winds. Someone once said, if you can fake sincerity, you've got it made. Cardwell's Trigorn is a master, no more so than in a long dialogue with the ingenuous would-be actress Nina, played with admirable delicacy, veiling fierce desperation, by Ann Marie Elliott. Strongly discouraged from pursuing her dreams by her father and his second wife, two unseen characters of formidable influence, Nina latches on to Treplev's fey avant-gardism at first, despite her well-grounded sense that the figures he sets up for the stage are lifeless. His mood swings become truly alarming, and given Nina's misadventures after leaving her hostile parents, fully shatter her.

Treplev works under a dangerously intense light.
This brings up a risk that Chekhov cultivated: daring the audience to find his characters, in their banality and outsize passions alike, tiresome at length. The production fully embraces that risk, and the long, bitter dialogue between Nina and Treplev near the end prompts the thought: These people and their problems are tedious. I believe arousing such reactions in the audience is something Chekhov turned to advantage. Real people are, after all, often tiresome. I think this legacy can be seen in the works of two recently deceased American playwrights, among others: Sam Shepard and Edward Albee. (Who has seen even a good performance of "The Zoo Story" without wanting to scream?) We are fascinated by the people in "The Seagull" partly because they threaten to wear us down as well as one another.

In Nina's full-spectrum meltdown, I also found notes appropriate to many portrayals of Ophelia's mad scene in "Hamlet." Elliott credibly presented a pulverized personality, like Polonius' daughter distributing flowers. There are a few outright indications of Shakespeare's masterpiece in "The Seagull" that have been noted by others before me, including direct quotes. The parallels, tweaked just enough and spread around different characters to avoid parody, are too plentiful to go into here. But they are there from the first scene, when the lovelorn schoolteacher Medivenko, played with exquisite awkwardness by Bradford Reilly, asks the bored Masha (Emily Bohn) why she always dresses in mourning clothes. When we first see the main characters in "Hamlet," the question of the hero's persistent black garb is also raised.

"The Seagull" also has a Polonius character, the physician Dorn (played with smug sensitivity by Craig Kemp). Because this is a comedy, believe it or not, Polonius survives, his good advice consorting easily with his fatuousness. And in Cardwell's Trigorn, more than a few accents of the smarmy, masterful King Claudius are displayed. In the staging of a fraught conversation between Arkadina and Trigorn, with the aging actress clinging to her lover's leg, I felt I was seeing in satirical terms Hamlet's conception of his mother's pathetic devotion to the usurping king.

Ross took chances with the play's foundation in comedy, but they always worked. Antony Nathan's Shamrayeff and Kyrsten Lyster's Paulina are the obstreperous servants of comic tradition. In this production, Treplev's shooting down of the gull has the artlessness of cheap farce about it. The symbolism he attaches to his act is thus firmly undercut by the ridiculousness of his self-delusion as a world-changing artistic innovator. He's a nebbishy Hamlet fit for a revenge comedy, a one-man circular firing squad.

The Earth continues to move, as it always does, the Angel of Independence sways upon her foundation, and there is no world for us without time and its catastrophes. It may not take a gratuitously shot and stuffed bird to remind us of that, but "The Seagull" helps.

[Photos by Gary Nelson]

Friday, September 8, 2017

Jazz CD review: Henrique Eisenmann's nifty notions of plucking music from silence

The pianist Henrique Eisenmann makes music out of the still center of contemplation, letting influences that vary from
Eisenmann: Picking up cues from the environment
dance forms to childish recitations nurture the quartet music of "The Free Poetics of Henrique Esenmann" (Red Piano Records).

He leads a group that can sound tightly organized, but never unduly circumscribed. Openness pervades the atmosphere, yet the commonality of effort is never compromised, but rather reinforced.

The one borrowed composition, for instance, Hermeto Pascoal's "Zurich," has a cat-and-mouse episode between Eisenmann and soprano saxophonist Gustavo D'Amico that emerges from a thematic statement animated by dueling meters. Rogerio Boccato's understated percussion playing flares up here once the tempo picks up, but usually it sort of wafts around the calm atmosphere.

"Sarabande No. 2" reaches distantly back to the old dance, which sounds stately today (when it is usually heard in Bach suites) despite its being seen as risque centuries ago. Eisenmann's sidemen join the pianist at a leisurely pace. The triple meter is maintained once the slow music gives way to a fast tempo. The overall effect is cohesive.  A different kind of slow-fast contrast is set forth in the more insistent "Afro-Latidos." A sax-vs.-hand-percussion duo in the center allows the intensity to peak before the piano solo centers the mind. The ending is perfect.

Both the movement and the sound of birds are freshly evoked in "Dans un Fracas de Plumes," with its pointillistic opening and metrically free process. There are soft, fluttering figures that avoid sentimentalizing the music's subject. "Anthropophagy" gives some props to the jazz tradition, thanks to the bass playing of Jorge Roeder and a bluesy cast over part of the six-minute span.

Eisenmann's music probes a kind of ensemble playing that may mark this quartet as ill-placed if presented in either a jazz club or a jazz festival.  It's worth sustained attention, and probably comes across best in a concert setting — or in the privacy of your home, listening to this CD.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Mark Guiliana, the last word in jazz drumming, points to his roots in 'Jersey'

Mark Guiliana, a thinking man's drummer.
A new star will make a stop nearby at the Midwest's premier jazz festival on Labor Day weekend. Mark Guiliana is a jazz drummer with a remarkable sensitivity to sound and loads of restraint when it comes to displaying his technique. He will bring his quartet to the Detroit Jazz Festival Sunday evening. That may be as close as you can get anytime soon to the Guiliana magic, though it is likely to draw back from some of the electronic extensions of his recent activity and focus on material from "Jersey" (Motema).

The disc's largely original material, acoustically vivid, is capped by a tribute to his quondam employer, David Bowie, in the form of Bowie's "Where Are We Now?"  The distribution of the material is nearly unique to each track. His colleagues are saxophonist Jason Rigby, pianist Fabian Almazan, and bassist Chris Morrssey.  The title track is perhaps the most conventional — a ballad that seems to be in standard song form, but it is no empty-headed slog. The slow tempo is sustained, yet well-prepared short-note playing overtakes the tenor-sax and piano lines before a repeated bass figure closes it out.

The interaction always has an element of surprise to it. The peppy "Our Lady" features an excellent Almazan solo, and a different kind of showcase for Guiliana's drums ensues, as he kicks up the patterns under an ensemble ostinato. Sometimes the material is deliberately thin, but it always has a way of launching something inspired: Plentiful drumming suits the spare melody of "Big Rig Jones." In "Rate," the shortest track, only Guiliana is featured, and briefly his fast hands approach the nervous crispness of Buddy Rich. Among the influences the leader cites in that piece, Roy Haynes seems to me uppermost.

Without ever getting staid, good taste is a laudable feature of "Jersey."  Perhaps "BP" verges on the bombastic, but its aggressiveness feels self-contained. I felt disappointment only in the nod to Bowie, the album's longest track, but perhaps this version of "Where Are We Now?" will resonate with the late British star's fans.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Acing the course: Prof. Dave Stryker notches more than academic success in 'Strykin' Ahead'

Guitarist Dave Stryker has a date at the Jazz Kitchen.
I've noted in another post my preference for reading books and listening to recordings in the order the artist/producers have decided. No shuffling for me! I think I get the sense of how I'm supposed to take in new creative art when I follow the order the product lays out for me. There must be a reason for that order, mustn't there?

Accordingly, I found "Strykin' Ahead," the new Strikezone CD by Dave Stryker supplementing his organ trio (Jared Gold, McClenty Hunter) with vibraphonist Steve Nelson to be at its most persuasive with the nine tracks listened to a couple of times in order. Among Stryker's many credentials is the post he holds as adjunct professor of jazz guitar at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music.

In the middle, the quartet offers a fleet original: the title tune. The disc starts with another original, an unconventional blues that allows for an abstract approach to the form. At the end is Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee," one of the most famous bebop contrafacts, based on a song long known to millions of Hoosiers, "(Back Home Again in) Indiana."  This not only finds the players on common ground; it also reflects back on Stryker's "New You," based on the standard "There Will Never Be Another You."

That's the third song, and it's one of the strongest new contrafacts I've come across. It picks up on a conspicuous part of the song, using it as a motive that both recalls "There Will Never Be Another You" and manages to stay free of obviousness.

Maybe it's the band's rethinking of some tunes I know well that leads me to prefer this disc over last year's "Eight Track II," which is also an imaginative piece of work using the same players, but draws on recent pop that I'm less close to. Fans who know either "Eight Track" CD or become acquainted with the new one are likely to agree with me that this is a real ensemble, its players interdependent and mutually reliant.

When Stryker goes on tour as fall gets under way, he will come to the Jazz Kitchen in October. But, however adept his colleagues here may be, it's a little regrettable he can't tour with the three players on "Strykin' Ahead." If you only heard one track from "Strykin' Ahead" and it happened to be a rhythmically rearranged version of Wayne Shorter's "Footprints," you'd have all the evidence you need of the seamless rapport of Stryker, Gold, Hunter, and Nelson.

Just the subtlety of how the organ solo is launched out of tendrils of the tune is spine-tingling. But, despite the gems in the details, my main impression remains focused on the band's compatibility and its collective imagination throughout.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Casey Ross' 'Gallery' trilogy, each part having premiered at IndyFringe Featival, is mounted and framed with 'Canvas'

Triangulated: "Canvas"'s Afton Shepard, Davey Pelsue, and Dave Ruark
 The unveiling of a work of art climaxes "Canvas" after practically everything else about a small knot of friends, kin, and lovers has been unraveled.

Casey Ross' scarifying drama in the 2017 Fringe Festival rounds out a trilogy whose predecessors — "Gallery" and "Portraits"— premiered at the 2007 and 2014 festivals, respectively. Synopses of the new play's companion pieces are helpfully available in the program for "Canvas." Having not seen "Gallery" and "Portraits," my discombobulation during the first few scenes of "Canvas" was only temporary.

Canvas is the traditional surface on which paintings are made, and, significantly, also what covers the floor of a boxing ring. "Canvas" is a knockdown, drag-out fight, an unruly strongman competition centered in a stifling corner of the art world. Everybody's back touches canvas violently at some point. Conversations are fraught with embedded emotions and intimate histories. They resemble "the conversation with the flying plates / I wish I were in love again" of the evergreen Rodgers-and-Hart song. With love, if you can't stand the punch-ups, you ain't got game.

Love tussles animate the key relationship here: that between Frank Burnem, the wizardly master of everything he turns his hand to, and his intensely dependent but sexually conflicted admirer, the painter Jackson Bell. Scott Miller, proprietor of a restaurant patronized by young artists, represents the uncomplicated side of Frank's gay identity. As both artist and man, Jackson is cathected upon Frank, having caused the dissolution of his marriage to Monica, a member of the old art-school gang all now struggling to find themselves in art and life. Frank's brother Martin is at the far edge of this circle, repeatedly crossing his low disgust threshold.

Ross is an efficient playwright, having constructed her play of short scenes snipped apart by blackouts on Theatre on the Square's Stage II. Consequently, saying much even about the early scenes risks violating the spoiler taboo. Every scene tells. There's not a wasted word, it seems, despite the f-word carpet-bombing early on. The style, ramped up to the nth degree under the direction of Adam Tran, draws on the rapid-fire rancidness of Harold Pinter dialogue, but without the pauses.

Freedom the real subject: "Bad Times" by Philip Guston (1970)
As Jackson, Davey Pelsue will have your palms sweating. Jackson's neediness outdoes anyone else's, though Dave Ruark, in a keenly modulated performance, shrewdly indicates just how trapped Frank feels by his very virtuosity. Anything that approaches genius has its own dead ends. Both artists are fighting for their freedom, and they flail more than a little.

Shortly before he died in 1980, the painter Philip Guston described the generally negative reaction a decade earlier to his drastic switch from first-generation abstract expressionism (a label he hated) toward figurative work often populated by hooded figures evoking Klansmen. Among his few champions at the opening of a 1970 show marking the change was his friend Willem de Kooning, who said: "Why are they all complaining about you making political art, all this talk? You know what your real subject is. It's about freedom, to be free, the artist's first duty."

Conceived as a duty, freedom is an illusory ideal that imposes a heavy burden on artists and everyone around them. All the performances in "Canvas" flesh out this truth vividly: Matt Walls embodies the outsider/insider dichotomy as brother Martin, Nathan Thomas reflects Scott's wry appreciation of his precarious relationship to Frank, and Afton Shepard, who looks like the sort of ice-princess blonde Alfred Hitchcock favored in casting his heroines, brought an individualized intensity to the role that, when needed, matched everyone else's.

The first and last words of "Canvas" are "Art." That may be the ultimate spoiler. Let this also be my spoiler alert.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Two top wind instrumentalists take on a pianist to form a new trio, painting "Portraits" on CD

Their careers displaying great range as soloists, chamber musicians, and orchestral players, the McGill brothers have issued
Demarre McGill (from left), Michael McHale, and Anthony McGill.
their debut flute-clarinet-piano trio recording, "Portraits," on Cedille Records.

Necessarily, Anthony and Demarre McGill, in joining forces with the Irish pianist Michael McHale, specialize in music of our time, with transcriptions for this unusual combination tucked in for contrast.

Best-known on this CD in that category is Rachmaninoff's "Vocalise," deftly arranged by McHale. As a tasteful arranger, McHale is also behind the disc's finale, an Irish traditional tune called "The Lark in the Clear Air."

The lyrical emphasis of these transcriptions is well-suited to the fully supported lyricism of each brother — Demarre on flute, Anthony on clarinet.  But it is never absent from the new works, either. Valerie Coleman's "Portraits" uses the evocative scene-painting of Langston Hughes' poems, hauntingly read before each movement by the actor Mahershala Ali, to showcase the smooth interaction of the brothers and their collaborator.

Coleman's music springs off the dancing atmosphere that pervades her chosen texts. The players seem fully attuned to the varied idioms sketched by the composition, which at 26 minutes is the disc's longest.

Similar immersion in vernacular forms characterizes Paul Schoenfield's Sonatina. The three-movement work plays with familiar genres that lie deep in the cultural fabric: "Charleston," "Hunter Rag," and "Jig" are the titles.  I was most impressed by the friskiness and fresh grappling with the Charleston and ragtime idioms. There's much independence in the wind writing, and the trio admirably sustains the agility and flexibility required. Tempos in the second-movement rag, for instance, hang back  from time to time, then surge forward subtly. A certain swagger overtakes the material sporadically. The Charleston movement both emphasizes the dance's rhythmic profile and takes in the smooth sentimentality of the Palm Court orchestras out of which the craze emerged. Only "Jig" leaned a little too much toward the conventional, though the high-register wind playing was thrilling.

Two character pieces are worth mentioning: Chris Rogerson's "A Fish Will Rise" has both the lightness of piscine movement and the volume of darting fishes' swift-running habitat. It has a believable three-dimensionality throughout its nine-minute span. The disc's nearest approach to advanced music of our time is Guillaume Connesson's "Techno-Parade," a brightly ecstatic salute to the counter-classical esthetics of techno-pop. I could happily leave the techno-pop genre alone, but this work invites  listeners not steeped in it to consider its attractions favorably.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Day Four of IndyFringe festival: Four shows on characteristically American struggles, lightened by ballet at the end

 [Post interrupted by attempt to view the eclipse: my apologies to early readers!]

An inadvertent commentary on what made the late Dick Gregory special came through in the one-man IndyFringe festival show "Black in the Box," which I saw at the Phoenix Underground Sunday afternoon.

Gregory pioneered direct talk about race in stand-up comedy, departing from the expectation that black funnymen would for the most part keep it light and well away from racial troubles.

In this disturbing, captivating show, Marlon Andrew Burnley devotes part of his overview of the African-American experience to the need to keep post-Emancipation troubles at arm's length. The genesis of black entertainment — at first a matter of hard-won temporary relief from oppression, later formatted into minstrelsy to amuse whites — was just one of "Black in the Box"'s memorable episodes.

The ghettoizing of the black man as entertainer was among the confinements that Gregory burst through. Burnley similarly emphasizes the Jim Crow-era adjustments that had to yield to direct confrontations with white racism, whose effects persist.

Burnley takes the audience from the horrors of capture and the Middle Passage into slavery. Escape under great risk toward the illusory promise of freedom is among the show's many poignant scenes.

Burnley's representative African-American drags a battered trunk around with him, drawing various props from it to mark each difficult stage of setbacks and advancement. The pathos of black contributions to the Union effort in the Civil War yielding to a long era of continued marginalization and disrespect is vividly displayed. Slide projections and a graphic soundtrack accompany his performance, wordless until near the end, when passionate civil-rights oratory is punctuated by an assassin's gunshots.

To conclude, the performer speaks in his own voice, thus drawing his wide circle of implied narrative into a more personal orbit. The intimacy of such an ending keeps what has gone before from staying too much on the overview level. The waves across four American centuries of black punishment and pride that he embodies are so focused on his dancing and acting skills (plus the show's creative cohesiveness)  that the artistic message remains uppermost.

We don't feel we are in "Eyes on the Prize" or Ken Burns territory, but rather on a higher plane of urgent testimony, refracted through the use of a series of well-designed masks. Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem "We Wear the Mask" clearly is an animating force behind this device.

There are plenty of documentary touchstones in the show, but the context in which they are set makes "Black in the Box" stand out among the festival's more serious and adventurous offerings.

What might be called an all-caps approach to a stage show addressing racial justice in America is a multi-character one-act play at the Firefighters Union Hall. "Jubilee in the Rear View Mirror" is loaded with crackling dialogue issuing from the mouths of heavily drawn characters. The dramatic tension is guaranteed with the generating premise: Kates, a black civil-rights crusader from the North, is thrown into a hamlet's jail cell with Buell, the ne'er-do-well town drunk, a reflexive white racist.

"Jubilee in the Rear View Mirror" takes place during Freedom Summer (1964), perhaps the most perilous short period in the civil-rights history, when registering blacks to vote in Mississippi was worth the life of anyone who tried.

Garret Mathews' play darkly assumes that no softening of the troubled white man's hostility to blacks would be allowed to go unchecked in such a milieu. There are signs that the plight of black Southerners is getting through to Buell as he considers his
Historical photo of Freedom Rider solidarity.
own mistreatment; he's in constant pain from a police beating that may have broken some ribs. The process toward understanding is certain to be interrupted, however. And, without revealing the ending, I think it's worth reminding readers of the old theater axiom that if a gun is mentioned in Act 1, it will be fired in Act 3.

Thus, Mathews inserts a blustering Ku Klux Klan leader into the action, with free access to the jail and no official objection to his being armed and  brandishing his weapon undisturbed. Would a civic authority, even if wary of the Klan, countenance the possibility of murder by a visitor to his jail? Regardless, the thug will have a way of cutting short any burgeoning sympathy between the civil-rights worker and Buell. Secondary characters are a brain-damaged neighbor of the drunk and a jail guard. Directed by Susan Nieten, the cast certainly lives up to the starkly drawn contrasts and conflicts the playwright wants to hammer home.

There's no doubt the peril faced by the Freedom Riders was severe, so I'm not alleging implausibility on realistic grounds. It's simply that when you make a work of art out of such circumstances, you have to consider the shackles you may be putting on your creation of human beings in having them act in such a DayGlo-paint-by-numbers fashion.

The town is deep in benighted provincialism, backward in every utterance of the white inhabitants we meet and in the corn-pone local radio station that Buell tunes in from time to time. In contrast, Kates is a Chicago law student so fastidiously well-spoken that he never says anything plainly that can be spontaneously fancied up. When provoked, it's true, he gets in the Klansman's face, but it's not his general manner. It's hard to believe Kates can be a capable motivator of his people. He has a grasp of the issues at stake, as he makes clear when he interrogates Buell and reveals the system's pervasive injustice, but the character lacks the salt-of-the-earth quality you'd think would be necessary for the work he's committed to.

The performances are ripe with conviction and energy. Clay Mabbitt is Buell, Donovan Whitney is Kates, Kevin C. Robertson is the Klan boss. Sam Fields (Tadpole, the slow neighbor) and Dustin Miller (the jail guard) round out the cast. "Jubilee in the Rear View Mirror" takes a dark summer of our national discontent and wrings its neck. Bringing it to life in a more nuanced fashion might have done more justice to the issues it raises.

Demanding choreography is executed with aplomb in "Beyond Ballet Remix."
Another show with a social-justice edge is "The Fight for 52 Cents." Speaking in the person of heroic Minneapolis labor leader V.R. Dunne, Howard Petrick recalls the bloody 1934 truckers' strike in that city, imaginatively set 25 years later and recalled with steady pride and just a trace of bitterness.

Petrick holds the attention on Theatre on the Square's intimate Stage II in a monologue that takes class warfare seriously. An entrenched ruling class made the eventual labor victory quite hard-won. Petrick's folksy yet steely demeanor in the role of Dunne is bound to have you rooting for his cause, no matter your politics (I hazard a guess!). We may rightly think we live in polarized times now, but there is precedent for them in such struggles as the one Petrick brings to greater awareness through this show.

The day ended on a more buoyant note as I visited the main stage at TOTS for "Beyond Ballet Remix," performed by dancers  with Indianapolis Ballet and the Indianapolis School of Ballet. Victoria Lyras has fashioned a school and nascent professional company with many capable dancers who can execute her imaginative choreography with flair and precision.

The opening work, Balanchine's "Valse Fantaisie," did not seem out of place in a program focused largely on works by Lyras, with the collaboration of Paul Vitali in "Scriabin Suite."  Set to a series of short piano pieces by Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915), the latter rose to electrifying heights in a pas de deux for the superlative partnership of Kristin Young and Chris Lingner. It was very nearly topped by a finale for the company – intricate, energetic, and polished.

In this work and in the Balanchine, dancers throughout the company, including some as young as 13, showed a mature command of their arms as well as their legs and feet. Often port de bras is a technique where some awkwardness lingers in developing dancers, but not with these young women.

The program's imaginative finale, "Forever Tango," is a new work Lyras dedicated to festival founder and director Pauline Moffat. In three fascinating sections, with another exhibition of the enthralling Young-Lingner partnership in the middle, the piece nicely blends characteristic movement and postures central to the tango with classical ballet technique. The result never looked jerrybuilt or effortful; it was as if a new dance subgenre was taking shape before our eyes.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

IndyFringe Festival: A comedian and some magic highlight my Day 3

Krish Mohan has matured as a standup comic.
Two years ago I took in Krish Mohan's debut as an Indy Fringe performer. I found him funny but unfocused and more than a little squeamish about identity issues. The son of immigrants from India, brought to the US as a child, the slender Pittsburgh-based comedian dazzles in a new show (thankfully!) on the stage of ComedySportz.

He's still talking and thinking fast, and the 2017 Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival monologue ("Approaching Happiness") starts with reminders of adjustment difficulties for a foreign-born kid.  Mohan's 2015 observation that, for a nation of foreigners, the USA doesn't seem to like them very much rings even truer today than it did then.

He moves on from his youthful alienation from American sports in the current show to more complex issues, like mental health, shifting views of normality, problems we all have handling our emotions, and striking this year's theme from arresting angles, as when we ask ourselves: Do I want to be happy?

Then he transitions adroitly through religious issues, since the conduct of life is central to how religions build imaginary structures around it. The Christian notion of Apocalypse he finds "adorable," for instance, in contrast to the abruptly closed curtain of Hinduism's end of time. There is an extensive reinterpretation of Jesus' last days and his relationship to Judas. It comes close to the kind of sermon on the subject you might encounter in a liberal church from a minister who used to experiment (and inhale). But his adept characterization of the savior and the betrayer, in humor and mimicry, goes way beyond anything you'd hear from the pulpit.

That brings up a habit of Mohan's that threads its way through this show as it did his previous one: responding sporadically to the audience's response. Did they get the joke? How long did it take? What might conspicuous approval mean when contrasted with silence elsewhere in the crowd? I'm not sure why many comics do this — you never hear a jazz musician say, "Yeah, the last time we played 'On Green Dolphin Street,' people talked even during the drum solo, too." Something about standup must make comics desperate to know that the audience is with them.

Mohan attempted to disarm criticism upfront when he mentioned complaints from a previous audience that his show resembled a lecture. Well, "Approaching Happiness" does have a somewhat professorial or preacherly cast — the latter especially toward the end. Mohan's peroration emphasizes the importance of accepting others as the best basic approach to happiness, and urges upon us the duty to really talk to people and listen to them, especially when they are unlike us.

Who could disagree? Fortunately, he works up to his conclusion smoothly and earns the gales of laughter that punctuated his show Saturday evening.

Comedy was threaded throughout Volume 2 of "The Best of Indy Magic Monthly" later that evening at Theatre on the Square, the home of Taylor Martin's productions for the past nine years. Beginning next month the series will move to the IndyFringe Indy Eleven Theatre while TOTS undergoes a substantial reboot.

Everything about "The Best" was amazing, of course. Each of Martin's four guests was a master of ingratiating patter to accompany serial astonishment. Daniel Lee made laidback narrative out of his trickery with ropes — joining, parting, changing lengths before our eyes. Brendon Ware's act intersected magic and comic wordplay; he depends expertly on the gimmick of  looking like someone who can't quite do proper magic — and fools us that way.

The avuncular John West accomplished feats of classic prestidigitation with coins and their mysterious appearances and vanishings. Every time he showed us an open palm, we gasped.

The Amazing Barry took that kind of laidback persona to new levels, ending with some precarious yoga card tricks. Yoga magic is a subgenre of which he could very well be a unique master. His mastery was beyond question Saturday night. You will rarely see the correct card offered to the person who chose it by a magician's bare foot. Sole power!

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Black Moon: Revisiting "Blue Moon" for our troubled times, gloomilly heralding Monday's solar eclipse

Avuncular art: Amiable fellows with an edge — Woody Guthrie and Kurt Vonnegut — highlighted my FringeFest Day #2

People with large book collections have to endure mysterious losses over the years. The one I regret most is my autographed paperback copy of "Mother Night."

With a crinkly smile, Kurt Vonnegut signed my purchase at an Ann Arbor bookstore in 1968 or early 1969. It was the only prose writer's autograph I've ever owned, having since focused on poets.  Anyway, the author-inscribed novel is long gone from my bookshelves. Not among the Indianapolis master's greatest fans (I can claim only to have read several of his books), I still nourish a pang over the disappearance of my "Mother Night."

So there was a touch of nostalgia to my Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival visit Friday night to Phoenix Theatre's Basile (or Underground) Stage for Tom Horan's adaptation of Vonnegut's tangled story of personal identity and deception centered on Howard W. Campbell Jr., who fit into German society a little too well in the late 1930s and was tapped upon the American entrance into World War II to send coded messages to the Allies in his Nazi propaganda broadcasts. The author's stated moral for "Mother Night" also provides a motto for the stage version: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."

Jeffery Martin plays Vonnegut's entrapped playwright "hero" and Chelsea Anderson a bewildering variety of other roles, under the direction of Michael Hosp, in this presentation by the Vonnegut Museum and Library.

"As a playwright I should know when the hero has to die," Campbell muses at one point. But the ambiguity of real life rarely pinpoints a good death, and often blurs many other things we wish were clearly defined. This is the theme Vonnegut elaborates in one of his darkly comic plots, which typically seem a little too much like artful contraptions for my taste. For the story Vonnegut had to tell here, however, his manner of storytelling seems perfect.

Horan's choice to have an actress of Anderson's versatility appear as  Campbell's wife Helga and her younger sister Resi, as the sly American spy recruiter, a New York cop on the beat, a sadistic American army lieutenant, et al. fit the shape-shifting scenario like a glove. Not all the novel's characters and plot complications can be brought to the stage, of course, but the sacrifice doesn't distort the original, to the best of my recollection.

Hosp has the two actors smoothly deployed in different settings and effecting a continuous blend of action and Campbellian reflection. Anderson was particularly adept at the two main female roles, but also made a strong impression as the popcorn-munching, trenchcoated agent of Campbell's fraught double life.  Martin had a few line bobbles opening night, and his intensity flagged occasionally, but overall he conveyed the character's blend of cluelessness and the nimbleness that's required when a man builds his life on pretense and must wrestle with personal authenticity — whatever that is, the ghost of Vonnegut might mutter.

Thomas Jones fascinates in "Woody Sed."
Vonnegut parlayed a repressed survivor's guilt (he famously lived through the firebombing of Dresden as a POW underground) into a wary, wry approach to life. Woody Guthrie's journey of survival, triumph, and decline, was more deeply rooted in childhood and family health heritage, and the fame he eventually acquired was wrought out of unquestionable authenticity from poverty and near-nomadism — plus a deceptively simple musical genius.

Connecticut-born, Vancouver (B.C.)-based Thomas Jones embodies the folksinger (1912-1967) in "Woody Sed," which I saw in its first FringeFest performance Friday night. The master of a company of voices surrounding Guthrie from childhood until his death from Huntington's Disease, Jones mostly re-creates the big-hearted, strong-minded musician in song and story, accompanying himself on a guitar labeled (like Guthrie's) "This machine kills fascists."

The well-crafted portrait is bookended by the folksinger's struggle with Huntington's, then takes us from the teenager's hobo period into his breakthrough in regional radio in California — a destination he shared with so many other Oklahomans during the Depression, Dust Bowl refugees memorialized in John Steinbeck's novel "The Grapes of Wrath." The attraction to communism is unapologetically described, the natural result of Woody's recognition that the system he and his people were in the grip of did not offer them much of a purchase on the promise of American life.

On the IndyFringe Basile Theatre stage, Jones uses  as props a chair, an old-fashioned microphone and a semicircle of manuscripts representing the prolific songwriter. The rest he leaves to our imagination, but we get lots of help as he vividly fleshes out incidents from Guthrie's life across the United States and in the merchant marine in World War II. The show is aglow with the performer's amiability as well as his physical and emotional investment in his material. The result is funny, passionate, and heart-wrenching all within a packed hour. It's likely that only the Alan Lomax recordings of Woody for the Library of Congress can get us any closer to this American icon than "Woody Sed."

Cody Melcher spoke about truth.
My third show was a bit of a puzzle. A highly intelligent young stand-up comic from Chicago named Cody Melcher presented "In Falsitas Veritas" at ComedySportz. As seen in its first festival performance, the show offered in rat-a-tat fashion Melcher's thoughts about the welter of false information that circulates and often thrives throughout the America we know and love as we scarf down the junk food of rumors, guesswork, and innuendo. Here's a representative sampling: Why Kentucky Fried Chicken became KFC, fad diets, the showboat quackery of Dr. Oz, the riots in Hong Kong, the flimsy basis of men's rights activism, and — climactically — the saga of Truman Capote's "cremains" and their disposal.

The show needed more nuance and variety in delivery. The performer spoke too fast and often ran roughshod over what were intended to be cues for laughter. Avoiding a common crutch,  he admirably didn't go "blue," except for an eight-letter word beginning with "b." Though Melcher seemed intimate with his material, it was not completely memorized. Comedy out of a notebook? Uh, I don't think so. It was as if he thought detail-laden written material about the elusiveness of truth would spring to life just by being spoken.

Stand-up comedy, even at its brainiest, does not work that way. The illusion of spontaneity, an off-the-top-of-my-head feeling, is essential to the genre's success. Timing is  — almost — everything. George Carlin always had you believing he had just thought of the next thing and was sharing it with you. Bob Newhart's artful hesitations were meant to have you imagine you could hear his mind wheels spinning. Brainstorming as hermetically sealed in performance as Melcher's struck me as an overthought tempest in a tepid teapot.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Fringe Plunge: 'Divos' and 'The Gab' made TOTS' main stage the place to be opening night

After last year's "Divas," it was the turn of male pop stars to get choreographic treatment in Dance Kaleidoscope's seventh engagement at the Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival.

So, of course, "Divos" debuted Thursday night as one of several shows to kick off the 13th annual festival. At Theatre on the Square,
seven members of the contemporary-dance company presented premieres of works choreographed to songs by celebrity male performers of the past few decades.

Oneiric fantasy: Missy Thompson's "Dream On"
(Photo by Chris Crawl)
The songs' rhythmic drive and musical phrasing naturally generate much of the choreography, but the choreographers also have in common an intense interest in how lyrics can guide dance expression. This is clear from each choreographer's spoken introduction to his or her creation — statements that provide the audience with insights into the personal sources and motivations behind the program.

In other words, the divos were celebrated mainly to the degree their music had something vital to impart in dance terms. From Aerosmith's "Dream On" (Missy Thompson) to Rod Stewart's "I'll Stand By You" (Stuart Coleman, in a piece titled "Surround Yourself"), the program unfailingly added an extra dimension to the songs.

"Dream On" rested on the theme of recurring dreams, mostly disturbing, and thus was replete with floating and falling movement, as well as postures of apprehensiveness and confusion, some as if airborne, others grounded. "Surround Yourself" used the full company to reinforce the virtues of group support. Its intricately coordinated, billowing language put stress on cooperation and rapport, the individual drawing sustenance from the ensemble. A particularly striking passage had the company unfolding from a tight circle outward, yielding to a solo in the center. It was like time-lapse photography of a flower in transition from bud to blossom.

Positive energy also was held up in Mariel Greenlee's "Keep Faith," to music of George Michael.  There were churchy moments at first, alluded to later, with stained-glass lighting and prayerful postures. But faith was also addressed in less transcendent ways, in a manner that expertly bridged  the meaning of faith from something remote to something near at hand. In both cases, belief in the unseen is the common denominator, and "Keep Faith" spoke particularly to the reservoir of mutual trust upon which dancers necessarily draw.

As a dancer, Greenlee had to draw upon such trust spectacularly in Brandon Comer's "Dangerous Diana," a medley of Michael Jackson's "Dangerous" and "Dirty Diana." She was the title character, supported by five DK men, and had to keep embodying the first song's laserlike opening line: "There was something different about this girl." Comer's choreography avoided the King of Pop's stylized, angular twitches and tap-rooted footwork to come up with something original, requiring a considerable amount of lift, flexibility and panache from everyone concerned  — and trust galore from Greenlee, who managed to convey both danger and vulnerability as a woman being both venerated and tossed about.

Romantic devotion was a keynote of Paige Robinson's "You Take My Breath Away," the soaring Queen vocalism providing the cue for intense interaction among the six dancers. The same number of dancers was used in a more polarized fashion by Timothy June, setting Johnny Cash's searing "Hurt": Each of three fully visible dancers has a demonic masked partner, making the theme of hurt vividly both internal and external to how we live our lives. The demonic side seemed to score a final victory with a black hand over each anguished face.

Jillian Godwin set the longest piece, a mash-up (mixed by Mike Lamirand) of four Led Zeppelin songs. "Zeppelin" was a real tour-de-force for the troupe's women, the shift among songs complemented by costuming as well as different choreographic dialects. The full ensemble coalesced for the finale. At that climactic stage, the potentially problematic guitar solo — talk about divos! who's more a divo than a rock-guitar god? — was neatly handled with fluid solos and duos for the dancers, yielding to re-emphasis on the ensemble at the end.

As with the whole show, the music was never allowed to swamp the inspiration behind the choreography nor the flair with which it was executed. Roll over, divos; tell the divas the news!
A Zachandzack hit: The shared good cheer of "The Gab" girls is just for show.

The evening thus launched, my next stop was at Angel Burlesque's "Glitter Emergency" at Firehouse Theater. Because this is a last-minute replacement for the originally scheduled act, which withdrew, and with technical troubles dogging the performance, I'm foregoing commentary about the show.

The last act for me opening night was "The Gab," a production by the wizardly team of Zack Neiditch (writer/director) and Zach Rosing (producer/video designer), riffing upon the female talk show of longevity and notoriety called "The View." The rapidfire pace is set at the beginning as Maureen (Devan Mathias) and Alex (Chad Woodward) fuss and fizzle just ahead of airtime to make sure everything's all right. Of course, it isn't.

The competing egos of the star panel have ratcheted the show's tension up to unbearable levels, which means that production underlings like Maureen and Alex have to bear it all, while keeping Jim (voiced by Rosing), the show's director high up in the booth, the almost happy lord of all he surveys. Every diva around the oval table has more issues than National Geographic — and they are just as hard to get rid of.

Rosing and Neiditch dependably fashion productions whose technical adroitness matches their artistic aplomb, and "The Gab" extends the partnership's short, but already illustrious tradition. The cast seems to find the spat-filled scenario totally energizing: Jenni White, Vickie Cornelius Phipps, Nathalie Cruz, Betsy Norton, and Ericka Barker inhabit their characters exuberantly. There is generously proportioned wit, snark, and slapstick throughout the show.

A large screen above the stage replicates in-studio video monitoring, with flashes to "The Gab"'s upbeat title page heralding the next topical segment, for which the ladies hastily compose themselves. Gradually but inexorably, the fragile garment of the hit talk show unravels. The camera's bright lights, nourishing the hothouse plants of daytime stardom, can't forestall the hilarious plunge toward "The Gab"'s dusky extinction. The conclusion resembles Alexander Pope's "Dunciad," which ends:

Lo! thy dread Empire, Chaos! is restored;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch, lets the curtain fall;
And universal Darkness buries all.

Fortunately, the "uncreation" of "The Gab," the fake TV show, mirrors upside down the masterly creation of "The Gab," the  surefire 2017 Fringe Festival hit.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Fringe preview night presents a panoply digest of short-form entertainment over the next 11 days

The applause that greeted a line in Mayor Joe Hogsett's short speech to the IndyFringe Festival's Preview Night audience seemed to have topical resonance.

Mayor Joe Hogsett put an official seal of approval on FringeFest.
In any given year, his words would have been applicable to what the festival is all about. But in 2017, after the mayor had extolled "the performances and talent it attracts," he praised the annual performing-arts bash for "the diversity and inclusion it welcomes and lifts up." Yes!

To mark the start of the festival with two-minute pitches by 50 acts, Hogsett then read excerpts from the mayoral proclamation designating Aug. 16, 2017, as Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival Day in Indianapolis.

Certainly a large crowd gathered in the Athenaeum Theatre knew that the honor is rooted in the open-ended mission of the Fringe, which enters its 13th annual season today, continuing through Aug. 27 on eight stages on and around Massachusetts Avenue.

And while it's always possible to point to ways any artistic project could inject even more diversity into what it offers the public, IndyFringe is establishing a solid record. For one thing, it has cultivated two mini-festivals during the regular season to promote female and black playwrights, respectively: DivaFest and OnyxFest.

The range of presentations Wednesday evening was immense. Many were excerpts — scenes, songs, anecdotes, jokes, vignettes — from shows that specialize in those things. The idea was to whet the appetite for admission to the full 45-minute to 1-hour performance, most of them available six times between today and a week from Sunday.

In contrast, the choice to talk about their shows was perhaps provoked by the artists' sense that no two-minute excerpt could do justice to them. A pair of agile, improvisational clowns kept performers within the 2-minute limit and chased erring artists gently but firmly offstage.

Jill Ditmire and George Wallace acted as hosts for the parade of performers, with cameo appearances that included a charming duo team of Indianapolis City-County Council members: Zach Adamson and Jeff Miller. They would have been an example of smooth-working bipartisanship if not for technical difficulties with the soundtrack meant to accompany their Bad Lip Reading-style collection of "real" lyrics behind a few popular recordings.

Like many attendees, my response to the parade of pitches was all over the place. Some choices I made in advance are now tinged with qualms or even regret. Some things I had passed over now look to me like must-sees. Other wham-bam presentations left me in a vast "meh" area.

That's part of the fun of the Fringefest: no hunches are set in stone, but at least bets you place on shows that will please you are more likely to pay off than any given lottery. Sure, you pay a little more to place those bets, but the rewards are more probable.

So: Happy Fringing (or should that be "Fringeing," so it doesn't rhyme with "ringing"?)!